SHOCK IT TO ME WITH PLYOMETRICS
Achieve superior gains in speed, power and jumping ability with “shock” training.
By Kim Goss
Published: Spring 1998
Who is “the greatest” of all time? In boxing circles Mohammed Ali claims he is, but could he knock out Holyfield? What about Larry Holmes? Could his jabs and ring experience overcome the brutal power of a Mike Tyson uppercut?
These debates about boxing can never be resolved, but it’s a fact that in most sports the champions of today are Bigger, Faster, and Stronger than the champions of the past. Athletic performance has reached such a high level that there are high school athletes who could beat the times that won swimmer Mark Spitz seven Olympic gold medals, and even the great Jesse Owens would have trouble keeping up with the world’s top female sprinters.
With such expectations placed on our future champions, athletes are seeking new and better ways to fulfill their physical potential. It begins with a solid readiness program of BFS core lifts like the squat and the power clean, and low-intensity plyometric activities like the BFS dot drill. But to reach the next level and set new standards of sporting excellence, an athlete should consider engaging in the highest level of performance conditioning, a plyometric method called “shock training.”
Why Polymetric Training Is Essential
Plyometrics is a key component of the BFS program because it is one of the best ways to improve speed and power, especially for elite athletes. In the U.S., the term plyometric training describes any activity that involves a rapid stretching of a muscle (eccentric phase) immediately followed by a rapid shortening of that muscle (concentric phase). Thus, a standing broad jump is considered plyometric because it involves a rapid stretching and shortening of the quadriceps muscles.
More specific definitions of plyometrics apply when considering the level of tension involved in the activity. For example, jumping rope would be more accurately called preparatory plyometrics because it does not produce a high level of muscle tension but helps condition the body and nervous system for more intense forms of plyometrics. The squat would also be considered a form of preparatory plyometrics because although it involves a stretching and shortening of the quadriceps muscles, the speed component is relatively small and doesn’t produce the highest levels of muscle tension.
How effective are plyometrics? In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Sports Science Research in 1992, researchers conducted a six-week study on the effects of squatting and plyometrics on the vertical jump. The group that performed just the squat increased their vertical jump 3.3 centimeters, a significant improvement for six weeks. However, when plyometrics was combined with squatting, the increase was 10.7 centimeters! Can you see why plyometrics is an integral part of the BFS program?
The Father of Plyometrics
The exercise scientist regarded as the father of modern-day plyometrics is Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky, a brilliant Russian scientist who pioneered this type of training as a means of sports training to improve athletic performance. Verkhoshansky’s first research study on plyometrics was published in 1964, but he had been researching the subject for several years before then as part of his post-doctoral work.
In recent years, Verkhoshansky has shared a considerable amount of his findings in plyometrics with Dr. Mel Siff, a sports scientist from South Africa and popular expert in the field of strength training who consults for the Chicago Bulls. According to Siff, the most effective type of plyometrics is what Verkhoshansky calls the shock training method. Siff, who is currently writing a how-to book on this subject for coaches and athletes, says that shock training “is a method of mechanical shock stimulation that forces the muscles to produce as much tension as rapidly as possible. It is characterized by an intense muscular contraction that is preceded by a relaxed state.”
Stepping off a box (not jumping, as the thigh muscles must be relaxed during the fall) and immediately rebounding upward upon landing is considered an example of a shock training exercise for the lower body. Performing Marine Corps push-ups where you clap your hands, land, and then immediately perform another repetition is an example of shock training for the upper body. One of the characteristics of shock training is a brief transition phase, which is the pause that occurs immediately after the eccentric phase ends and before the concentric phase begins. Such dynamic activity is required to take advantage of two processes: 1) the reflex increase in muscle tension caused by the sudden impact stimulus, and 2) the release of elastic energy stored in the tendons and muscles developed during the eccentric phase—energy that can be refocused to help an athlete jump higher and farther and run faster. As illustrated in Figure 1, a delay as long as .25 seconds would prevent the athlete from being able to use that energy, and the activity would have to be regarded as low- or medium-level plyometrics. Says Siff, “A useful visualization of shock training is to imagine that the surface being touched by the hands or feet during the plyometric contact phase is red hot, so that any prolonged contact would be dangerous.” Verkhoshansky’s research has revealed that shock training is the most effective type of plyometrics. In one 12-week study, Verkhoshansky divided track and field athletes into two groups. The first group performed 1472 low-and medium-level plyometric activities, including squats. The other group performed 475 jumps using the shock training method. Although the shock training group performed a third less work, these athletes showed greater improvement in reactive ability than the group using traditional methods.
Again, this is why you should regard weight training (including the Olympic lifts) and most forms of commonly used plyometrics as valuable “readiness activities” for shock training.
Shock training is a powerful tool for athletic training, but because it places such high levels of tension on the muscles and stress on the nervous system, it must be approached with caution. This entails first developing a strength base with BFS core lifts, and perfecting the technique of the lower intensity shock training exercises. Accurate visualization of reactive movements, split-second decision making during sporting conditions, proper breath holding patterns, and fine tuning the nervous system (to develop what Siff calls cognitive plyometrics) take years of practice to perfect. Only after such preparation should you gradually increase the intensity of the exercises, and only with such preparations can you achieve maximal results with minimal risk of injury.
Shock Training in Action
According to Siff, Verkhoshansky is appalled at the amount of inaccurate information being published in the United States about shock training. Verkhoshansky attributes this to the fact that much of his material has not
been interpreted accurately. Siff says that the German coaches, who recognized the value of shock training and other forms of plyometrics, often had entire teams of several linguists and scientists working full time to
accurately analyze the writings of Verkhoshansky. In contrast, in the U.S. very few individuals translated his articles, and in many cases it might be a college student with little background in sport training. One example of poorly interpreted research is when American coaches say that Verkhoshansky recommends that athletes should be able to squat 1-1/2 times their bodyweight before performing shock training methods. In fact, Verkhoshansky says it would be unwise to wait until an athlete reaches this level of strength before performing shock training because it takes considerable time and practice to perfect these exercises. Furthermore, many athletes may never reach that level of leg strength! Indeed, when you see elite athlete