The Kettlebell Swing and Power Development

What is the purpose of a kettlebell swing?  The purpose is to develop power in a horizontal direction and link the force generated by the feet pushing into the ground up the legs and hips and up the core to move a heavy implement (a kettlebell).    In this video the hips are hinged, the lats pulled down, the spine neutral, the bell goes no further than chest height. The upper arms should never become disconnected from your lats, when this happens you lose the link between the core and the arms resulting in power suck and a compromised spine.  On the downswing the bell should be pushed down by the lats and abs creating more power on the next up swing.  Squeeze your cheeks together at the top like you’ve got a $100 bill in there and its a windy day!  The power produced in this type of swing called the “hard style swing” is sufficient to train for explosiveness in any sport and it is possible to do high reps 25 to 100 in a set, creating a huge metabolic effect for fat loss.

In the following overhead type of swing I see frequently in gyms, the arms become disconnected from the body and force production is lost.  The argument for this type of swing is to develop more range of motion in the shoulder, but remember this is not the point of the kettlebell swing…power and linking the force generated through the body to move the bell outward is the point.   As you can see the bell slows down as it reaches the overhead position and my upper back starts to sway, meaning my arms have become disconnected from my core and all the force that was produced in the hips is lost thus compromising my spine and shoulder girdle.

To develop force upward instead of outward I prefer to teach the push-press and the snatch.  In the push-press the kettlebell is cleaned to the racked position (at the shoulder) from there you basically “cheat” it up by bending the hips and knees and popping the bell straight over the head.  This way you are still linking the force produced at the hips up the core to the arms.  Slowly control the bell back down, this develops shoulder stability and strength in the lats and deltoid.  The weight of the kettlebell should be just heavier than you could strict press.  For example if you can press a 30lb bell without bending your knees, then push press with a 35lb. 

The snatch requires a lot of skill and practice, you should be proficient in the Swing, and Push-press before learning this:  The kettle bell is pulled in a straight trajectory upward (like a high pull) over the shoulder with a high elbow and then the wrist is snapped backward and the bell is caught with a locked out arm and wrist  overhead.

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Thoughts on Delayed Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs 12-24 hours after you performed a new exercise at too high of a volume or intensity that the body was not ready to handle. Can anyone relate to going for a random run with your trail running friends and the next several days you’re in so much pain trying to move that the idea of having a walker or a wheel chair is really appealing? That’s because of the repetitive lengthening of the quads during foot strike to break the knee. The forces generated in the quads are quite substantial (especially downhill) leading to small tears in the muscle and inflammation. Once you experience the soreness and live through it, it is best to keep up your running so that you adapt and never experience the pain again.

It is never OK to be so sore you can hardly stand up. This means the shock of the training stimulus was too extreme for you to handle, and you must seriously re-evaluate your routine. Your body is in an inflamed state and inflammation is NOT a state of health. Pushing yourself every workout to the point of exhaustion and failed reps leading to chronic soreness is absolutely a diseased state, and simply means you are failing to adapt to your training. If you believe in the dogma of “no pain no gain” stop, it is a flawed statement.

Mild to moderate soreness may be necessary at the beginning of a new training cycle, because the body is responding to the stimulus by adapting to it through increasing the structural integrity of the muscles and connective tissue. Personally I try not to provoke delayed muscle soreness with my novice clients, this is for both physical and emotional reasons (i.e. I want them to come back). For my well-trained clients sometimes muscle soreness happens during a day that was meant to push the limits, but always followed with an active recovery day and aerobic endurance training day until the muscles heal and have become more resilient to the stress.

Please comment if you have any questions. I’m happy to respond.

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Why The Miles Matter: The Nessecity of Long Slow Distance

During the off-season most endurance athletes are out there “building a base”.  The purpose of the base building period is to develop basic aerobic fitness and metabolic efficiency through better fat oxidation during your specified sport activity (running, cycling, swimming).  Think of the base building period as building the foundation of your house, or training your body to train, this will prepare you to recover faster from harder workouts and repeat tough interval sessions day after day, that will ultimately allow you to perform at the top of your game during your goal events months later. 

