Do you ever wonder what allows Olympic track and field athletes to jump as high and sprint as fast as they do? It's all about producing extremely high forces in a short amount of time. The gateway to these forces is a program of proper, and often advanced, plyometric exercises.
Plyometric exercises are a key facet of proper athletic development. You are only as fast and can jump only as high as you can recruit muscle reflexively. Sprinting and jumping are performed based around spinal reflexes, whereas most strength training is of a slower, more conscious thought-driven pattern.
You are also only as fast as you are elastic. Many coaches and athletes don't understand that movement is driven through a combination of muscle and tendon action. Many muscles of the body, such as the hamstrings and gastrocnemius (calves) do most of their work isometrically, using attached tendons to transfer forces between the joints of the body. Yes, this means that Leg Curls and Calf Raises don't work their respective muscle groups in a manner that is anywhere close to what is seen during sprinting and jumping.
Because of this dynamic nature of the body, it is important to know the how and why of key plyometrics, which help to build speed, agility and vertical jump power through their intensity and replication of powerful muscle action.
In this article, I share three exercises that have the potential to dramatically improve your reflexive muscle action and recruitment, boosting your vertical jump and explosive power to new heights. We'll start with advanced bounding.
Advanced Bounding for Explosive Acceleration
Bounding is a staple method for improving sprint power and reactive jumping ability. Many athletes and coaches are familiar with regular right-left-sequence bounding, but there is much more to be gained from this exercise, particularly for elite athletes. Beyond regular, alternate Leg Bounds, we also have bounding variations such as:
- Left-left, right-right sequence bounding
- Left-left-left, right-right-right sequence bounding
- Single-leg bounding
Within these advanced variations of bounding, it is an incredibly effective practice to lump them together into supersets/complexes to maximize explosive coordination. My favorite complex involves the following sequence:
- Traditional alternate-leg bounding
- Left-left, right-right bounding
- Left-left-left, right-right-right bounding
- Single-leg bounding
You can see how this looks in the video below.
Finally, we also have a powerful bounding tool called "variable bounding," which involves the placement of cones at random intervals so that each bound is a little shorter, or longer, than the last. This sequencing forces the nervous system out of its habitual pattern and lays the groundwork for more athletic gains.
To use this bounding style, set a series of cones between 5 and 8 feet apart (9 to 10+ feet for advanced athletes) over a course of 15-30 meters. Bound down the course, with your foot touching down for a bound at each cone.
Depth Jump Over a Hurdle for Ballistic Jumping Power
The Depth Jump is a prime method for overloading the vertical leap motion, and it's also extremely simple. You drop off a 12- to 48-inch box (depending on your ability), contact the ground in a vertical jump landing position and quickly—and reflexively—react into an explosive upward jump.
There are many ways to do a Depth Jump. Jumping over a hurdle placed in front of the box is one of the most athletic ways to perform this exercise. A hurdle jump allows an athlete to produce more force in a smaller amount of time. This is a gold mine for improved athleticism. See the videos below for some examples of this movement.
As with any Depth Jump, this movement is best performed off a box where athletes can control the landing. For safety's sake, it's advisable to use some sort of collapsible hurdle. Both low- and high-hurdle outcomes should be used. Lower-hurdle outcomes are great. They are a fantastic teaching tool, and can foster quicker ground contact times than their high-hurdle counterparts.
Depth Jump to Vertical Medicine Ball Throw for Insane Triple Extension
Olympic lifts are the best way to improve an athlete's triple extension for jumping and sprinting, right? Wrong. First off, if an athlete can't reach triple extension through actually sprinting and jumping, something is wrong on a muscular and reflexive level.
Second, to optimize the quality of triple extension, you need to use exercises that are faster, more ballistic and more easily learned than a Clean or Snatch. Moving a barbell into the various critical positions that are necessary for the success of an Olympic lift takes time, and even then, the recruitment pattern in the lift itself isn't close to an actual jumping/throwing movement. Check out a video of the exercise below.
For a supplemental exercise that builds triple extension-based qualities and hip drive, there is no better tool than the Depth Jump to Vertical Medicine Ball Throw. Think of it as a Clean or Snatch with a powerful eccentric (loading) component, then a violent reversal. I like to pair Cleans and Snatches with a Depth Jump from 12 to 18 inches into a vertical throw for maximal skill optimization.
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