A 50-Year-Old Training Secret for Explosive Power

Plyometrics can boost performance for every kind of athlete.
Plyometrics can boost performance for every kind of athlete.Getty Images

Smacking a tennis ball, leaping to grab a basketball rebound, sprinting hard — almost every athletic movement depends on explosive power. Professional athletes have long built that power through jumping, bounding, and throwing exercises known as plyometrics. Recently, the training method has made its way to the rec level, embraced by CrossFit gyms, boot camps, and high-end training facilities. That's because plyos provide far more than elite-level explosiveness.

"It's how we make you faster and move the way you need to for your sport," says Danny Arnold, founder of Plex Athlete in Houston, training centers that cater to recreational exercisers, as well as NFL, MLB, and NBA stars, pro boxers, and Olympic martial artists.

Plyometrics originated in the late 1960s, when the famous Soviet track-and-field coach Yuri Verkhoshansky figured out how to train a muscle mechanism known as the stretch-shortening cycle. To understand how it works, says Donald Chu, Ph.D., author of Jumping Into Plyometrics, first think in terms of two basic muscle contractions: eccentric, in which muscles elongate while resisting a load (what your glutes do when you lower into a squat), and concentric, in which muscles shorten to force that load in the opposite direction (when those same glutes help lift you up out of that squat). Plyometrics are exercises that require the transition from eccentric to concentric to happen in less than two-tenths of a second, giving you a springlike boost of power.

Traditional plyos — what Verkhoshansky called shock training — hone that stretch-shortening cycle with exercises that have you move fast in one direction (up, down, side to side, or diagonally), then suddenly switch directions. A depth jump is the perfect example: You stand on a box, jump off, and then, at the very instant both feet strike the ground, jump upward again. Soviet coaches figured out early that these movements were most effective in sets of only a half-dozen repetitions, with plenty of rest between them. This ensures that each rep is performed with maximum explosiveness, keeping the switch from eccentric to concentric under that two-tenths-of-a-second time frame. American track-and-field athletes were the first to adopt these movements, says Chu, "but as soon as people realized how much plyometrics developed speed, football picked it up, then basketball and tennis."

The benefits go beyond sprinting faster. "A ton of research has shown that this kind of training can build core strength and even slow the decrease of bone density with age," says James C. Radcliffe, the head strength and conditioning coach for the University of Oregon and author of High-Powered Plyometrics. One plyometrics study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research earlier this year showed significant improvement in the jumping heights and ball-shooting speed of soccer players, while earlier research found that these explosive exercises — done cautiously, with careful progression from simple to more complex movements — can even lower the rate of athletic injuries like ACL tears and Achilles tendon ruptures by training the body to absorb and manage impact more effectively.

Tapping into all that science, training centers like Plex now favor a progressive plyometrics repertoire that combines three distinct categories: The first, classic plyometrics, is all about training neuromuscular response — engaging as many muscle fibers as possible, as quickly as possible — to ultimately create more powerful reflexes. The second form, called complex training, has you alternate sets of a strength exercise with sets of a similar power movement — bench press followed by explosive push-ups, for example. During that bench press, you recruit a large amount of muscle fiber; the subsequent explosive push-up teaches all that muscle to fire quickly and with force. Doing this builds strength and power simultaneously. The last category, high-intensity interval training — the kind of box jumps, burpees, and jumping lunges ubiquitous in CrossFit and HIIT classes — is favored for increasing fat loss and stamina by experts such as Chicago physical therapist David Reavy, who helps NBA and NFL pros get in their best shape.

To fuse together these three training methods, Men's Journal enlisted Stefan Underwood, performance specialist at Exos, a Florida training center that works with military and law enforcement personnel, UFC fighters, and NFL draft prospects. The custom routine he designed below is a time-efficient, full-body approach to sharpening athleticism, building muscular force, burning fat, and expanding cardiovascular capacity. Underwood stresses that progressing slowly and focusing on perfect form is a necessity. Because once you perfect plyometric training, he says, "you'll get a fantastic tool for increasing the elastic capability of your body — and one that you do not get in the weight room."

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