Jump to New Heights (Part 3)

4. Plyometric training is the fouth of ten factors to your best jumping ability, leg power, and general awesomeness.

The word plyometric is a derivative of the greek words plyo, meaning "fun," and metric, meaning "wow that was cool." Not really, but when you think of plyometric training, you should think of movements that require quick acceleration like jumps, hops, bounds, and throws. 

Distance jogging won't help you to break ankles like this:

The primary target of plyometric training is the brain. The art of loading the muscles and making a quick transition to explosive acceleration requires timing and coordination of multiple body segments.

The best thing about plyometric training is that it takes whatever strength and range of motion that you bring to the table and turns it into pure functional delight. The worst thing about plyometric training is that you will probably strain something.

 You can will get hurt doing plyometric exercise. I'm not talking about season ending concussions or ACL tears, but the typical strains and sprains that come with pushing to new capacity.
If you're not in tune with your initial fitness level and general athletic ability...
If you're not mechanically sound (i.e. tight ankles, weak hips, etc., see corrective exercise detail to come)...
If you're strong and heavy (not necessarily fat)...
If you're careless about gradually increasing the "dosage" of impact to your joints...
If you're unaware of a few important tricks of the trade...
You can be smart about this. You do not simply have to accept misery. But pushing your limits is, well, pushing your limits. Greater risk and reward is not for everyone.
[***I've found that there truly is magic in acknowledging this at the outset. Injuries seem to be minor and few when the individual chooses his or her own risk/reward of any training activity.]
But let me tell you that nothing else will help you approach superhuman ability. If the idea of effortlessly leaping a full size picnic table doesn't excite you, then maybe the whole pushing thing is for someone else. 

If you're still on board after that disclaimer, wondering what a solid plyometric jumping program looks like, you don't want to hear that the best program for you probably depends on a number factors such as the five "ifs" listed above. But you should be glad to hear that wherever you stand, you do not need a lot of equipment to get moving. 

You do not need jump gizmos, parachutes and tubing, shutes and ladders, or special shoes. Even the use of simple weighted vests is questionable. Whenever you can honestly say that gravity isn't much of a factor for you is about the time you need to start using all the fancy jumping paraphernalia. 

Here is a general template of exercises that will cover your basis. 

Lateral jumping off two legs. 
Vertical jumping off two legs. 
Lateral jumping off one leg.
Forward jumping off one leg. 

That's it. 

Start easy. Pour yourself into becoming rock solid in these basic movements. 

Specific progressions and the details of exercise technique are beyond the scope of this writing, but here are some examples.

Horizontal jumping off two legs:

Lateral hops over cones (or "cone" equivalent)
Consecutive lateral hops over a series of cones
Lateral box jump one side or alternate sides (progressively increase height)

Vertical jumping off two legs:

Jump and reach for max height (such as basketball backboard) with and without hop step into it.
Tuck jumps, clearing heights (personal favorite)
Depth jumps (hop down from between 1 and 3 feet and explode back up)

Lateral jumping off one leg:

"Ice skater" hops
lateral box jump (low box)
"Defensive slide" drill with false start
Single leg lateral hops uphill

Forward jumping off one leg:

Split jumps
Box jumps forward and back (low box)
Single leg forward hops uphill
Single leg leap for distance and height

Here's a nice/killer combo: a good example of lateral jump off two legs followed by some single leg forward leaping. Most individuals will have to build up to this. And the big finish is well, I'm not going to say I'm against it. Okay here you go.

A few other key points on plyometric training:

-Make sure to keep a general count of sets, reps, or total contacts between your feet and the ground. Your poor bones and joints will appreciate any effort to keep an objective tally of impact, distance, and height. Or they will rebel.

-Your sets should not be endurance cardio drudgery. Properly performed plyos are brutal even when the work interval is relatively short. Generally keep the reps under ten. Go hard, rest, and repeat.

-Some coaches and trainers will tell you, in a strictly confident coachy tone, that your primary objective in plyometric exercise is to be quick off the ground, to minimize the contact time between jumps. While there is a time for working on foot agility, jumping as high as possible and being quick off the ground are two different things. (Go ahead and try to beat your highest jump while also minimizing ground contact time).  

