In Part 1 of this article, we discussed the importance of enhancing the force absorption abilities of your athletes. We addressed the underpinning mechanisms at hand in this all-important factor that can make or break the success that your athletes will ultimately realize in their movements on the field. In this second installment, we will talk about the further application of training methods geared towards increasing one’s ability to decelerate more efficiently.
Not Covering the Bases
Many times coaches think they are adequately addressing the eccentric components of dynamic tri-phasic muscle action by having their athletes strive to maintain control of the eccentric portion of their core heavy resistance lifts (i.e. slow lowering of a load). But, if we go back to the human movement concept from Part 1, the eccentric muscle contraction and subsequent force absorption that occurs on a football field can take place within a very short period of time (approximately 100-200ms). This time period obviously occurs much more quickly than is typically advocated by coaches during strength and conditioning efforts. Because of this, we must look for other training methods to adequately address the eccentric actions that will occur on the field and then overload these actions in ways that will help enhance their function during football-specific movement tasks.
It has been stated by expert organizations such as the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), that an athlete should be able to squat at least 1.5 times one’s bodyweight before performing eccentric-based movements like plyometrics. However, we must remember that these original strength requirements are based primarily on the extreme loads that the Soviets were overcoming in their training (42+ inch depth jumps, etc). Thus, to overcome loads from those heights, one does have to possess a high level of overall force development capabilities. But, it is my belief that these requirements are a bit over-stated. The sport of football, as already alluded to, is plyometric in nature anyway so if we don’t train for these appropriate loads in a controlled setting, how do we plan to play in an often uncontrolled, chaotic one? Our athletes will be accelerating, decelerating, jumping, and landing during the sport, so it is my point of view that we should train the way we play because we are going to play the way that we have been trained.
In addition, many experts, including myself, often point out the fact that these recommendations are based on a quality of strength (max or limit strength) that is on an opposite end of the power continuum than the quality of strength (dynamic strength or explosive power) that is needed to be proficient in the majority of eccentric-focused exercises. Thus, it seems almost useless to use these tests as ones to determine eccentric-based plyometric readiness. Instead, I would point towards other qualitative variables as determinants of performing more shock-based eccentric work. These variables include such things as posture, balance, stability, and flexibility. It is obvious that these variables are more subjective, less measurable, and take greater coaching awareness but will be more useful during the execution of the movements suggested below. Coaches are encouraged to become very pro-active in the feedback given to athletes in regards to these variables.
Landing is Paramount!
Most athletes train only the taking off portion (concentric action) of movement without working on the capacities to properly absorb (eccentric action) forces in dynamic fashions. However, as I have stated in Part 1, it can be hypothesized that how well one lands, will actually determine how well that same individual will take off. This concept applies in all human dynamic movement including acceleration, jumping, and lateral agility. Thus, we must teach proper landings first for multiple reasons: 1). to ensure restitution of energy during the movement’s eccentric and amortization phases and optimize SSC functionality. 2). to allow for the greatest carryover to the sport. 3). to attain the fundamental base for proper exercise progression.
The pre-landing body position during any ballistic movements described below will help the athlete to maintain posture, balance, and stability after ground contact. This concept is a key in not only the exercises/drills but also in the technique execution on the field. In addition, research has shown that neuromuscular preactivity (i.e. what happens immediately before foot touchdown) will greatly impact what occurs once the foot strikes the ground. An athlete should learn to land on the balls of the feet (front two-thirds of the foot) with the ankle dorsiflexed (so the athlete is not on the toes) and with slight flexion at all major joints involved upon landing. The shoulders, knees, and toes should all be in alignment in this landing position. All of this in combination will allow for the quickest absorption rate, lowest ground contact time, and a more rapid recovery of potential energy which will make a more powerful concentric action more likely.
Specific Types of Exercises
If you accept these theories that a greater emphasis must be placed on improving eccentric strength capabilities, then it’s time to look towards what types of exercises may be best for eliciting this result. Many practitioners have heard of the use of “negatives” during weight training. However, while this method definitely involves eccentric contractions, we must consider the concept of specificity and the attainment of football-applicable characteristics. Negatives involve a very slow lowering and stretching of the muscle, whereas this almost never happens in a football setting. Therefore, to assess the effectiveness of exercise selection, we must resort to exercises that are sport-specific as well as adequately overload the eccentric contraction mechanism to the extent required for our sporting movements. When we look at eccentric training for athletic performance, the purpose is not to necessarily increase eccentric tension and stress, but rather to build-up and utilize as much kinetic energy as we can.
On that note, plyometrics have long been used by coaches as training means to increase the potential/kinetic energy of the body and overload the SSC. These exercises could include various hopping, skipping, bounding, and jumping activities. These exercises can in fact be highly successful in enhancing the elastic-reactive nature of the athlete but only if performed correctly. Unfortunately, many times the coach doesn’t know exactly what plyometric exercise is best to use and they incorporate their plyometrics haphazardly with very little attention being paid to proper progression or even movement execution. Like with any other training tactics, plyometrics should be prescribed with a purpose.
