Tag Archives: Training

A Breakdown of Balance Training

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Benefits of Balance Training
III. How Balance Works
IV. Balance Training and the Athlete
V. What Balance Training Will NOT Do
VI. Training Methods
VII. Summary



Introduction/ To the top

The human body is a rather tall assembly of bones and soft tissue that stands erect and tall on a relatively small base.  Gravity and the environment are consistently pulling the erect body downwards and in all sorts of other directions yet our bodies manage to stay upright.  Despite the fact that standing on our own two feet can be “simple” there has been an influx of all sorts of balance training methodologies that can be useless at their best, or dangerous at their worst.  It is my opinion that balance training, in one form or another, should be part of everyone’s program – particularly those that prefer bodyweight-only training (or misguidedly favor machines as opposed to free weights).  This article will address why balance training is important (both upright and inverted), how our bodies balance themselves, and some tips on how to train balance effectively.



Benefits of Balance Training/ To the top

Since few people aside from gymnasts and traceurs incorporate regular balance training into their program, there should probably be a major case that is made for why people should even bother.

There are loads of studies that explore balance training and most of them are in the elderly.  Why?  Because the elderly are highly likely to experience a fall that will break a hip.  The danger is that about 24% of people over 50 years of age die within 12 months after a hip fracture.  This should be particularly alarming to women who are more likely to break a hip due to post-menopausal dips in estrogens that cause osteoporosis.  In fact, post-menopausal women have about a 15% chance of breaking their hip in their life time.  That risk is easily mitigated by spending short periods of time performing balancing training – even if you don’t start until you are over 70, do simple drills and only balance train for 9 weeks.  Other studies show similar results – in fact one can balance like other adults who are 3-10 years younger with Tai Chi training.  If you found this site, it is more likely that you are an athlete looking for ways to avoid injury or improve performance as opposed to an elderly woman in an assisted living home. So, while these studies are interesting and highlight the need for good balance – we would likely want to shift our focus to those studies that show the relationship between balance, training, prehab and longevity (aside from avoiding a hip fracture).

If you have been through rehab for a lower limb you may have been subjected to balance training.  The rehabilitation environment is one where balance training was first introduced because of studies like this one.  This study, along with several others, suggests balance training to be an effective means of improving proprioception in those with an impaired joint (in this case the ankle).  But what if you haven’t suffered a lower limb injury?  Are there still benefits to balance training?  The research suggests that this may be the case.

When it comes to injury prevention, there are some compelling studies that suggest balance training can ward off injury.  Most of the work in this area has been done on the lower limb.  For example, one study shows that healthy young soccer players can improve their proprioception and prevent lower limb injuries by incorporating specific lower limb balance training into their program.  Another study on soccer players looks specifically at the incidence of ACL injuries.  The findings show that proprioceptive/balance training using wobble-boards can significantly reduce the incidence of ACL injuries in soccer players.  Another wobble board study showed similar results where adolescents added balance training into their program for only 6 weeks. Another study included balance training with plyometic training and it showed an overall reduction in the extremity of valgus measures on the knee joint.  If you have read our article by Steve Low on the drawbacks of shoes and sitting regularly, then you would know that increased valgus stress should be avoided to minimize injury and maximize performance.  If you haven’t read that article, then you may want to click onto it here: Shoes, Sitting and Lower Body Dysfunctions..

There is also data to suggest that balance training will reduce the chance of relapse in addition to reducing the chance of an initial injury.  For example, in this study researchers were examining the ankle.  From these results, there is a lesser incidence of recurring ankle sprains if the athlete (soccer or basketball, in this case) undergoes a balance training program.

Finally, there are also some studies that suggest that balance training is an effective means of making strength gains.  While I am sure these strength gains are mostly limited to novices, I am still sure that balance training is worthwhile for maintenance programs.  This study and this study both show that strength and performance gains have been made by participants using programs that take advantage of balance training.  Considering that higher level and novice athletes should utilize lighter days in their programs, making balance training a key part of these “light days” may actually help to accelerate strength gains.

Something to notice is that none of the aforementioned studies look at inverted balance (i.e. handstands) at all.  These studies are extremely hard to come by and I am assuming that is because hand balancing is just regaining steam among performance athletes.  I am confident that similar studies that examine rehabilitation rates and injury prevention in those that take part in hand balancing would yield similar results since the same mechanisms are at work – just on a different set of joints (the wrist, elbows and shoulders as opposed to hips, knees and ankles).

One side note that I would like to make is that there are LOADS of studies that go into how balance training on a Bosu Ball, wobble board, etc. lead to increased muscle activation.  That is, muscle activation increases during some movement when you do it on an uneven surface.  These studies gave way to the hoards of trainees standing on Bosu and Swiss balls while doing things like squats and curls.  For the performance athlete, it’s not really necessary to worry about muscle activation at all.  Doing focused training for increased activation will not benefit too much in terms of performance and will likely take time away from other more useful applications of balance and strength training.  With that said, muscle activation isn’t really the focus of this article and it shouldn’t be the focus of a balance training program since it really doesn’t matter all that much in the context of performance gains.  The only exception to this would be when some muscle has been identified as a “weak link” and increased muscle activation is required to overcome a plateau or correct pathologies.

In summary, the main proven benefits of balance training, aside from actually being able to balance on narrow objects and unstable surfaces,  include injury prevention, rehabilitation, strength increases and increased muscle activation.  The fact that we can achieve these ends while working on the functional task of traversing narrow/unstable surfaces and on standing on our hands is compelling enough to include regular balance training into one’s routine for GPP and performance gains.  Aside from that, balance training is just plain fun.



How Balance Works/ To the top

Human balance is actually a pretty remarkable feat.  The average male stands about 70 inches tall whilst standing on a base that averages out to be about 10-12 inches long and 3-4 inches wide.  Balancing objects to stand that tall while on that small of a base is incredibly difficult.  As our bodies move through space, muscles up and down the entirety of the kinetic chain are constant reacting to hold our body upright – and most of the time this is a completely involuntary process.   So, how do our bodies make it all happen?

There is a popular text on the subject written by Dr. Nashner called Pracitcal biomechanics and physiology of balance taken from his book, Handbook of Balance Function and Testing.  If you are interested in the full text from the book, you can find a digital copy here.  The gist of it is that our bodies sense the position of the body in relation to gravity and the surroundings.  To do this, the body utilizes three sensory inputs:

  • Visual input – optical input from the eyes.
  • Vestibular input – input from the vestibules in the inner ear caused by fluid moving around.
  • Somatosensory input – input from the sense organs on muscles and tendons.

Visual input contains information from about the overall state of our surroundings.  Vestibular input contains information about where and how our bodies (actually, our heads) are moving in space.  Somatosensory input contains information about how our muscles are reacting to our environment.

Without getting too boring here, these three inputs are the basis of all balance and we balance the best when all three of these are working well together.  However, we can rely on any one of these inputs and our balance will remain intact – just diminished.  The real trouble with poor balance is when we inappropriately depend on a sense that is “fooling” us as opposed to a sense that is more reliable.  This intersensory conflict can cause sickness or balance loss.  For example, when you are sea sick you are relying on your sense on vision for balance when you should be relying on your somatosensory perception – that is why staring at a fixed image in the horizon will reduce the sea/motion sickness symptoms.  Similarly, when you are having a tough time balancing on a narrow ledge, fixing your eyes on a fixed object in space will stabilize the rest of the system as it forces the somatosensory or vestibular systems to controlling balance for us.  So, if you take nothing else from this article, just remember that poor balance can be acutely cured by fixing your vision on a stationary object so that the other two systems can do their job.

So, in short, balance works by taking these three systems and integrates their information to bring the center of gravity (COG) back to a stable or balanced position when balance is disturbed.  Training our balance allows the body’s automatic responses to learn how to adjust to these disturbances.  Beginning slackliners, for example, have a major shake on the line but that goes away as the brain learns to integrate new somatosensory information from the lower limbs.  The adjustment is specific to the stimulus (training on rings is different than a slackline is different than a solid rail is different than a bosu ball) so we need to train balance in the most applicable of ways. (This means that the BOSU ball is useless, by the way, since we rarely balance in a static place on an unstable semispherical surface).