Base workouts are long- 1 to 4+ hours (depending on experience/fitness), so this duration develops discipline and confidence in believing you CAN go for multiple hours that may be longer than your event at a steady pace.  Your training route terrain should be fairly flat and without a lot of stop and go in order to maximize the time your heart rate stays at steady state.  Be careful on competitive group runs and rides, stay disciplined, and don’t let your ego get the better of you by simulating a racing situation. Think “I will go slow so I can be fast later”…and you will. 

The base building period should last between 8 and 16 weeks depending upon your level of training and fitness, those with low levels of cardiovascular fitness will spend a longer time in the base.  Asides from better metabolic efficiency this period of training is great for beginners by reducing the risk of injury because of the low intensity nature allows structural reinforcement of the connective tissues along with appropriate nutrition, rest, and a sound resistance training program.  Resistance training should focus on your musculoskeletal areas of weakness, correct them, and improve muscular strength and power of the primary muscles used in your discipline.

Recent research is showing that short maximal intensity efforts does improve VO2max and lactate threshold just as much as long slow distance training.  This is great news for people who don’t have a lot of time to train.  I support high intensity training a few sessions during the week for those who lack time, providing they are already metabolically efficient, don’t have to lose weight, and they’re not a beginner endurance athlete.   High intensity training will improve your fitness greatly but the problem is it won’t keep you there.  If your goal is performing in multiple events weekend after weekend (or stage events) you will have a harder time recovering after each event and performance will drop.

This time of year I suggest it is mandatory to be tested for your lactate threshold at a human performance lab and identifying your training zones based on: heart rate, power or velocity.  Testing can also tell you how metabolically efficient you are, or at what workload the crossover occurs from mostly fat/CHO oxidation to substituting ATP turnover with anaerobic glycolysis.

It is difficult to stay motivated when it’s dark, cold, and windy out there, but keep in mind that what you do in these winter months will dictate your performance next June and July.   Memorize your zones, stay disciplined by training within your zones, collect your data every single workout, and learn your body, watch it morph into an endurance machine.

Happy BASE Training!


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Lactate Threshold: Application to Aerobic Training

The lactate threshold (LT) is a very important measure of cardiorespiratory endurance as it indicates the ability of the active muscles to sustain aerobic metabolism.  The LT is defined as the point in time during increasing exercise intensity when the rate of lactate production exceeds the rate of lactate clearance.  With increasing levels of exercise intensity less oxygen is available at the cell for aerobic (aka oxidative) metabolism to take place, as a result non-oxidative, or fast glycolysis occurs.  The end stage of fast glycolysis is the formation of lactate rather than pyruvate (under oxidative circumstances pyruvate is sent to the mitochondria for complete catabolism).  The formation of lactate in combination with repeated muscle contractions during intense exercise lasting more than 30 seconds also causes an accumulation of hydrogen ions that leads to a more acidic cellular environment (acidosis).

The accumulation of hydrogen ions (H+) in the cellular environment and resultant acidosis is a byproduct of fast glycolysis and this is the primary contributing factor to fatigue during very intense continuous exercise.

It is hypothesized that acidosis causes muscular fatigue by disrupting muscle contraction in two ways:

  1. Disrupted propagation of central nervous system impulses at the neuromuscular junction, so the t-tubules and sarcoplasmic reticulum do not receive an impulse to release Ca++ and thus initiate muscle contraction. (read “Skeletal Muscle” post if you’re lost)
  2. Acidosis also disrupts the enzymes responsible for glycolysis, and so energy (ATP) can’t be produced as effectively.

As a result of these mechanisms the athlete is forced to slow down in order to generate ATP.  When the athlete slows down more oxygen is available for oxidative glycolysis/ beta-oxidation, lactate metabolism, and lactate clearance.  Lactate by itself is actually a very important fuel for your body!  Slow twitch muscle fibers catabolize the lactate that is produced by fast twitch fibers in order to generate ATP.  So think of lactate as good stuff; it’s constantly being produced, shuttled around, and used give you more energy.