In most cases, your focus should be on controlling your body segments to land and load your next leap in a biomechanically favorable position. Then focus on creating a strong forceful push through the ground, launching higher, higher, and higher still than before. 

-Depth jumps are an effective and intense gravity overload. It is quite difficult to properly control such impact and transition to an explosive leap or bound. Doing depth jumps before you've mastered good form in other less intense activities is an invitation to injury.

v. grassy hill
-Repeated single leg hops are a super effective way to gain the core and leg strength pertinent to so many athletic activities. But they have been proven to be rough on knees. I've torn a major ligament in my foot while doing max effort single leg forward hops across a basketball court. 

The trick is to do them on a graded surface. You could pay a couple thousand dollars for a cumbersome jumping device that allows you do to hard single leg work without the injury potential. Or you could find a grassy hill, which allows for all the benefits while drastically dampening the impact.

[Look for part 4 in the series, coming soon.]


Jump to New Heights (Vertical Jump Part 2)

It sounds so simple. Jump as high as you can, and there you have it. But go ahead and try to turn your 21-inch vertical into 24 inches. Dare you shoot for the 30-inch mark?

There's no guarantee that you'll be throwing thunderous tomahawk dunks tomorrow or next week. But you can probably improve. A lot. And it's going to take more than those special training shoes or that key exercise.

You're going to need to approach your hops holistically. That's my intent with these ten components of your best vertical. They are listed from least- to most time commitment required for the payoff.

1. Form

If your form is less than perfect, you can expect to add an immediate inch or two by tidying up a few details.

-Stance Width: Don't take too wide of a stance. You're jumping, not power lifting, and the wide base of support effectively shortens the duration of time over which your legs can uncoil and apply force to the ground. Having the feet too narrow is far less common, but that error will make your launching muscles work just to balance you out. Placing the feet just barely inside shoulder width is usually about right.

-Arm Drive: Technically yes, you DO jump with your arms. They contribute roughly 20% of your height, so get use to throwing those babies down hard as you descend. Throwing them up hard usually comes naturally, but it will take just a bit of practice to get use to throwing them down hard and then timing the transition to accelerate up. Also, make sure you're reaching the hands up and slightly forward, as it's common to see people lose a bit from reaching back.

-If you're doing a vertical jump test where the feet must remain planted, take a mental "hop-step" as you initiate the descent before launching. It's not as good as a real hop step, but it places the achilles tendon and other leg muscles on a slight stretch, which gives you some free rebound elasticity.

2. Warm Up

Investing a few minutes in an appropriate warm-up will also add another inch or so to your vertical.

-Don't! If you want to introduce a lot of force-dampening slack into your muscle-tendon units, sit down and stretch your hips, hamstrings, and calves for nice long holds of at least a minute. On the other hand, if you want to go in to a max effort test with a cold body and sluggish brain, and possibly raise your injury potential, then don't warm up much at all.

Like this, but keep your chest up.

-You know what I just said about refraining from long static stretches?

Well, there's an exception. Almost everyone acquires some degree of tightness in the front of the upper legs - the hip joint capsule and the muscle group known as the hip flexors. The typical restriction here is an issue since those muscles work in direct opposition to the hip extensors, the primary drivers of jumping. Although the hip flexors have a role in running, they're not involved with generating jumping force. So stretch 'em long.

-The best way to warm up for a test of this nature is to simply raise your body temperature and amp your nervous system. Droning away for 5 minutes on a bike or stair climber is not the best way to prime the brain for a max effort test.

-It looks fairly ridiculous to put it into words, but an appropriate warm-up should look something like this:

Take a short jog around. 

Then run in place for ten or twenty seconds before shifting gears to drive your knees up toward your chest for ten reps or so. Then proceed to kick your heels hard toward your butt for ten reps or so. 

Then stand on one leg and give a little hop as you swing the other leg forward and backwards. 

Then maintain a slight bend in your hips and knees as you perform some max effort hops by moving just your feet and ankles. 

Do 5 or 10 reverse lunges on each leg, then 5 or 10 side lunges on each leg, exaggerating the reach out and then quickly pulling back to the standing position. 

