Let's Set The Record Straight:
Plyometrics are intended to improve power and reactive force production - it's not meant to be a fat loss training tool. They're meant to improve your ability to efficiently use elastic energy which is stored in the muscle. Getting better at absorbing force and quickly rebounding relates to improved athletic performance and strength.
So Why Do We See It Promoted As A Fat Loss Workout?
Plyometrics just so happen to expend a large amount of energy due to the large force production necessary to jump off the ground or to throw something far. Expending a lot of energy (or high volume workouts in general) is usually a what you're after if you want to lose fat.
However, typical plyo fat loss workouts can do more harm than good.
Think about it - you're performing rep after rep of high intensity, high impact exercise that can take a toll on your joints, muscles and general body fatigue. The NSCA recommends no more than 80-100 contacts per workout for "beginners" of plyometric training.
On top of that, if you're trying to lose fat you should be eating in a calorie deficit. Being in a calorie deficit is not the best combination for recovery. Optimal recovery from workouts requires a small calorie surplus or maintenance. Most importantly - adequate protein and carbs.
This means you're likely in a calorie deficit and performing really high intensity and high impact workouts. This is a recipe for joint pain and inflammation as well as increasing your risk of injury.
And Now The Trump Card
It's also highly recommended that you do not perform high intensity/high impact lower body plyometrics unless you can squat at least 1.5 times your body weight. For upper body plyometrics it's recommended that you can bench press at least 1-1.5 times your body weight before taking most advantage of the benefits that plyometrics offer.
Let's be honest, most people attending bootcamp classes and high volume plyo workouts like crossfit WODs, or at home DVDs like Insanity, P90X or Beach Body On Demand usually haven't started their fitness journey gaining strength. They will usually attend a group class that uses body weight or low weight circuit training with plyometrics being added as part of the workouts. This means they haven't been exposed to heavy strength training and thus aren't able to squat or press the recommended weight as a beginner lifter.
This means you may be doing more harm than good.
What Should You Do?
Focus on strength training before engaging in high intensity plyometrics. This will help make plyo more effective by producing more force into the ground AND it'll save your joints by strengthening connective tissue so you can jump all day pain free.
If you're new to strength training I'd recommend 3-6 months of resistance training 2-3 times a week to build strength before starting a plyometric program.
I know what you're thinking... "What!? 3-6 months? I wanna lose fat NOW, this is stupid."
Well, it's been proven time and time again that success doesn't happen overnight. The 30 Day workout challenges, crash diets and magic fat loss pills simply don't work.
What does work is consistency. What helps even more and will help you get to your goal quicker is setting yourself up for success. Focusing on strength training first will setup your body to handle loads of plyometrics when you're ready for it.
Plus, strength training will do more for your physique than any plyometric program could.
Plyometrics should be in addition to strength training if you want to lose fat with it.
Plyo For Fat Loss
If you want to use plyo in a fat loss program you're best off adding it as a conditioning tool using intervals.
Yes, I'm talking about HIIT. HIIT has been a staple in the fat loss community for years now. It's very time efficient and very effective so you can't really knock it.
I'm bringing you a new twist to it because frankly, most HIIT workouts you find online are lacking in the exercise selection department. You'll likely find a combo of burpees, mountain climbers and jumping jacks. There's nothing inherently wrong with those exercises but they’re not as “high intensity” as you think.
Do they all require some sort of power to get off the ground? Yes.
Do they all elevate your HR and get you wheezing? Sure, if you put enough effort into them.
So What's The Issue?
They don't work a muscle group through a full range of motion. Burpees are close, but not the way most people perform them. This exercise is amoung the most butchered by those wanting to lose fat and get lean.
They're easy to cheat on and easy to not give 100% effort in every rep. For example: Burpees and jumping jacks use too much of your elastic energy from your calves to bounce up and down. How many times have you seen someone so tired they don't even jump on the way up during burpees? Same goes for jumping jacks, lazily flopping their arms and their feet barely getting off the ground each rep.
