Two Very Different Paradigms on How to Build Explosive Athletes
Megan is a sophomore high school soccer forward who just finished a great season starting varsity. She played hard, contributed to her team and competed every single game against varsity competition. Megan is also a really passionate soccer player so as the season ends she brings up the conversation to her parents that she wants to get stronger and faster for next season. Her parents, open to the idea, know that training will definitely help Megan for her club soccer season and her junior year.
With regards to training one topic that Megan and her parents are familiar with are plyometrics. They have seen videos online and have heard of athletes jumping over boxes and believe that this is a great training strategy to develop more explosiveness and one that can help her on the field.
As Megan begins training she is excited to include these drills into her routine. This is where things can go one of two directions for Megan. Here’s why; if you go online or have casual conversations with friends and family members plyometrics are drills that anyone can do, anywhere and they are great for the athlete no matter what. With that thought, jumping over boxes and hurdles gets you more explosive no matter how you do them. Therefore, you need to do them often and with abundance.
This approach to athletic development is why so many athletes only see marginal progress from their training approach. It is also why athletes get hurt during training.
Plyometrics need to be a calculated and strategic approach to becoming the most explosive athlete that your body can control.
Here is the truth:
If we cannot land and absorb force with our feet, ankles and hips in alignment… If we cannot control our knee, if we cannot land with our nose over our toes…. if we cannot maintain balance and stability throughout our core and torso than we have no business doing rapid plyometric drills over any object.
When athletes like Megan go through plyometric chaos they develop bad habits!
If Megan were to do months of jumping with poor-mediocre neuromuscular control those habits are now engrained in how the body moves during the game. Because of the nature of a plyometric, an explosive and quick response, they are subconscious movements in practices and games. But before they become subconscious we need to consciously learn how to do them right during training.
To best explain this lets look at our plyometric training as a unit of math during Algebra 2. When that unit starts the teacher explains to the students what they will be learning, why it is important, what they will be able to do when the unit is over and what is expected of them by the end of the unit.
The teacher then goes over the fundamentals of the unit first. He or she walks them through the sequencing of how to solve the problem, they do a problem together and then the student tries to do a problem on their own. It is okay if the student at this point can’t figure it out because the teacher then goes back over the steps and the student tries again. It is not until the student has mastered the problem solving process through QUALITY REPETITIONS does the teacher move on.
As the student masters each lesson in the unit they get harder, the pieces fit together and by the end of the unit the student has fully developed multiple math skill sets that they did not have just a few weeks or months ago.
This is how you teach, progress and master plyometric training for athletes.
For an athlete like Megan she needs to first understand the purpose and fundaments of plyometric training.
The purpose of a plyometric is for the athlete to be able to withstand momentum and gravity of the body and properly absorb the ground reaction forces. It is to safely repeat the process the same way every single time. It is to learn how to rapidly apply force and maximize the stretch-shortening cycle to create an explosive contraction. This transfers to more body control, safer landing mechanics and faster reaction times during the game.
What are the fundamentals to master plyometric training?
Megan needs to land on the ball and middle of her foot every single time. She cannot land on her toes because that creates a rocking forward effect, which puts too much pressure on the quad and knee. She cannot land on her heels because she is slow and off balance.
She has to control her knee from caving inward over the midline. As Megan lands she needs to keep her knee in line with the center of her toes and her weight evenly distributed throughout her foot.
She CANNNOT TURN HER FOOT OUT WHEN SHE LANDS. Turning the foot out is so DANGEROUS. When the foot turns out it drops the navicular (this is a small bone on the inside part of the foot in front of the ankle joint), when the navicular drops the talus (the ankle joint) follows. As the talus drops it internally rotates the tibia (shin-bone) and as the tibia internally rotates during landing this creates the mechanism that tears the ACL.
This ripple effect is why doing exercises and training drills the CORRECT way matters. It is also why I am so passionate about helping athletes and getting this information out to the public.
The last fundamental is to land with your hips back and NOT with your hips down. Landing into the hips gives your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps the opportunity to work together to safely absorb the landing. When athletes land straight down most of that force is absorbed by the quad and knee, creating the mechanism for knee pain.
Once Megan fully understands the fundamentals and has mastered them we can then move on to progressing the plyometric exercises.
The first step of sequencing plyometrics after Megan has mastered proper landing is that they acquire the rhythm to repeat the landing and set up every time. This is done through non-counter movement jumps where the athlete does not rapidly continue reps. Instead they load the jump, jump, land, and then properly load again before the next jump is executed. This forces the athlete to slow down and appreciate what the proper positioning feels like.
The next progression is for the athlete to understand what it means to put force into the ground. Athletes like Megan are used to just clearing the box or hurdle by any means necessary. This normally leads to the athlete picking up their feet to clear the object! This is just rapidly picking up the foot and NOT an explosive full body movement.
In order to properly put force into the ground the athlete must feel themselves load their hips, keep their posture locked, use rhythmic arm swing and drive against the floor which fully extend their hips and knees to explode off of the ground. This is a harder sequencing process than meets the eye and one that every athlete can improve upon.
As Megan learns how to fully put force into the ground this will transfer to a more powerful movement in the training room and during the game.
Before any continuous plyometrics on a large volume are necessary the athlete first needs to understand the purpose and fundamentals and be able to master the load, landing and force production. Until the athlete can do this on command and with confidence there is no need to challenge the athlete with reckless progressions This is only giving a student a program that they are completely not ready for and than wondering why they got it wrong.
Give the athlete time to master the skill sets of jumping and landing. Teach them the difference between right and wrong and then hold them accountable to staying the course and focusing on the details. Doing a fancy jumping drill wrong does nothing to serve the athlete and only wastes the time and energy of the athlete while misleading the parents.
Plyometrics can either be chaotic and dangerous or systematic and mastered. The difference is so important because what you do in the training room has either good or bad carryover to the field or court. Engraining habits that are not safe and beneficial for the athlete will only come back to bite them at a later date. Therefore, give the athlete the proper progression and dosage and be there to coach them on how to do it right when they inevitably make mistakes. If you do this you are not only setting them up for plyometrics that will become more and more challenging, you will be putting them in the best position possible to achieve their athletic excellence while staying injury free.
The goal is to put the athlete in the best position possible to be successful so I hope you found this article interesting and helpful. If you would like to discuss the training principles in this article please feel free to reach out.
All the Best,
Gary Vesper, XPS, FMS, RBT, YSAS, Pn1
Founder & Head Coach