Most athletes are on a never-ending quest for speed. Runners, cyclists, swimmers, football and soccer players require speed to give them the competitive edge and therefore incorporate speed work into their training. While speed drills are effective, a plyometric component, which exploits the stretch/contract muscle mechanism to increase power, can help athletes develop the foundation they need to improve acceleration, impact and foot work. Plyometric exercises aren't suitable for everybody, but if you're already in good shape and need a boost in your performance, they can improve your speed in a relatively short period of time.
What is Plyometrics?
Plyometric exercises are based on the premise that stretching a muscle immediately before contracting it takes advantage of the stretch reflex to provide more explosive power. For example, a common plyometric exercise called the jump squat involves starting from a squat position, then jumping straight into the air and landing back in the squat position. What happens during the exercise is that the quadriceps and glutes, which are the muscles responsible for the jump, are stretched during the squat phase, but contract immediately for the upward phase. When this exercise is performed one after another, the muscles undergo a stretch/contract mechanism that helps boost the strength and control of the movement.
Strength and Speed
Speed is partially a function of strength. If your muscles aren't strong enough, they simply won't have the power necessary to contract quickly. Plyometric exercises focus on building muscle strength and linking it with speed of movement to enhance sports performance. Many people think of speed training as involving foot speed, but upper body speed is necessary for many sports like tennis, baseball and certain track and field events. Medicine ball passes are a plyometric workout that helps athletes develop the explosive upper body acceleration necessary to swing the racket or bat, or throw the javelin. The reason this type of training works is because the exercises are tailored to fit the sport, and the muscles trained to work quickly and powerfully during training are the same ones called upon during competition to move the same way.
Stability is also a key component of speed. For example, a runner who has long, quick strides still won't win the race if he twists his ankle every time it hits the ground. Managed impact and balance are both large parts of plyometric exercises. The exercises teach you how to land, pivot and push off the ground in the safest, most efficient manner possible. New moves are performed slowly at first until the form is perfected, then speed is gradually increased until the form comes naturally. Before long, the tiny muscles responsible for stabilizing the larger muscle groups activate automatically, and the athlete can focus on other aspects of the sport. Regular plyometric training reduces the athlete's risk of injury.
It is important that plyometric training be tailored to the athlete's sport. A runner would have no reason to master the medicine ball throw, but would benefit greatly from bounding or box jumps. A well-designed plyometric program uses exercises that mimic the motions encountered during competition. This way, the repetitive nature of the exercises allow muscle memory to develop, and the athlete has an opportunity to develop reflexive safety techniques that would serve him well in a game. A basketball player would be well-served by a series of lateral lunges that would help him block his opponent more effectively, while a soccer player would benefit more from scissor kicks, which would strengthen the muscles necessary to power him down the field.
Plyometric exercises are meant for people who are already in good shape. These are not beginner moves, but when performed correctly under trained supervision, not only are they safe, they make the sport safer for the athlete as well. The most important safety precautions are a shock-absorbing surface -- grass is best -- plus sturdy shoes and proper form. Because the impact from some exercises can equal seven times your body weight, plyometrics are not recommended for those with joint problems.
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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.