By: Kelly Baggett
Think of your favorite athlete in your favorite sport and what do you see? Most likely you see smooth, quick, efficient, supple, and effortless movements coupled with extreme and lightning fast displays of power. The movement efficiency of a cat coupled with the explosiveness of a bolt of lighting. This is the ability that separates the elite from the average. What allows this display of combined elegance and power is a strength quality known as Reactive or Plyometric ability.
Reactive ability- Is displayed when your muscle/tendon complex "reacts" to force and is stretched prior to muscular contraction. This is known as plyometric strength, reversal strength, reflexive strength, elastic strength, rebound strength etc. Jumping, sprinting, and just about anything requiring high movement speeds are inherently reactive or plyometric dominant activities. Note from here on out you can just substitute plyometric, reflexive, reversal, or rebound for the word "reactive". That's just the word I prefer.
For illustrative purposes I'd like to break reactive ability down into reactive function and reactive strength. You won't see reactive strength described like this in any texts but I feel it's important enough that it warrants further defining. Reactive function is simply the ability to move correctly and harmoniously in the way that we were naturally programmed to do. As you'll learn later moving correctly is not always a given and we can de-program our natural functions just as well as we can program them. Reactive strength is simply the strength or power behind the function. The 2 combined make up your reactive ability which is what will give us the goods we're after.
It's important that you understand in order to display superior reactive strength you gotta have the "function" there first and not the other way around. As a learning experience, if you want to see some athletes engaged in and displaying superior reactive ability, force, and power without an appreciable amount of strength - along with a perfect illustration of the difference between "functional" strength and "weight room" strength - go to any gymnastics school and look no further than the movements demonstrated by young female gymnasts standing all of 3.5 ft. tall and weighing 55 lbs. - Without the "strength" to even unrack a 45 lb. olympic bar! Or watch male gymnasts perform dismounts, jumps, and tumbling maneuvers and then take them in the gym and throw them in the squat rack. Not that strength work couldn't help them but this is a good illustration of the ability to work with and display force, power and superior reactive strength, even without superior traditional strength.
Reactive Ability = Reactive function + Reactive strength
Reactive function- Is simply the natural reflexive movement efficiency that we naturally use from the time we learn to crawl, walk, or run.
Reactive strength- Is the power or horsepower behind the movement efficiency
Traditionally, reactive strength is evident when you perform a quick countermovement (squat down) before jumping or when "rearing back" and throwing a baseball or just about any other high speed activities. You can jump a lot higher and throw a lot further by "winding up" then you can by pausing at the bottom or jumping, or pausing before throwing the ball can't you? Here's why. Quickly moving in the opposite direction supplies negative force which quickly stretches the tendons throughout the muscles involved. The muscles lock up and the tendons stretch and gather energy. This creates elastic recoil like a rubber band or a compressed spring. When the movement reverses direction energy is reflexively "unleashed" like a rubber band and this causes a very quick and powerful contraction that enhances the force you can generate in the first .10 seconds of movement by anywhere from 200-700%! With each stride and foot contact of a sprint the same thing happens as your achilles tendon stretches and recoils back like a spring. Not only does this entire process enhance force production but it also conserves energy. It is actually the preferred method of movement generation during most tasks.
The Speed Of The Stretch
During any plyometric movement, the stretching reflex responds to the speed at which your muscle/tendon complex is stretched prior to movement. The greater the speed of the eccentric or opposing contraction the more force you gather. The more force you can take in from one direction, the more force you'll put out in the other direction - up to a certain point. Try to very, very slowly bend down before jumping and you'll see what I mean. The faster and greater the stretch the greater the corresponding reactive force. This is why you'll notice people with excellent leaping ability demonstrate a very quick and sharp countermovement before they initiate their jump. By moving towards the ground with great velocity they create greater force in one direction that can then be transformed into force in the other direction. When your reactive ability is good the more force you can take in the more force you can put out. Guys with subpar leaping ability have a hard time utilizing reactive force in the hips and quads so they don't perform the countermovement with near the velocity, smoothness, and proficiency. Fortunately this can be improved.
