Want to rev up your athletic prowess? If so, plyometric exercises may be just the ticket. Plyometrics, also called jump training, first appeared in Eastern Europe in the 1970s to train Olympic athletes for competition. The method is based on a principle of stretching and then contracting muscles, resulting in a reflex that ultimately makes muscle contraction more powerful. Plyometric exercises are riskier than other forms of exercise, so they're not for everyone. The American Council on Exercise only recommends plyometrics if improving athletic performance is a top priority.
In a nutshell, plyometric exercises are power-training moves that involve jumping. Each exercise involves three phases -- the eccentric phase when the muscles quickly lengthen, the amortization phase when the muscles briefly rest, and the concentric phase when the muscles rapidly shorten. The whole process is called the stretch-shortening cycle, and it gets your target muscles to coordinate with each other for specific motions. Plyometric exercises also affect nerves and tendons, which helps build maximum muscle power.
On the simple end of the plyometrics spectrum, you have jumping rope, hopping on one foot and skipping. Getting more complicated, there's performing jump squats and lateral jumps. There are also some seriously tough plyometric moves, such as clap pushups, depth jumps and hurdle jumps. Save your knees and your dignity by sticking with the easiest plyometric activities at first, working your way up gradually to the more complicated exercises. Some, such as depth jumps, are best attempted only with a trainer's supervision.
Plyometrics are tough, but the payoff is golden for serious athletes. These exercises not only strengthen muscles and make them more powerful, they also prepare the body for specific sports like basketball and skiing. With plyometric training, you will be able to rapidly exert muscle force with explosive movements, giving you an athletic edge that could make a difference in competitions. You may be able to run faster, throw faster and have quicker reaction times.
Plyometrics can be hard on your body, so see a physician before starting a routine. If your fitness level is low or you have any orthopedic conditions, this type of exercise is out. If you do decide to go for it, stick with ground-level jumps on a soft surface. Anything more difficult requires professional help. Focus on correct form rather than repetitions; always land toe to heel from vertical jumps, and focus on making as light of an impact as possible. To protect your knees, prevent them from wobbling from side to side as you land.
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.