With that said, if we want to improve our balance and get all of the benefits that were stated in the first section, then we typically want to train all three of these systems in harmony as well as independently.  For example, you may be balancing on a narrow ledge and are having difficulty – so you fix your eyes in place and keep your head in a static position.  This will reduce vestibular processing and visual processing and will train your somatosensory mechanisms to respond adequately to control balance.  As your somatosensory system becomes proficient at balance (that is, you balance easily with a fixed head and fixed eyes) then you may want to try balancing with a fixed head and moving gaze.  This will introduce more intense visual processing into the mix which will train the visual and somatosensory systems to work in harmony.  As this gets easier, you may close your eyes so that the two remaining systems have to pick up the slack or you can start moving your head/neck/body position so that you are training all three systems in concert.  These are all respected mechanisms for increasing the difficulty of balancing.

Here are some other tidbits/factoids on balance and how it works that you may want to spout out at your next dinner party:

  • Males demonstrated greater sway (difficulty balancing) than females
  • One leg increases postural sway (difficulty balancing) by roughly 800%
  • Blindfolding increases postural sway up to 300%
  • Age tends to degrade balance
    • This is due to degradations in feedback from all three systems.
    • Broken hips in the elderly lead to increased incidence of death and are caused by balance degradation.
    • Significant correlations were found between age and length of sway path for one-leg standing (larger sway indicates degraded balance).
    • Youngest groups in studies demonstrate the largest area of stability over which weight could be shifted and controlled.  The oldest group demonstrated the smallest area.  That means you can’t deal with disturbances better in old age!
    • One-leg balance scores are an important predictor of injurious falls in older persons.
  • Vision plays a small/non-existant roll in balance control in children up until the age of 7.
    • This is possibly useful if you plan on coaching children.


Balance training and the Athlete/ To the top

Now, as athletes we usually have enough on our plates.  In addition to our S&C program of choice as well as sport specific training, what exactly is the benefit on balance training?  Well, for the older folks it’s clear that balancing and redeveloping proper balance can add years onto lifespan just because once you break a hip the recovery alone can be fatal.  However, for people who are training in sport, there are stark benefits to training balance aside from strengthening our sense for old age.

Firstly, at any age, poor balance leaves us prone to injury.  Recognizing this, recent trends in the diagnosis and rehabilitation of athletic injuries have been placing more and more weight on balance deficiencies.  Among other things, studies are indicating that balance training can enhance dynamic balance ability for up to one year after training with minimal maintenance training.  Other studies, such as this one, are showing that cohorts are using balance measurements to predict injury susceptibility.  For those who have had previous injuries, this is proving worthwhiles – for others, its proving not to work so well.  The point is that clinicians are starting to look at balance as a method for predicting and controlling injuries in athletes and in some cases its working very well.  Aside from injury prevention, some early studies in the matter are also showing that mixing balance with other methods of training can be effective at improving measures of neuromuscular power and control.  To put it more simply, this study shows that a combination of plyometrics and balance training may maximize the effectiveness of training in a group of female athletes.



What Balance Training will NOT Do/ To the top

Up until this point, I have been pushing balance training and its benefits pretty hard.  It is worthwhile to take a minute, step back, and look at what balance training will NOT do just so that we can avoid any confusion.

Firstly, balance training may alleviate symptoms or reduce risks but it won’t fix underlying problems in some cases.  For example, if your mother is suffering from osteoporosis she is very susceptible to breaking a hip.  Balance training will help her to avoid the fall but it won’t magically make her bone density increase.  On the plus side, for certain balance deficiencies, specific balance training can be worthwhile as a therapy that does act on the root of the problem

Secondly, studies suggest that balance training may fix some of the balance deficiencies that correlate well with injury rates.  This does NOT imply that balance training will actually avoid injury – it just fixes the markers that are currently being used as correlates.  Compare this to cholesterol.  Cholesterol is NOT the cause of cardiovascular disease but it is used as a correlate for disease.  Fixing the cholesterol problem does not fix the underlying problems such as high stress, high inflammation and inactivity.

Also, certain balance problems originate from problems in the nerve signals such as those from the optic nerve, vestibular systems and muscles.  Balance training may help to increase balance to compensate for these problems (as the two other systems may be able to compensate for the deficiency) but the actual nervous system problems themselves will not be fixed by balance training.

The last point in this vein that I would like to mention relates to Mile Head Injury (MHI).  A few studies point to the fact that MHI can impair balance for a day or two and balance training will not fix these problems during that time.  Additionally, it can be dangerous to engage in balance training in the two days following a mild head injury.  After a hit to the head, it is best to stay off the slackline and high ledges.  Balance will be impaired and it is best to steer clear of balance training at that time.



Training Methods/ To the top

There is no shortage of training methods to improve balance.  For some reason though, very few of these methods have been well represented in peer reviewed studies. In peer reviewed journals, the most represented forms of balance training include the BOSU ball and the balance board – both of which are suboptimal balance training methodologies.  Why are they suboptimal?  The first rule of S&C for any sort of skill enhancement is that the movement should be as close as possible to the target skill.  For general preparedness and sport’s sake, the BOSU ball and balance board are novel and dissimilar to most practical movements.  Other methods of training are rarely inspected for balance work but there is more than enough reason to believe that training in these less-researched methods will be just as beneficial (if not more beneficial due to their similarity to real world and sport related movements).  Below is a short list on the different types of training methods that exist for balance training and even though they aren’t studied directly, there are some interesting studies that are quite relevant when we think about them with respect to balance training.

Slackline

Slacklining is my preferred method of balance training.  Anecdotally, I have seen a lot of people improve greatly in balance on rails, balance beams, ledges and slacklines in as little as 1 week of consistent practice.  After 4-5 one hour sessions with a partner, it is not uncommon to be able to walk on the slackline which, in my experience, has a very solid translation to all other situations in which balance is needed.  Slacklining is not only easy to learn with a partner, but it is also a lot of fun.  Setting up the line takes only a few minutes but it draws a lot of attention.  In the park when I would train slacklining alone in Colorado, I would often convince a passer-by to get on the line with my assistance which would make for an interesting afternoon.

The basis of slacklining is to set up a strong nylon webbing between two trees or posts.  The webbing is held onto the endposts/trees by either a ratchet or carabineer setup.  I prefer ratchet setups when I am alone since they are quicker and easier to set up – though carabineers don’t require much re-tightening and readjusting. Once the line is established, you either step up onto the line (or jump on if you are a bit more advanced) and train various skill.  The line is an unstable surface which requires the somatosensory portion of the brain to adjust substantially.  The initial adjustment can take as little as 5 minutes or as much as a week of consistent practice depending on the individual.  Some drills that can be performed on the slackline include walking backwards, forwards, sideways, kneeling, pistols, squats, turning, pivoting, jumping, line surfing, line bouncing.  Each of these can be done with a moving head, moving gaze, closed eyes or eyes behind the back which will cause conflicting signals from the vestibular, somatosensory and visual components of balance.  In short, these modifications will make balancing harder and will make you a better at balance.

If you were only able to choose one type of balance training, then I would certainly go with slacklining for an hour a week, or so, since it has a high degree of translation to other balance applications and the real world.  It also fun and makes for a fun activity to do in leisure time with friends and family.

Rail Balance

Rail balance is very similar to slacklining.  The only difference is that rail balancing does not require you to purchase a line and the balancing surface generally doesn’t move.  Rail balance is one of the most practical methods of training balance since finding a rail to stand on is relatively easy (so long as there are buildings around).  The techniques that can be trained on rail balancing are the exact same as slacklining so reread that section if you need some ideas.  A good balance program would mix rail balancing with slacklining – but performing rail balance does not have a great translation over to slacklining, in my experience.

Weightlifting

Weightlifting doesn’t really get enough credit for aiding in balance.  It doesn’t get enough credit for anything, really.  In general, even if you only do isolation exercises, strength correlates to balance in at least some populations (like this study that examined strength-trained women or the study linked earlier in this sentence).  That means, even if you only do isolation exercises on the major muscles of the lower limb, you may see an increase in your balance.  Just for good measure, this link points to another study where back extensor isolations helped with balance – but in a different way than direct balance training.  Strength training through isolations helped to increase postural control by increasing the fast compensatory responses that are necessary to maintain balance after it has been disturbed.  Standard balance training increased balanced by reducing variance (or sway) overall.  This is important evidence that suggests that strength training is a great compliment to standard balance training.  And these studies just looked at isolations!  I speculate that the highly coordinated and variable nature of the core lifts (squat and deadlift) along with the Olympic lifts (Snatch, Clean, Jerk) all provide a much better means of increasing balance through strength training.  If you are reading this site it is likely you already incorporate at least some or all of these lifts into your program and these studies really drive home that there is no replacement for these exercises – but they should be done in conjunction with standard balance work on a slackline, beam or rail.  Standard balance training cannot replace the benefits of strength training.  The converse is also true.