At times, athletes who have experience with plyometrics, heavy resistance training, or explosive ballistic training, may possess above-average levels of both eccentric and concentric strength yet still display subpar proficiency levels when it comes to truly stop on a dime. This is because the athlete may lack isometric strength capabilities to absorb ever-increasing levels of eccentric speeds. To top this off, isometric strength is very rarely addressed in most football strength and conditioning plans. Depending on the time of the year, approximately 10-15% of the overall training volume will come from some form of isometric work such as pure ISOs (i.e. wall sits or holds in a rack) or dynamic ISOs (i.e. squats with a hold at a predetermined position in the range).
Specific Deceleration Work
Often times, athletes have been taught how to run in a linear fashion (i.e. straight-line) both in regards to acceleration and top-end speed. However, little focus is usually devoted how to efficiently and rapidly stop one’s mass once moving. Utilizing the stopping technique and body position that I advocated in Part 1, try incorporating more all-out acceleration-based sprints including an explosive stop at the end of the sprint. It’s intuitively obvious that the longer distance that you have the athlete accelerate to, the harder it will be to stop. Make sure that your players are utilizing a speed that he can control in the landing and then continually progress in greater intensity levels (speed & distance) while attempting to close the braking window. Cueing your athletes on the importance of learning to stop on a dime will help control the forces commonly found during these activities, improve performance and efficiency, and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Most people train only the taking off portion of an explosive movement without developing the capabilities for absorbing and stabilizing the negative forces to begin with. Thus, these athletes aren’t able to develop force in the appropriate amount of ground contact time or without having to flex excessively at the joints. Therefore, there is an exercise that we can use to develop such capacities; the altitude drop (sometimes referred to as altitude shocks or landings). In the altitude drop an athlete stands on an appropriate box height, steps off the box, and attempts to stick the landing (which refers to an athlete striving to immediately break the downward movement as soon as the feet hit the ground). This will allow the muscle and tendon to store greater amounts of elastic energy. If done correctly, there should be a slight, involuntary, and reflexive bounce after impact. The most important objective in this exercise is to assume a joint position upon landing that is as close as possible to that of one’s appropriate sport action position. Essentially this exercise works to break the fall and absorb this energy and by doing so, one can greatly increase the body’s ability to stabilize the forces being imposed upon it.
The height of the drop should be regulated first based on the preparation level of the athlete but a good place to start is the height of an athlete’s counter-movement vertical jump (as long as an athlete does possess a sufficient training background). However, if the athlete is not effectively sticking the landing efficiently (the heels should not touch the ground), then the box height should be reduced to a height that enables one to absorb the most amount of energy without faltering. The coach can also require the athlete to hold the landing position for 3-5 seconds in order to bring in an isometric position and really concentrate on the ability to stabilize the negative forces from the landing. In addition, this exercise can be done in a unilateral fashion for greater emphasis on the support phase in maximum speed or into a lunge position to require further overload. Because of the nature of the exercise, sets should stay be in the 2-4 range with reps between 6-10 and long rest periods of 4-6 minutes.
Depth jumps was one of the original exercises (along with altitude drops) developed by Dr. Verkhoshansky as a shock method to develop the reactive ability/strength in athletes. Verkhoshansky believed that this exercise could truly bridge the gap between strength and speed. Depth jumps are done by executing the first part of an altitude drop but then immediately jumping up as high as possible after landing. It should be noted that depth jumps should never be done in training if when executing a depth jump (off of any height) the athlete cannot jump and reach a height higher than his countermovement vertical jump. Again, like in the altitude drop, one should strive to land in a position that is as specific as possible in order to ensure carryover to the field. The key to ensuring the effectiveness of depth jumps is keeping the amortization phase (measured through ground contact time) short enough to avoid losing the elastic energy produced during the stretching, but long enough to be at the appropriate time frame as found on the field. Thus, it is very important that the athlete find the correct execution in the most natural way and that the athlete doesn’t think about it during the performance of a rep. The height should be regulated based on the training goal.
According to Verkhoshansky, the use of depth jumps can be for the attainment of two separate specific strength qualities; lower drop heights can be used to develop the reactive capacities of the body and it doesn’t depend on strength of the athlete. In contrast, higher drop heights can be used for maximal explosive effort. However, the degree of effectiveness with this style will depend on the muscular strength of the athlete. It is important to recognize that they are not training means with different training potential, but rather means with different training emphasis. Thus, it is essential for us, as coaches, to get it out of our heads that higher box height means more results as this is simply not the case (and this mindset can result in injury in our athletes). Before increasing box heights, we should strive to reduce ground contact time, increase movement speed/acceleration, and increase the height of the jump after landing. In addition, to make this exercise more specific to football performance, we can substitute a horizontal takeoff after landing rather than a vertical one. The program design variables should be similar to that of the Altitude Drop but with slightly longer rest periods (5-8 minutes) because of the explosive rebound after absorption. This movement characteristic will require greater nervous system recovery (which frequently takes 2-3 times longer than the muscular system to recover).