Application to Training

In a nut shell: the harder an athlete can work before reaching the lactate breakpoint the more successful the athlete will be.

The closer the LT is to VO2max the greater the time till the athlete fatigues.  Therefore a primary training objective in addition to improving VO2max is to develop a very high LT.  In fact the adaptive ability of the muscles and and capillary circulation around the muscles greatly exceeds the adaptive ability to improve VO2max!  For example if two athletes with the same VO2max but different LTs compete against each another, then who ever has the higher LT is probably going to win.  The higher the LT the longer blood lactate levels stay close to resting levels which means the body is relying more on sustained oxidative metabolic pathways rather than relying on the fast glycolytic pathway.  This also means you are using more efficient slow twitch muscle fibers than fast twitch.  When those slow twitch fibers start to fatigue then due to the orderly recruitment principle fast twitch fibers start working and more lactate is produced.

On a well-trained blood lactate curve we see a much longer period where the blood lactate levels stay near resting levels throughout increasing intensities.  This shows: the efficiency of slow twitch fibers, the body’s ability to clear lactic acid, and the ability sustain aerobic metabolism at higher workloads.

Without frequent measurement of the individual’s LT the body will adapt to the current stimulus and then performance will stagnate.  The greatest adaptation in the LT occurs when training intensity is spot on the LT or slightly above it.  Training here teaches the body how to deal with greater and greater amounts of lactate + H accumulation by shuttling lactate to other cells for fuel and buffering the acidic environment by way of bicarbonate.

Training near the LT is really strenuous, so should be prescribed for already fit individuals/athletes, and not for untrained people just beginning exercise.  Untrained individuals should initially focus on increasing the efficiency of the central circulation: i.e. the ability of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system to deliver oxygen.  Moderate continuous exercise will cause improvement in central circulation through an increase in blood volume, cardiac output, hormonal sensitivity, and respiratory control.  After improvements have been made (12 weeks) exercise overload can be in the form of LT interval training to develop the ability of the local circulation and active muscles to clear lactate, improve aerobic power, and reduce reliance on the fast glycolytic system for energy.

When assigning LT intervals, durations should begin at a minimum of 8minutes and may increase up to 30min work bouts.  The total time spent at LT in a given workout should be an accumulated time of about 30 to 60min.   Rest intervals should begin at equal time of work interval (1:1 ratio) and can gradually decrease to cause incomplete recovery, which would create a greater stimulus for adaptation.

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Molly Throdahl

Energy Requirements & Metabolism

FOOD = FUEL:  The macronutrients our bodies require for optimal health is carbohydrate (CHO), fat, protein. It is important that we consume the right proportions of each macronutrient in order to get the energy that sustains our body.  When we eliminate one of the macronutrients for fear it will make us fat we ultimately diminish the efficiency of one or several of our organ systems. The truth is, too much of ANYTHING and not enough exercise will make you gain weight.

  • If calories consumed is greater than what you expend you will gain weight.
  • If calories consumed is less than what you expend you will lose weight.

How Is The Food We Eat Transferred to Energy?

Energy Pathways: This is how our body transforms the calories (fuel) we eat into energy.  There are three pathways the body transfers food into energy (ATP). Two…

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A Critical Review of CrossFit

CrossFit boasts a high intensity random circuit-like training program that “forges elite fitness”.  The hype and bravado of the crossfit cult is not just obnoxious but also defies all sensibility in the approach to training.  No doubt the intensity of CrossFit is high enough to improve cardiovascular, muscular fitness and body composition in most individuals.  The lifts CrossFit employs are structural, to train large muscle groups, coordinate movement patterns and stimulate an acute anabolic hormonal response (i.e: squats, pullups, pushups, burpees, cleans, snatches etc)… these are much more efficient exercises for total body conditioning provided they are PERFORMED CORRECTLY than the variable resistance machine based and isolation body building routines.