Hand Balancing

If you know anything about me at all it’s that I love handstands.  Handstands all the time, everywhere.  Personally, I feel like doing a handstand is one of the most fun acts that I can do anywhere, anytime.  Most balance training targets mostly the lower body and few people aside from gymnasts, crossfitters and traceurs even touch on handstands anymore.  That may be the reason why handstands are understudied and basically ignored by most peer reviewed journals.

Luckily, I managed to dig up some studies that have some good implications regarding upper body balance training and their effects on health and performance.  To put it into perspective, lower body balance surely helps with walking and avoiding a fall but upper body balance should have similar benefits.  The bad news is that performing upper body balance training (in my experience and this study) has little to no translation to balance performance.  The same is true that lower body balance training has little to no translation to inverted balance (that is, handstands).  However, postural regulation when inverted appears to be regulated in the same way as when we are standing on our feet – all three systems play a part.  So, what does this mean?  If we want to have the most stability and control over our bodies, we need to train balance on our feet and on our hands (handstands and rings).

When it comes to handstands, I am not going to go over the basics of how to get started and learn how to balance.  You can find some great resources on how to work on handstands either at BeastSkills, Drills and Skills or Gymnastics Bodies.  Rather, I want to delve deeper into the intricacies of handstands and some things that are overlooked by beginners that relate back to the topics in this article.

Balance, overall, is a closed kinetic chain movement.  For people who are unfamiliar with this term, it basically means that you are performing the movement with your body in contact with the ground such that you act on the ground to move a weight rather than acting on the weight itself.  A deadlift is a closed kinetic chain movement whereas a leg extension is not, for example.  In closed kinetic chain movements, each segment of the chain transmits forces to every other segment along the chain.  Each segment’s motions are influenced by forces transmitted from other segments.  In plain English, each part of your body will influence another part of your body so it is important that form is perfect.  Most new handstanders ignore most of their chain and this is why you see lots of beginners flailing their legs and/or getting a “banana back”.  This leads to balance impairments due to a lack of consciousness of the entire chain.  Recall that balance contains three components which include somatosensory input.  By forcing the muscles to learn how to balance while receiving this wacked out input from the muscles while legs are flailing in the air is entrenching horrible habits and the benefits of balance training may not be as great. This was just a very longwinded way of saying to train your handstands with good form or your brain may not be able to be reprogrammed so easily!

Another point goes to head position.  For some reason, some people still think that your head should be in a neutral position while doing handstands.  As we know from the previous sections of this article, vision and head position are a main component of balance – so head position is much more important than most people will lead you to believe. This study shows that having the head tilted WAY far back or in a slightly bent-back position was far more stable than keeping the head neutral or ventroflexed (looking at the feet).  With this in mind, beginners should keep head position very slightly tilted with the goal of progressing to competence with ALL head positions, noting that looking at the feet is the most unstable of all positions that have been studied.

One final point for coaches – touch your trainee’s thighs!  As we saw in our previous sections, the three systems that control balance don’t necessarily need to work in concert – they just happen to work in concert better than when they work alone.  Touching the thighs enhances the somatosensory perception of inverted trainees.  This also means that it can compensate for losses of vision such as closed eyes or for altered head positions.  If there is a novice struggling with handstands or an advanced student struggling with a new handstand variation, touching the thighs will help in getting new skills more quickly.

Aside from handstands, most of these facts apply directly to other upper body gymnastics skills.  The elbow levers and planche progression are also phenomenal tools to work on upper limb balance techniques.  Additionally, any sort of rings training in a support position such as dips, support, L-sits, iron cross, etc. will contribute to the stability in the shoulder girdle that will help drastically with upper body balancing skills.

Balance Board

As stated earlier, the balance board is a classic in peer reviewed articles.  Why?  I don’t really know.  Balance boarding has no significant translation to any sort of practical movement that I can discern.  Balance boarding, practically, is extremely boring.  The only thing worth mentioning on the balance board is that people who snowboard tend to pick up balance boarding very easily…though I have yet to see someone proficient on a balance board translate that to snowboarding skill.  The balance board still provides a lot of researchers with a tool to work with and some data that is compelling regarding balance.  Personally, though, I think you can save your money on a balance board and start walking on rails and slacklines.

BOSU Balls

When people mention balance training, the BOSU Ball is typically the first thing that comes to mind.  This is probably because the BOSU ball has been a great tool for researchers performing studies.  Researchers can easily get a BOSU ball to use in their studies as they are cheap and readily available.  The BOSU balls provide an unstable surface that is highly controlled.  People on the BOSU ball appear to be consciously balancing for long periods of time which lends itself to easy data collection.  This is one of the main reasons EMG (muscle activity) studies are done on the BOSU ball…it’s easy as hell to do!

Studies that have been conducted using BOSU balls appear to be very compelling until we look a bit deeper.  One study, for example, shows that performing exercises such as pushups on a BOSU or swiss ball increases EMG activity.  That sounds great, right?  Well, as performance athletes, we don’t really care about muscle activating muscles in this way.  The instability of the BOSU ball is making muscles work harder to control themselves under the BOSU ball.  When you remove the BOSU ball, the muscles still act with increased activity that is not necessary because they have been conditioned to do so.  This might sound good, but it ingrains motor patters that are not desirable.  In fact, BOSU ball training may decrease sport applicable performance due to improper activation and conditioning – the increased EMG activity may actually hurt performance!

That aside, this is all a moot point since studies indicates that advanced athletes benefit very little from BOSU ball training.  That means if you train hard with heavy weights, then the BOSU balls won’t do much for you once you pass the novice phase – so why do two things instead of just one?!  Stick to heavy weights and leave the BOSU ball on the shelf.

I know what some of you may be thinking.  Why not do the heavy weights ON the BOSU ball, just to cover all of your bases!  Well, firstly, that’s idiotic.  No one should have any significantly stressful amount of weight loaded onto the body or in their hands when they are performing on an unstable surface.  That is a great way to get yourself or someone else hurt or killed.  Secondly, if you read the first part of this section, you would see that increasing muscle activity while weighted can actually hurt your performance.  Just to make sure I say it again –  keep the BOSU ball on the shelf.



Summary/ To the top

Well, in summary, balance training is often ignored when it should be an integral part of a trainees program.  Most of the people reading this article should already recognize the benefits of the core lifts and lifting heavy and this actually covers most of your bases in terms of bringing balancing skills up to par – at least the clinical par.  For performance, I believe that specific balance training (of at least 1 hour a week, in a casual setting) should be implemented to make the most progress in balance training.  If you are a traceur, this training is absolutely necessary for your sport.  If you are looking for general preparedness, then it is necessary for your active lifestyle where you may need to balance across a river or narrow ledge sometime during one of your misadventures.  If you are a competitive athlete then it is probably less necessary to go out of your way to balance train for your sport even though there is some evidence supporting that it will maximize performance.  Rather, as an athlete, it may be worthwhile to investigate balancing as a hobby that way you get the training in on your “off time” out of the gym.  Keeping training fun is half the battle of being competitive and sticking with it – and balance training can be a blast.

Note: Most of the studies cited in this article are linked as they are cited.  However, many studies were cited based off of the terrific article on balance titled Research and Clinical Applications of Assessing Balance.  If you would like further reading then this article is a great place to start.

A Primer on Plyometrics

Introduction
Plyometric Basics
Lower Extremity Plyometrics
Upper Extremity Plyometrics
Programming
Conclusion

Introduction

To the top
Plyometric exercises are an extremely effective method of training the body for explosive power.  Many trainees will use plyometrics to increase jumping efficacy, but these techniques can be applied to increase explosiveness in upper body movements, as well.  The benefits of incorporating plyometric exercise are touted for most sports, particularly skiing, jumping sports (e.g. basketball, volleyball), and track and field.  The application of increased power and explosiveness in my discipline of choice, parkour, should be very apparent as jumping and explosive pushing dominate most of parkour’s dynamic movements.

There is a need for clarification, however, on how to properly incorporate plyometrics into one’s workout routine.  This need exists because, in my experience, when plyometrics are recommended to most trainees there are usually a lot of questions that follow.  What are plyometrics?  How do they work?  How do I effectively make them part of my exercise routine?

None of the information in this article is new but the content has been laid out to make understanding and applying this information much easier.  By the end of this article, you should be very familiar with the concepts of plyometric training and how they can be applied to a variety of movements in a comprehensive training program.

