Training as an athlete or for an athlete is complex to put it mildly. The amount of information that must be taken into consideration when it comes to getting results, preventing plateaus and overtraining, and the prevention of injuries is daunting to say the least. Because of the sheer amount of information that goes into a successful workout, training session, or entire program the athlete or coach can have a tendency to do generic workouts with the “one-size fits all” approach. In my opinion this stems from a misunderstanding that exercise is a science. Anyone whose taken a science class knows that the tiniest variable can make or break an experiments success. When you view training from the scientific perspective, training becomes a completely different monster. So I have compiled a short list of things athletes should minimize or eliminate doing during their training sessions/programs.
Doing “Cool” Workouts
The Internet can be a great resource for learning new methodologies, techniques, and the sciences behind training. In the right hands and utilized as a way of augmenting exercises or tweaking small aspects of a program the information creates new avenues to making gains. The value can be immediately seen in the progress that is made . At the same time the internet can also be a breeding ground for misinformation. Athletes or novice coaches look at a video on YouTube and think something looks great or has that wow factor. They immediately try to implement it as a workout because it looks cool or looks hard, not knowing most of these videos are simply people showing off. Implementing cool, overly difficult, or non-functional exercises is the quickest way to injury and loss of performance.
Understand that YouTube is merely a resource. As with any resource it requires doing your research. Don’t look at one video , even if it is explained very thoroughly, and go straight to implementation. Look at multiple videos, look at multiple people explaining the same exercise, and lastly read up on it. Take the time to understand before jumping head first in. If you are going to use YouTube as resource for your workouts, find videos of individuals who:
Explain Muscle Groups:
A good video will educate the athlete or coach on what muscle/muscle groups are specifically being targeted when performing the exercise that is being described. The person on the video will also teach you a break down of the proper mechanics of the exercise as to how to properly activate these muscles and how improper mechanics will affect the user. The video will also explain how it impacts the kinetic chain not just an individual muscle. Stressing quality of movement is usually a key indicator you found someone worth listening to.
The person in the video should have a good understanding of the biomechanics and kinesiology associated with performing the exercise(s) they are demonstrating in the video. The exercise will have a clear and concise explanation of the “why” part of the movement/movements. They might even suggest how the appropriate sets, reps, and rest periods will affect the athlete. This will give a clear understanding of what muscle fiber types and energy systems are being trained. When that component is explained it can give the potential user of the exercise the amount of rest necessary between sets and days that would be appropriate to perform the particular exercise again. Like I’ve stated before exercise is a science if they cannot explain the science behind it, then it would be wise to stay away from it.
Explain the Function:
Every exercise is not meant for everyone. If the video(s) that you have watched cannot explain how the exercise(s) in question pertain to the specific sport, it’s probably best to stay away from them. The person/people on the video(s) needs to be clear and concise on why and how it is functional to your sport. Otherwise, you could not only run the risk of injury but simply wasting valuable time that could be spent training the right way. Even if the video says it is for a sport it is necessary for them to explain why and how, otherwise it isn’t worth your time.
Every athlete has different capabilities in regards to strength. An exercise could be perfect for your sport, position, and to correct your movement dysfunction(s). However, there may be a limitation relating to strength, mobility, or coordination that is preventing you/the athlete from doing that particular exercise. A good video or series of videos will reveal ways to modify that exercise so that you/the athlete can perform it properly. Information of modification offers a better foundation to performing more complex versions of the exercise.
Once again, YouTube can be a good resource. As a resource it doesn’t mean that every tidbit of information is gold. The more information found on the topic the better. If you go the route of taking one video as the gold standard you may wind up setting yourself up for failure.
