Short answer: It can be.
Plyometric training includes explosive body weight exercises that include a rapid stretch shortening cycle in an effort to increase speed and power. When incorporating such training, it is believed a number of physiological adaptations occur, which include muscle size, tendon stiffness and neural adaptions. Depending on the program, various training effects that improve performance can take place. When appropriate programs are applied correctly, plyometrics can increase muscular pre-activity, improve motor coordination, improve storage and utilization of elastic strain energy and ensure better length-tension relationships. Because of this, there are many improvements like strength, speed, power, COD (change of direction), balance, jumping, kicking and throwing. Specifically, running economy (i.e. increased performance among middle- and long-distance runners) can improve, maximal strength can have a positive impact from plyometric training, and vertical jumps (which seems to be the most studied) have recorded improvements. It is well known that plyometric training can increase maximal vertical jump height. However, the advanced exercises that carry over such benefit (tuck jumps, depth jumps, single leg hops) may not be a safe starting point to include in a child’s program. Lastly, in relation to sports, court, water, field and throwing sports all can experience levels of transfer after appropriate plyometric training is implemented.
Starting such training at a young age can have benefits when incorporated correctly. When examining the effects of plyometric training among gymnasts that were only 7-9 years of age, there were significant performance increases (Bogdanis, 2019). This may be the first study that monitored plyometric training on jumps, COD and sprints among females at this young of an age and the results are promising. Evidence shows that plyometric training in child female athletes can be effective and result in a significant improvement of sprint and change of direction performance after 8 weeks of training. When supplemented appropriately, plyometric training can be a safe and effective way to increase performance among young athletes (Bogdanis, 2019).
So we know we can tap into some potential benefits, but the question is, how do we incorporate plyometrics in youth programs?
Johnson et al suggests that plyometric training can be safe for children when certain guidelines are followed. For frequency, it is suggested starting with 50-60 jumps and training twice a week for 8-10 weeks before progressing. If children aren’t able to tolerate such recommendation as a starting point, it was suggested to lower the intensity and lengthen the duration of the training session (Johnson, 2011).
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that youth should have sufficient strength prior to engaging in plyometric training. This should begin with lower intensity before cautiously progressing to higher intensity. Their particular recommendation includes beginning with 3 to 6 sets of 10 reps on upper and lower body, twice a week with adequate rest times in between. They also mentioned carefully monitoring youth for safe and correct movement patterns, so the repetitions completed may vary based on the athlete’s current skill level (Faigenbaum, 2017).
While these are great starting recommendations, it’s important to understand starting point and rate of progression will vary by individual.
From my own experience, when I was a gymnast, we used plyometrics as a form of conditioning and/or a warmup at a very young age. Not only was this type of conditioning more enjoyable, but I do believe that it offered a variety of performance benefits. We were always closely monitored for proper technique, we used mats and appropriate surfaces to train on, if we trained outdoors, we had proper footwear, and we used a stopwatch to time our rest periods in between. If athletes are carefully monitored to make sure intensity begins on the lower end and progresses gradually to higher intensities, and if movement patterns are correct, then I believe that plyometrics can be a safe, effective form of training for young athletes. Of course, this comes down to well-informed, attentive and qualified instruction from coaches.
For example, if an athlete is experiencing knee valgus when jumping, especially during advanced exercises, we’d want to carefully watch jump and land mechanics. It is important to watch even weight distribution and soft landings that focus on the forefoot before settling to the rest of the foot. With knee valgus, it is usually related to the gluteus maximus and medius. This usually requires technique work, special corrective exercises, motor control and/or a combination mobility movements. When fixing motor reprogramming, it can take many reps and time to correct. If an athlete cannot complete the starting point of the plyometric program, I would recommend first lowering the intensity and lengthen the duration of the training session until proper technique is in place. This may actually turn into something less than bodyweight (think assisted squats with bands or cables) until the athlete is able to perform movements correctly. Additional mini band work, hip abduction work and external rotation exercises may also be necessary to help the athlete gain proper control and stability. It’s also important to note, that evidence has demonstrated that plyometric training and balance training can improve valgus during 2-foot landing movements (Booth, 2016). So, continuing on with the program at the proper intensity may improve valgus with practice and patience.
My biggest takeaway? The most important part with youth plyometric training is determining starting point, proper rate of progression and receiving immediate feedback from a qualified coach or instructor to condition the athlete with proper movement patterns.
All great things to consider with youth athletes.
Happy training friends!
Bogdanis, G.C., Donti, O., Papia, A., Donti, A., Apotstolidis, N., Sands, W.A. (2019) Effect of Plyometric Training on Jumping, Sprinting and Change of Direction Speed in Child
Female Athletes. Sports Performance Laboratory, School of Physical Education and Sports Science & United States Ski and Snowboard Association. 7(5):116.
Booth, M. A., & Orr, R. (2016). Effects of plyometric training on sports performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 30 – 37.
Faigenbaum, A.D., Chu, D.A. (2017). Plyometric training for children and adolescents. The American College of Sports Medicine.
Johnson, B. A., Salzberg, C.L., Stevenson, D.A. (2011). A Systematic Review: Plyometric Training Programs for Young Children. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(9):2623-33. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318204caa0