Then hit those hip flexor holds for about 30 to 60 seconds each side.

If you feel like it, do 5 or 10 split jumps and ice skater (side-to-side) hops, followed by a few quick-feet agility type drills.

What was that, about 4 minutes of activity? You're not at all fatigued, but breaking a slight sweat, with a nervous system that is primed to balance, control, and accelerate your body mass.

-Here's a cool experiment for those who are equipped, fairly experienced in the weight room, and interested in ultra potentiation of the nervous system. Try the following with either squats or deadlifts immediately before testing your vertical:

Do 6 or 8 reps with 135 lbs.
Then 3 or 4 more reps with about 60% of your "max" in these lifts.
After that, do two or three more sets of just 2 to 4 reps with about 75 to 85% of your max. 

This shouldn't be tiring, given the low reps at less than max resistance. And it has been shown to add immediate inches to the vertical jump of highly trained athletes.

And now...you're ready for take-off!

3. Practice

Jumping for maximal height is a skill that improves with practice just like any other skill. Now, how often have you practiced max effort jumping? Jogging and running stairs and jumping rope and lifting weights and a million-and-one leg exercise variations are NOT practicing the skill of maximal effort jumping.

I'm not talking about 10,000 hours of practice here. Just know that if you want to teach your brain how to launch, make sure and practice that skill when you're not wiped out with fatigue from other exercise.

Tuck jumps over objects are one practice that I've found beneficial. I've recently come across some literature that also supports their effectiveness. Giving your brain a clear goal that requires a maximal effort commitment is the opposite of endurance training. It's both fun and brutally hard work. 

A hurdle will do. So will a picnic table, a lawn chair placed on bricks, or some rubber tubing tied between trees.

If you start doing tuck jumps over things, expect to quickly post some huge gains. Most of the progress is from learning the skill, the timing of the jump and leg tuck. But the greatest benefit of tuck jumps is gaining the, uh, neurolgical aspects of ballsing into something awesome.

This video of Cort puts it perfectly!

There are certainly other important strength and power-related exercises, but tuck jumping is one of the best ways to practice the skill of max effort jumping.

[More to come...]


Vertical Jump Power Mighty Awesomeness (Part 1 of 2)

The brothers in Harrisburg always picked me up.

When the 6'1" white guy warmed up with a few dunks at Reservoir- or Cole- or Brightbill Park, the reality of his basketball skill didn't matter.

Because dude can dunk.

I wasn't showboating. I was trying to get some court time. Even the young bulls in Harrisburg know that size, skin color, shoes, and other attire are pretty horrible indicators of basketball proficiency. And dunkability is a pretty valid measure when you're trying to quickly pull together a 5-man squad and winners stay on.

Well that, and I was showboating.

Who doesn't want to increase their vert? Creating space between ground and feet is unquestionably the all-time greatest display of total body power, net worth as an athlete, and absolute value as a human being.

But seriously, vertical jump and jump variations have been shown to correlate with just about every facet of sports like football and baseball/softball and tennis and lacrosse and volleyball and on and on in sports that other people actually pay to watch. There's a reason for that, and it's because acceleration tasks are fun and powerful and poetic and freakin' awesome.

You want to know who can throw a baseball hard or has the potential to throw hard? To hell with the bench press and mile run and sit and reach and rotator cuff strength. You find out who has powerhouse lightening legs to generate enormous launchitudinal force from dead earth.

So if you or a loved one would like to overcome gravity for about .88 seconds rather than your typical .54, pay heed to the ten points to come. 

These ten pointers are not listed in order of importance or effectiveness. But they ARE listed in time investment. For example, you can expect that attending to point number one will translate to an instantaneous inch or three on the vert whereas the payoff from later points will come with months of due diligence.

But they're all important if you want to get ups, white boy.

1. Form 

2. Warm-up

3. Practice

4. Plyometric training

5. Corrective exercise

6. Strength training

7. Would you stop with the overkill already

8. Body composition

9. Something something (by law, no list has 9 points.)

10. Genetics


Barefoot Running is Unnecessary

 - - - -
Pure barefoot runners are like Big Foot. I've read  a lot about them. I see pictures of them on the Internet. But I've never actually seen a barefoot runner, unless you count my four young children.

