Jumping for Sports Performance

In today’s fast-paced world, sometimes more seems better. Because of the online access to videos and tutorials on exercises and drills, this kind of thinking has made its way into strength and conditioning programming. More conditioning, more reps, taller box, more drills, and more plyos. This couldn’t be further from the truth and, while the other excesses mentioned bring their own level of risk, the most dangerous overreach for young athletes is the prescription of too many reps.

Don’t be fooled. Plyometric training for athletes has one purpose and one purpose only: power production. More specifically, true plyometric training teaches the athlete how to absorb ground reaction forces (GRFs) and transfer that energy back into the ground. Sound a bit like sprinting? Good.

box-jump-benefits-1

That said, coaches seem to have re-appropriated plyometric and jump training as conditioning activities. As coaches our goals for athletes are twofold: increase performance and prevent injuries. Athletes are performing endless box jumps and broad jumps for 100 yds all in the name of metabolic training. Proponents of this type of jump training point to the repetitiveness of sprint stride turnover as their rationale for prescribing this type of volume, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see why that doesn’t really hold water. Sprinting gait, after the initial acceleration phase, is as weightless as any athletic movement could be. The body only has slight contact with the ground to maintain speed with one foot before it is essentially air born again. From a performance-related standpoint, it would make more sense to improve motor unit recruitment with a bodyweight exercise like jumping rather than use it to train metabolically. Additionally, once fatigue sets in, form breaks down. So not only are jumping lower, you’re jumping from positions of mechanical disadvantage, negating the potential transfer of power between jumping and sprinting. From a safety standpoint, each rep of volume jumps eventually succumb to gravity. It doesn’t matter how high you jump, eventually you have to come back down. It’s not the explosive movement that is hard on the joints, it’s the landing. It doesn’t matter how adept you are at absorbing GRFs, that type of volume can and will have a negative impact on the joints, especially for younger and/or heavier athletes. Furthermore, large volume box jumps bring the added danger of tripping over the box once fatigue sets in.

smo-high-box-jump

Side Note: Needless increases in box height will only lead to increases in injury rates. The purpose of the box is to provide an obstacle to cue the athlete to jump higher. Additionally, with the box being higher off the ground, it will reduce the impact of the landing to help teach force absorption. There are a lot of impressive box jump feats on Youtube that aren’t quite as impressive once you realize the are just really good at ticking the knees into the chest and pulling their bodies up to the box.

SO WHAT IS PROPER JUMPING AND LANDING TECHNIQUE?

Starting Position

It all starts with the set up. Learn the hip-hinge; it will be your best friend. Your torso should be aligned at about 45° relative to the floor (80-90° relative to the hips), the hips should be back, and the knees should have just enough flexion to load up your posterior chain (also about 80-90). The feet should be flat with the weight favoring the back half of the foot, your neck should be in a neutral position in line with your spine, and your arms should be positioned in line with the torso.

Joint angles may change slightly depending on which direction you jump–vertically vs. horizontally– but the torso should remain relatively parallel to the shins. Some coaches might teach a chest up posture. While this isn’t incorrect, I prefer a more aggressive shoulder positioning with the chest slightly forward. This enables you to jump in a variety of directions from a universal athletic position. Depending on the your height and weight, your starting position may look slightly different than someone else’s. Lever arm and load play a significant role in balance and jumping ability is no different. Everyone is unique. Spend some time working on getting into the perfect spot before attempting jumping. This is your starting and landing technique. Never underestimate the power of good body positioning (see below).

snap-down-positioning-2

Initiation and Explosion

From the starting position, violently explode upward with triple-extension at the hips knees, and ankles. Simultaneously throw your arms overhead for maximum height. Jump training isn’t as effective if maximal effort isn’t given every single rep (see below).

triple-extension-jump

Landing

The idea is to get back into the starting position upon landing. Initiate the downward snap of your arms and hands at the height of your jump. You want the hands to arrive back at their starting position the moment the heels touch down. Bring the hands down as violently as they went up to initiate the “brace”. To absorb the GRFs, immediately brace everything. You should be able to land without recoil. Many coaches teach a “hands in front” approach to the landing to help with balance. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, it doesn’t put you in a position to easily and quickly perform another jump. Brace your abdominals, pack your shoulder blades, and squeeze your quads. This starting and landing position sets you up for repeat jumps. Once you master the “stuck landing” with zero recoil and learned how to absorb GRFs, add a jump to teach your body how to transfer that energy back into the ground. No matter what plane of movement you jump in, there’s always one constant: the starting position.

snap-down-landing

HOW TO PROPERLY ADD JUMP TRAINING INTO YOUR PROGRAM

Many governing fitness associations have said in the recent past that 80-100 foot contacts per session is safe. While that might be OK for some athletes, not every athlete is built the same. Some are taller and some are heavier. Added weight and lever arm is added stress on the joints when you land. Additionally, you hit a point of diminishing returns after a certain level of volume. If the idea is power production, jumping in a fatigued state will not only decrease average jump height but it will also detract from the remainder of the workout. High volume can also decrease performance in subsequent workouts. Because of the heavy taxation of the CNS during explosive exercise, it can take up to 48 hours for the CNS to completely recover from 100 foot contacts or more. That’s why a more conservative total of 25-30 foot contacts per session is universally beneficial for performance, recovery, and injury prevention. In training, the purpose of plyometric and jump training is to:

  1. Increase power output
  2. Improve transfer of energy into the ground and elasticity
  3. Prime the central nervous system to increase motor unit recruitment

It’s reason #3 that makes it important to begin your program with jumping. Priming your nervous system with explosive, lower-body plyometric training will have positive carry-over into the other parts of your workout (sprints, Oly lifts, strength training, etc). A good plyo program would go as follows:

A) Box Jumps w/ stuck landing (3 x 5)
B) Broad Jumps (10 x 1)

Once you’ve mastered the basics, add jumps to each rep. The important thing to remember is to count the foot contacts, not repetitions. An advanced progression would look something like this:

Georgie (left) is performing a repeat broad jump. Colin (right) is performing a repeat broad jump to vertical jump. NOTE: these two athletes have had several months of extensive training before graduating to more difficult progressions. Regress the movement to your ability, find success and consistency, and build slowly from there.

While occasional explosive training is great for sports conditioning, there are far more effective and safer ways to produce this training effect than high volume/ high impact jumping. These methods can range from HIIT to barbell complexes at the end of the lift. Remember: when it comes to plyometric training, less is more.

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