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Plyometrics and Unstable Surface Training

Written on February 1, 2009 at 11:17 am, by Eric Cressey

Two weeks ago, I made it clear that a lot of folks were missing the boat with respect to baseball strength and conditioning by insisting that “plyos are all you need.”

And, last week, I discussed how strength and reactive ability have interacted in some successful players in professional baseball, and how those qualities should dictate how an athlete trains.

This week, though, I’m going to throw you for a little loop and tell you that the static-spring continuum means absolutely NOTHING for a lot of athletes.  Why?

You must first understand that each stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) activity involves three distinct phases:

1. eccentric (deceleration, preloading)

2. amortization (isometric, pause)

3. concentric (propulsion) phases.

As I discussed in great detail in The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, Komi (2003) outlined three fundamental conditions required for an effective SSC action (1):

1. “a well-timed preactivation of the muscles before the eccentric phase” [we need our muscles to be ready to go to decelerate]

2. “a short and fast eccentric phase” [deceleration has to occur quickly, as the faster the rate of stretch, the more energy the musculotendon complex stores]

3. “immediate transition (short delay) between stretch and shortening (concentric) phases.” [if we spend too much time paused at the bottom, the stored energy is lost as heat instead of being used for subsequent force production]

So, what I’m really saying is that if you don’t have a decent foundation of strength, training reactive ability – or even considering where you stand on the static-spring continuum – is a waste of time.  Weak athletes need to have the strength (and rate of force development, for that matter) to decelerate with control in order to allow for fast eccentric and amoritization phases to occur.

I’d estimate that 60% of the young athletes who walk through my door on their first day to train are nowhere near strong enough to derive considerable benefit from “classic” plyos.  Sure, they need to learn deceleration and landing mechanics and pick up some sprinting techniques, but the true progress comes from the resistance training they do.

Now, let’s apply this to baseball, a sport where good strength and conditioning is still yet to be appreciated – and many athletes go directly from high school to the professional ranks without ever having touched a weight in their lives.  As a result, many baseball athletes don’t have the underlying strength to effectively make use of the reactive training that typifies the training presented to them.

And, in many cases, it will take a long time to get it during the season in the minor leagues, where they’ll have competing demands (games, practice, travel) and limited equipment access.  It’s why I’ve seen several professional baseball players come my way with vertical jumps of less than 20″.  As a frame of reference, you need to be over 28.5″ to be in the top 13 on my HIGH SCHOOL record board. Pro athletes?  Really?

These guys can be conundrums from a training standpoint, as you have to realize that sprinting is possibly the single-most reactive/plyometric training drill there is; we are talking roughly four times body weight in ground reaction forces with each stride – and that’s in single-leg stance.  So, we have somewhat of an injury predisposition, but more important, it comes down to training economy.  They aren’t strong enough (relative to their body weight) to get much out of the sprinting, and would benefit more from strength training, bilateral jumping variations, and single-leg low hops.  However, they need to jump and sprint as part of their profession, so we’ve got to prepare them for that as well.

ellsbury-jump

All that in mind, the problem isn’t traditional strength and conditioning, in my eyes.  It builds a solid base of strength for many athletes and helps to increase body weight, which in itself is a predictive factor for velocity.  However, the shortcomings of this S&C occur when coaches don’t understand how to modify traditional strength and conditioning to suit the needs of the baseball athlete.  And, problems kick in when folks don’t appreciate that even just a little bit of strength goes a long way.

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All the Best,

EC

References

1. Komi, PV. Stretch-shortening cycle. In: Strength and Power in Sport (2nd Ed.) P.V. Komi, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003: 184-202.

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  • Lewis

    Given the recently completed Australian Open, can you talk a bit about conditioning and performance for those of us who play tennis on a regular basis, as well as how your manuals can be utilized for such?

  • http://josh@leegertrained.com Josh

    I agree Eric. There’s a reason that most of the “plyometric” experts recommend 2x body-weight strength capacity in the muscles/movements you’re going to train SSC in.

  • http://bodybydrock.blogspot.com/ D-Rock

    I should think lateral movement would be of primary concern for a tennis player, no? That and rotation of the trunk…

    The torque produced in the upper body of a tennis player while swinging a racket must be extraordinary!


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