Just getting stronger is only part of the equation of gaining the status of an athletic legend. In order to reach the pinnacle of speed and power, you need regularly apply speed and plyometric exercises within your program that match the intensity of 40-inch vertical jumps and 4.3 second 40 yard dashes.
Ever wonder what allows Olympic track and field athletes to jump as high, and sprint as fast as they do?
It’s all about force production.
Getting stronger through strength and barbell training is great for improving the basic “motor pool” available (aka. your muscle fibers that are contributing to your athletic movement). What the barbell can’t do so well is improve maximal recruitment, power, and reflexive muscle coordination.
You are only as fast, and can jump only as high as you can recruit reflexively.
Sprinting and jumping is performed based around spinal reflexes, while the majority of strength training is of a slower, more conscious-thought driven pattern.
You are also only as fast as you are elastic.
Movement is driven through a combination of muscle and tendon action. Many muscles of the body, such as the hamstrings and gastrocnemius (calves) will do most of their work isometrically, using the tendons to transfer forces between the joints of the body. Yes, this means that leg curls and calf raises aren’t working their respective muscle groups in a manner that is anywhere close to what is seen in sprinting and jumping. That doesn’t mean these exercises can’t be useful, but weights are in many cases, a completely different animal than explosive speed.
Because of this dynamic nature of the body, it is important to know the how and why of some key plyometrics that help to build speed, agility, and vertical jump power through their intensity, and replication of powerful muscle action. We’ll start with the king-daddy of them all, the depth jump.
Plyometric Exercises #1: Depth jump over a hurdle
We’ll start it all off with my own personal favorite for building explosive vertical jump power, as well as improved vertical force handling in sprint speed: The hurdle depth jump.
The depth jump is a prime method for overloading the vertical leap motion, and it’s extremely simple. You drop off of a box (usually between 12 and 36” in height, depending on your ability), contact the ground in a vertical jump landing position, and quickly react into an explosive upward jump.
There are many ways to do a depth jump. You can jump up to another box, to an overhead target, such as a basketball hoop, or just perform the exercise in free space. Of the various types of depth jumps, putting a hurdle in front of the box to jump over will cause an athlete to produce more force in a smaller amount of time, which, in the vertical jump world is a gold mine for improved athleticism.
The hurdle depth jump is best done off of a box where athletes can control the landing (around 12-36”, but up to 40+ in the case of extremely reactive specimens). It is recommended to have some sort of collapsible hurdle, which will allow athletes to push themselves more without fear of breaking an ankle in a missed attempt. Lower hurdle outcomes are great too, as they are a fantastic teaching tool, and can foster quicker ground contact times than their higher hurdle counterparts.
Plyometric Exercises #2: Depth jump to vertical medicine ball throw
Cleans and snatches are the best way to improve an athlete’s triple extension for jumping and sprinting, right? Hardly. First off, if an athlete can’t reach triple extension through actually sprinting and jumping, then something is wrong on a muscular and reflexive level. Second, to optimize the quality of triple extension, you want to use exercises that are higher velocity, more ballistic, and more easily taught than a clean or snatch. Managing a barbell into the various critical positions necessary for the success of the lift is something that takes time, and even then, the recruitment pattern in the lift itself isn’t as close to something like a depth jump with a med ball throw.
For a supplemental exercise that builds triple extension based qualities, as well as hip drive, there is no better tool than the depth jump to vertical medicine ball throw. Think of this exercise as a clean or snatch with a powerful eccentric (loading) component, and then a violent reversal. Having some sort of target to shoot for when unloading the throw is useful, and will yield a greater power output.
Finally, I’m not hating on the Olympic lifts by presenting this exercise, only saying there are better things that exist for developing that skill of triple extension. In working with my own athletes, I often pair cleans and snatches with a depth jump from 12-18” into a vertical throw for skill optimiziation.
Plyometric Exercises #3: Standing Triple Jump
When it comes to starting and acceleration power, the standing triple jump is one of the greatest plyometric exercises available. The standing broad jump is a very common movement for the development of general power, and the standing triple jump takes this movement to a whole new level. Soviet sprint coaches have even created a correlation that determines how fast you’ll run a 100m dash, based on how far your standing triple jump is!
The standing triple jump is a standing broad jump, with two bounds tacked onto the end. It is always measured, and the steady improvement of standing triple jump distance is a key marker for better acceleration and running jump power through the yearly training cycle.
The video below featured a good, basic demonstration of the exercise.
Here is a slightly longer video, featuring a higher level performance of this exercise. There is a good bet that this athlete can run sub 4.5 in the 40, and jump close to 40” or better.
So there you have it, 3 great plyometric exercises to not only perform, but track, measure and improve on each month on your road to athletic power development.
For some final inspiration, I’ll leave you with a mix-tape of the inventors of plyometrics, the Russians, performing a variety of intense plyometric training methods on their way to Olympic glory. Enjoy!