Plateau Buster: Add Plyometrics and Stability Training to Your Workouts
By Mike Donavanik CPT, PES
Strength training is great—but is it actually getting you as strong as you could be? For one thing, there's the problem of the plateau; sometimes, changing up weight, repetitions and exercises just won't cut it. Moreover, many strength training programs are all about isolated muscle groups, and no integration. That puts you at risk for injury down the road. By adding plyometric and stability training to your workouts, however, you can build muscle and functional strength all at once.
Plyometrics: Explosive Power
Most traditional strength training—your bench press, for instance—is aimed at asking large muscles to push consistently through set amounts of resistance. To challenge these traditional methods, you want to use different muscles, and move in new ways. Enter plyometrics and stability training: two sides of a single great coin. Plyometric training focuses on building explosive power—it is a version of exercise done at speed, and using the body's own weight as resistance through which you move fast and hard. It's the kind of movement needed for sports—to slam-dunk a basketball, or return a tennis serve.
As such, plyometrics is functional training, making use of the body's natural way of moving to build strength. It places great demands on the body's muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, improving everything from strength and endurance, to power, agility, and coordination. The idea is to train muscles to perform a maximum contraction in the shortest possible time. Often, the contraction is so fast that you can actually move more weight than you would be able to in a standard lifting motion. Through these sudden and powerful movements, you teach your nervous system to fire faster, and at new phases of your muscle contraction, and in so doing you build your functional capabilities of agility and power. This is important even if you don't play a sportᰬplyometrics will help you develop the fast reactions and all-over strength that will help you to prevent injury in the gym and to stay active for longer.
Stability: Controlled Strength
But you can't spend all your time leaping and jumping. The counterpart to plyometric training is stability training. Here you focus on building core strength and on developing supporting muscles—the very muscles you need to help control you as pivot fast on a basketball court, or go to move a sofa. But like plyometrics, stability training has implications for both daily life and your lifting regimen. You are targeting muscles often neglected in traditional strength training, building a foundation that will let you push harder when you return to your usual program. With a stronger core (abs and back both) you will be able to life more weight, have a better center of gravity, and have a better sense of coordination.
Combined, plyometrics and stability training offer a comprehensive method for filling the holes in standard strength training programs, and both types of training will help you get a harder, leaner, and stronger body. And, when you're 90, you'll still be able to play ball with the grandkids (or grandnephews).
The RealJock Plyometrics and Stability Workout
Below you will find a combination plyometric and stability training workout. Before starting this workout make sure you have the proper shoes in order to absorb the impact from landing from a jump. Running shoes are great for running and have a lot of support or cushioning in the heel of the shoe, but they seldom provide support in the balls of the feet, the kind of support that is needed to cushion your impact. You will want to make sure you have a good pair of cross-training shoes. They provide support and cushioning to effectively absorb impact and keep your feet stable.
You will also want to make sure your lower body joints (knees, hips, ankles) are in good shape. Lower body plyometric training uses a lot of jumping exercises. If you have had prior problems with any of your lower extremity joints, use caution before trying this workout routine.
Start with your feet hip-width apart and perform a jumping jack, jumping your feet out and then back together. Follow this by doing a jumping jack such that you land with one foot forward and the other back. Your arms will also be split one forward and one back, but opposing your legs. Jump back to the starting position and repeat the split jack with the opposite foot forward. Once you've returned to the starting position, repeat the entire sequence, beginning again with the standard jumping jack.
Start with feet hip width apart and your hands on the back of your head, with elbows wide. Step forward in a lunge, dropping down through your back knee. From the bottom of your lunge, jump powerfully into the air, switching the orientation of your legs so that you land with the other foot forward, and using your momentum to drop immediately into your lunge again. Continue to alternate without pausing for the entire set.
Stability Ball Push-ups
With a bench behind you, set the ball in front of you. One foot at a time, put your feet on the bench and hands on the ball so you end up in a plank position with arms extended (if you have difficulty balancing, you can take your feet wide). Slowly lower yourself down to the ball keeping your hips and back flat. Before your chest hits the ball, slowly push yourself back up to the starting position. Use your core and supporting muscles to help stabilize the ball while your chest is doing the push-up. For a starter version of this exercise, keep your feet on the floor rather than on the flat-bench.
