Plyometrics – What Every Gymnast Needs To Know

Plyometrics is a special type of exercise training designed to produce quick, explosively powerful movements, and improve the quickness of the nervous system, which sends messages to the muscles. Plyometrics has many benefits including injury prevention, running speed increases and the development of explosive power. Plyometrics is definitely one of the best ways to develop explosive power when used together with strength training.

Quick Mental Messages for Quick Muscle Movements

Plyometric exercises are important to gymnastics strength training in order to develop explosive power. It is important whenever gymnasts are being taught about plyometrics that it is explained in simple enough terms. Not only so that they can understand it, but so that they can understand the proprioception (awareness of the muscles and the ability to send mental signals quickly to the muscles to react and move) that is a needed part of the exercise, and that is so important to plyometric workouts.

Power = Strength + Speed
Explosive Power = More Strength + Faster Speed

Explosive power is very much like strength, but real power is when speed is added to strength. The faster a movement like a punch jump or a push-up happens, the more explosive power is shown. Explosive power is very important and very useful in gymnastics.

Stretching a Muscle Pre-loads Energy Which Unloads with More Power

Plyometric training refers any exercises where the muscle is preloaded (pre-stretched) before it is immediately (as quickly as possible) contracted. This preloading stretching creates an additional amount of stored energy in the muscle, that can then be used to increase the explosiveness of power able to be generated by the muscle. The technical terms for this are that muscles are contracted eccentrically, then immediately, concentrically, which allows a muscle to achieve maximum force in the shortest possible amount of time.

Punch Power for Tumbling and Vault

For gymnastics, plyometrics is most commonly worked to develop “punch” power for tumbling and vault. The punch, for a punch front somersault, is, in itself, a plyometric exercise. There are also upper body plyometric exercises, like clapping push-ups.

The 3 Phases of Plyometric Exercises

To best understand plyometrics, you have to understand all three phases:

  1. The Eccentric Phase: In this phase, the muscle is being stretched and elastic energy is stored.
    In the punch plyometric exercise, as a gymnast jumps into the punch movement, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius) is stretched as the ankle flexes (The ankle flexes automatically as it lands to absorb the energy of the landing).
    In the push-up clap exercise, the pectoral muscles are elongated and loaded by the downward force of your body in the concentric phase.
  2. The Amortization Phase: This important, and often ignored phase, refers to the time between the eccentric lengthening and loading phase and the contracting, explosive concentric phase. Immediately, or as close to immediate as possible is the goal for this time period. There is also an important mental component that needs to take place during this part of the exercise. During this period of time, the nerves from the brain send signals to the nerves that stimulate the muscles. Gymnasts should be mentally focusing on making this phase as short as possible, and act and react as quickly as possible, from the eccentric phase to the concentric phase. For gymnasts, focusing on speeding up and shortening this time, between the other two phases, is the real essence and purpose of plyometric exercises.
    Note: I often call this the “A” phase when working with young gymnasts, just to keep it simple for them.
  3. The Concentric Phase: In this phase, the muscle is now being shortened. But now, in addition to the normal muscle force usually produced from the muscle, the additional stored energy from the eccentric lengthening phase is also released and makes the force more powerful and more explosive.
    In the punch power plyometric exercise, the explosive contraction of the calf muscle during the push-off punch phase is the concentric phase.
    In the push-up clap exercise, the quick explosive action when you contract the muscle to push yourself back up, in order to clap, is the concentric phase.

My Young Gymnasts, “Plyometrics is Like a Rubber Band”

In order to explain the process to gymnasts, it is often useful to use the analogy of a rubber band. You can explain that the muscle functions much like a rubber band. When it is stretched, it can produce more quick and explosive force because it stretches.

Run your Fastest, Jump Your Highest

So plyometric training, where the muscles are pre-loaded and then contracted in a rapid sequence and use the elastic stretching and increased energy resulting of muscle and surrounding tissues to run faster, and tumble and vault higher.

Everyone Can Try This Demo (and TOPs Test)

Another simple explanation of how plyometrics works, is to explain how you can do a standing jump higher when you bend your legs first. The bend pre-stretches the muscle which adds additional energy to the muscle and makes the potential jump higher. The quicker the change from bending down to the jump up, the higher the jump can be.

Quicker Bounce = Higher Bounce Demo

A demonstration with two balls and how they compress and then snap back and bounce can help young gymnasts understand how this all works. Using two balls that have large enough differences in hardness can show how snapping back quicker “bounces” higher.

Quicker Stretch and Quicker Muscle Action = More Power

To really increase power, using plyometric training, two things are required – a faster initial stretch, which creates more energy to use in the second muscle phase of the action to create more power and a shorter (second phase) time between the first (eccentric) and second (concentric) muscle action.

Plyometrics Builds Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

Plyometrics cannot change the amount of fast twitch muscle fiber gymnasts are born with, but it can increase the relative size of the fast twitch muscle fibers. Stronger, bigger fast twitch muscle fibers allow gymnasts to run faster and jump higher.

Plyometrics and Safety

Plyometric programs have been shown to reduce leg injuries, when combined with other proper strength training, balance training, and stretching programs. But for gymnast’s safety, plyometric exercises must be carefully and progressively introduced to gymnasts, because of the large forces generated during some of the exercises. Gymnast should have a well established base of strength and flexibility before doing any plyometric program. Especially advanced plyometric exercises can involve an increased risk of injury, due to the large forces generated during the exercises.

Strong and Flexible First

Plyometrics exercises should only be performed by well-conditioned strong and flexible gymnasts who are supervised. Adequate and safe levels of physical strength, flexibility, and proprioception should be achieved before beginning any plyometric training. Plyometric programs are usually divided into three levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced – in order to protect gymnasts through the use of proper exercise progression.

Do Gymnasts Know What They are Trying to Do with Plyometrics?

Correctly done plyometrics exercise program are far too rare in gymnastics. Too many coaches fail to explain to their young gymnasts exactly how and why plyometric exercises work. Even fewer explain to their gymnasts, how important it is to plyometric exercises to minimize ground contact time (how fast a gymnast gets off the ground) when they are doing plyos.

More is NOT Better

Another common mistake is to have gymnasts doing too many plyometric exercises in a set. Doing too many reps, and gymnasts begin to slow down and the ground contact time increases. Now you are just doing a normal strength conditioning program instead of exercises that will build explosive power.

Plyos Require an Alert Gymnasts and a Gymnast Who is Not Tired

Doing plyometrics at the end of a long and tiring practice can also turn potential explosive power building exercises into just more regular conditioning. Gymnasts must understand they have to think fast and react fast in order to do these exercises correctly and to get all the potential benefits from doing them.

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