The Treadmill and Elliptical
Every gym across America has one of these. They are a great way to get cardio or maintain your cardio. To put it succinctly, treadmills and ellipticals are good for cardio only if you are an average person. If you are an athlete and you live on the treadmill or elliptical, you might want to take a break from your old friends the treadmill and the elliptical. You don’t necessarily have to eliminate them completely but think twice about your performance standards before using on one. Some of you may disagree but let’s look at it like this:
Treadmills/Elipticals aren’t Running
Let’s start with discussing with the most basic parts of what running is. Running has two major requirements; 1.) Picking your leg up so you can reach forward with your foot to allow for an appropriate stride length, and 2.) driving your leg downward to push your foot into the ground to propel yourself forward. The second part of running is something that a majority of people struggle with. Add in a machine like the treadmill and you are only reiterating a lack of the second part of running. This affect occurs especially using the treadmill because you are “running” on a surface that is rotating underneath you. This eliminates the the leg driving down and back to push off of the ground, which creates acceleration. Instead you get active hip flexion (lifting the leg) and passive hip extension( pushing down and back). Without the driving the motion running is not achieved, only reaching, so when an athlete goes to sprint they lack the explosive ability to drive off of the ground. The translation from training to performance leaves too much of a gap.
Looking at the elliptical, it is even further away from running than the treadmill. Running is a single leg activity. While one leg is propelling, the other is striding forward. It requires balance, uni-lateral strength, and coordination. While you are on the elliptical both feet are in contact with a surface, removing the single leg components of running. Keeping both feet planted in the striding motion of the elliptical activates muscles like the quadriceps, hamstring, and low back muscles but diminishes activation of glute, and core muscles. These types of muscle sequences do not translate into creating speed, explosiveness, or even preventing injury for an athlete.
Daily Improper Use
While using an a treadmill or elliptical sparingly has no problem, the issue for most people lies in the way that these machines are being used. If an athlete plays a sport that needs speed (100 meter runner, gymnast, hockey, basketball player, volleyball player, softball/baseball player) it is safe to say jogging on a treadmill or elliptical for 30 minutes to an hour is going to diminish their explosive capabilities. Athletes wind up training their slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibers and neglect to train their fast-twitch(short duration/speed) muscle fibers because of these long durations on the treadmill or elliptical. The secondary problem with them is all of these sports, minus a 100 meter sprint in track, require lateral or rotation movements.
Even long distance runners who require the endurance training lack the appropriate training when utilizing a treadmill or elliptical. Now instead of just paying attention to the lack of balance, uni-lateral strength, and coordination, athletes will have more endurance in certain muscle groups. Because of these muscular imbalances endurance athletes will not be able to maintain the pace they would if they were on a treadmill or elliptical. You will also see many of these athletes wind up having shin splints, SI joint problems, and knee pain.
There is nothing wrong with using a treadmill or elliptical, it needs to be understood how to use them appropriately when it comes to training. The athlete or coach utilizing these tools should do so sparingly. They are best used when it comes to a light warm-up, a rest day, or active rest post season. However, to prescribe these workouts as cardio for an athlete or to train an athlete is folly. It can be the quickest way to rob an athlete of gains and set them up for injury.
Plyometrics are high impact exercises, like jumping, kicking, throwing, or rebounding/landing, that focus on maximizing the stretch reflex of the muscles. The purpose for this type of training is to to teach the muscles to produce maximum force faster, which enhances performance for athletes. The most common types of plyometrics that people do are sprinting, box jumps, jumping rope, bounding, medicine ball throws. While plyometric training is essential to the athletes success most athletes and coaches have a tendency to do them inappropriately.
When plyometric training is performed incorrectly it can actually decrease performance and increase the likelihood of injury. This typically happens because a number of factors aren’t taken into account before starting plyometric training:
Age – More often than not age is ignored because youth is seen as highly pliable and can bounce back from stress that is placed upon them. This mindset leads to high volume (repetition count), too complex of movements, and lack of rest between sets/days. When you combine those three factors young athletes learn improper movement patterns. Poor movement patterns with such high demand on the muscles and surrounding joints/tissues these athletes are more susceptible to repetitive stress trauma like; growth plate injuries, tendinopathies(tendon inflammation or chronic injury with degeneration), and stress fractures.
Form– Plyometrics require a high level of quality. Without that quality athletes and coaches wind up creating problems for themselves when they ignore quality over quantity. Ignoring form creates muscle dysfunction(Quadricep dominance, hamstring dominance, poor movement patterns, etc..) and places stress on tendons/ligaments/joints (tendinopathies, tendinosis, cartilage damage, etc..) that would otherwise not be affected nearly as much if form was taken into consideration.
