When you hear about plyometrics, or “plyo” exercises, the first thing that pops into your mind is likely high intensity workouts performed by elite athletes–not something a regular person does as a part of their weekly fitness routine. While it’s true that plyometric exercises are incredibly effective for sports-specific training, they are also an excellent tool for general health. Gaining an understanding of plyometric training, and why you should do plyometric exercises, can help round out your exercise routine and keep you fit and healthy as you age.
What are plyometrics?
Plyometric training used to be referred to as “jump training.” It often features jumping on and off of boxes, over cones or other obstacles, and other exercises that might remind you of a kid skipping through a playground.
In more technical terms, plyometric training is anaerobic training that utilizes the speed and force of various movements, like jumping and sprinting, to build muscular power. It works based on the stretch-shortening cycle, wherein a lengthened working muscle is quickly shortened for a maximum burst of stored elastic energy. Sounds great, right? But what does any of that mean? Let’s look deeper.
How do plyometrics help with general health goals?
Hormones and plyometrics
It’s pretty common knowledge that as we age our hormone levels change and drop off. This can result in lowered energy levels, decreased strength and muscle mass, loss of bone density, an increase in body fat, on top of a range of other side effects. The good news is exercise is a great way to counteract these changes, and plyometric exercise is particularly effective.
As women approach menopause, the hormonal changes that they face involve a drop in estrogen levels, as well as hormone receptors within the muscle fibers. With the loss of these receptors, we also lose the ability to create a strong, fast contraction in the muscle tissue. This results in loss of strength, and over time, muscle tissue death.
Plyometric exercise builds strength and explosive power, and it just so happens that it produces an appropriate amount of stress to the muscle tissue to stimulate quality contractions. This helps to keep your muscles strong and firing properly. Menopause also comes hand in hand with mitochondrial dysfunction, and plyometrics can help boost the amount of mitochondria within the skeletal tissue of premenopausal and menopausal women.
For men, age comes with a natural decline in the production of testosterone. Exercise is a well recognized method of boosting testosterone levels naturally. Studies have shown that plyometric exercise raises serum testosterone levels. Additionally, it appears to lower cortisol levels. This is an important note, since some forms of intense training actually elevate cortisol levels in the system–and cortisol has the effect of lowering testosterone production. So while strength training in general is a great way to boost testosterone levels, incorporating moderate plyometric exercise into your training routine may actually give you an edge over other forms of training.
Plyometric exercise and functional health
Plyometric exercise is, at its core, a power exercise. As we age, our ability to generate power declines. While “power” sounds unnecessary for everyday life, it’s actually vital.
Life is full of surprises. We never know when we may step on an unexpected rock while walking, be taken by surprise by an overly exuberant puppy (or child), or be forced to dodge a stray frisbee on a leisurely stroll in the park. Reacting safely and effectively comes directly from our ability to generate power.
Our muscles are made up of different types of muscle fibers, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Power training, like plyometrics, targets our fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones that are responsible for assisting us when we need to react quickly and instinctively. By regularly training to improve power, we help our body prepare for the unexpected, resulting in fewer injuries and an overall better quality of life at any age.
In addition to improving reflexes and increasing fast-twitch muscle fibers, plyometrics has also been shown to make stair climbing easier and safer for older adults than other forms of strength training. Considering that hundreds of thousands of stair-related injuries occur each year, putting in a little bit of time jumping each day could be a literal lifesaver.
Which brings us to our next topic…
Bone density and plyometrics
In both economic terms and morbidity rates, the dangers associated with osteoporosis rank up there with cancer and heart disease on a global scale. Unfortunately, the numbers are estimated to get worse over the next 20 years, not better.
Whatever age you are, it’s never too early (or too late) to start thinking about your bone health. Getting to the gym has long been recognized as an important step in preventing bone density loss. Once again, plyometric exercise shows not only promising, but highly efficient results.
In one study conducted on women ranging from 25 to 50 years old, noticeable increases in hip bone density were recorded after just 8 weeks of jumping for only 10 or 20 times, twice daily. Results were even more pronounced over control groups after 16 weeks. With noticeable results coming from such little effort, adding plyometric exercises to your weekly routine seems too valuable to ignore!
Are plyometric exercises safe?
Plyometric exercises are generally considered to be “high intensity” exercises, so it’s advised that you start slow, and even ask for help from a personal trainer or other professional when you are getting started. That being said, it is absolutely possible to add plyo into your routine whatever your age or fitness level. In fact, several of the research articles that we have examined already found that the benefits of plyometric exercises not only outweighed the risks, but they also didn’t seem to increase the risks noticeably or at all.
Jumping on a fixed and stable surface with both feet is the safest way to start out. Adding boxes, platforms, and jumping on one foot are all great ways to increase the difficulty as you become stronger and more confident. Using balance aids to add stability can be a great way to make plyos safer and more enjoyable when you are starting out.
You might try using a sturdy chair or table, or a suspension system like a TRX to give you balance. Plyometric exercise can even be performed in a pool, especially if you have significant concerns surrounding safety or joint stability.
Ready to give it a try?
We recommend speaking with your personal trainer about how you can safely incorporate plyometrics into your weekly routine. They may already have been including plyometric exercises without you realizing it! If you feel pretty confident and are anxious to get started right away, here are a couple exercises you can try:
- Add these to your existing routine. Try adding plyo in right after your warmup.
- Don’t go too low, and don’t try to “wind up” for the movement. Plyo is done swiftly, before the stored energy in your muscle fibers is able to dissipate.
These are a great way to start training your muscle fibers to slow the impact of a jump. Focus on making these movements quick, yet fluid, allowing your joints to absorb the impact of drop.
- Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Arms raise straight up overhead, weight lifts towards balls of the feet.
- “Drop” into a squat–feet widen out, knees bend, butt sticks out behind you, arms come down to your sides.
- Return to standing.
- Repeat 10 times for 3-5 sets with 30 seconds of rest between sets.
Now that your body can absorb the landing, it’s time to jump!
- Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Bend knees, arms come down to your sides – you don’t have to come down deep, you don’t want to hold it too long here.
- Shoot straight up in a jump, arms raised overhead.
- Absorb the impact by coming back into your base squat position.
- Repeat 10 times for 3-5 sets with 30 seconds of rest between sets.
An added challenge
Once you get good at the drop squat and the jump squat on two legs, try challenging yourself on one leg at a time.
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. Get in touch with us by emailing Go@HyattTraining.com.
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