Plyometrics are supposed to help with explosive anaerobic power, but what does the science say? Learn the ins and outs of plyo – and even if you should even bother adding to your training at all.
Even after the trend bubble has burst after Armstrong’s comeback pictures surfaced and everyone wanted in on the new super fit regime – Plyometrics still have a place in cycling. In fact, they have had a place in athletics since the early 80s. When Russian scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky created the original form of Plyometrics. But before we get too bogged down in its history, let’s understand what problem it’s trying to solve.
It’s all about the snap or at least your anaerobic ability the 2 minute and under efforts. A quick response to an attack with a violent change of speed. As endurance athletes, this is not needed for all types of riding, but we all know racing is such an unpredictable beast – being able to crank it up quickly, rather than wind it up slowly – is a valuable tool to have in your back pocket.
Where talking short term power output required in attacking, sprinting, starting races, short climbs, and cornering or bridging gaps.
So why not just stick to strength training? Despite the underwhelming support for strength training, some research has shown that strength training improves leg strength by 30%, and short-term cycling performance by 11% (sprinting for 30 seconds or less) well-trained endurance athletes (Hickson et al., 1988).
But, and it’s a big but – traditional strength training doesn’t share many if any similar movements with cycling. So it’s missing the specificity element that is so important in any type of training plan. That’s where plyometrics steps in.
Plyometric exercises use explosive movements to develop muscular power. The ability to convert strength to speed in a very short time allows for athletic movements beyond what raw strength will allow. If the muscle is lengthened while loaded just prior to the contraction, it will produce greater force through the storage of elastic energy. This effect requires that the transition time between eccentric contraction and concentric contraction be very short.
The effectiveness of explosive strength training is massively understudied, there is one recent study that debates the effectiveness of explosive strength training for endurance cycling. It’s called – Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Which reports on the effect of combining endurance training with heavy or explosive strength training on endurance performance in endurance-trained runner cyclists.
Interestingly it found that Running economy is improved by performing combined endurance training with either heavy or explosive strength training. However, heavy strength training is recommended for improving cycling economy.
While combining endurance training with either explosive or heavy strength training can improve running performance, there is most compelling evidence of an additive effect on cycling performance when heavy strength training is used.
So no sign here that plyometrics will help cyclists improve.
Another study gives us part of an answer, but the workouts are combined with 30 sec sprint training so it’s hard to get a definitive take on plyo exercises. The study called “Combining explosive and high-resistance training improves performance in competitive cyclists.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16287351).
It combed 2 types of training on performance in the competitive phase of a season.
18 road cyclists replaced part of their usual training with twelve 30-minute sessions consisting of 3 sets of explosive single-leg jumps (20 for each leg) alternating with 3 sets of high-resistance cycling sprints (5 x 30 seconds at 60-70 min(-1) with 30-second recoveries between repetitions).
Performance measures, obtained over 2-3 days on a cycle ergometer before and after the intervention, were mean power in a 1- and 4-km time trial, peak power in an incremental test, and lactate-profile power and oxygen cost determined from 2 fixed submaximal workloads.
Results? The control group showed a little mean change in performance. Power output sampled in the training sprints of the experimental group indicated a plateau in the training effect after 8-12 sessions. Relative to the control group, the mean changes (+/-90% confidence limits) in the experimental group were: 1-km power, 8.7% (+/-2.5%); 4-km power, 8.1% (+/-4.1%); peak power, 6.8% (+/-3.6); lactate-profile power, 3.7% (+/-4.8%); and oxygen cost, -3.0% (+/-2.6%).
The addition of explosive training and high-resistance interval training to the programs of already well-trained cyclists produces major gains in sprint and endurance performance, partly through improvements in exercise efficiency and anaerobic threshold.
Encouraging! The study showed signs of enhancements in endurance and sprint performance, although they concluded that further research is needed to investigate the relative contribution that this type of training has on the overall performance of cyclists.
Other reported benefits are not always linked to direct performance benefits though, as the study called “THE EFFECT OF PLYOMETRIC TRAINING ON THE PERFORMANCE OF CYCLISTS BY LUDWIG GERSTNER” discovered way back in 2007.
“The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of plyometric exercise training on the aerobic and anaerobic capacities of well-trained cyclists.”
The conclusion was the following, and I quote –
“Although the plyometric training program did not significantly improve the performance of the cyclists, indications were that the experimental group improved their anaerobic power and upper body strength. One previous study in the literature suggested that the effects of a plyometric training program may only become evident a few weeks after completion of the program. It is therefore possible that the cyclists in this study would have experienced the benefits of plyometric training only later, i.e.closer to the competition season when the aim of their training program is to improve power and speed.”
BTW this particular study is excellent as a reference, not only for detailed explanations on each part of the physiology of cycling, but it also includes the programming used for the entire test period. If fact he has done a much better job at summarising the requirements of cycling, and plyometrics as a whole.
So, are you convinced of plyometrics merits after these lackluster studies? While it hasn’t been explicitly stated in these or any other plyometric studies done on well-trained cyclists – I’m still a believer.
Here’s why: I like using a linear model in the gym – working towards higher and higher intensity is not only good for the body but also the mind. it’s a refreshing break year after year of training, and can help you get through sometimes hard and arduous blocks of gym training. Also, much like getting in the gym for a general strength workout – there is a great benefit to the support systems of the body, the joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles benefit from plyo workouts, and get stronger and more flexible over time.
As for the performance gains on the bike – I can only anecdotally speak from experience. And I have never sprinted better while working my way through plyo weeks. It hard to describe other than by saying, when you have it you just have. A good sprint that is and plyo has played a big part in that.
Convinced to give it a shot now that we’ve discussed the potential merits – how about the warnings! Here’s my biggest warning – Take it slow.
Yep take it slow…Kind of like the potential punishment that Crossfit dishes out – you have to build from the base to the top of the plyometric pyramid. A solid base of 4-8 weeks of strength training should be done before attempting any plyometrics.
In the book Jumping into plyometrics (2nd ed. ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. pp. 1–4., Donald Chu recommends that you should be able to perform 50 reps of a squat at 60% of your bodyweight before doing plyometrics. I think that a little too much, but you get the idea. it can fuck you up, so watch yourself.
Also, Like any skill, Learn the moves carefully. Understand your limitations in each movement. and take it slow…you can get jammed knees, torn ACL’s, and muscle tears very easily with this stuff.
Any time your landing it should ideally be soft, but the shock of the landing should be absorbed through several joints of the body. So, with jumps, the leg muscles that control the ankle, knee, and hips all act as shock absorbers for the body to smooth out and soften the landing.
I can’t believe we got this far without even talking about the types of exercises. Here are some exercises.
The 3 three main types of motions used in plyometrics exercises are:
- Jumps. These involve leaping, landing and quickly rebounding to repeat the movement. There are various types of jumps, as illustrated below. Some can be done by leaping on and off a box or platform, which adds the challenge of gravity.
- Hops. A hop is similar to a jump except that it involves moving forward or laterally. A hop can involve one or both feet and be done over objects or up steps.
- Bounding. Bounding is an exaggerated running type of stride, where the amount of time spent off the ground is maximized. Bounding drills include skipping, ascending stairs or exaggerated running strides.
Cycling specific lower body Plyometric exercises include:
- Single leg box jumps
- Lateral side jumps
- Single leg hops
- Single leg squat jumps
- Split squat jumps
- Single leg vertical jumps
- Single leg tuck jumps
Don’t be afraid of being the weird one in the gym – you’re already the weird one amongst your colleagues and non-cycling friends. Go for it!
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