If you don't know what plyometrics is, no doubt you soon will. Fitness classes across the country are beginning to incorporate this advanced training technique. Typically, elite athletes have used this training to push themselves to the next level, such as jumping higher or exploding out of the starting blocks. But can recreational athletes use this training? If so, how should they modify it to fit their needs?

A Little Controversy

Elite athletes, including professional and Olympic athletes, have used plyometric training for decades to increase their sports performance. Recreational athletes may need to approach this technique with caution. "It should be done under supervision with good professional advice," says Robert Leach, MD, editor of the American Journal of Sports Medicine and former physician for the US Olympic teams. "Most recreational athletes don't need plyometrics and many would likely do harm." He adds that plyometrics has a high risk of injury.

So should you do plyometrics? It depends on your goals. If you're a recreational athlete who has no desire to compete or increase performance in any particular sport, you may not benefit from plyometrics. But if you have specific, sports-related goals, talk with a qualified trainer about adding plyometrics to your training. Before you do anything, though, understand the basics about plyometrics so that you stay safe and injury-free.

A Simple Example

You may not know exactly what plyometrics is, but without knowing it, you've probably done plyometric moves. Pretend, for example, that you're trying to reach a book on a top shelf. You're going to jump for it so you squat down a little and then you leap up to reach the book. That's plyometrics.

In its simplest terms, plyometrics means moving from a grounded position and exploding. You could start with two feet on the ground and then do something like a jump. Or you could begin from an elevated position, such as a box, and move to the ground, which is an even more advanced version of plyometrics. Athletes training with plyometrics will do such plyometric moves in repetition, much like strength training exercises.

All About Muscles

The real story lies in the muscles. "Plyometrics is a type of neuromuscular training that involves prestretching or rapid loading of the involved muscle groups," says Harley Dartt, CSCS, exercise specialist at Beaufort County Hospital in Washington, North Carolina, and a former coach of women's soccer at the University of North Carolina.

Imagine if you tried to jump for that book with straight legs. You could never do it. But if you drop into a preloaded position, bending the knees slightly almost like a squat, you can then use the elasticity of the big hip and leg muscles to propel you upward.

Add plyometrics to a training program, and you'll see gains in foot speed, quickness, explosiveness, power, agility and speed, says Steve Uchytil, owner of Unique Kinetic Exercise and a volleyball coach in Huntington Beach, California.

Who Should Train With Plyometrics?

"People in any sport can benefit," says Uchytil. But remember, you need to be working with an experienced coach or trainer who can ensure your technique is correct, to reduce the likelihood of injuring yourself.

Skiers, basketball players, volleyball players, and soccer players typically use explosive movements in their sports. Plyometrics might help volleyball players increase their vertical leap or skiers become more adept at handling moguls. To train for that demand, a skier might do something like side-to-side hops, bounding from one leg to another.

Other sports like ]]>golf]]> , ]]>tennis]]> , and ]]>running]]> also involve dynamic movements, and those athletes could benefit from plyometrics, too. Tennis players, for instance, could increase their speed rushing to balls. Golfers might increase the force they throw into their hips when rotating, yielding faster club head speeds.

Basic Rules for Plyometric Training

To maximize the benefits, you should first understand some basics about plyometrics. Most importantly, before you begin doing plyometrics, you should have a base of muscular strength, including strong core muscles like the abdominals and lower back, and cardiovascular endurance, Dartt says. Otherwise, you might injure yourself.

When to Do Plyometrics

Because plyometrics is an intense training technique that replicates the stress you'll be under in the sport you're training for, it shouldn't be done every day or all year, depending on your goals. Instead, do what elite athletes do and break your training into different periods, a technique called periodization.

If you're training for a specific sport, introduce plyometrics into your preseason, Uchtyil says. For example, if you're a downhill skier, you might start plyometric training about two or three months before you hit the slopes.

Keep It Sport-Specific

Then, make sure you're training correctly for your sport. Ask a friend to videotape you. Or watch professional athletes in that sport and note how they move. Do they move forward and backward? Side to side? "Train in a manner that's consistent with how you perform when you play that sport," Dartt says. In other words, if you're a golfer, you have no need to build a vertical leap and would therefore train differently than a basketball player.

Think Quality, Not Quantity

Remember that you're working your muscles at a high level of intensity. In this case, more doesn't mean better. In fact, if you feel fatigued, you've done too much. Instead, keep the repetitions low, possibly 5 to 10, and quit before you feel like you can't be explosive in the movement.

Work Up to It

Progression is also crucial, Dartt says. For example, when doing lower body exercises, start with two-footed exercises before moving to one-footed exercises. If you're working with speed, then perform the movements slowly at first and then get faster as you build confidence.

Focus on Posture and Form

Watch your body posture. Use the strength in your torso to keep your spine in neutral alignment. If you're jumping, try not to let your head bob from side to side. And when you're doing any work with the lower body, keep those knees behind your toes.