Basic Strength– I see this factor ignored fairly often when either athletes assume they are stronger than they are or coaches think an athlete should have a certain level of strength. Athletes that aren’t strong enough will either recruit the wrong muscle fiber groups or fatigue very quickly. This practice becomes unsafe as the athlete will run the risk of both overuse injuries but also acute injuries because the stress placed on the tissues will be too great thus leading to tissue failure.
Volume/Training Load– Volume is considered the number of jumps in a given session/cycle while training load is considered to be the intensity in which a given exercise is performed. These two factors when combined improperly ,in my opinion, are the two biggest culprits when it comes to bad plyometric training. Often athletes and coaches take the approach that quantity trumps quality. Combine that with the second mentality of all plyometric exercises were made equal and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. High quantity and intense training on a regular basis ultimately leads to decreases in performance, recurring injuries and more often than not season/career ending injuries.
Weight – Every athlete is not built the same. What might be considered a low demand landing/jump for an athlete who’s 150 pounds will be a high demand jump to an athlete who’s 250 pounds. Athletes and coaches often see a teammate doing a jump that might not stress the 150 pound athletes tissues but when it is performed by the 250 pound athlete stress on their tissues will be absorbed in a completely different fashion. Barring the potential of injury it affects performance greatly. Without taking weight into consideration the nervous system will learn to fire slowly and instead of the intended exercise making the athlete more explosive it ends up making that athlete less powerful/more prone to injury.
External Load – Implementing resistance bands, ankle weights, weight vests, or sleds are a common practice in plyometric training. However, two things happen;
1.) The athlete or coach adds a random amount of weight with no reason for why they started there
2.) The athlete or coach attempts the same workout as if the weight wasn’t added
More often than not you/the athlete will fatigue quickly because of the added strain. Yes, you/the athlete can work through the fatigue and finish the workout but at what cost? Once again, you/the athlete learns poor movement patterns, slows down your/their nervous system, and if the volume/ load isn’t incorporated into your/their overall plan the there will only be short-term gains, plateau, and tissue break down.
Displacement of Center of Gravity– This is essentially the plane of motion a person is either jumping and landing (up and down, left to right, rotational, or a mixture). Two factors concerning this are often not taken into account when it comes to this concept:
1.) Athletes train or are often trained in one plane of motion when they play a sport that happens in all three planes
2.) Coaches don’t take into account how many times during a given practice or training session how many times they are landing or jumping in a plane of motion that is more stressful than straight up and down.
This factor is pretty significant when it comes to performance as if you/they don’t train in multiple planes you/the athlete cannot translate training into competitive results or you/they will sustain injury what is typically called a non-contact injury. This is where a sprain to a ligament occur when another person is not around nor has placed any outside forces on you physically. The other side of that spectrum is not taking into account that landing laterally, rotationally, or backwards causes much more stress on tissues than a vertical jump so planning to implement these types of jumps will demand starting from scratch and appropriate recovery intervals.
Density – Last but not least is density. I left this this concept for last as it is the accumulation of all of the above factors rolled into one. Density is defined as the overall volume/type of plyometric training an athlete has done in a given cycle. When the number and type of plyometric training is not taken into account for a given cycle you/the athlete will be at the greatest risk possible for injury.
Age – At younger training ages the overall training demand should be kept low. Beginners, should have low demand exercises with low motor complexity so stress on the nervous system is kept to a minimum. It is possible to get a large number of contacts with minimum stress through game activities such as jump rope, jumping relays, or simple landings.
Form– Before starting plyometrics assessing basic strength is not only key but also assess an athletes form while doing basic movements. If an athlete has difficulty controlling their body weight and they have the appropriate strength its necessary to look at mobility ano overall skill/ability levels. Start slow, work on mobility and coordination then build up from what you/the athlete can and has difficulty doing. Always train to success never failure.
Basic Strength – Assess the athletes overall strength to first see if they are even a candidate for plyometrics. If an athlete can’t lift their own body weight successfully whether through a push-up or squat then the odds of them being ready for plyometrics will be very low. If they are ready to start performing plyometric training, start slow with landing with proper form. Once they have mastered their body weight and landing then they are ready for more advance forms of plyometrics.
