Ballistic training involves faster, lighter-weight versions of conventional weight exercises, like squats and bench presses, and plyometrics, a group of exercises that involves jumping, tossing weighted balls, and leaping while holding weights.
These movements are called ballistic because they involve explosively accelerating a weight or the body to high velocity and actually projecting it into free space. Exercise scientists also refer to ballistic techniques as stretch-shortening cycle movements. Ultimately, these movements increase both strength and speed.
Problems with conventional training
In some ways, conventional weight training trains muscles to slow down not to speed up.
For example, whenever you push a barbell away from you, you have to stop its momentum at the end of your range of motion. This period of deceleration takes up as much as 54 percent of the movement (with lighter resistance) and reduces explosive performance.
Of course, the problem can be overcome if the exerciser actually throws or jumps with the weight, which is more like real-life activity. But while throwing hay bales around might have been fine on the farm, it isn't exactly proper etiquette or very safe in the gym.
How does it work?
Plyometric training and ballistic movements avoid the deceleration problem by allowing the exerciser to explode all the way through the movement. They require full power from a muscle or muscle group in less than two tenths of a second, unlike the lazy full second allowed by conventional weight training.
This is much closer to the requirements of daily activities such as running across the street or kicking a soccer ball. In addition, you can use lower weight in your exercise sessions. A weight of only 30 percent of the one repetition maximum (the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted at once) is optimal for ballistic benefits.
The addition of elastic energy (think of a rubber band) to the force of muscle contraction is one reason why plyometric training results in a more forceful movement.
For example, throwing a ball with a full wind-up results in a longer throw than without. Elastic energy can be stored in tendons and other connective tissue. These techniques also work because they reduce the inhibitory effects of the golgi tendon reflex, a reflex that protects muscles during stretching and shortening.
Benefits of going ballistic
A number of recent studies have supported the use of ballistic training. In one, researchers found that loaded jump squats (jumping with weights) resulted in significantly greater increases in strength (18 percent) than heavy resistance training (5 percent).
Researchers in another study found that jump-rope training with a weighted rope for 10 weeks, three times per week, resulted in a significant gain in one-repetition maximum leg press and bench press strength.
Plyometric training has been found to result in a 6 percent improvement in jumping ability in volleyball players compared to no improvement in controls.
Two excellent books on specific plyometric exercises for cycling are: Jumping Into Plyometrics by Donald Chu and High-Powered Plyometics by James Radcliffe, both are published by Human Kinetics Publishers.
Cautions and contraindications
Careful attention to form and technique are essential so the guidance of a health/fitness specialist is important. Some experts suggest that you use plyometric training only if you can comfortably perform a squat with weight equal to 1.5 times your body weight.
In drop jumps (jumping down from a height) the height should not be so great that an exerciser cannot prevent his or her heels from touching the ground, because the risk of injury from impact rises when they do.
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