5 Powerful Plyometric Moves for Beginners

Super sets, Tabata, intervals, circuits—just when you think you have a handle on all the strength-training methods, a new kid moves into town. And while plyometrics have been around for some time, you've likely seen the buzzword pop up more recently thanks to the rise in popularity of high-intensity interval training and Tabata workouts. Described by many as "explosive movements," this essential workout style is guaranteed to leave you breathless, sore and even closer to reaching your ultimate fitness goals.

For those looking to take their workout to the next level or add variety to a stale strength-training routine, plyometrics are a great way to increase the calorie burn of your workout, improve your fitness level and see greater results from all of the time and hard work you've been putting into your exercise routine.

What Is It?

Plyometric training, also referred to as jump training, incorporates explosive movements into a workout, which quickly increases your heart rate so that you're working at a maximum intensity level. Exercises move from muscle extension to muscle contraction in quick succession in order to increase power, flexibility and speed. Due to their effectiveness, plyometric moves are often used in Tabata-style and interval workouts to challenge various muscle groups and increase the intensity of a traditional exercise routine. Although plyometric training can help build muscle, it is best used in combination with other workouts and not as a replacement for traditional strength training or cardio exercise. For instance, instead of doing a regular squat, a squat followed by a jump into the air with legs fully extended would be a plyometric movement.

Muscles have two different types of fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are used for endurance activities such as running or biking; fast-twitch fibers contract more quickly and are used for anaerobic, explosive movements. It's best to train both, which can be accomplished through a mix of steady-state cardio, strength training and higher intensity workouts such as plyometrics or high-intensity interval training.

Who Should Do It?

Plyometric movements require strength and power, so they are not for the beginning exerciser. They are also high-impact movements, which means anyone with joint problems (such as back or knee pain) will likely want to avoid this type of workout. Plyometrics are appropriate for those without medical issues (unless cleared by a doctor) who have been exercising consistently for at least six months or more and feel ready to take their workouts to the next level of intensity. These types of exercises are also included in sport-specific training where explosive movement is required, such as basketball or volleyball.

How Do I Get Started?

One of the easiest ways to get started is by incorporating plyometric movements into exercises you already know how to do safely. For example, if you can perform a proper squat, add a jump to the top of the movement. If lunges are a regular part of your routine, make it a split lunge with a jump instead. Proper form is critical here, both in the jump to lift your body off the ground and the landing.

Because of the increased intensity, this is not the type of workout you should do daily. There are a few options for how to safely weave it into your routine.
  1. Swap out some of your traditional strength movements for plyometric exercises. For example, try plyo pushups instead of traditional pushups. Start with one to two sets of each exercise, five to 10 repetitions per set.

  2. Add plyometric exercises to your regular strength routine by weaving them in between your typical moves to get the heart rate up and add variety. For instance, box jumps followed by chest presses will work the lower body, then the upper body, allowing adequate rest time for each.

  3. Devote one to two workout sessions per week to plyometrics. Since these exercises are intense, you'll want to keep the repetitions lower (a max of 10) and the workout shorter. Fifteen to 20 minutes is a great starting point for those new to this type of activity.

How Do I Train Safely?

Because plyometrics are a high-impact activity, it's important to get clearance from your doctor before starting a regular training program, especially if you have a history of medical issues or joint problems. As mentioned above, beginners should wait to attempt plyometrics until they have built up their strength and stamina. Regular exercisers with a strong fitness base who are looking to take their workout to the next level should start slowly with simple plyometric exercises, since proper form is key to reducing your risk of injury.

Exercises should be performed on a surface that has shock absorbing properties, such as a rubber mat. Since the exercises are intense, one to two sessions per week is a good place to start—either as part of your current strength training routine or as a standalone workout. Take care to give yourself adequate rest in between sets or exercises, as well. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA) Performance Journal, "As a general rule, rest five to 10 times more than it takes you to perform the set of plyometrics. Thus, if you do a set of multiple hops that takes four seconds, you should rest 20 to 40 seconds prior to the next set or exercise. Another good rule to follow is to limit your sets to no more than 10 repetitions."

NSCA goes on to explain that the volume of plyometric training is measured by foot contacts, or how many times each foot touches the ground. It is recommended that beginners start with no more than 80 to 100 foot contacts per session, potentially less depending on the intensity of the exercise and fitness level of the participant.

Your Plyometrics Primer

These five exercises can be incorporated into your current strength routine, or can be made into their own workout a few times a week. One to two sets of each exercise with five to 10 repetitions per set is a good place to start. Be sure to rest 48 to 72 hours in between plyometric exercise sessions.
  1. Jump Squats
    As you lower into the squat, extend your arms and bend the elbows with hands in a loose fist. When you reach the squat position with your thighs parallel to the floor, push off the balls of your feet and jump, fulling extending your legs and letting your arms swing behind you. Land softly on the balls of your feet as knees bend back down into the squat position.

  2. Split Lunges
    Step forward with one leg and lower your body to 90 degrees at both knees. Keep your weight in your heels and don’t allow your knees to cross the plane of your toes. Using your quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors, spring out of the lunge position into the air, switching the feet so that the right leg is in front and the left leg is behind you when you land. Lower into another lunge, switching sides when you jump to complete one rep. Land softly and maintain proper form throughout the movement.

  3. Plank Jumping-Jacks
    Start in the plank position with arms straight, hands stacked beneath the shoulders, core engaged and hips tucked up and in. Keeping your hips stable, jump your feet out wide and back together, landing softly on your toes.

  4. Box Jumps
    Stand in front of a box or other suitable platform, such as a park bench. A sturdy surface 12 inches off the ground is a good starting point, but this can be higher or lower depending on your fitness level. Bending your knees and swinging your arms, jump up onto the box and either jump or step immediately back down to the same position, quickly jumping up again for the next repetition.

  5. Pushup with a Pop-Up
    Begin in a high plank, lowering your body into a pushup and back up to the starting position. At the top of your pushup, jump both feet forward until they are just behind your hands. Shift your weight forward, then jump your legs back to the starting position to complete one rep.

By starting slowly and maintaining proper form, you can safely incorporate plyometrics into your workout routine. Don't be afraid to modify exercises if they are too intense (or too easy) based on your needs. Adding these kinds of exercises to your routine will help increase your strength and power as you work toward your fitness goals.