The only place I can see the efficacy of a  crossfit style workout would be in the training of advanced tactical athletes during a heavy volume phase of their training cycle.  Tactical athletes encompass military, firefighters, police, and SWAT.   The demands of these individuals are wide and encompass all facets of human exertion and must be performed in all environmental conditions.  And for the tactical athlete any day could be “game day”, which poses a challenge to planning a training year.  The high intensity and randomness of CrossFit may have its place PERIODICALLY in the training of tactical athlete.  However, this is where my agreement with CrossFit methodology ends.

I do not believe the randomness of CrossFit is a safe or effective fitness program for the general population.   The intensity of CrossFit, the exercise selections and exercise order do not stand up to the well-established strength and conditioning training modalities because it blatantly defies the well established principles of exercise physiology: the principle of individual differences, progressive overload, and specificity of training.  In addition, CrossFit ignores the correct usage of the technical Olympic lifts (clean/jerk and snatch). Finally, CrossFit ignores human physiologic response to acute exercise and recovery.

Individual Differences:

CrossFit does not consider individual needs or differences.  A “workout of the day” (WoD) is posted on the web daily and this is the workout prescribed for every participant of CrossFit programs.  Moreover CrossFit “coaches”  do not conduct a specific needs analysis of their participants.  Just because one person responded well to one type of exercise doesn’t mean the next person will.  It doesn’t take a PhD to scratch your head at this one-size-fits-all approach and question the efficacy of CrossFit’s tenets.  And as I understand it, most CrossFit “coaches” do not follow any of the principles in exercise training as outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, any Human Physiology or Exercise Physiology text, and any peer-reviewed research paper published EVER.  As I see it this carelessness would be analagous to rejecting all the life-saving discoveries of modern medicine.

Lack of Specificity and Progressive Overload:

The WoDs are a hodgepodge of difficult exercises that require very high levels of skill mixed in with HIT aerobic intervals with no focus on specificity of the fitness attribute.  Although high intensity is one of the most important aspects of fitness training, it must be done with gradual systematic progressive overload based on the individual’s needs.  CrossFit insists you do multiple rounds of a these exercises at maximal effort to exhaustion in order to benefit from them.  This is completely counterproductive and harmful because it WILL end in either an acute or chronic injury at some point.

In order to optimize a fitness attribute (strength, endurance, agility…etc) the training program must use the SAID principle which is Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.  The body will adapt and respond to a stress that is specific to the desired outcome.  For example, if you really want stronger legs, then you must do a variety of core structural exercises that focus on the lower kinetic chain and perform these exercises with heavy loads, multiple sets, less than 6 repetitions and sufficient recovery between sets.  In order to improve in strength over time you must gradually overload the body, not shock it.

Lack of appreciation for the Olympic Lifts (Clean/Jerk and Snatch):

During a CrossFit WoD the Olympic lifts are performed in a pre-fatigued state and at the equal loads among all participants.  This is completely the opposite to the purpose of the explosive power lifts (what is the efficacy of 25 snatches????).  When you are already fatigued you no longer training the ATP-CP system or explosive power.  Those who have true competitive experience learning, performing, and teaching the Olympic lifts understand how technical they are. And to be competent in performing let alone instructing these lifts requires years of practice in technique.  Therefore to expect the general non-athlete population who have little or no background in any weight lifting program to perform the Olympic lifts in a pre-fatigued state is deplorable!  The use of the Olympic lifts in this reckless manner is blatantly against the recommendations of USAW and NSCA.

Lack of concern for safety:

There have been multiple reports of crossfitters developing a condition of rhabdomyalysis.  This is a life threatening condition which occurs when deconditioned individuals overexert themselves to the point where muscle fibers tear and spill contractile protein content into the blood, which leads to kidney failure.  To say, “I developed ‘rhabdo'” as if it where a badge of honor is truly twisted!  Before CrossFit came onto the scene, rhabdo generally occurred in overweight deconditioned males who were overexerting themselves in a hot and humid environment such as Army boot camps (REAL tactical boot camps) and during pre-season football practices.

The risks of participating in CrossFit surely outweigh the benefits of it.  I conclude there are many more appropriate and efficient fitness programs people can take part in to achieve fitness and improve health.