Before reading further, do understand that some of the recommendations I make may not be consistent with information found elsewhere.  Some sources claim that lower extremity plyometrics should be avoided until the trainee can squat 150% of their bodyweight.  I think that is a bit excessive since most people can still get a major benefit of low-impact plyometrics while having no experience with the squat.  More specifically, the NSCA recommends that one be able to perform a 60% bodyweight squat before starting a program involving lower extremity plyometrics (1).  This is a modest recommendation with which I would be in agreement.

It is quite common that most trainees cannot or will not train weighted squats due to lack of proper instruction or equipment.  I would suggest that if one has little or no experience with the squat and/or cannot squat at least 60% of their body weight then all plyometrics should be kept low impact, at most.  In addition, use your head and validate your sources (i.e., this article) with other sources that are available.

Plyometric Basics

To the top
Plyometric exercises take advantage of a muscle’s natural tendency to want to shorten after being stretched.  This is a powerful phenomenon known as the stretch-shorten cycle or the stretch-shorten reflex. There are a couple of important properties of skeletal muscles that make this possible.

Firstly, muscles have elastic properties that make them like springs.  If you take a muscle (such as a piece of chicken, for example) and pull on it gently, it will return back to its original shape.  The more forceful the pull, the more quickly the muscle will snap back to its original shape.  Muscles in the human body act in the same way. Plyometrics look to harness the lengthening of the muscle and synchronize the resulting “snap-back” with actual muscle contractions that make the shortening of the muscle faster and more forceful.  This results in a stronger push and a higher jump.

Secondly, the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is constantly receiving information from the muscles regarding how much they are stretched.  When muscles lengthen too quickly, the nervous system senses the sudden change in length and sends a signal back to the muscle initiating a violent overcompensating contraction.  This is seen when you go to the doctor’s office and the doctor tests your reflexes.  When he hits your patellar tendon with a mallet it causes the quadriceps (collection of thigh muscles)  to stretch.  The spinal cord detects this rapid stretch and causes the quadriceps to react with a forceful contraction that causes your knee to shoot out in front of you involuntarily.  You can reproduce this effect in several other locations on the body where a large tendon is exposed, such as the Achilles’  tendon on the back of the ankle.  Here, the mallet causes the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) to stretch and the spinal cord sends a signal back telling the gastrocnemius to contract forcefully.  This causes your toes to point quickly.

Pair these forceful contractions from your reflexes with the fact that your muscles naturally “snap back” after lengthening and you can train for some pretty impressive feats of power.  Since plyometrics train muscles to harness the stretch-shorten reflex from the nervous system, even someone with a high level of strength can see massive gains from a simple plyometrics program.

There is one small side note that is worth mentioning as it confuses many trainees that are new to plyometrics.  Most people think it is necessary to go down into a full range of motion, for example a deep squat, in order to fully take advantage of plyometric training.  This is not the case.

Full range of motion training can be beneficial, even in a program that is focusing on explosiveness.  The highest degree of power output, however, is harnessed from a partial range of motion.  This is because there is a limit to how much the muscle can stretch before losing the ability to contract more forcefully.  For example, if you were to go into a deep, full range of motion squat before your jump then your hamstrings would be very stretched.  Based on the statements above, this would seem great – more stretch turns into more “snap-back.”  While this is true, the elasticity of the muscle is not as important as the stretch-shorten reflex.

Firstly, in this example, a deep squat is very slow in comparison to a quick dip down and drive upwards.  The speed of the stretch is a main reason why the stretch-shorten reflexes occur.  Since the stretch is much slower, the reflex reaction doesn’t even occur.  Also, going into a deep squat causes the muscle to stretch a lot, which, in turn, forces the muscle to leave a state known as optimal length. The further you deviate from optimal length the harder it is to cause a contraction.  When the length of a muscle gets too long or short it becomes very difficult for the muscle to generate more force.

In short, explosive performance increases most easily by using an abbreviated range of motion in plyometrics training.  Using an abbreviated range of motion allows the trainee to generate the most power and increase performance effectively.  If the goal is a comprehensive general preparedness and strengthening through the whole range of motion, then a full range of motion explosive movement would be better but targeted performance (i.e., jumping capacity) will not come nearly as quickly.

Lower Extremity Plyometrics

To the top
Plyometric exercises are most commonly utilized as a lower extremity workout to increase jumping performance.  A trainee that undertakes a lower extremity plyometric program will need to focus on proper form for each plyometric movement.  Form is pretty basic and intuitive, yet it requires attentiveness to agility, coordination and strength.  Since most trainees are new to plyometrics altogether, there is a lot of benefit that can be seen by paying special attention to the following aspects of jumping.

1. Knees over toes

If your knees are caving inwards on your landings then focus on consciously shoving your knees out as soon as you touch down.  This will help to avoid unnecessary stress on the knee joints.  Excess stress in awkward positions can and will result in overuse injuries.

2.  Throw your arms

The arms are a useful tool in generating forward and/or upward momentum on your jumps. Make sure you throw your arms out or up to gain the extra bit of height/distance on each jump.  Throwing the arms is a skill that takes time to hone.  The throwing of the arms should be synchronized properly with the jump, that is, the extension of the hip.  This takes time and practice.

3.  Soft landing surface

The landings of exercises that are labeled below with an asterisk are high impact and generally put a lot of stress on the knees.  This can lead to overuse injuries quite easily.  If possible, find something to ease your landings such as sand, soft dirt, or soft rubber matting.

4.  Fully extend

All jumps should go to full extension.  This means that your hips, knees and ankles should be extended (i.e. “straight.”)

Before we can address specific exercises is probably best to get some definitions of the terminology out of the way.

Nomenclature
Bilateral – Jumping with both legs.
Unilateral – Jumping with one leg.
Pistol – Jumping with one leg and going down into a complete range of motion.
Singles – Performing each rep with a pause between reps.
Series – Performing each rep in succession rapidly without any pause between reps.  This takes advantage of the stretch-shorten reflex to gain some height on each jump.
One Step – Jumping after rebounding off of a single step.  The momentum from the step loads the muscle with a quick, forceful stretch resulting in both a transfer of momentum and a more powerful stretch-shorten reflex.
Two Step – Jumping after rebounding off of two steps.   Provides more momentum than one step.
Running – Going into the jump with a run before hand.  Provides much more momentum than two steps.

NOTE: Before reading the list it is usually useful to look at some examples for reference.  Anything that is an essential or lesser known technique has been added to a short compilation produced by myself found below or here.

Exercises

  • Vertical Jumps – Jump straight up for height.
    • Singles or Series
    • Bilateral
    • Unilateral
    • Pistol
    • Running
      • One Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Two Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Full Run*
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
  • Broad Jumps* – Jump straight out for distance.
    • Singles or Series
    • Bilateral
    • Unilateral
      • Pistol
  • Box Jumps – Jump from the ground onto a box going for maximum height.
    • Bilateral
    • Unilateral
    • Pistol
    • Running
      • One Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Two Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Full Run*
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
  • Stair Jumps – Jump from the ground onto a stair/box going for maximum height and distance.
    • Bilateral
    • Unilateral
    • Pistol
    • Running
      • One Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Two Step
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
      • Full Run*
        • Bilateral
        • Unilateral
  • Depth Jumps* – Start on a small object and jump down.  Rebound out of the landing with a jump of choice.
    • Vertical Depth Jumps
      • Bilateral
      • Unilateral
    • Broad Depth Jumps
      • Bilateral
      • Unilateral
    • Box Depth Jumps
      • Bilateral
        • Singles
        • Series
      • Unilateral
        • Singles
        • Series

* High Impact Exercises – avoid if you are unconditioned for plyometrics.

Upper Extremity Plyometrics

To the top
Plyometric exercises can also be used to greatly enhance upper body explosiveness.  Both pulling and pushing movements can be greatly enhanced through plyometric upper body training.  In my opinion, training the upper body with a higher strength foundation through gymnastics techniques such as the planche, front lever, weighted pullups, weighted dips, etc. goes hand-in-hand with upper body plyometric training.  Strength training will build the foundation for the power that plyometrics aim to express.  Consequently, a combination of the two produces tremendous results.

Nomenclature
Hopping – Use the force of the push/pull to hop off the ground/bar.  The rebound back onto the ground or bar induces the stretch-shorten reflex to create more force for the next rep.
Clapping – After the hop perform a quick, audible clap.  The clap does nothing but ensure a higher, more forceful hop and acts as a useful metric.
Depth Drop – Similar to depth jumps, a depth drop starts your hands at a higher level and drops them down to a lower lever to induce a more forceful stretch-shorten reflex.
Drop Down [pushups] – A more extreme form of the depth drop.  Starting from standing, throw yourself at the ground forcefully to have more momentum behind the drop and thus a more powerful stretch-shorten reflex.
Burpees – Utilizing the drop down, the burpee allows for the goal of pushing back up explosively into the standing position with a forceful jump upwards.

