Plyometrics Can Help Gymnasts, Other Athletes Reach New Heights

But experts caution to use training tool conservatively with youngsters

By Jill R. Dorson

The Olympic motto is what many young athletes strive for. What if you could help your child achieve these goals with an exercise as simple as jumping off a box?

A study published on PLOS ONE in January 2016 showed just that – but experts also advise caution when considering plyometrics for young athletes.

The study, a joint venture between the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom and Texas A&M University in College Station, showed that adding specific plyometric training for 40 minutes twice a week improved the post-flight time on a handspring vault by a small, but relevant amount in young, competitive female gymnasts.

In layman’s terms, a gymnast will be faster, higher and stronger after incorporating specific plyometric training, said study author Thomas Gee, PhD, ASCC, a senior lecturer in strength and conditioning at Lincoln.

“What is achieved from appropriately structured plyometric training are, most notably, increases in jump height and power, which would assist the gymnast to progress to more technically difficult vaults,” Gee said.

Plyometric exercises include jumps, bounds and hops – for example, when an athlete quickly squats down from a standing position, then immediately jumps as high as they can, he said.

The action takes advantage of the “stretch-shortening cycle,” during which the muscle is alternately stretched and then shortened to create more power. This cycle occurs repeatedly during normal daily activities, but in athletic training is isolated and more intense.

William Sands, PhD, FACSM, a sport technologist at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association in Park City, Utah, has also studied the effectiveness of plyometric training. He says the exercises can be applied to nearly any sport that requires an explosion of power, including diving, track and field, or figure skating. Within gymnastics, plyometric training may have benefits for the floor exercise in addition to the vault.

“Faster, Higher, Stronger.”

Though Sands is a proponent of plyometrics, he says only athletes who are already strong should incorporate such a regimen.

“Plyometrics have not shown to be more effective than traditional weight training,” Sands said. “One of the problems with youngsters is they often get involved in activities that are more bounding things, like long leaps, hopping on one foot, or jumping up and down on boxes. Those are all OK as long as the athlete has a history of having strength that is well developed.”

Should your son’s or daughter’s gymnastics coach propose adding plyometric training to an already jam-packed workout regimen, Gee and Sands suggest the following guidelines:

  • Warm up properly;
  • Use a landing surface that has some give;
  •  Learn how to land properly;
  • Select exercises that mirror “movement demands” of the sport;
  • Begin with low-intensity workouts;
  • Have a professional oversee the workout; and
  • Be prepared to focus and concentrate.

Both say that though the results can be positive, it’s important to approach plyometric training with caution.

“Can (plyometric training) improve explosion?” said Sands. “Yes, it can help. But for immature bones and joints, it’s probably not a great idea. When you do add plyometrics to your training, you have to do it in a conservative way.”

Jill R. Dorson is a San Diego-based journalist. Her main focus is sports, and she has a special interest in telling stories about athletes as well as sports medicine and training. A dyed-in-the-wool Boston Red Sox fan, Jill enjoys golf, movies and reading. She lives in Fallbrook, Calif., with her husband, daughter, two cats and a big dog.

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