Most of the force generated from reactive contractions is involuntary and you don't have to think about it. It's largely reflexive in nature. This is why you can bounce a lot more weight when doing a bench press then you can whenever you pause a maximum weight on your chest before lifting it - even without really trying to. We tend to use reactive force naturally whenever we are given the opportunity to do so and do it without thinking about it - In fact, the more we think about it the more we tend to detract from it. Think of running a sprint at full speed. If you actually "try" to put more force into the ground or try to do anything at all except relax all you'll do is destroy your movement efficiency.
When displaying great reactive ability, the ability to relax leading into the immediate switch from eccentric to concentric is very important for the display of the involuntary reactive force. The more you can relax in one direction, the more involuntary force your body puts out in the opposing direction. To illustrate this, raise your dominant arm up at approximately a 90 degree angle fairly close to your ear sort've like you were set to throw. Now, maintaining some tension in that arm, quickly wip it back like you were going to throw and see how far and fast it reflexively comes forward after you whip it back. Next, do the exact same thing but this time release all the tension from that arm and see what happens. You'll probably find it automatically comes forward faster and harder then when you didn't relax completely. Are you beginning to see the value of reactive movement efficiency?
Reactive Function - As Smooth As Silk
The body will naturally use plyometric contractions whenever it can because it makes tasks easier and conserves energy. Walking, jogging, even getting up off the pot all involve reactive contractions. In a proficient athlete it's best illustrated by the ability to display supple, smooth, and precise movements. Children often demonstrate better reactive function than adults. No, their strength and power (reactive strength) aren't there yet but their function is. They move smoothly and run around and jump on and off objects with ease and without injury. Children have no choice but to use reactive dominance in their movements because they don't have enough muscular strength to do otherwise and because they haven't been conditioned otherwise through inactivity or de-programming.
Watch the difference in movement efficicency between an active and healthy 8 year old on the playground and the average adult weekend warrior in sport. Even though the strength and power are not quite there, the suppleness and natural function of the 8 yr old are often way ahead. Reactive ability is something that humans and all animals naturally display as long as they're not programmed out of it. In fact, one of the ways you can improve reactive ability is simply to avoid screwing it up in the first place. It's there naturally and all training should enhance it and not detract from it.
I spent nearly 10 years working in a training facility that also had a large tumbling program, which is the floor part of gymnastics. The program had classes with kids from the ages of 3 all the way up to adults. Even though I was usually in the more hardcore portion of the facility where the smell of iron and chalk dominated the senses, - I'd also spend significant time spotting tumbling maneuvers in the gymnastics portion of the facility. One thing I quickly learned is that it was easy enough to tell the proficiency and ability of the athlete by the sounds they made as they did their maneuvers across the floor. The top performers were very quiet and light on their feet and moved as soft as a feather, while those who struggled could be identified by the loud "thud" their feet would make each time they came in contact with the ground. What's funny is the youngsters, even less experienced youngsters, were nearly always more fluid and supple on their feet than the teenagers and adults - even if they didn't have the technical abilities to perform more advanced maneuvers. Teenagers and adults with superior ability always wore the identifying marker of being light on their feet and would barely make a sound with each ground contact.
I've found the same thing holds true in just about any sport. Obviously, top gymnasts and martial artists have this ability but think of some of the greatest athletes that are in the public spotlight. Guys like Michael Vick, Allen Iverson, Barry Sanders, a young Michael Jordan, Roy Jones, or many top track and field athletes. These guys move with more reflexive efficiency and fluidity than the average young kid but also with the ability to put out 50 times more force with each movement when doing so, thus they have great reactive ability because of their superior reactive function and strength.
You combine the natural reflexive function with enhanced strength and power that comes with age and specific training and you get a superior athlete and superior reactive ability - As long as nothing detracts from the natural function. Part of what makes people like these great is they either still have or have enhanced their natural movement functions. Where little kids will jump around the playground equipment and on and off furniture all day without injury these guys are able to do the rough equivalent of the same thing in their sports but to an even greater extent and do so without getting injured. Ease of movement and "making it look smooth and easy", despite taking in and putting out thousands of pounds of force are the hallmarks of superior reactive ability.
The goal for you should be to drastically improve your force and power capabilities while also enhancing your reactive capacities. We want to add as much force possible to our muscular and reflexive contractions without compromising movement efficiency. So you gotta pay attention to the balance between your strength and your "natural" function. Reactive FUNCTION should naturally be there to a large extent provided something you've done hasn't screwed it up over the years. The STRENGTH of your reactive function relies heavily on your limit strength capacity and specific plyometric activities will improve it even further.
