A Strength Coach’s Guide to Programming Plyometrics

Like any training modality, the two paths of training and teaching are necessary to fully exploit the benefits of plyometrics. With so many different exercises and development levels to work with, sometimes plyometric training is dumbed down to make this easier to administer, which is boring the advanced athletes. On the other hand, workouts that are too advanced can injure athletes and discourage them from doing plyometrics in the long run. 

I have revised what I do from learning from other coaches, but sometimes you have to look at your program and simply judge what can be done better.

Here are six lessons I have learned the hard way, and some I have learned from just knowing which coaches provide the best advice.

But First...Before You Start Adding Plyometrics...

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Out of all the training options, plyometrics (to me) is the most demanding technically and physiologically. While strength training is overload, the speed and safety records of conventional weight training are so alluring I would rather go to the gym than go out to practice based on the research.

Jump training is very intense and requires more patience than any other modality, and the theme of this article is to slow cook athletes. If you remember only one tip here, it's this: plenty of elite athletes have not used plyometrics to succeed, so don’t worry if you are not fully taking advantage of jump training maximally.

Coaches, especially in team sport settings, want to have a solid plyometrics program, not one that competes with track and field athletes on YouTube highlights.

Track and field, specifically the jumping events, are known to share some amazing feats in both competition and training. Seeing what an elite sprinter or jumper does in training is a double-edged sword, as it raises the bar of what can be done in training, but also sets unrealistic expectations for athletes who have less training time. Remember track and field is a training sport, meaning not much strategy and tactics are necessary, so most of the time is spent devoted to training. While athletes in track and field do compete frequently, the need to win isn’t really necessary to compete at major championships.

The rules and competition schedule of track and field make the sport a great opportunity to invest into training, but team sports need to be cautious about taking too much from the training minds of track and field. Still, don’t think that track and field can’t help team sports, as most of the bright coaches in track understand the limitations of team sports and know how to adjust their ideas to ball sports.

I wrote a primer on plyometrics that was translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish. In the article I go into some example workouts and share videos by some exceptional athletes. Use those videos as a reference, but remember to learn from many different sources. 

1. Forget Ground Contacts and Think Sets and Minutes

Quantifying plyometrics is hard as so many scientific variables can overwhelm a coach. Treat jump training like leg training, and keep the sets and time like a lower body lift session. 2 to 3 exercises of 3 to 4 sets is all that is needed. In fact, any plyometric session, including instructional time and demonstration, should not be longer than 20 minutes. It’s better to do more exercises with less repetition and time so the athlete is mentally sharp and physically fresher than it is to beat them into the ground with a hard workout over and over.

As a coach, teaching is an investment, so don’t be afraid to give up training to ensure the athlete is polishing. Athletes need fewer regression exercises and deeper periods of time doing things the right way. Often the next exercise is not the problem, it’s that the athlete has no reference or skill set to fall back on and simply skips steps.

Spend more time polishing early, and athletes will improve faster later in development. It’s easy for a coach to claim they believe in fundamentals, but spending time with less demanding exercises means standing firm and not giving in. In order for athletes to keep motivated, make the incremental changes valued and earned, and an athlete will not mind spending weeks on the same exercise.

2. Reinvent the Classic Jump Games

Most coaches above the age of 30 remember double dutch and hopscotch games, but that generation is long gone. When was the last time you saw a potato sack race? Most of the games that require nothing besides an energetic body are what athletes crave today.

As the equipment needs decrease, the developmental benefits to the athlete increases.

Look at the warm-ups seen at high level soccer programs, all of them resemble hop games over small hurdles.

Soccer Performance Training ladders (1)

Take the typical agility ladder, a tool some love and some hate. While it may not make an elite athlete improve their true change of direction with regard to power, including athletic movements is essential for youth athletes. Speed or agility ladders are not the holy grail nor a waste of time; they are likely used with the wrong athletes at the wrong time.

Even if an athlete is older, take games that may seem a little dated and just add a twist with new cones and other markings. 