Many of you may have your athletes now utilizing bands in their training such as attaching bands to the ends of a bar and underneath the rack while completing a squat or bench press. Unfortunately, many football strength & conditioning coaches are using bands while emphasizing the wrong things during the exercise execution. Most utilize bands as a means of teaching an athlete to accelerate throughout the entire range of motion on the concentric portion of lifts (analogous to what occurs with the triple extension phase of movement). In contrast, traditional strength training may actually inhibit this action as most forms of this type of training require the body to decelerate during concentric force application (which is opposite of what occurs during the triple extension phase). Thus, this benefit is definitely a valid one.
However, the real advantage of utilizing bands in training is how it will change exercise execution during the eccentric portion of a lift. Just like with a dynamic movement, the faster you stretch the muscle-tendon complex (like when you lower your body prior to a counter-movement jump) the more kinetic energy you produce and the faster you will go back up (or forward) and increase power production. In addition, like with depth jumps, we are looking for a short amortization/transition time between eccentric and concentric movements here, as well. Using bands will have a positive effect because the bands will actually pull the bar down quicker than if just gravity was acting on it. Because of this reason, the athlete should not attempt to utilize bands in training until he has properly displayed sufficient dynamic strength to handle greater eccentric velocities and the absorption that goes with that otherwise the concentric action could actually be hampered due to lack of stability in the bottom position.
Like negatives, accentuated eccentrics (AE) involve the intentional, controlled acceleration of the eccentric phase of a movement. However, unlike negatives, in AE, the load being resisted in the eccentric phase is greater than that being overcame during the concentric phase (i.e. the use of weight releasers or an athlete having a spotter assisting the concentric portion). This generates a large amount of force and also activates the stretch reflex. Research has demonstrated that an accentuated eccentric load can increase the maximum power developed in the concentric phase of the movement in comparison to the more typical training condition where the load lifted in the eccentric and concentric phase are equal. Studies have also demonstrated that using accentuated eccentrics evokes changes in jumping height and other important jump performance variables such as force, velocity, and power. AE methods are great to utilize for relative newcomers to eccentric efforts because most athletes can theoretically handle greater loads on an eccentric lengthening action to begin with in comparison to concentric shortening.
Even though the methods mentioned above have a very powerful training effect, it is counter-intuitive to perform this type of training too frequently throughout the year. The methods (shock methods in particular) should be used in short blocks of 3-4 weeks at a time with the same amount of time in between these blocks away from the exercises. In addition, some coaches and researchers recommend no more than 2-3 such blocks each year. Thus, it can be hypothesized and suggested that the blocks should be used when a rapid rise in power and reactive ability is required based on the sports season. It should also be stated that every training method will lose its effectiveness if used too much. All too often, because these methods are highly effective, practitioners will attempt to squeeze them into the overall training plan more often than is optimal.
Another problem is that coaches do not sometimes necessarily feel as though some of these methods are very tiring compared to other means of training so they often end up prescribing too great of volume throughout the training plan. However, because these methods involve a considerable amount of neuromuscular contribution, a different type of fatigue often becomes the reality for the athlete, and the whole body has a harder time actually recovering from it. Therefore, careful consideration should take place (but not necessarily completed avoided) if eccentric-focused work is prescribed in-season.
With all eccentric-based methods, individualization of the exercise prescription as well as the program design variables is of utmost importance. Never attempt to jump ahead to more intense forms (especially loads to overcome) of eccentric exercises unless you are sure the athlete is physically prepared for it. That said exercises like the Altitude Drop can be used for nearly all of your athletes as long the athlete has a sufficient physical preparation base, sound biomechanical principles are coached, and the load is personalized to the athlete.
It must be emphasized that eccentric-focused work (depending on the means selected) can be an extremely intense form of training and should only be incorporated when proper progressions have been satisfied. As stated earlier, these exercises place a high amount of stress on the entire body including the muscles of the legs and joints at the hips, ankles, and knees. If done incorrectly, even the feet and backs of athletes can be put at risk. Thus, if the methods are used without proper progression or if used too frequently, the risks of this type of training can definitely outweigh any potential for performance improvement.
However, when proper progressions and sound guidelines have been adhered to, eccentric-focused work has been shown to be an effective method for improving change of direction ability, increasing power development, and reducing injury. Nonetheless, the athletes must be closely monitored and coached while incorporating these very intense methods. In addition, all athletes should be taught how to most effectively decelerate their bodies at all movement speeds and in all functional planes of motion. If not, the athlete will be inadequately prepared to truly control their bodies during the high velocity movement actions that are indicative of the game.
The second part of this article attempted to offer suggestions as to direct methods to utilize for the enhancement of force absorption in the training and development of your football athletes. The author implores football coaches and strength & conditioning specialists to take this knowledge and expand it to not only include the exercises that they are performing in the weight room and the field, but also to all of the movements that are specific to the sport of football.
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Radcliffe, J, and Farentinos, R. High Powered Plyometrics. Human Kinetics, 1999.
Siff & Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2009.