Please note that, similar to jumping techniques, all techniques that make you go airborne require full extension. This means that your elbows should be straight and locked at the end of each rep.

NOTE: As stated above for the lower extremity, some examples for reference are likely to be useful to the new trainee.  Anything that is an essential or lesser known technique has been added to a short compilation produced by myself found below or here.

Exercises

  • Pushups – Start in a plank.  Lower the chest to the ground and back up to full extension.
    • Hopping
    • Clapping
    • Depth Drop
    • Drop Down
    • Burpees
  • Handstand Pushups – Start in a handstand against a wall or freestanding.  Lower the head to the ground and back up.  (Doing these elevated increases range-of-motion and difficulty.)
    • Hopping
    • Clapping
  • Dips – Start in a support position on bars.  Lower the chest to the hands and back up.
    • Hopping
    • Clapping
  • Kipping Pullups – Swing forward to stretch the muscles and pull back and up quickly utilizing stretch-shorten reflex.  Note that this move can take a bit of practice and requires some hip extension.
    • Standard
    • Hopping
    • Clap in front of chest
    • Clap on theighs
    • Clap behind the back

Programming

To the top

Lower Extremity

Plyometric exercises for the lower extremity will be invaluable to any athlete looking to improve jumping performance.  In my experience, trainees will see a significant increase in jumping performance by implementing just a single plyometric exercise into their routine one or two times a week.  This should be no surprise given that the gains in a novice routine are mostly neurological and there is a the heavy neurological component of plyometric exercises.

Those trainees who get the most benefit are typically those who already have a very high level of strength.  Rather than require a 150% bodyweight squat, I would suggest a 150% bodyweight squat coupled with a 200% bodyweight deadlift.  Due to the explosive and plyometric nature of the power clean, it would be even better to have the ability to perform a 100% bodyweight power clean.  Do keep in mind that experience with these lifts, in my opinion, is not necessary but highly recommended.  If you have no experience with these lifts and want to enhance jumping performance then it may be a good time to start gaining some exposure to them.  You can most certainly work towards the strength goals (i.e. squat, deadlift, clean) I laid out above while also performing a high intensity plyometrics routine.  If you or your trainee, however, has a noticeably weak squat or deadlift and are particularly out of shape, then I would avoid most plyometrics until more basic goals are achieved.  Those that are not labeled “high impact” would likely be better candidates for these trainess but, please, use your head and best judgment.  For example, an obese 40 year old man likely has no business training box jumps and should probably focus on his weight loss goals and performing regular pushups before shifting focus to jumping performance.

As an aside, any of the programming tips below already assume that the trainee already has an existing strength program consisting of a warmup and strength work.  Generally speaking, plyometrics fall into programming order as laid out below:

A)    Warmup
B)    Skill Training
C)    Plyometrics
D)    Strength Work
E)     Metabolic Conditioning
F)     Stretching

Novice Programming
Simply put, the novice is anyone who has not attempted any plyometric training before.  This approach can also work very well for someone who has tried plyometrics but never trained for maximal gains.

  • Select 1-3 plyometric exercises per workout cycle (typically 4-6 week cycles work best.)
  • Vertical jump and broad jump are recommended as a great starting point for the novice.
  • Maximal effort of any plyometric exercise
    • For exercises that do not require progressive increases in equipment (such as vertical jumps or broad jumps) the trainee must simply jump as far as they can each rep.
    • Measuring each jump is useful to gauge progress even if it is just with some sort of landmark like a a basketball hoop or lines on the sidewalk.
    • Series jumps should be in sets of no more than 3 consecutive jumps.
    • Exercises that do require progressive increases in equipment (such as box jumps) should start moderately with something like an 18” box depending on the level of the trainee.
      • Increase the height of the box incrementally for every session that the plyometric training is performed.
      • Continue progress even if the increments are as small as ¼ inch every session.
    • Sets of 3 reps.
      • Trainees want to keep reps per set low since there is such a heavy neurological component.  Performing plyometrics while fatigued will be counterproductive and hamper progress.
    • Sets somewhere in the range of 3-7 sets.  If you are doing 3 reps per set then you will likely stick to 3 sets total.  If you are using a low amount of reps, such as single maximal attempts then you will likely use closer to 7 sets.
    • When going for maximal height on box jumps it is highly recommended that one use a spotter in the likely event of a failure that results in falling backwards.  Shin guards are also commonly used to protect the shins on maximal box jumps where a failure can cause the shins to scrape or smash on the box.

Intermediate Programming
The intermediate is anyone who has started to “fail” jumps at even the very smallest of increments to their max.  Even a lack of confidence in making jumps may warrant an intermediates’ approach to plyometrics training.

  • Select 1-3 plyometric exercises per workout cycle (typically 4-6 week cycles work best.)
  • Continued maximal effort in plyometric exercises that don’t require equipment
    • Exercises such as the vertical jump, broad jump and series jumps should be continued for maximal height or distance.
  • Begin submaximal intensity training n plyometric exercises that require equipment.
    • Exercises such as the box jump should be scaled down so that the target box on which you are jumping is not at a maximal height.  In example, scale a 30” maximal box jump down to 26” but perform 5 reps each set instead of 3.
      • This approach fosters an environment to better hone the skill of the movement rather than increasing an expression of force.

Upper Extremity

Plyometric and explosive training of the upperbody will certainly have high translation into slower strength movements.  Plyometric training for the upper body is much simpler than for the lower body.  Any of the movements can be done as a supplement or replacement for the bench press, overhead press, weighted pullup or weighted dip.  Simply replace any given weighted, slow workout with a more explosive version scaled down to a lighter weight or bodyweight.  Typically, for strength and explosiveness, one usually trains a plyometric or explosive upper body movement in tandem with a more strength-oriented similar movement.  For example, one trainee may work on clapping dips in tandem with weighted dips.  The former is for strength while the latter is for power.

Conclusion

To the top
While this guide is not totally comprehensive (nothing is), this should give a edge to any trainee looking to enhance jumping or explosive performance.  In as little as a single cycle with novice programming there is much improvement that can be made.  If there is any apprehension about adding these movements to your routine then I would highly recommend starting with a single movement with novice programming to get a feel for plyometrics.

References
1.  Ebben, W. P., McNeely, E., Haff, G.G.., Warpeha, J.M., Brumitt, J., Wein, D., and Riewald, S. T. (2007). NCSA’s Performance Training Journal: Plyometrics. Volume 6, Number 5. www.nsca-lift.org/perform

Skill Guidelines for Building Strong, Useful, Adaptable Athletes

Introduction by Chris Salvato

For reference and convenience, this document can be downloaded in PDF format here.  For a brief primer into this article, check out Ryan Ford’s YouTube introduction.

In order to succeed in a sport, fitness program, or physical activity, it is necessary to establish a diverse and intelligent strength and conditioning program. To maximize your gains in fitness and apply them to highly sport-specific skills, it helps to track your progress, set goals, and achieve balance in your physical capabilities. The goal of this document is to provide guidelines based on useful goals that allow new trainees to gauge milestones and monitor progress over time.

This list of goals was chosen because working these skills will simultaneously improve many of the components of physical fitness. First defined and organized by Dynamax, these components are relevant in all kinds of sports, combat, and physical activities. They are:

  1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
  2. Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
  3. Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
  4. Flexibility – The ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
  5. Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
  6. Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
  7. Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into one distinct movement.
  8. Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
  9. Balance – The ability to control the placement of the body’s center of gravity in relation to its support base.
  10. Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a certain intensity.

While many resources go over setting goals and even provide a list of goals that may be worthwhile, many people are unfamiliar with what sort of progress to expect. With potential benchmarks and milestones unknown, this leaves the trainee feeling out of control. Lack of knowledge and lack of control often times results in lowered motivation. To address this problem, the following guidelines have been established so that a dedicated trainee will know the sort of progress they can expect with focused, dedicated training.

These guidelines were originally created as a collaborative effort between Eat. Move. Improve., a fitness resource co-founded by Steven Low and Chris Salvato, and APEX Movement, a Denver, CO based parkour facility.