Jump Triceps Bench Dips
Place two flat benches parallel to each other, leaving approximately the length of your outstretched legs in between them. When estimating the distance between the benches, try to leave just enough room so that you can dip down and engage your triceps without hitting your back on the bench. Sit on the edge of one bench and face the other bench, with your hands at your sides on the bench you're sitting on and your fingers facing the other bench. Scoot your butt forward and place your feet on the opposite bench, with your legs slightly bent. Grip the bench you are sitting on with your fingers. Engage your arms and lift yourself off the bench so that you are being held up by your hands on one bench and the heels of your feet on the other bench. Drop your body down to perform a triceps dip, making sure to keep your hips as close as possible to the bench your hands are resting on. Keep your elbows in throughout the movement. This will help focus the effort on the triceps and will prevent injury to the shoulders. Keep a tall posture through the movement; do not hunch over or drop your head. From the bottom of your motion, push explosively upwards, pressing through your triceps to push yourself off the bench. You should push with enough power that your hands leave the bench briefly at the top of your motion. Land lightly in your hands, with your hips still close to the bench, and immediately lower yourself into the next dip, controlling your downward momentum.
Squat Thrust (aka Burpies)
With your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down as far as you can and place your hands on the ground at shoulder width as if you are about to do a push-up. Kick your feet back into the push-up position in one fluid motion. Immediately lift up your feet and shoot them back towards your hands, landing them back at starting position. Again without pausing, jump up as high as you can in a full jump, then land in the starting position so you are ready for your next rep.
BOSU Tuck Jumps
Stand upright on the round side of a BOSU ball, with your feet hip-width apart and arms straight overhead. Sit your hips back and down in a modified squat. You want to go low enough to help generate thrust through your legs when you push off. Keep your arms overhead. From the squat position, jump straight up into the air, pushing off hard with both legs as you bring your arms down. (If you haven't done this exercise before, start with simple low jumps off the ball without tucks to learn the balance portion of the exercise.) Try to jump as high as you can and achieve a true tuck—at the top of your jump, momentarily grab the fronts of your knees with both hands. As you come back down, untuck your arms and bring them back overheard as you straighten your legs. Land with your knees somewhat bent, sitting into your landing to absorb the shock of the land. Return to a standing position to finish your first tuck jump.
Stand behind a flat bench that is firmly bolted to the floor. Important: Do not do this exercise using a moveable piece of furniture. Place your hands flat on the bench about shoulder-width apart and walk your feet back behind you until you achieve an elevated plank position, with your weight on your toes and hands, your back flat, and your shoulders directly over your hands. Do a standard push-up, bending your elbows to lower your chest to the bench while keeping your back flat and a straight line from the top of your head to your feet. Lower down until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. From the bottom of the push-up, push up with fast and explosive power so that your hands momentarily come entirely off the bench at the top of the push-up. When your hands land back in the starting position, immediately descend into the next push-up. As you push up and descend, engage your core so that your hips never dip below level with your back.
Weighted Stability Ball Crunches
Sit on a stability ball with your feet on the floor in front of you and approximately hip-width apart. Lie back on the stability ball so that your body is supported between the top of your buttocks and your shoulder blades, your abdominals are centered right at the top of the ball, and your head is hanging off the other side of the ball. Take a weight plate in both hands and place it behind your head with your head resting lightly on the plate and your elbows out to the side. From the starting position, engage your core muscles and roll your upper body up until your shoulder blades are off the stability ball and your upper body just breaks the plane of being flat. Your head should still be resting lightly on the weight plate, but the plate should not be pulling your head up—use your arms to support the plate, but your abs to lift your upper body. Reverse the motion and, with your core engaged, lower yourself back to starting position. Again, the weight plate should stay right behind your head.
About Mike Donavanik: Mike is a personal trainer based in the Los Angeles area. Visit him on the web at mikedfitness.com.