If you're looking for an "all-in-one" exercise that builds reactive power, ankle stiffness and coordination to help athletes sprint faster and jump higher, you need to be familiar with hurdle hop plyometrics and how to properly perform them.
The Hurdle Hop is a simple but powerful plyometric movement that combines the raw power of a Depth Jump with increased demands on rhythm and coordination. To perform the exercise, line up 2 to 12 (or more) hurdles anywhere from 4 to 6 feet apart. Athletes will rebound-jump over them in sequence, "bouncing" on the landing with minimal contact time, both feet contacting the ground at the same time. An example of Hurdle Hops intense enough to overload an athlete is shown below:
To be challenging and stretch athletes to the limit of their ability, these jumps must be progressed over time rather than just being "there" in a program, as they often are. Among the problems with many versions of the Hurdle Hop are:
- the exercise is not maximally performed
- the hurdles are too close together
- the hurdles are too high
- the hurdles are too low and athletes don't try hard to maximally clear them
- athletes don't understand the concept of pre-tension when performing them.
Let's address each of these five problems to learn how to make sure your workout routine reflects principles of biomechanical specificity and overload regarding Hurdle Hops.
1. Perform Hurdle Hops Maximally
This is an easy aspect of the exercise to coach. Just make sure that your athletes are not trying merely to clear the hurdle, but maximally clearing it, by spending as little time on the ground as possible. To do this and do it well, athletes must optimize their pre-tension before ground-strike (discussed below).
2. Space the Hurdles Far Enough Apart
Spacing the hurdles too close together is probably the most common mistake. When coaches make this error, their athletes cannot finish an explosive push-off before they are forced to bring their knees up or out and around in an awkward manner to clear the hurdle.
Here is an example of hurdles placed too close together, preventing an athlete from executing proper, powerful takeoff mechanics. Notice that the athlete has to take power off the jump and move his feet backwards to clear the hurdle.
To remedy this, place the hurdles 4 feet apart or farther. For young athletes, or when intentionally jumping over lower hurdles for the sake of quick contact times, 3 feet is usually fine. See below for an example of using lower hurdles, where it's OK to space them a little closer.
3. Be Careful Not to Put the Hurdles Too High
If the hurdles are too high, at the limit of the athlete's ability, negative consequences could result. If the hurdles are not collapsible, the athlete could get injured. I've seen this happen far too many times, even at high-level training facilities with Olympic athletes. With non-collapsable hurdles, the risk isn't worth the reward.
What happens from a performance standpoint when the hurdles are too high is that ground contact times get longer. Ground contact time is an important factor in plyometric performance. Any contact time longer than .2 seconds limits gains in elastic and reactive power. There are occasions when athletes may want to jump as high as they possibly can, sacrificing quick ground contact to do so. In athletes with good training experience, about 20 percent of their plyometric contacts can be longer in favor of slightly higher jumps; but how often this is a good idea depends on the athlete's sport.
4. Clear Low Hurdles Maximally
Low hurdles are nice for teaching quick ground contact time and pre-tensioning, but athletes must clear them with maximal intensity. Often athletes see a low hurdle and try to clear it by only a few inches, when they should be jumping over it as high and as quickly as they can. In plyometrics, either force or rate of force development must be overloaded for the exercise to have long-term value. The video below shows well-performed Low Hurdle Hops, focusing on teaching pre-tensioning yet still performed at maximal intensity.
5. Teach Pre-Tension as a Critical Aspect of Hurdle Hops
When doing Hurdle Hops, athletes should have a basic idea of how to hit the ground with stiffness and resilience through the feet. Stiffness in the feet and calves during ground contact is attained by "pre-tensioning." In order to achieve a stiff landing and takeoff, the athlete's calves must actually tense up before he contacts the ground. If athletes can't do this, the movement will be limited in terms of speed and power in the takeoff.
Athletes who struggle with pre-tensioning would profit by performing more rudimentary "stiffness circuits," where they hop in place and learn to put tension into the feet and lower leg, to be re-used with each takeoff.
A big key in this movement is that, after takeoff, the toes go from a plantar-flexed (downward pointing) position, to a dorsiflexed (upward pointing) position. Think of the two as yin and yang. Dorsiflexion stores energy and plantar-flexing releases it. The circuit below exposes athletes to learning this idea in various outlets on a more remedial level.
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