Plyometrics versus “Agility and Conditioning”

…in which I justify all the jumping on and over picnic tables, which are far better than standard gym plyo boxes, but that’s another story. 

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Most people think that running, jumping, and agility training all necessarily go together. Around here it’s common to hear it as one word.

“We’re doing speednagility.”

But they are not all one in the same. I mean, go ahead and look up the internet’s definition of agility.

“The quality or state of being agile. Nimbleness and dexterity.” 

Getting in shape for the season, getting faster at sprinting, and improving agility are related, but are in fact fairly different pursuits with different training methods. For example, it is entirely possible (and common) to have an athlete with  favorable conditioning and footwork on an agility ladder, but with very average acceleration and top speed sprinting ability.

Likewise, activities like P90X circuit style jumping and intensely jogging a mile (for conditioning) do very little to improve an athletes ability to achieve faster sprinting and change of direction (unless he/she is very out of shape to begin with). Skipping through an agility ladder or over cones will improve brain coordination to the feet in those precise drills. I like these type of activities done briefly as a warm-up. But they will do little to improve sprint and change of direction abilities.

So why do I call my own training “Plyo Friday” rather than “Speed and Agility Friday?” What’s with all the jumping when most athletes are NOT primarily interested in basketball or high jump?

I’ve written a few entries on what does actually improve a given athletes peak speed and change of direction, these being

  1. Good static and dynamic alignment (all moving segments stacked optimally to work together to produce movement).
  2. Adequate range of motion (controlled mobility means not being too tight, but not too flexible either).
  3. The ability to quickly generate a lot of force into the ground (per body weight).

Athletes should work on developing these and then, THEN work on being agile in the demands of their sport. I’ve seen kids who can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time get on a BMX bike and demonstrate extravagant nimbleness and dexterity. The point is that “good agility” is fairly event specific.

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The best way to work on alignment, controlled mobility, and force generation capability is through specific targeted resistance training. You could say that we are getting the athlete stronger. But you could also say that we’re using resistance and specific cues as a tool to literally change how the athlete  interacts with the environment. Once they are on track toward improvement in the three points above, we have to practice application. The best way to apply these attributes to athletics is through sprinting, plyometrics (think jumping type drills), and working on lateral movements and change of direction yes, agility). So that’s exactly what we do on Plyo Fridays. Here is the anatomy of a Plyo Friday:

  1. We warm up (I’m attempting to do a better job of not skimping on functional mobility warm ups).
  2. We perform a series of plyometric jumps: tuck jumps, bounding, lateral hops, and depth jumps on one and two legs. Jumps are not just for basketball players. They make excellent use of GRAVITY, one of our greatest and most overlooked tools for truly improving speed and agility. A large part of being fast and agile has to do with synchronization and timing of body segments to control landing forces, achieve a controlled stretch of muscle and tendon (called SSC, short for stretch-shortening-cycle) and efficiently roll that SSC into the next powerful movement up and out, in various directions.
  3. We sprint with work on form, starts and stops, and peak speed with plenty of rest between sprints.
  4. We run some grinding intervals, push the car, or do an obstacle course for general athleticism, conditioning, and/or plain fun.

Next we break each of these down further:

-Warm-up includes activities to work on dynamic alignment, balance, and basic movement patterns (such as single leg hip hinge, deep squat, skipping, lateral and rotational lunging, etc).

-Jumps! Tuck jumps and box jumps are great because they require a powerful and synchronized total body effort. The ankles, knees and hips perform powerful triple extension while the arms are being thrown up, the trunk is extended, and a fraction of a second later the anterior muscles must perform a rapid folding together of the torso. Tuck jumps are done forward and laterally, on two legs and one at a time. They qualify as “functional core” movements far more than you think, making non-weight bearing abdominal exercise unnecessary.

Depth jumps (and practicing good quality on jumping and landing) are critical because they are a great way to overload the movement and train the brain for pre-activation.  Careful though, as these are fairly taxing and should only be performed after normal jumping and landing form is achieved.

It is difficult to achieve quick and forceful  (powerful!) interaction with the ground  if the athlete has weakness of the trunk and legs or has a reactionary strategy of ground impact. By the time the athlete reacts to hitting the ground, it’s too late. Learning pre-activation is critical! That is, anticipating the next foot impact/interaction with the ground, activating the appropriate muscles and movement patterns while they’re still in the air.

Here is a good example of a depth jump, and series of broad jumps for pre-activation strategy.

First, notice how Ryan is able to easily tuck jump onto the table. Very impressive for an 11 year-old. Next, when he drops down to the ground, he is challenged to control his body mass and immediately explode up into the next jump. He does a great job making it over the “hurdles.” But I’d like to see him, in time, float and have a faster and softer interaction with the ground. This is not easy, and should not be done for hi repetitions in any athletic population.

A good verbal cue for depth jumps is “When you’re in the air, you know the ground is coming. Get ready for it. Reach for it and control the landing rather than crashing into a heap.”

Pre activation is absolutely a learned skill, and the fastest, most powerful athletes are able to do it subconsciously.

-Sprinting usually involves a little work on starts and change of direction. We do a few warm-ups and then timed sprints. There is NOTHING that gets a human to run with absolute full effort more than drawing a “line in the sand” and breaking out the stop watch. Week in and week out, athletes get to witness the fruit of their labors through observing their sprint times fall. Did you know that doing a handful of ~60-yard repeats at absolute max effort can be fatiguing and adequate for “conditioning?”

-Lastly, the conditioning portion depends largely on whether or not the individual has intense games or practices coming up in the next day or two. We keep the craziness and fun/showboating within tight limits when the athlete is in-season or making a run at something outside of Plyo Friday ; )

Everyone leaves Plyo Friday feeling tired but outstanding, sensing the gains to the depth of their Awesome Bucket.

And the Bonny Lane picnic table, tire, small stretch of grass, and dead-end roadway keep churning out top performer after top performer…


Here is Cort and I at work a few years ago.

**WARNING: Most of the moves illustrated in the video are moderate- to high impact. Going at them without a proper build-up and form is likely to result in joint sprain or muscle strain.

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