Using the Skill Guidelines

The time frames listed for each level are based on progress that the authors have seen directly through personal experience, coaching experience, and through their involvement with their respective communities. Keep in mind that younger populations tend to progress faster than older populations; those with less stress tend to progress faster than those with more stress; and those with better sleep cycles tend to progress faster than those with poor sleep cycles. The goals listed below are for young males in the age range of 15-35 at a starting body composition of under 20% body fat. In future editions of this article, we will include more demographics.

The milestones in this article can be reached within their respective time frames by training 3-4 days per week for the first couple of years. It is advised to keep training diverse, but simple. Focus on only a few feats of strength, skill, and endurance at once. Eat. Move. Improve.’s Steven Low recommends that trainees start with and focus on no more than 2 pushing, 2 pulling, and 2 posterior chain strength goals at once. Any endurance training or skill training can easily fit into the preceding strength program.

Level One – Healthy Beginner (0-12 months)

  • Level one guidelines are milestones that can be attained by an untrained, sedentary individual within their first 12 months of training (assuming they are free of any serious injuries or health conditions). This level is the minimum standard for a healthy lifestyle and lays the foundation for basic strength gains in the following years. This basic strength will translate over into more rapid increases in capabilities.

Level Two – Intermediate Athlete (1-2 years)

  • Level two guidelines can be attained within 1-2 years after level one has been reached. These skills should be considered normal for a healthy athlete that is pursuing increased performance. The translation from one skill to another is still very high here, so working towards a few goals will also help other goals advance towards level three.

Level Three – Advanced Athlete (2-4 years)

  • Level three guidelines can be reached within 2-4 years after level one has been reached. This is an appropriate level of general fitness for those who would like to perform for long periods of time and possess a high level of strength. Taking part in high intensity sports such as parkour, combat, or highly competitive sports while possessing the abilities of level three allows for a higher degree of participation while mitigating the risk of injury. Athletes that posses many level three skills will get the most out of their training as they are able to train continuously with few injuries and work on technique consistently and without interruption.  Most individuals can obtain most, if not all, of level three skills with proper programming and dedication.

Level Four – Specialized Athlete

  • After reaching level three, some trainees may choose to take certain skills to the next level. Most level four guidelines entail specialized training that will not allow for other goals to be included in the athletes program. For example, pursuing a straddle planche will require consistent, hard training that may make another goal, such as a competitive 5k run, unrealistic to simultaneously pursue. An athlete can work toward level four without sacrificing level three accomplishments, but usually only a small number of level four skills can be attained for each individual.

Level Five – Highly Specialized Athlete

  • To reach level five in many of these skills takes a combination of superior genetics, dedication, and intellect. While level five is not necessarily a world class athlete, most people will not be able to perform many level five skills without sacrificing performance in other domains. By the time the athlete is at level five, thousands of reps/runs/holds will have been performed; years of experience will have been established towards this goal; and the athlete may progress beyond level five towards a world class level. By even striving for a level five skill shows remarkable determination and drive.

Nomenclature

AW                 Against Wall
B                      Bar
BW                  Bodyweight
DH                  Dead hang
DPU                Deadhang Pull Ups
FS                    Free Standing
G                      On Ground
HSPU             Handstand Push Ups
KPU                Kipping Pull Ups
OAH               One Arm Handstand
PB                    Parallel Bars or Parallettes
R                      Rings
ROM               Range of Motion
RTO                 Rings Turned Out
SL                    Straight Legs
SA                   Straight Arms

______________________________________________________________________________

  • Metabolic conditioning
    • Locomotive tests
      • Run (100m)
        • Level one – 20 sec.
        • Level two –  16 sec.
        • Level three – 13 sec.
        • Level four – 11.5 sec.
        • Level five – 10.5 sec.
        • World Record – 9.58 sec. (Usain Bolt, Jamaica)
      • Run (400m)
        • Level one – 120 sec.
        • Level two – 85 sec.
        • Level three – 60 sec.
        • Level four – 54 sec.
        • Level five – 48 sec.
        • World Record – 43.18 sec. (Michael Johnson, USA)
      • Run (5000m)
        • Level one – 36:00
        • Level two – 24:00
        • Level three – 18:00
        • Level four – 15:40
        • Level five – 14:00
        • World Record – 12:37 (Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia)
      • Rowing (500m)1
        • Level one – 150 sec.
        • Level two – 110 sec.
        • Level three – 90 sec.
        • Level four – 83 sec.
        • Level five – 80 sec.
        • World Record – 75 sec.
      • Rowing (2000m)1
        • Level one – 12:00
        • Level two – 9:00
        • Level three – 7:45
        • Level four – 6:50
        • Level five – 6:20
        • World Record – 5:36.6
  • Bodyweight skills and Gymnastics
    • Pushing
      • Push ups:
        • Level one – 5 push up
        • Level two – 20 push ups (R)
        • Level three – 5 tuck planche push ups (PB)
        • Level four – 5 straddle planche push ups (G)
        • Level five – 1 planche push up (G)
      • Dips (begin some weighted dip work at level two)
        • Level one – 3 (PB)
        • Level two – 10 (PB)
        • Level three – 30 (R, full ROM)
        • Level four – 15 (RTO and held at 45 degrees past parallel)
        • Level five – 15 (RTO and held at 45 degrees past parallel, straight body, leaning forward at 45 degrees)
      • Planche progressions:
        • Level one – 15 sec. (Frog)
        • Level two –  15 sec. (Tuck)
        • Level three – 10 sec. (Advanced Tuck)
        • Level four – 5 sec. (Straddle)
        • Level five – 3 sec. (Lay)
    • Pulling
      • Pull ups (begin some weighted pull up work at level two)
        • Level one – 3 KPU (chin over bar)
        • Level two – 20 KPU, 12 DPU (chin over bar)
        • Level three –  40 KPU, 20 DPU (chest to bar, move on to weighted pull ups)
        • Level four – 25 DPU to lower sternum (move on to weighted pull ups)
        • Level five – 25 DPU to belly button (move on to weighted pull ups)
      • One arm pull up/chin up:
        • Level one –  n/a
        • Level two –  n/a
        • Level three –  10 sec. one arm pull up/chin up negative
        • Level four – 1 (each arm)
        • Level five –  5 (each arm)
      • Back lever:
        • Level one – 1 skin the cat (piked with straight legs)
        • Level two –  10 sec. (advanced tuck)
        • Level three –  12 sec. (half lay)
        • Level four –  10 sec. (lay)
        • Level five –  20 sec. (lay)
      • Front lever:
        • Level one – 1 skin the cat (piked with straight legs)
        • Level two –  10 sec. (advanced tuck)
        • Level three –  8 sec. (half lay)
        • Level four –  5 sec. (lay)
        • Level five – 12 sec. (lay)
    • Handstands
      • Handstand hold
        • Level one – 60 sec. (AW)
        • Level two – 120 sec. (AW), 15 sec. (FS)
        • Level three – 45 sec. (FS)
        • Level four – 10 sec. (OAH, fingertip assist)
        • Level five – 5 sec. (OAH)
      • HSPU:
        • Level one – n/a
        • Level two – 5 (AW, G)
        • Level three – 2 (full ROM, AW, PB), 15 HSPU (AW, G)
        • Level four – 15 (full ROM, AW, PB), 2 (FS, PB)
        • Level five – 15 (FS, PB)
      • Handstand press
        • Level one – Headstand press (elephant press)
        • Level two – 2 press to handstand (G, any method)
        • Level three – 2 straddle presses to handstand (G, SA, SL)
        • Level four – 5 pike presses to handstand (G, SA, SL), 1 press to handstand (R, any method)
        • Level five – 3 pikes presses to handstand (R, SL)
    • Seats
      • L-sit:
        • Level one – 5 sec. tucked L-sit
        • Level two – 25 sec. L-sit
        • Level three – 60 sec. L-sit (G), 10 ft. L-sit walk
        • Level four – 30 ft. L-sit walk
        • Level five – 75 ft. L-sit walk
    • Legs
      • Broad Jumps:
        • Level one – 6 ft.
        • Level two – 8 ft.
        • Level three – 9 ft. ­­­
        • Level four – 10 ft.
        • Level five – 10.5 ft.
        • World Record – 12 ft. 2 in. (Arne Tvervaag, Norway)
      • Standing Vertical Jump:
        • Level one – 10 in.
        • Level two – 18 in.
        • Level three – 24 in.
        • Level four – 28 in.
        • Level five – 34 in.
        • World Record – 48-52 in.  (Unverified and Speculative)
      • Standing Box Jump:
        • Level one – 18 in.
        • Level two – 30 in.
        • Level three – 40 in.
        • Level four – 50 in.
        • Level five – 60 in.
        • World Record – 58-68+ in. (Unverified and Speculative)
      • Pistols (each leg):
        • Level one – 5 step ups on 24 in. box
        • Level two –  5 pistols
        • Level three – 5 pistols +25% BW
        • Level four –  5 pistols +50% BW
        • Level five – 5 pistols +75% BW
      • Natural leg curls:
        • Level one – n/a
        • Level two – 1 negative – 3-5 sec.
        • Level three – 1 negative – 8-10 sec.
        • Level four – 3 concentric
        • Level five – 10 concentrics with eccentric
    • Combined push/pull
      • Muscle up:
        • Level one – n/a (work on dips and pull ups)
        • Level two – 1 (DH, R, RTO at top and bottom; symmetrical), 1 (bar; symmetrical)
        • Level three – 10 (strict, DH, B)
        • Level four – 5 +25% BW (R)
        • Level five – 30 in 2.5 min. (R, kipping allowed), 2 with 50% BW (R)
    • Parkour Specific Movements
      • Climb up (climb up from a hanging position on the wall)
        • Level one – Beginner climb up (by any means necessary)
        • Level two – Intermediate climb up (symmetrical arms, distinct pull up and dip motions)
        • Level three – Advanced climb up (symmetrical and straight arms, appears to be one fluid motion)
        • Level four – 5 climb-up test, <15 sec
        • Level four – 5 climb-up test, <10 sec
      • Wall run vertical (subtract standing reach from wall run reach)
        • Level one – 22 in.
        • Level two – 40 in.
        • Level three – 52 in.
        • Level four – 62 in.
        • Level five – 70 in.
      • Vault exit distance (max exit distance over a 3 ft. wall; any type of vault)
        • Level one – 4 ft.
        • Level two – 8 ft.
        • Level three – 10.5 ft.
        • Level four – 12.5 ft.
        • Level five – 14 ft.
  • Weight training
    • Strength
      • Weighted dip (PB)
        • Level one – 3 reps at BW
        • Level two – 1.4x BW
        • Level three – 1.7x BW
        • Level four – 1.9x BW
        • Level five – 2x BW
      • Weighted pull up
        • Level one – BW
        • Level two – 1.4x BW
        • Level three – 1.7x BW
        • Level four – 1.9x BW
        • Level five – 2x BW
      • Bench press
        • Level one – .85x BW
        • Level two – 1.2x BW
        • Level three – 1.5x BW
        • Level four – 1.75x BW
        • Level five – 1.9x BW
      • Press
        • Level one – .5x BW
        • Level two – .75x BW
        • Level three – .95x BW
        • Level four – 1.1x BW
        • Level five – 1.2x BW
      • Deadlift
        • Level one – 1.5x BW
        • Level two – 2x BW
        • Level three – 2.4x BW
        • Level four – 2.75x BW
        • Level five – 3x BW
      • Back squat
        • Level one – 1.25x BW
        • Level two – 1.75x BW
        • Level three – 2.15x BW
        • Level four – 2.4x BW
        • Level five – 2.6x BW
      • Overhead squat
        • Level one – .65x BW
        • Level two – 1x BW
        • Level three – 1.3x BW
        • Level four – 1.45x BW
        • Level five – 1.65x BW
    • Power
      • Clean and Jerk
        • Level one – .75 x BW
        • Level two – 1.25 x BW
        • Level three – 1.6 x BW
        • Level four – 1.85 x BW
        • Level five – 2x BW
      • Snatch
        • Level one – .6x BW
        • Level two – 1x BW
        • Level three – 1.3x BW
        • Level four – 1.45x BW
        • Level five – 1.65x BW