The most irritating thing about barefoot running is finding a single shoe under the ottoman.

I wish the barefoot running advocates would quit talking about how our ancestors use to run. Those of us with less than perfect foot structure and other physical attributes would like to fare better than our ancestors.

The fact that some of our ancestors 5- or 50-thousand years ago ran barefoot and survived doesn't say much about modern feet and footwear. While our ancestors who happened to be nearsighted were eaten, many modern folk greatly benefit from glasses and contact lenses.

We are taller and heavier than our ancestors. The feet of our ancestors did not get accustomed to working 40+  hours per week in shoes. They did not have to deal with cement and glass, and repetitive jumping and landing on basketball courts.

This is not to say that orthotics are the answer to every foot problem, or that minimalist shoes are a bad idea. I do believe that overblown, cushy shoes can encourage improper running mechanics and cause our feet to become fragile and imperceptive. The longer I've worked as a physical therapist, the more I've witnessed how interlinked and mold-able are our systems.

Without at doubt, every person presents a unique case that defies simple categories.

I've seen individuals experience immediate relief by wearing the right orthotics. Some of those require regular long-term use of orthotics. Some people can train their way out of flat footedness. This may sound like a huge oversell, but it is absolutely possible! Do not underestimate the way foot function is connected with neurological factors all the way up past the hip.

Whatever footwear you're in, you don't need to run barefoot to get all the benefits of running with better form:

-avoid a heel strike and large vaulting strides
-place your weight down softly on your mid-foot
-lean slightly forward, imagining a series of smooth controlled falls rather than pushes

                    The image at about 1:44 says it all!

Of course there's a catch. Abruptly changing to this form may cause your plantar fascia and achilles tendons to scream, especially if you're overweight. You can expect a variety of aches and pains if your core, hip, lower leg, and intrinsic foot muscle are weak, or if you have ankle or foot inflexibility or structural issues.

Whatever your form and function, being barefoot allows for less margin for error, at least initially. If you have issues while running, a few weeks off is not going to fix the problem. It is often worthwhile to have a qualified professional develop a plan of care that is specific circumstances.

In conclusion, many of you should probably keep wearing some type of footwear, unless your goal is to disappear or become a hide-and-seek champion, Big Foot style.

 - - - - -


Should I try Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate?

This is a question I often receive from people suffering body aches and pains. The answer on this dietary supplement is that, as you probably guessed, it depends.

Although we do not know the exact mechanism of action, glucosamine and chondroitin  (G/C) are thought to interact with cartilage in the weight bearing joints, namely the knees and low back. Unless you count the placebo effect, neither of these ingredients offer much for wrists, elbows, shoulders, muscle strains, ligament sprains, or tendinopathies (achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, epicondylitis, etc.).

Low back pain is so broad and complex that any small benefit to the structure and function of the lumbar spine discs is trivial and difficult to measure. As for the knee joint, well controlled studies that are not funded by supplement manufacturers seem to give mixed results.

Overall, some results indicate that G/C helps people with mild to moderate knee arthritis experience less knee pain and increased functional performance. Although it had been thought that glucosamine and chondroitin work together for maximum benefit, evidence is mounting that leads some researchers to question the need for chondroitin.

It is important to point out the obvious fact that knees do not exist in isolation, and there are many factors relevant to cartilage wear and tear. From my physical therapist bias, I'm certain of what G/C does NOT accomplish for the knee.

G/C will not address deficits in hip strength or flexibility. It will not address impaired ankle mobility or problems in foot structure and function. G/C will not iron out the subtle nuances and asymmetries of your gait pattern. G/C will not confront your running, squatting, or sports habit layered over your specific biomechanical issues.

Yes, I'm aware that addressing these things take a little more time and effort than swallowing a few horse pills per day. If it were possible to design a G/C study that adequately controlled for these mechanical issues, I imagine that the effects of supplementation would be...well, mixed, with slight improvement at best (basically the data we have now).

It is thought that at least 3 to 6 months of supplementation (at a cost of at least $25 per month) are required to show any signs of effectiveness. Since the safety of G/C has been well established, there's at least no harm in considering a $75 to $150 experiment.