I am not alone in my opinion on CrossFit, for more thoughts please read Michael Boyle:

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Mindful vs. Mindless Repetitions

In regards to resistance training, practice doesn’t lead to perfect.

There is a difference between practicing an exercise and practicing an exercise well.  The latter allows true neuro-muscular development.  For optimal muscular adaptations you must be aware of your body mechanics and how you are executing each repetition.

As a personal trainer going on six years now, it has been my observation that many individuals who are performing resistance exercise do too many repetitions. The classic example is the guy on the decline abdominal bench slamming his back down then popping up with an arched spine 100 times.  Another one is the girl on the stretching mats reading a magazine while doing every hip mobility exercise in the book countless times.  My theory behind too many reps, poor form, and reading magazines is that people lose focus on what they are doing and why they are doing it.  You must be critical of exercises you see, analyze each exercise you like to do, and ask yourself several questions.

  • Why am I doing this particular exercise?
  • What are my specific goals for performing resistance exercise?
  • Do I want to be stronger in my legs, arms, back, chest?
  • Do I want bigger, more developed muscles?
  • Do I want more endurance?
  • Why am I not flexing and extending my limbs through my full range of motion?
  • Is the weight too heavy or too light?
  • Why am I doing 100 sit-ups all at the same time..are my abs contracting or am I using momentum?
  • Are my muscles actually contracting or is this movement occurring because I’m using momentum?
  • Why do I do a lot of isolation exercises for small muscles when I can burn more calories doing bigger movements and working bigger muscles?

When the intensity is light it is possible to perform many repetitions well, and this would increase the muscle’s endurance, but not its size or its strength.  To improve strength we must increase the intensity so that we can recruit the higher order motor units (fast twitch), and stimulate the anabolic hormones to synthesize protein.

What Happens When You Train With Poor Form?

  • Injury: This is obvious, you can injure yourself acutely by not paying attention to your spine, or knees…etc. But more subtly, when you repeatedly practice an exercise with incorrect motor pathways you learn inefficient movement patterns which would lead to muscle imbalances and injuries.
  • Loss of Coordination: When you repeatedly continue to perform a movement without concentration just so you can get to 30+ repetitions you end up retarding your ability to coordinate motor pathways and synchronize the motor unit recruitment patterns that allow you to perform the skill well.  This also applies to any isolation exercise.  If you only exercised each muscle individually without letting it work with the other muscles then you would lose quite a bit of coordination.  How would an orchestra sound if each musician practiced individually and not together before a performance?

Learning Correct Form = Correct Motor Pathways.

Resistance exercise has as much of a muscular component as it has a neurological component.  To perform a multi-jointed resistance exercise correctly requires the development of motor pathways necessary to execute a complex movement, as well as synchronistic motor unit recruitment patterns.  The recruitment of motor units can occur synchronisticly or asynchronisticly.  Synchronistic recruitment occurs when many motor units receive impulses at the same time, as in a 1-RM when you need to recruit as many higher order motor units as you can to produce enough force to lift the heaviest weight you can.  Asynchronistic recruitment occurs during repeated light efforts (muscular endurance), when some motor units are working while others are resting.

Your trainer can help teach you the correct movement patterns and have you practice with light loads perfectly until you master the sequence of movements in each complex exercise. When you have learned correct motor pathways then weight can be added to the lift, which would stimulate strength and hypertrophy gains.  The whole process of performing an exercise correctly requires mindfulness (body awareness), concentration on the sequence of muscle actions, and repetitions in short increments of effort (< 20 perfect repetitions) so you don’t lose your concentration.  The actual number of reps depends on the intensity of the exercise and what your goals are (See Table).

Here is a simple breakdown of each muscular asset to help you organize a resistance training program:

Component Intensity         (% 1-RM) Sets x Reps Rest Interval
Endurance Light (50%) 3 x 20 ~30 seconds
Hypertrophy Moderate (70 – 80%) 3-6 x 10 ~1 min
Strength Heavy (80 – 100%) 4-8 x 1-5 3 – 5min
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Plyometric Training: who needs it? when do you do it? how do you do it?