1 Based on C2 rankings for all weight classes and genders.
2 The idea was originally inspired by a set of standards put forward by CrossFit North several years ago. Many of the ideas in the introduction are influenced as such. A copy of their skill standards can be found here.

For the change log, see Page 2.

10 Common Mistakes in Achieving Fitness/Performance Goals

Over the past few years, I have made many mistakes and really learned a lot about my training, my diet, my performance, and myself. I feel it would be appropriate to share those mistakes with others. Additionally, some of these mistakes are not my own, but mistakes that I commonly see others make.

1) Mistake: Not Enjoying the Process

Let’s be realistic – human beings typically don’t do things they don’t enjoy. Diet and training are no exception.

This is not to say that you need to love every minute at the gym. When I am going in for my last set of a heavy squat I sometimes can’t help but stare at the ground and mutter, “I really don’t want to do this.” The same goes for the sets of work for one-armed chin-ups. The negative feelings, however, are far outweighed by the positive. All in all, when I walk out of the gym I find that I thoroughly enjoyed myself – despite the fact that I may have had a bad day or didn’t perform as well as I wanted.

Similarly, when it comes to diet, very few of us are happy to watch everyone else eat the birthday cake or huge bowl of ice cream. Forcing yourself to sit on the sidelines of social eating is going to set you up for a poorly balanced diet. This is because many people fall back into the trap of consistently eating poorly after a “day off” from eating well.

This gives rise to two troubling questions: How can I enjoy what I hate? How can I consistently stay away from what I love?

To address the first question, we need to find goals that you would absolutely love to achieve. Maybe you really want to run that mile track around the park. Maybe you play in a weekend softball league and would like to get around the bases faster. Maybe you just saw a video of someone demonstrating parkour and that really lit your fire. Everyone’s life involves movements – find the movements you really enjoy performing and identify workouts and short-term goals to achieve them. Going to the gym for years to “look good” will have one of the following results:
(a) You stop working out after a short time.
(b) You get bored and become jaded.

To address the second question the answer is simple: don’t. Dieting and training doesn’t need to be boring. If you seriously don’t like tuna and brussell sprouts then you don’t need to eat them even though they are undeniably “healthy” foods. Instead, identify those foods that are really enjoyable to you AND considered healthy. Make a menu of these healthy foods and then you know exactly what you can eat and what you can avoid. Even then, once you have established a relatively “healthy” way of eating you may want to incorporate a scheduled “cheat day” into your routine. Avoiding the things you love for an unpredictable period of time is a proven cause of stress. Having a cheat day alleviates immediate stress; scheduling the cheat day alleviates long-term stress.

The key to healthy living and dieting is consistency. If you have one day a month or week where you eat a terrible meal that’s not a travesty. If you have terrible meals every day then its a problem. The best way to stay consistent in eating healthy is to schedule a cheat day (one day a week or something similar) and stick to it no matter what. This helps keep sanity and you get to really eat the things you love.

2) Mistake: Not Understanding Mistakes

Over my years of training in various disciplines, I obviously made many mistakes, learned a bunch, and grew from it. I see many people who, in their training, lack the open-minded nature to understand that what they are doing is not correct. Rather than admit that they may be wrong, they continue to do poor workouts without exploring their methodology. Understanding that you will err in some way is an important part of the growth process.

3)
Mistake: Working Too Hard

When most people find their way into an athletic lifestyle, they get addicted to their sport and to being active. This is great but comes with a major caveat.

Many athletes, even some who consider themselves seasoned, often neglect the importance of rest and recovery into their regimens. Working out for 6 hours, 7 days a week, is a bit overkill. When I first fell into my athletic lifestyle I was going to the gym twice a day for 3 hours at a time, then would scratch my head as to why my performance was not improving.

A vast majority of the population can be considered a novice or intermediate trainee. At this level one can recover quite quickly from the stresses of a workout. Therefore, a short, 20-30 minute workout 6 days of every 8 will provide substantial performance gains. Depending on goals, these times and cycles will vary, but the bottom line is that less is usually more.

You must remember that you are an individual, and your own rest cycles will be determined based on your personal level (novice, intermediate, advanced, or elite) in your domain (all inclusive, power lifter, weight lifter, long-distance runner, short-distance runner, bodybuilder, etc.).

4)
Mistake: Violating KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

A common error I see among novices, self included, is a lack of simplicity in diet and exercise routines. Usually those who become obsessed with fitness start reading very much, from very different sources. The sources never seem to agree and always seem to have very strong points that contradict one another.

Results, however, are one thing that you can never, ever question. At a novice and intermediate level, keep your workouts simple. Do not worry about your fast and slow twitch fibers. Don’t worry about your energetic pathways. Don’t worry about your omega-3 to omega-6 ratios in your diet. Sure, these things are important, but you are better off worrying about them when you know much more about them. If you stick to eating real, whole foods in tandem with a regular workout program then you can certainly see major results before you have much knowledge about the details.

If you try to make things too complicated too soon, it is disheartening and you wind up swearing off training, diet, research or all three because it is much too complicated.

