The Benefits of Explosive Training for WomenMay 10, 2023
Plyometric training can improve power, speed, and agility as well as improve metabolic and bone health in women of all ages.
Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements, such as jumping, hopping, and bounding, that help to improve muscle power, speed, and agility. Women often look aghast when they see that I put plyometric training front and center in my “Menopause for Athletes” programming. We’ve been taught that we should be taking it down a notch when we get older, not turning it up. But that is just not true. Women of all ages benefit from including plyometrics in their training.
And just to drive home that point about all ages: a 2019 systematic research review of the recent literature on plyometrics and older adults aged 58 to 79 reported that plyometrics often improved muscular strength, bone health, body composition, posture, and physical performance. None of the studies reported increased injuries or other adverse events from plyometric exercises among participants. The researchers concluded, “Plyometric training is a feasible and safe training option with potential for improving various performance, functional, and health-related outcomes in older persons.”
To be clear: plyometrics is not all about jumping on and off of high boxes (though if you’re already doing that, I won’t tell you to stop!). While it is most commonly associated with jump training, it actually applies to any activity that is short, fast, and explosive with the aim of generating force in a short period of time.
How Plyometrics Works
When you do plyometrics, you wake up some otherwise very quiet genes inside your muscle cells that stimulate those cells to improve power and even the composition of the muscle itself in a way that improves the integrity of the muscle, its contractile strength, and its response and reaction time. They also improve your mitochondria function and insulin sensitivity. Some other specific performance and health benefits include:
More muscle and power
Plyometric exercises are designed to increase your power by increasing the amount of force your muscles can produce. Research shows plyometric jump training also can stimulate hypertrophy (aka muscle growth).
Plyometrics increases your motor unit recruitment (i.e., how many muscle fibers you fire), your tendon stiffness, and your muscle firing coordination so you can create those quick, strong contractions. That means improved economy (i.e., you’re using less energy for a given pace) when you’re performing your sports like running. Even low-level plyometric exercise like jumping rope can help here, according to research.
A 10-week study of 96 recreational endurance runners (about half female), ages 18 to 40 published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance recently reported that runners who traded a 5-minute warm up for jumping rope two to four times a week improved their 3K time trial performance, jumping ability, reactive strength, and arch stiffness compared to those their counterparts who did their normal running-based warm up. The researchers credit the improvements from the gains in reactive strength and arch stiffness—jumping literally gives you more spring in your stride.
Better balance and coordination
Plyometric exercises require and improve coordination, balance, and proprioception. This not only makes you more agile in sports, but also reduces your risk of falls and injuries.
Stronger bones and connective tissues
Plyometrics are a weight-bearing form of exercise, which can help to improve bone mineral density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis in women. In a 2015 study of 60 women published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, researchers found that jumping just 10 to 20 times a day significantly improved bone density in the hips after 16 weeks. The women who jumped 20 times twice a day had greater improvements in bone mineral density than those doing 10 jumps twice a day, but both groups fared better than the non-jumpers who lost bone mineral density over the course of the study. (Though jump training has been shown to be safe and effective for people with low bone density, if you’ve already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, you may need to consult with your doctor regarding plyometrics).
While running helps build bones, it’s far less effective than jumping, according to research. That’s because running creates mostly one-directional stress as you’re moving forward in the same plane. It’s too similar to the stress that your bones get when you walk and perform most daily tasks. Remember, your body adapts to the type of stress you generally put on it. So, if you want your bones to adapt to be stronger, they need novel stimulus too.
Likewise, plyometric exercise can help strengthen your tendons and ligaments as well as your muscles, so you can reduce your risk of injury.
Enhanced metabolic health
Plyometrics improves insulin sensitivity, so you can get glucose into your cells, where you need it, instead of keeping it in your fat stores, where you don’t. The fast velocity and energetics of plyometrics instigates more of the glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT4) transporters to be activated on the plasma membrane of muscle and fat cells. This way, you rely less on insulin to get the glucose where it needs to be. That improves your exercise performance and body composition and helps prevent chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
How to Do Plyometrics Even If You Have Joint Issues
Plyometric exercises involve explosive, high-intensity movements, so it’s important to do them correctly to do them safely.
Let me also be clear that, unless you’ve already been engaged in some form of plyometric training, I’m not going to recommend that you start doing lots of bounding or jumping right out of the gate. You need to build up to it and establish good form. And always warm up beforehand so your muscles and connective tissues are ready to go.
To get the form down and condition your connective tissues to start jumping, you can start by simply bouncing up onto your toes and dropping into a squat. Start by standing with your legs hip to shoulder width apart, feet flat on the floor. Bend your knees slightly and immediately straighten them again, bouncing up onto your tiptoes. Pause, and then lower back down, dropping into a full squat, making sure that your knees track over your feet and don’t cave in. That will be your landing position when you start jumping.
Once you’re comfortable there you can do a depth drop, or reverse plyo drop. This is where, instead of jumping up onto a box or step, you start on a raised platform and step off to land on the ground. To do it, start on a step or box about 12 inches off the floor. Step off and land softly, immediately dropping into a squat position, again, keeping your knees straight ahead and not caving in toward each other. You can do 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 drops.
As you get comfortable absorbing the force of landing, you can start on the floor and do squat jumps. Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width, feet turned out a little. Extend your arms straight in front of you. Squat down until your butt drops below knee level. Quickly extend your legs and jump into the air. Land softly, immediately dropping into another squat. Repeat 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 jumps, working your way up to one to two sets of 8 to 10 jumps. (Burpees are also a good way to sneak in squat jumps!)
Finally, advance to a box jump. Stand facing a 12- to 18-inch-high box or step. Squat down and jump up using a double arm swing to propel your body. Land firmly on the box, with knees soft to absorb the impact. Step down and repeat 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 jumps, working your way up to one to two sets of 8 to 10 jumps. You can progress to higher platforms as you get more comfortable.
If you have joint issues that prevent you bending your hips and knees deeply to jump, try hopping. Start with your feet together and simply hop side to side working up to 10 to 12 times with no deep knee or hip bending.
You can also do “low plyometrics” like jumping rope or using a mini-trampoline or rebounder.
If the impact is an issue, you can stick to explosive bouncing without leaving the ground, but add weight by holding dumbbells in your hands to increase the resistance.
Finally, other non-jumping plyometric exercises that are good for increasing power and speed and metabolic health include battle ropes, medicine ball slams, and ballistic kettlebell exercises like swings.
Just a few minutes of plyometric exercises two to three times a week is all you need. I like to finish off my strength training with a short plyometric circuit. As a bonus, I feel energized for the day.
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