Function vs Strength
If you wanna see an example of plyometric function vs strength think of Michael Jordan when he made his final comeback at ~40 yrs. of age. He was still Michael Jordan and still had the same cat-like moves and grace as he had in years past. He was still capable of putting up 40 pts. per game but what was missing was the old explosiveness and the ability to "turn it on" to the extreme. Whereas in early years a move to the basket would've ended with a fierceful slam - in later years the exact same move looked virtually the same but didn't finish with the same firepower.
Don't Screw Up Your Natural Reactive Function
One way we screw up reactive function is by inactivity. This is illustrated by comparing the technical running ability of the typical 16 yr old Playstation freak to that of a kid on the playground. As we get older we become less and less active and "play less". Playgrounds and furniture are used in pursuit of the opposite sex instead of playtime. This process isn't helped any by the huge growth spurt that occurs during adolescence - a time when most start to become less active and when they really need to become more active.
Another way we can detract from our reactive functions is by engaging in too much of a good thing regarding strength training without regard to function. I know I've preached about the importance of strength but now I need to qualify a couple of things here. Strength training is capable of doing some very magnificent things when it comes to improving the level of force we can take in and put out in our movements, but, used haphazardly and without attention to function, it is also capable of changing our movements from what naturally should be a reflexive dominant movement into a muscular dominant movement with the result of this being inefficient movement and injuries.
Go back to the example I used having you mimick the throwing motion with complete relaxation. Chances are if you're a bench press fanatic you actually had a hard time relaxing and may have also felt a twinge of pain in your shoulder when performing that movement even at an intensity way less than what you would use to throw a ball at maximal velocity. If this is the case for you it's because you've done enough bench presses and related work and fewer throws so that you've changed your natural programming and instead of relaxing and reflexively moving you muscled what should've been a reflexive movement.
This is also why you won't see a lot of injuries like strained or torn hamstrings, quads, rotator cuffs, etc. until an athlete has been exposed to lots of strength training. Strength training enhances the ability of our muscles to exert force which can be a huge advantage,- but it doesn't teach your muscles and tendons to work together both contracting and relaxing in harmony at high speeds - processes that occur during just about all sporting movements. The ability to relax completely is just as important as the ability to contract. Now I'm all for getting as strong as can be but if you train your muscles, both in the weight room and with regards to your outside activities, so that your muscles, tendons and connective tissues aren't used to working in harmony - contracting and relaxing at high speeds with efficiency - you will either get an inferior result or an injury.
Bodybuilding? - Uh Oh!
Another way people inhibit their natural reactive function is by an over-reliance on bodybuilding style training. This style of training will basically teach your body to do the reverse of what it's naturally programmed to do. To get an idea of what comes natural take a raw beginner in the weight room and watch how he or she lifts. Beginners will naturally bounce the weight at the switch from eccentric to concentric and they will accelerate the weight through the sticking point. This is a natural attempt to conserve energy and optimize reactive and reflexive contributions into the movement. It's something we're programmed to do and as you now know that natural programming can often be a good thing.
However, whenever we intentionally inhibit these natural tendencies by an over-reliance on slow speed training and slow eccentric training (making the muscle lengthen and work as slow and hard as possible) we can inhibit our natural reflexive capacities and hinder our speed and movement precision. These methods cause more muscle fiber damage and are excellent for building muscle size, but, if over-relied on, they will damage your reactive function and this can be evidenced by watching a typical bodybuilder perform high speed athletic skills. Even though he may very well be strong his movement efficiency will tend to be compromised and he'll function ---------- in a muscle bound manner!
One explanation for this might be that slow speed eccentric training typical in bodybuilding protocols causes a decrease in the amount of the high velocity contractual fast twitch muscle fiber (IIx) and causes a conversion towards a slower contracting subtype (IIA). Fortunately, the reverse phenomenon occurs with training that speeds up the velocity of the eccentric like plyometric training or performing weight training with an emphasis on "explosion" - Using these methods the high velocity fast twitch content of a muscle will actually increase. So, use strict bodybuilding protocols sparingly if at all. That is unless you want to turn yourself into a slow, ground-bound lug with reactive ability like a worn out set of shocks!
