Updated: Jul 11
Plyometrics are a popular training approach for athletes who need power in their sport. Unlike a football lineman or volleyball player, hikers don’t typically have a need for power. Then why should hikers consider spending any time performing plyometrics?
Plyometric activities, like jumping and hopping, provide a stretch to the muscle before the muscle contracts. Doing this helps the muscle achieve a stronger and more powerful contraction. Power is the amount of work produced over time, and plyometrics help develop that rapid production of strength.
Hikers rarely need to hurtle obstacles or jump like J.J. Watt. However, they often find themselves bounding, leaping, and hopping down mountains, rock fields, and through streams. Descending a steep grade means a hiker is actually in a controlled fall situation. Long steep descents usually also mean tired and sore quads for the next couple of days.
Plyometric activities teach you how to land and require you to decelerate with control – the exact thing you do as you bound down an incline. They train your quads to work while lengthing, known as an eccentric contraction. It's these eccentric contractions that produce the most delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and make those first few steps the next day so tenuous.
Landing from a jump properly also means taking advantage of the natural shock absorbing characteristics of your joints, ligaments, and tendons. Flexed joints more readily absorb impact forces, therefore, landing with your ankles, knees, and hips bent reduces the wear and tear from the trail. Landing with stiff and straight joints, on the other hand, means you’ll feel the impact all the way through your spine to your head – a teeth rattling experience you want to avoid.
When training with plyometrics, start small and increase your jumping height as you build strength and power. Throughout all the exercises, remember to land softly with flexed joints. Here is a plyometric progression to get you starting toward safer and softer landings. As always, check with your physician before starting any exercise program.
Pogo Hops – If you’re just starting out with plyometric activities, try the pogo hop. It’s just like jumping on a pogo stick, only you’re using your good landing form to provide cushion and spring. With feet hip distance apart, keep ankles, knees, and hips flexed and take little hops. These are small movements to get your body used to plyometric exercises. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps and progress reps slowly to give the body time to adjust to the new movement.
Squat Jumps - Start with feet hip distance apart and weight back on the heels. Assume a squat position by hinging at the hips, bending the knees, and keeping the chest up. Explode into a jump and land softly on the balls of the feet lowering back into a squat position. Keep knees facing forward over the toes and avoid letting them collapse inward. Perform 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps, progressing as tolerated.
Lateral hops - Begin with feet close together. Assume a slight bend in the knees, hips, and ankles. Jump laterally to the side as if over a line, landing softly on the balls of your feet. Quickly jump again to the other side, landing in the same flexed position as at the start. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps to each side and progress as tolerated.
Remember, the goal of plyometric exercises for the hiker isn't to build explosive strength, although they will help produce strength gains. Rather, the aim is to train the tissues of the legs to absorb decelerating forces with control and help prevent injury when descending inclines. Integrate these activities slowly into your training routine and let me know how plyometrics worked for you!