3. Most Boxes are Too Narrow or Too High

It’s better to buy fewer boxes or make your own than it is to buy the typical plyometric boxes seen in training catalogs. Most boxes are designed to be stacked and have landing areas of inches rather than feet. My experience is that most of the boxes are frankly too high and too narrow, so make wide boxes that are 1-2 feet high and 3-4 feet wide.

Jumping up and down on boxes is very popular as it allows more repetitions and can get a lot of athletes in groups training, but most of the plyometrics training should be just on a grass or turf field without boxes. 

It’s better to do most of the training without boxes, as plenty of “in place” plyometrics exist, such as tuck jumps and split jumps. Most athletes, including advanced ones, need to ensure they have a steady diet of jumps from the ground and not up and off boxes. Depth or drop jumps are advanced, and that means at least 80% of developing athletes should leave boxes alone. The only time I like athletes to use boxes is when it helps them visualize what they are trying to do, not just do mindless reps of sloppy technique.

4. You Don’t Need to Actually Jump to Get Better

Various drills, typical ones you see during warm-up, provide elastic benefits to athletes. In fact, most of the activities we learned as kids for physical education are the most powerful ways to teach and train.

Take the best example, skipping - a skill we all take for granted. Performing extended skips for speed or skipping for height or distance are timeless options. We are are all familiar with skips, but what about galloping or even prancing? By teaching athletes rudimentary physical education drills and adding athletic qualities like speed or power, youth drills graduate to very potent forms of athletic development.

Most of the elementary physical education skills are easily converted by adding a little speed or explosive qualities. Another example are “Deion Sanders” or straight leg shuffle bounds anyone in football will know intimately. Simple drills like those may look easy, but polishing them takes time and does develop the athlete. Hops, jumps, and bounds are all effective, but think about all of the movements you do that contribute to landing and taking off in athletic ways. 

5. Hurdle Jumps are for Advanced Athletes Only

Like bounding, hurdle jumps - especially those that are high - are not for everyone. One of the reasons I don’t like hurdle jumps for lower level athletes is that they focus too much on the hurdle instead of the focus on jumping on and off the ground. Hurdles are nothing more than visual barriers, and when hurdles are too high, they distract the athlete from focusing on what matters: applying force to the surface. Hurdles are similar to boxes, meaning it doesn’t matter that much how high they are, as they are not true indicators of advancement.

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Hurdle jumps teach both horizontal and vertical expressions and are great for excellent jump athletes. It’s better to lower height of hurdles and focus on getting the athletes to project up from the ground rather than being too prooccupied on clearing the hurdles.

It’s better to coach an athlete up by motivating more power with lower hurdles than play a deadly game of chance. If you are not an experienced jumps coach, I also recommend using PVC pipe from commercial catalogs or making your own. It’s far cheaper and safer to use plastic jump hurdles than to use track hurdles. Save the track hurdles for mobility circuits and enjoy the peace of mind.

6. Less is More with Plyometrics

The best rule of plyometrics is simple: do less.

It’s better to leave the workout feeling that you had to be a little too conservative than to know you did too much and have to hear your athlete is struggling with jumper's knee or has a foot injury.

Plyometrics are extremely taxing and because usually no weights are involved, coaches tend to forget the ground reaction forces are sometimes multiple times the bodywight of the athlete. When performing plyometrics in training, think taste or sip, not gulping or chugging down.

Always leave jump training feeling better than you started, otherwise the load was likely too much. Sometimes an athlete will feel a little soreness afterwards, and this is typical, but feeling trashed or in pain is sure sign the program was too aggressive.

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About The Author

Coach Valle has coached Track and Field at every level, from high school to the Olympic level in the sprints and hurdles. He has had the privilege of working with great athletes that have been All-American and school record holders. A technology professional, Coach Valle has expertise in performance data as well as an understanding for practical application of equipment and software. Carl is currently the lead sport technologist for SpikesOnly.com, and focuses his time on testing elite athletes and using technology to help everyone on any level of human performance reach their goals.

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