In mountain climbers and burpees you see people's butts high in the sky as if they were in a 2 Chainz music video. This means their core isn't working hard enough to stabilize the hips. Ideally, you want to be in a plank position. at the bottom, and a squat jump on the way up.
What's The Solution?
Choosing exercises that require a full range of motion and allow you to focus 100% on the technique of the movement ensuring you're burning lots of energy and putting effort into the exercise.
To do this, we simply go through a list of real plyometric exercises used to improve force production .
2 ways to perform this.
Pre-squat , jump as high as you can, land as soft as you can in a half squat, reset then perform another rep.
The second way is to continuously jump up and down without resetting or resting between reps. When you land softly into the squat position you immediately jump back up. This produces a serious quad burn if you do it for time.
2. Slam Ball/Med Ball Slams
These take you through a huge range of motion. It starts from a squat/hip hinge to pick the ball up, then moves to an overhead position. From there, your lats are in a stretched position and you forcefully slam the ball into the ground using your lats and core to flex your torso hard.
3. Slam Ball Overhead Throws
Pick up the ball using a squat/hip hinge. Bring the ball to the chest position (as if you were about to perform a goblet squat. Descend into a quarter squat and immediately jump back up while extending your arms as hard and fast as you can in order to throw the ball as high as you can.
4. Plyometric Jumping Lunges (Alternating)
These are probably the most difficult to perform technically speaking. They require a lot of balance and coordination. They'll also leave your quads on fire after 20sec.
Jump as high as you can, land as soft as you can switching legs each rep.
Explosive Push Ups (these can be done on the floor or elevated on a bench)
This is a full body plyometric exercise. It uses the legs to initiate the power necessary heave (mostly posterior chain) then your core transfers the energy to the upper body which whips the ball far behind your head.
Intervals of plyo with short rest periods can help increase work capacity and elicit a huge EPOC effect (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). This is what raises your metabolism for hours after your workout.
Make sure the workout is at your own pace with a variation you can do properly for the given time period. Remember, it's crucial to perform each rep with good form. The better the form the more of your muscle(s) you're working which is what we want. If you find yourself not able to complete the sets with good form either regress the exercise or decrease the time of each working set.
For example: The classic Tabata method is great but you usually have to start with easier intervals and work your way up to true Tabata training. Tabata is 8 sets of 20s work : 10s rest. That's pretty hard off the bat for most people. Don't be afraid to reverse the intervals and start with 10s work : 20s rest or 15s:15s and work your way up to Tabata once your body adapts to it.
This is the simplest part. Let’s throw these exercises into a Tabata Protocol.
After a solid warm-up of dynamic stretches and core activation:
Jump Squats 20sec
Med Ball Slams 20sec
Med Ball Overhead Toss 20sec
Alternating Jumping Lunges 20sec
X 2-3 Rounds (1-2mins rest between rounds).
The benefits of these exercises compared to typical body weight HIIT training:
All of these exercises require a full ROM which will recruit more muscle fibers and make you work harder
It is a full body list of exercises. We get a Squat (Jump squats), a Push (Overhead Toss), a Pull (arguably the Ball Slams), a Single Leg (Lunges). This ensures a balanced workout vs most body weight exercises that don’t allow much focus on your back muscles due to lack of equipment.
Although the short intervals of rest are not optimal for advanced plyometric adaptations, you’re still going to benefit from improved power and ability to absorb and release impact if you focus on doing them correctly.
If you perform this as a stand alone workout you can do these 2-3 times a week on its own. However, it’s also a great finisher to add to an existing full body workout once a week. Having said that, we know that fat loss is best achieved with a resistance training program and HIIT should merely be a bonus workout that helps increase your daily energy expenditure.
*** I have to mention this for my own sanity and for your clarity:
The Med Ball Slams and Overhead Toss exercises are more of a “rate of force development” exercise. It can be considered a plyo exercise because it still requires you to put forth maximal effort and speed into the ball which utilize just as much energy as a regular plyo exercise as well as improving power output! The difference between the two is that TRUE plyo exercises use the stretch reflex (ability to absorb and reflex energy from the muscle.***