Plyometric exercise is a training technique that was designed specifically to improve an athlete’s ability to perform explosive power through manipulation of elastic properties of the muscle’s connective tissue and the muscle’s stretch reflex protective mechanism.

  • Plyometric exercises are meant to be performed quickly and with high levels of force. In order to produce high levels of force very quickly we must recruit our most powerful motor units, the fast twitch.  And which energy system do the fast twitch rely on? …the phosphagen (ATP/CP cycle).  How long does this energy pathway last? ….5 – 10 seconds.
  • As a result if a drill lasts longer than 5-10 seconds then this would not be training the ATP/CP energy pathway and the fast twitch motor units.  Drills must NOT be considered cardiovascular conditioning, this is a big mistake I see in the gym.  Plyometrics is an anaerobic exercise, so the individual must sufficiently recover between reps and sets to maximize power output: 5-10 seconds rest between repetitions (especially for depth jumps) and 2 – 3 minutes rest between sets.

Mechanics and Physiology of Plyometric Exercise.

1. Elastic Energy of Muscle: The connective tissue (endo, peri, epimysium) surrounding our muscle plus the tendons are like rubber bands. They stretch and rebound elastically.  When you rapidly stretch and then rapidly follow the stretch with a concentric action it increases the force production.  Think of stretching a rubber band and letting go of it.

2. The Stretch Reflex: deep inside the belly of a muscle we have special fibers called the muscle spindle that sense the rate and length of stretch.  When you rapidly stretch a muscle these fibers send a signal to your central nervous system that  the muscle has been rapidly overstretched and you must do something about it!  So the CNS sends a signal back telling the muscle to contract. This neuro-muscular feedback loop is a protective mechanism called the stretch reflex.

Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC): lets say you are performing a vertical jump. In order to jump the highest you can you have to utilize the elastic components of the tissue, the stretch reflex, and recruit your FG motor units.

The SSC is composed of three parts:

  1. Eccentric: You first perform a counter movement where you squat down rapidly to stretch your agonist muscles (quads). By doing this you have stored elastic energy in the quads and have activated the muscle spindle (a sensory impulse is being sent to the CNS as this occurs).
  2. Amortization: the pause between eccentric and concentric.  The CNS is sending a motor impulse back to the muscle telling it to explosively contract to prevent it from being stretched further.  In plyometrics it is crucial that the amortization phase is as short as possible.
  3. Concentric: Your agonist muscle receives the instructions to contract forcefully and you release the elastic energy from the connective tissue as you leave the ground.

Plyometric Drills.

Here is an example of a single-leg push off: Single leg.  This plyometric drill is a lower intensity drill designed to improve unilateral power in the lower limbs.  Notice the 3 phases of the stretch-shorten cycle.

1. Lower Body Drills: these are great for almost any sport and any position. You can increase or decrease the intensity by manipulating the height of the drill, the speed of the drill, or using one or two legs.

  • Low Intensity: two-foot ankle hops, skipping, squat jumps, vertical jump, push-off (single, alternate, lateral).
  • High Intensity: single-leg vertical jump, zig-zag hop (hurdles), single-leg hops, box jumps, depth jumps.

2. Upper Body Drills: these are good for sports that require powerful upper body movements such as baseball, tennis, golf, shot put, discus, javelin.

  • Low Intensity: chest pass throw, overhead throw, single-arm throw.
  • High Intenisty: Power drop, clap push-ups, depth push-ups.

3. Trunk Plyometrics: I argue that the abdominal muscles are not designed for explosive power, so performing abdominal exercises rapidly (medicine ball sit-ups or leg-throws) is not actually improving power in the trunk.  The trunk musculature is designed for posture and endurance; the purpose of these muscles are to stabilize the lumbar-pelvic area and transfer force up and down the kinetic chain.  Also, the stretch reflex is not as effective because of the time it takes to go through the range of motion in the sit-up.  ALSO, think about specificity and functionality; what skill in athletics or life requires you to explosively sit-up?