An important thing to remember is that, no matter who says any different, no one knows EXACTLY how the body works. An overwhelming number of biological and physiological findings have occurred within the past 20 years, and most of the groundbreaking discoveries have only been happening in the past 100 years. Hell, DNA was only discovered in the 1940s. The effects of IGF-I on muscle growth are still being explored, and were only been discovered about a decade ago.

The point is, don’t let yourself get bogged down by science that is still yet incomplete. Train for results.

5)
Mistake: Blindly Following Sources/Informers

This is where the fitness industry fails horribly in delivering quality content to its members. Standing in line at the grocery store you can be looking at five different magazines – each of which is advertising 10 days to flat abs or 30 days to sexy legs. Sadly, an overwhelming number of people begin a program involving these ineffective cookie-cutter workouts. The results are never good – this is just a bad idea.

Another bad idea is to not question a more scientific or practical source – such as an article from the Journal of Applied Physiology or the ACE’s certified personal trainer study guide.

Having dealt with dozens of PhDs and trainers on a daily basis, all of whom are well respected in their field, I have come to learn much about the knowledge possessed by both individuals on opposite sides of the spectrum. Whether the source in question is a PhD or a trainer, they have respect from a group of people somewhere. Their certifications, degrees and titles leave people with the impression that they know what they are talking about. While many PhD holders and trainers have an in-depth knowledge of a specific aspect of their field, oftentimes the buck stops there. Some individuals in these positions realize the limitations of their expertise. Others, however, apply their specific knowledge to a broad domain – which results in myths and falsehoods spreading through the fitness industry like wildfire. A good example of this is how many studies attempt to extrapolate data found in a nutritional study based on a population of ten undergraduate students.

Recent studies are showing that individuals totally turn off the part of their brain associated with critical thinking and counterarguing when they are confronted with advice from someone they consider an “expert.” [1] The way to counter this natural tendency is to remain vigilant and question all sources.

With this in mind, anything written by a trainer or PhD should be taken with a grain of salt until they have been proven credible through your own research or their acceptance in the fitness community in which you belong. Even then, one should constantly be trying to reevaluate the validity of the expert statements. Would you convict someone of murder based on a single eyewitness testimony? Some more hard evidence is usually needed.

You should always question what people tell you, including those who are “credible.” What you will come to realize over time is that some people know very much about one domain but know little about another. For example, Fred Hatfield (a.k.a “Dr. Squat” and, anecdotally, a PhD holder) knows much about heavy squatting, but I would not go to him for advice or information specific to planche progressions. Some (poor) trainers think that because they know much about one domain, that they know much about all domains. This is just not true. You will never see an expert on airplanes trying to fix a locomotive. They are two different things, both accomplishing similar goals, and you should keep this in mind when reading articles or asking advice from trainers.

A true professional trainer will not only enjoy answering these questions, they will likely be happy that you asked. If your trainer gets upset by questions like this I would seriously question their experience and merit.

6)
Mistake: Lack of Goals

Goals are pretty much the only reason any of us exercise. Training is a means of achieving your goals. You probably have goals even if you don’t think you do. However, you likely have not framed them in a quantifiable, useful manner.

For a long time I had no quantifiable goals, I just wanted to “look better” or “not be fat.” You run into this mistake with a lot of people, in my experience. Their only goal falls into the following categories: “be skinny,” “workout without getting too big,” “be healthy,” “looking good naked.” To fix this trend, it is important to make sure your goals are quantifiable. Setting quantifiable goals, a wide variety of them, will accelerate your training vastly whether you are male or female.

Quantifiable goals usually have a magnitude and specific direction. “Be able to perform 10 kipping pullups” is a good quantifiable goal. “Lose 10 pounds by May 1” is another good example.

Firstly, setting quantifiable goals gives you direction. It gives you something to check off a list. Studies show that creating to-do lists, and then checking things off of them, actually releases neurotransmitters that heighten mood. If you don’t believe this, try it for yourself – you will notice that crossing something off your list actually does give you a little bit of a high.

This is what psychologists call “positive reinforcement” and is known as the most effective method of behavior modification. We are modifying you as an athlete and your dedication to your training. Taking advantage of your biochemistry and psyche is a great way to accelerate your training and keep you focused on an ever-changing list of achievements. Before you know it, the list of goals gets tremendous and you have tons of new things that you want to do. With a longer goals list there is just that much more room for growth.

7)
Mistake: Failure to Keep a Log

This is another one that is pretty major and often overlooked. When you do finally set goals, how do you know when you have achieved them if you never write them down? If you do write them down, but do not note your progress, how do you know that you are actually getting closer to your goal? If you feel like you are on a hamster wheel in your training, looking back over your log is a great way to make sure that you are not just running in circles but actually progressing.

Another aspect of log keeping, especially in a skill sport like parkour, gymnastics or weight lifting, is often overlooked. Recording your training in a log allows you to record how you have been FEELING during these workouts. Sure, your day of training might have sucked, but you might have felt that you were not up to par that day. Maybe you had a stuffy nose or you went on a bender the night before, which negatively impacted your performance. It also lets you note how much fear and/or confidence you had that day. I recently went to the Museum of Sports in NYC where some logs of elite-level athletes were put on display. Each of these logs not only listed performance metrics, but also their state of mind and thought process. It was nice to see things like “Felt great today, focused on positive thoughts and the game went really well” in an olympian’s training log. These small, seemingly insignificant thoughts impact your training, which impacts you reaching your goals.

Another benefit to keeping a log, especially if you maintain it on a forum, is that this leaves it open to critique and criticism. At this point, you should understand that you WILL make mistakes. Asking others, especially those with more experience than you, to review your logs allows you to get more detailed advice from them and achieve your goals faster.

8) Mistake: Misunderstanding Workouts Selection

It is extremely important to understand why you are doing what you are doing.

Perhaps someone suggested that you do a 5×5 linear progression on olympic lifts. Maybe another person told you to do a split routine including biceps curls, bench presses and front shoulder raises.

Which one do you do? What influenced your decision?

If you honestly don’t know why you do the exercises you are doing, then I recommend that you STOP doing them until you figure that out. A good example of this is wall sits. Many people do this exercise, but why? There are few, if any, situations where your body will be in this position functionally. Yet many people train this, some of them with goals to hold wall sits for over an hour. There are many workouts and goals like this. If that is what you want to do, then more power to you, but you should understand WHY you are doing it.

Once you identify why you are doing a certain movement, you should really verify that this movement/technique will actually help you achieve your goals. This can be done by seeking out external resources and experts with more experience and better formulated opinions than your own while you figure out the details.

9) Mistake: Arrogance

Once I started hitting some of my goals, particularly in weight loss, I began to think that if anyone needed advice they should come to me. It took me being put in my place by quite a few people before I realized that I did not know it all. I think this is just human nature, because since I realized the error of my ways, I have noticed this is a problem with many people.

One thing to remember when giving advice is that there will always be someone out there with more knowledge and information than you. Unless you can back it up with solid facts, don’t say it or pretend like you know anything about it.

Coaching people takes experience. Not just experience doing something for yourself, but experience as a teacher and a trainer. You need a solid understanding of what you are trying to coach. A solid understanding denotes that you have examined multiple people from multiple angles.

At my current level of experience and understanding I do not consider myself any sort of authority in any aspect of fitness. This is why I give most of my advice with the disclaimer that it’s based on my personal research and opinions rather than my professional knowledge.

This is something many people can, and will, learn the hard way. The hard way means posting or speaking out in public and being put in your place brutally by someone who knows much more than you. When this happens to you, then my advice is to embrace the moment, be humbled and hit the gym/library to learn more so it doesn’t happen again.

10)
Mistake: Reinventing the Wheel

We see further ahead by standing on the shoulders of giants. That is, we learn more by learning from those before us. As I said before, there is no real reason to try to invent movements or ways of training. People have been training for centuries. Some of the best methods of getting strong and fast for long periods of time are already well known and developed.

It will save you a lot of time if you learn to ask the right questions and read the right articles so that you can stick with what has been shown to work, as opposed to trying new things that will just impede your training.

While gains at the highest levels of performance are constantly being reevaluated, you should wait until you know more about the techniques surrounding your goals before attempting to work out like an elite athlete.

Keep it simple and always focus on achieving your goals!

References:

  1. Engelman, J. B., Capra, C. M., Noussair, C., and Berns, G. S. (2009). Expert financial advice neurobiologically offloads financial decision-making under risk. Public Library of Science One, 4, e4957, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004957.