Plyometrics is a word that is synonomous with vertical jump training. In fact if you asked most coaches what is the quickest way to increase your vertical jump many of them would simply say 'plyometrics'. Sadly though this training method is terribly misunderstood, and nowhere is this level of misunderstanding more clearly illustrated than in the build strength before doing plyo's myth.
What is the build strength before doing plyo's myth? Simply put it is the use of statements along the lines of "an athlete needs to be able to squat 1.5X BW before they should undertake plyometric training". This is bad training advice and may be holding people back from achieving the kind of results they can.
Before I get into that discussion though, it is probably a good idea to quickly go over what plyometrics actually are. To many coaches it is just depth jumps and altitude landings, or the 'shock' methods as they are sometimes known. Personally I find this too narrow and prefer the more broad definition put forward by James Radcliffe from Oregon State University
"Plyometrics means a style of training utilizing exercises that are explosive and take advantage of the elastic-reactive components of the neuromuscular system. This includes any form of jumping, bounding, hopping, throwing, and tossing movements that combine the effects of eccentric loading and the rate of concentric execution."
This definition to in terms of a practical training application, makes a lot more sense. So with that said, lets get into the real point of this article, and that is to separate the fact from the fiction when it comes to how much strength you need to have before you should start doing plyometric training.
Statements along the lines of "you need to have X level of strength before starting plyometrics" most likely originated from someone misunderstanding those 'Russian training secrets' we hear so much about. From what I have read about the Russian training literature their track and field athletes would often have squat strength that was 2-2.5x their own BW before they undertook plyometric training.
So if it was right for the Russians, why isn't it necessarily right for you? Well for a start, the athletes talked about in those texts were their elite guys. These are athletes who had been identified as having superior talent from a young age and then had that talent nurtured for years to develop those strength levels.
More importantly though, that same literature that mentions the great strength levels required also explains that those athlete were doing their depth jumps from 1m high boxes and their altitude landings from 2m boxes. These are drop heights far, far greater than the average athlete needs to use in order to get the necessary stimulus from the exercise.
If you haven't spotted the connection yet let me spell it out for you. If you want to do the 'shock' methods of plyometric training off very high boxes then yes, it is absolutely true that you better have a pretty good strength base beforehand. Why? These types of training methods are really hard on the joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, and a certain degree of base strength helps prevent injuries.
But, and this is something that should be obvious to most people after giving a few seconds of critical thought, and that is if eccentric (reactive) strength is something that is lacking, and the best methods for developing eccentric strength are plyometrics, why would you not spend time doing those types of exercises to get the best results?
It is silly to think that beginner athletes without a large strength base can't handle plyometric training. You just need to use exercises that don't have the same degree of landing forces, or if you want to use the shock methods, you simply use a lower box height that allows the athlete to still be challenged, but also to safely perform the exercise.
The other variable you can manipulate in order to ensure you are developing the athlete without exposing them to injury is training volume. If someone is just starting out then have them not only use lower boxes, but also do less jumps. Really, this isn't rocket science people, this is just common sense.
Plyometrics are synonymous with jump training because they are an effective method for increasing your vertical jump. But it is just one of many methods. If you would like to know the most effective techniques for jumping higher you should grab a copy of Game Changers. This book contains the top vertical jump training methods for rapidly adding inches to your vertical jump.
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I also want to point out that I am not trying to devalue the importance of strength training when trying to develop relative power, especially for beginner athletes. More often than not newbies also really need some serious strength work.
If this is the case then the obvious solution is to mix them both in. Strength work versus jumping drills and plyometrics doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. If you need to spend some time developing both strength AND speed to improve your vertical jump it is more than ok to work them both concurrently.
In fact there was a study done on this where they compared strength training, plyometric training, and a combination of strength and plyometric training (Adams, O'Shea, JP, O'Shea, KL, Climstein, 1992). While both the strength training group and the plyometric training group showed improvement, the biggest gains came from the group that combined both training modalities.
It is also worth noting that this is exactly what our vertical jump training program does. It assesses your individual strength and weaknesses and if you happen to need to improve across several areas than it builds your program using a combination of training methods to ensure you get the best results every time.
Plyometrics, no matter how you define it, is nothing more than a training method that focuses on improving your ability you to absorb eccentric forces. Like all training, whether it is weight training, Olympic lifting, or anything else you can think off, you will still need to consider the individual needs of the athlete and program accordingly in order to get the most out of it.
So if you lack relative strength, and you need to improve your eccentric strength, don't ignore plyometric methods until you build a base of strength, just make sure you start off using appropriate intensities and volumes that allow you to progress steadily and safely and you will be fine.