  • Example 1: Medicine Ball Sit-Up – The stretch reflex is not as effective because of the time it takes to go through the range of motion in the sit-up.  Also, since the abdominal muscles are designed to have more endurance then they have a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers than fast twitch. Less fast twitch fibers limits your ability to do explosive power.
  • Example 2: Leg Throw Downs – this is more plyometric, but it is not targeting the abdominal muscles. When the leg is rising back up you are recruiting more hip flexor (rectus femoris and iliopsoas) than rectus abdominus.

National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA)

Criteria for Beginning Plyometric Training

It is important to NOT introduce plyometric training into an athlete’s or client’s program until the individual is strong enough and desires an improvement in muscular power.  There is no reason to implement plyometric training if power is NOT the desired goal.  The inappropriate application of plyometric training will lead to acute trauma or overuse injuries, and a decrease in performance.

Strength Criteria for Beginning Plyometrics

Lower Body Strength

  1. Athlete’s 1-RM squat should be at least 1.5 times her/his body weight.

Upper Body Strength

  1. Athlete’s bench press 1-RM should be at least 1.5 times the body weight.
  2. OR, for smaller athletes they should be able to do 5 clap push-ups in a row.

Speed Criteria

Lower Body Speed

  1. The athlete should be able to perform 5 reps of the squat with 60% body weight in 5 seconds or less.

Upper Body Speed

  1. Athlete should be able to perform 5 reps of bench press with 60% body weight in 5 seconds or less.

Balance Criteria

Each test position must be held for 30 seconds. Tests should be performed on the same surface used for drills. An athlete beginning plyometric training for the first time must stand on one leg for 30 seconds without falling. An athlete beginning an advanced plyometric program must maintain a single-leg half squat for 30 seconds without falling.

BALANCE TESTS: 30 seconds each on a stable surface.

  1. Standing on one leg
  2. Quarter squat on one leg
  3. Half Squat on one leg

Program Design for Plyometrics: first conduct a needs analysis of the athlete’s sport requirements to decide which plymetric drills are most appropriate.  Lower body drills are appropriate for almost any sport!  Remember plyometric training is supposed to develop explosive power NOT cardiovascular endurance so keep the intensity HIGH and the volume LOW.

1. Frequency – 1 day a week for beginners and up to 3 days for advanced. The athlete must have 48-72 hours recovery between sessions to allow full recovery of the nervous and muscular systems!

2. Recovery between reps and sets: 5-10 seconds between repetitions (especially for depth jumps) and 2 – 3 minutes between sets.

3. Volume.

  • Number of foot contacts with the ground per workout.
  • For bounding or skipping volume can also be measured in distance covered.
  • For upper body drills, volume can be expressed as the number of throws per workout.
  1. Beginner: 80-100 contacts
  2. Intermediate: 100-120 contacts
  3. Advanced: 120-140 contacts

4. Plyometric Program Length: 6 to 10 weeks as part of the power phase of the athlete’s periodization macrocycle and following the principle of progressive overload.

5. Planning and Periodization: Intensity should begin low and progress to moderate, while volume should begin high and progress to low.

Reference: Baechle TR, Earle RW. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 3rd Edition. 2008.

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Pros and Cons of Strength Training to Failure

The Pros and Cons of Training a Muscle Failure

Research has shown that performing multiple sets is superior to single sets (1, 2). For example, if you perform 3 sets 8 squats you will achieve greater strength gains than if you only did 1 set of 8.  However it is unclear if performing resistance exercise sets to muscular failure is necessary to achieve optimal strength and increase muscle mass.  In Willardson’s (2007) review paper, muscular failure is defined as “the point during a resistance exercise set when the muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load.” I’m sure you know exactly what that feels like…you feel like jello, eyeballs popping out, and neck veins distended!

Before we get into the pros/cons lets review the variables to be considered when designing a resistance training program for optimal strength and hypertrophy (2).

