You may have read my recent blog on what happens to your body when you undergo a structured S&C routine, today I want to dig a little deeper into another accessible and functional method of boosting your cycling performance, off-the-bike, which is plyometrics.
Covered in this blog:
- What are plyometrics
- What happens to your body when you start plyometrics
- Putting plyometrics in the context of cycling
- Concerns around plyometrics
What are plyometrics
Plyometric exercises are fast paced, movement-based techniques that are designed to increase the bodies reactive power and impact resistance. These are usually simple movements to start, and the complexity increases as the athletes physical ability and coordination improve.
Plyometrics are an important element of any S&C programme, especially for sports that have a high amount of repetitive movement like the knee and hip joints do in cycling.
Typical plyometric exercises may be movements as simple as box jumps (jumping onto a box) or as advanced as plyometric bounds (speed work where the athlete leaps from one foot to another along a certain distance). Plyometrics are more of an advanced movement of strength and conditioning and as such. Can really tire out the human body, therefore I wanted to dig deep into what happens when you complete a plyometric training routine.
What happens to your body when you start plyometrics
Plyometrics are implemented to develop the bodies reactive power. A good way to relate this to cycling would be the ability to instantly get up, out of the saddle and immediately put some serious power down. Imagine you are in a race and trying to bridge the gap between groups, you see that you are a few seconds off the next group and you need to get up and put a burst of power down. This is where plyometrics come in handy as they develop the bodies reactive connection between the CNS (central nervous system) and the muscles.
The term for what happens to the muscle here is known as the stretch shortening cycle. The easy way to describe this is with an elastic band, wrap it around your fingers so it is slack, and then pull it tight. Now, unlike an elastic band which retains its tension. A muscle cannot, it will retain its tension for a second and then begin to lose its ability to rapidly shorten. Essentially you quickly pull back and flick the elastic band.
Putting this movement onto an exercise like the box jump. You start from a standing position and then squat down to initiate the stretch of the quadriceps. You then quickly explode up, rapidly shortening the quadriceps with an explosive, powerful movement that allows you to leap onto a high box.
Putting plyometrics in the context of cycling
You are in the saddle, putting in an effort on the bike that is about 75% of your max. You are riding on a flat stretch of road at a maintainable speed. The road begins to increase, but not by enough that you need a gear change. It flattens out at the top and you want to maintain momentum. You get out of the saddle as you are about to initiate a pedal stroke with your right leg, when you bring your right leg up you are stretching your quadricep muscle and then as you push down, getting out of the saddle you are rapidly extending your knee (and quadricep) to put the most power down you can, this is then repeated on the other leg. And so on.
Completing plyometric work will also place stress on your tendons and ligaments, allowing them to strengthen and be more resilient towards injury from impact or repetitive strain.
When plyometrics are employed from an impact resilience perspective. You will be going against everything you have been taught.
Back when you were in school, you may have be tested by your jump height. They will tell you to land with soft knees to prevent any damage to your joints and connective tissue. However, research also shows that athletes who do this might have weakness in their knees, not to mention bad habits when performing.
Due to the nature of sport and its toll on our bodies plyometric work can (and should) also be developed to condition the body towards the damage we do to our bodies in this process.
Plyometric exercises like landings are employed here. This is where the athlete simply steps off the box and lands with hard knees. Just as you would do in sport. A little compression, but not too much that you are absorbing all the impact. This develops the bodies ability to land and retain force, transferring that force through the ground and into movement. Developing a more agile and strong athlete.
This is where exercises like plyometrics also helps develop the strength of the body’s connective tissue.
Concerns around plyometrics
After considering all of the factors mentioned above, you would be forgiven for thinking that plyometrics are actually a dangerous thing to do. Fortunately, this is not the case. When coached and carried out properly, plyometrics are proven to be effective at both preventing injuries and helping athletes recovering from injuries. Broken bones and connective tissue both recovery well when plyometrics are introduced carefully (in good time). However, due to the fitness industry popularising these movements, they can be seen as class-based exercises. A box jump that you would see in a strength and conditioning session looks a lot different to a box jump you would see in a fitness class. With the former having much more focus on technique, movement, and landing. The coach would have a keen eye on the athletes joint positions as well as how they are moving. Not just how hard they were working.
Before you undertake plyometric work, however, I would recommend that you go into some form of strength training work if you are new to the gym. Plyometrics are an advanced form of exercise and as I have mentioned in this article, they do work your body in different ways to regular lifting. They involve a rapid contraction of the muscle’s and place a great amount of impact on the joints, bones, and connective tissue around the body so. Make sure that your body has the strength, the mobility, and the muscular health (flexibility testing) to handle this.