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Prepare your legs for plyometric exercises by jumping rope.
Jeff Randall/Photodisc/Getty Images
When it comes to the fast-twitch fibers in your legs, if you snooze, you lose. Because traditional weightlifting exercises are executed with slow and controlled movement, you don't need to activate the fast-twitch fibers in your legs. These fibers lie dormant, which limits the size of your leg muscles. Because plyometric exercises require strength and speed, they prime the fast-twitch muscle fibers in your legs for hypertrophy training.
The Principle Behind Plyometrics
Plyometrics not only trains your muscles to contract with more strength and speed but also conditions your central nervous system. In contrast to traditional strength training, plyometric exercises involve rapid explosive movement, improving your power. This method of training takes into account the elastic properties of your muscles. Similar to a rubber band, a muscle that is stretched before a contraction -- the eccentric phase -- will subsequently contract with more force -- the concentric phase. The key is to use the proper force, as well as to reduce the time between stretching and contracting the muscle, or the amortization phase.
The Fast-Twitch Factor
In standard strength training, you slow the bar toward the end of a range of movement of a muscle contraction. While this method protects your joints, it doesn't allow for the kind of acceleration required to build fast-twitch muscle fibers. You lose top-end power, according to bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau on the T Nation website. Envision a football or basketball player throwing a ball but holding on to it at the top of the movement. By doing plyometric jumping exercises before your regular weight-training session, you can switch on the fast-twitch fibers in your legs and then hit these fibers with a load.
Design a Lower-Body Workout
Before you launch into regular strength training for your lower body -- good-mornings, curls, extensions, presses, lunges, squats -- do five to 10 minutes of light cardio to warm up your body. Then perform two 15-second sets of high knees, butt kicks and vertical jumps at 50 percent of maximal effort. These sets will prepare your leg muscles, ankles and knees for more intense jumps. The plyometric segment of your workout can include three sets and six to 10 reps each of squat jumps, broad jumps and split jumps. Take a 45- to 60-second rest interval between sets.
The King of Squats
Another method of tapping the fast-twitch fibers in your legs is to combine a squat with weight and a jump. If you're a beginner, only use 20 percent of your body weight on the bar for the exercise, according to Thibaudeau. For more advanced lifters, 30 percent of your one-rep max is the limit. Using too much weight inhibits the speed of your jump and is counterproductive. To perform the jump squat, begin by setting up the bar with weight as you would for a back squat. Sink into the squat and then forcefully jump toward the ceiling as high as possible. Land gently on the balls of your feet, bend your knees and then lower your body immediately into the next squat.
Avoid the Burn
Whether you do plyometric jumping exercises before a lower-body, weight-training session or squat jumps with weights, avoid pumping out reps to feel the burn. Focus instead on proper form and the quality of your execution. Because of the intensity of plyometric exercises, limit this type of training to two days per week and allow your muscles 24 to 48 hours of recovery between sessions. If you haven't been working out, establish a base of strength with traditional weight training, cardio and flexibility exercises before engaging in plyometrics.