  1. Type of muscle action: both concentric and eccentric.
  2. Load – must be at least 70-85% of 1-RM (see muscular strength).
  3. Volume:
    1. Strength Sets: moderate to low 3 – 5 sets of 2 – 8 reps.
    2. Hypertrophy Sets: high to very high 3-6 sets of ~10 reps. 
  4. Exercise selection – core, structural, and assistance exercises
  5. Exercise order – multi-joint to single joint.
  6. Rest periods – 30s-90s for hypertrophy and 1-3min for strength.
  7. Velocity of muscle action – slow speed for strength or fast speed for power.
  8. Frequency of training per week: 2-3x/week

Pros to training a muscle to failure:

  1. Greater activation of motor units – When you train to failure you recruit more of your fast twitch (or fast glycolytic) motor units.  Remember that fast twitch motor units are your strongest and fastest and so are capable of the greatest increases in strength and hypertrophy.  Therefore, in order to get stronger you must recruit your fast twitch fibers!  Training at lighter loads (< 80% 1RM) you are not recruiting your fast twitch fibers and so would limit your ability to increase strength (3, 5, 6, 7, 8).
  2. Increase secretion of growth hormones.  Hormones responsible for increased protein synthesis to increase muscle cross-sectional area are: insulin growth factor -1, human growth hormone, testosterone. During the short-term (4-6 weeks) these hormones where shown to be higher after performing resistance exercise sets to muscular failure. However, as sets to failure continued over the long-term (16-weeks) the secretion of growth hormones declined and cortisol level increased (4)!

Cons to training a muscle to failure.

  1. Long term (16-weeks) decreases in growth hormone and increased cortisol levels. A study that looked at the long-term training effects of muscular failure resulted in a decrease in growth promoting hormones and increases in catabolic hormone cortisol.  This would cause a loss in strength, muscle mass, and lead to overtraining (Izquierdo et al 2006).
  2. High potential for overtraining and overuse injuries due to the highly stressful nature of training to failure (8).
  3. Not a good way to train for maximal power production: fast speed strength must be trained explosively.  When you are performing reps to failure your velocity slows and this is not an effective stimulus to improve power (2,8).

Recommendations for Training to Muscular Failure:

  1. Training to failure would provide the necessary stimulus to break through strength plateaus if done in the short term -> no more than 6 weeks.
  2. Vary weekly intensity to avoid overtraining: Heavy day, light day, medium day.
  3. Alternate failure weeks with non-failure weeks:
    1. Week 1 – Train 2 days but train to failure.
    2. Week 2 – Train 3 days but DON’T go to failure.
  4. For older adults and individuals who lift weights for the purpose of improving physical function there is NO reason to train to failure.


1. ACSM: progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci. Sports Exercise 34:364-380 2002.

2. Baechle TR, Earle RW. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics. 2008 pp. 382-411.

3. Drinkwater EJ, Lawton TW, Lindsell RP, Pyne DB, Hunt PH, McKenna MJ. Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength increases in elite junior athletes. J Strength and Cond Res. 19: 382-388. 2005

4. Izquierdo MJ, Ibanez JJ, Gonzalez-Badillo K, Hakkinen NA, Ratamess WJ, Draemer DN, French J, Eslava A, Altadill X.  Differential effects of strength training leading to failure vs. not to failure on hormonal responses, strength and muscle power increases. Journal of Applied Physiology. 100:1647-1656. 2006

5. Rooney KJ, Herbert RD, Balnave RJ. Fatigue contributes to the strength training stimulus. Medicine Science in Sports and Exercise. 26:1160-1164. 1994,

6. Sanborn KR, Hruby BJ, Schilling B, O’Bryant HS, Johnson RL, Hoke T, Stone ME, Stone MH. Short-term performance effects of weight training with multiple sets not to failure vs. a single set to failure in women. J Strength Cond. Res. 14:328-331. 2000.

7. Schott J, McCully K, Rutherford OM. The role of metabolites in strength training: Short vs. long isometric contractions. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 71:337-341. 1995.

8. Willardson JM. The Application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21(2): 628-631. 2007.

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