Volume/Training Load– When it comes to planning a workout taking volume and training load into account is pivotal. First you have to decipher what the training load is:
Low intensity – Examples of these types of plyometrics would be jumping rope, small in place hops, short duration sprints, or any sub-maximal jumps. These exercises are done in quick repetitive motions for a set amount of time. Low intensity plyometrics typically have a very short recovery window of the same day to 24 hours.
Moderate intensity – Examples of these types of plyometric exercises would be stair jumps, squat jumps, tuck jumps, pike jumps, small cone hops, etc. These exercises can be done both in quick repetitive motions for time or for a specific amount of repetitions. These types of jumps require at least 48 hours of rest in between.
High intensity – Examples of these types of plyometrics would be box jumps, depth jumps, or any single leg jumps. All of these jumps must be performed at maximum effort for a set amount of repetitions due to their intensity level with optimum rest in between sets. High intensity plyometric exercises typically require at least three-5 days of rest in between repeating these types of exercises.
After taking into account the type of exercises you will be doing or giving to an athlete and how much recovery time that you/they will need it will determine the volume for the day, week, and the month.
Body Weight – The athlete or coach needs to take this into account when planning their training session or cycle. While it may seem like a sensitive subject this information can determine the effective and appropriate type of plyometric. Because the quality of the movement matters so much it is important to plan, but more importantly to observe how well the you/the athlete performs the exercise. If you/the athlete is performing sub-maximally it may require a different approach to training to allow maximal results. This can include de-loading the action by way of bungee, trampoline, or underwater. Eventually that load will prove too little and you/the athlete will be capable of controlling their own body in space and time making it possible to get the desired results.
External Load – Implementing external load is a valuable tool in increasing performance. However, it has to be done correctly or you will not get the desired results. To do so, first an assessment of strength needs to take place. Looking at basic movements like landing, squatting, lunging, can give a better idea of where to start. Once you have built to the point where you/they are capable of controlling not only your/their body weight then it is time to add an eternal load. Once you have entered this phase always remember that less is more in this scenario. When your nervous system is resisted, yet it is still able to communicate effectively between brain, joint, muscles, and tendons then the exercise is doing its job. When the external load is so much that it slows down the movement of the trunk and extremities and the athlete is unable to maintain their posture, the exercise is not having the desired effect. The last component involves monitoring/adjusting the entire training session/cycle to account for the early onset of fatigue. Putting these concepts to work for you will make a huge difference in the results that are being sought after.
Displacement of Center of Gravity– Know the sport, and apply plyometrics that correlate to it. Simply put if the sport lands or jumps in specific ways, build up to those types of landing or jumping patterns. Train the way the sport is played but keep in mind some of those movements require a different set of mobility, strength, coordination, and recovery intervals. Plan accordingly when implenting different lading and jumping patterns. If you follow all over the other guidelines while applying this concept it’s only going to lead to successes.
Density– Plan, plan, plan, plan and re-plan. I cannot stress how important it is to plan and re-plan when implementing plyometrics. Start with a basic plan of implementation of plyometrics. From there monitor the volume/training loads, knowing how may jumps and landing you/your athletes have done in a given day, week, or monthly training cycle. This is going to determine results or lack thereof. While monitoring these factors is important it’s necessary to adjust the plan based upon what you have seen, documented, and the feedback given from the athlete. It’s nearly impossible to not get results and have a healthy season when density is planned and adjusted accordingly.
Plyometrics can be a great way to increase performance or a quick way to end a season or career. There isn’t a single athlete that won’t benefit from them. It’s all a matter of how they are used that makes the difference. Choosing the appropriate path towards implementation can often be a slow process but in the end the rewards far outweighs the wait.
The main take away from this is to remember exercise is a science. When taken lightly, the person performing an exercise runs the risk of being injured due to a lack of understanding. When performance is the goal, the athlete or the coach should take into account how important using proven theories and concepts are so that goals can be met. Just because something looks cool or it was done in the past does not negate what science has proven to be true. When training is done in a calculated, methodical way, the skies the limits but if its guessed at and poorly planned nothing good can come of it. Take the time to educate yourself before training or training someone else, it will be the difference between success and failure.
Audric R. Warren