The ultimate display of power in most athletic maneuvers comes from a combination of reflexive reactive strength and voluntary explosive strength - with limit strength serving as the strength foundation and reactive function serving as the movement foundation. When you put all of them together you get what is known as your static-spring proficiency. A static-spring proficient athlete is otherwise known as a very explosive and smooth performing athlete! The message to take home is to never disregard your movement efficiency and make sure your training either maintains or adds to your reactive function while you increase the horsepower behind that function.
Now not to leave you without some ammunition to use here are some plyometric exercises for both upper and lower body you can begin to implement to improve your reactive function and ability - Specifically the ability to move reflexively.
Reflexive Stair Jumps- Find a flight of stairs or use a box approximately 6-8 inches high. Stand on top of the first stair or box and bounce off and hit the ground and with a very slight knee bend and using as little effort as possible bounce back up on the box. You will find the more you relax upon impact the easier it will be to bounce back up. Try to get a good easy rhythm going and perform 20-30 repetitions per set. You can increase the box height so long as you can maintain perfect form without much exertion.
Squat bounces- Get down in a squat position up on your toes. Next, without straightening your legs bounce up and down on the balls of your feet. Try to do these just like the stair jumps, with as little effort as possible. See how high you can go while moving as easily as possible. Once again perfrom these in an easy rhythm for 20-30 repetitions per set.
Lunge bounces- On these you will do the same thing as you do on the squat bounces but this time you will perform the movement in a lunge position. Get in a low lunge with your feet spread far enough apart so that your back knee is a couple of inches off the ground and your lead knee is just behind your toes. From here, get up on your toes and initiate a bounce and hop up and down but without moving your legs forward or backward. Once again, do these with as little effort as possible. Feel free to go up as high as you can but use the reaction force from the ground to drive you up in the air and not muscular efort. Perform for 15-20 repetitions alternating the lead leg.
One-Legged Speed Box Jumps- (box set just below knee height)- This is a beauty of an exercise I picked up from Dietrich Buchenholz that will really drive home the need to reflexively move instead of muscling a movement and will also develop phenomenol extension power. Simply set up a box that is knee height in front of you. You jump with one leg on and off of the box trying to be as quick as possible...BUT, here's the catch, you can't let your hips rise or fall(shift vertically) at any point in the movement. Odds are that you won't be able to display this correctly off the bat so start off with a lower box. With a little practice you'll master it. When done right your hip will fold to about 90 degrees when it is on top of the box. During ground contact, good form would be a rapid display of triple extension through the ankle, knee, and hip. If you try to relax at ground contact rather than "push", you'll find the movement a lot easier. The motion basically mimicks the motion of a sprint. Perform between 15-30 repetitions per set
low-box depth pushups- Find 2 low boxes approximately 6 inches high. Use a padded surface and set up in an extended push-up position in between the boxes with one hand on each box. Next, drive slightly up off the boxes so that you fall with your hands in between the boxes. Upon impact try to relax and let the reaction forces "bounce" you back up on the box. Perform these in a rhythmic fashion for 5-15 repetitions per set, or until you can no longer maintain proper movement.
Loaded upper body exercises For these the choice of exercise is limitless. What you do is simply use light weight and whatever movement you're performing start from the top and release all tension from the muscle involved and let the weight fall. At around the midpoint you gain tension back and reflexively "spring" the weight back to the start. If you were doing curls you'd start from the top of the curl, relax, let the weight practically fall to midpoint, and then initiate tension again. If you were doing rows you'd start from the finish of a row. Practically any exercise can be done in this fashion but it's not a good idea to involve exercises that characteristically involve a lot of joint stress like behind the neck shoulder presses. The parameters are that use a weight light enough that you can fire the weight back up with little muscular effort. The more you relax the better your results will be. In general you want to keep the repetitions between 10 and 20 per set.
Once you become proficient at these exercises you can move on to move advanced versions like chin-ups, elevated depth jumps, and even some advanced movements like front handsprings off a mat, - which are nothing more then a display of upper body reactivity ability. Before you do that though learn to work with the basics.
An upcoming article on this same topic will involve how to assess reactive ability in both the upper and lower body, more intense reactive methods, and how to determine when more strength is needed.
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