As more coaches and clinical staff look for safe, challenging ways to improve athletic performance, rehab injuries and condition athletes to elite form, aquatic therapy is moving to the forefront.
The potential of aquatic-based training, therapy and rehab are unlimited, due to the unique properties of the water environment. Exercising in water promotes body awareness and balance.1Hydrostatic pressure helps stabilize unstable joints while decreasing joint compression forces.2When standing in chest-deep water, an athlete weighs only 10 percent of his normal body weight, meaning that athletes can work harder at higher intensity levels. Water also adds resistance in all directions, which creates a balanced workout for agonist and antagonist muscles in one movement. It's a safe medium for older clients and athletes recovering from injuries.
When coupled with other training principles, the benefits of aquatic therapy become even more potent. One emerging subspecialty is combining aquatic therapy with plyometric training. The principles of water make aquatic therapy a natural match for the vigorous, repetitive movements of plyometric exercise.
Plyometric movements are quick and powerful, and involve an eccentric contraction followed by explosive concentric contractions.3Plyometric exercises stimulate the body's proprioceptive mechanisms and elastic properties to generate maximal forces in the shortest time.
Plyometrics enhance the excitability, sensitivity and reactivity of the neuromuscular system, improve the rate of force production, and increase motor unit recruitment, firing and synchronization.
Aquatic plyometric conditioning can take place in most pools. Water depth should be chest high, and the athlete should have enough space to move in all planes of motion. Props, such as boxes, weighted cones and hurdles, can be placed at the bottom of a pool for plyometric routines.
When designing an aquatic plyometric program, keep in mind three guiding principles-stabilization, strength and power. Also, aquatic plyometrics sessions should follow traditional workout stages-warm-up and stretching, followed by the program, and then a cool down. To warm up, try skips, knee hugs, back pedaling and heel-to-hip movements.4Static and active stretching are also good warm-up moves.
Listed below are specific exercises that should form the cornerstone of an aquatic plyometric program. The starting position for these movements is an athletic stance (unless otherwise noted), with legs slightly bent, knees shoulder-width apart and arms at the side.
• Gluteus kick with stabilization. From a starting position, swing the arms forward, jumping up and attempting to kick heels to the gluteus muscles. Land on both feet and hold for 2 seconds. Continue for the desired number of sets and repetitions.
• Hops with stabilization. Start in a standing, single-leg posture (either right or left leg), with arms at the side. Swing arms forward while jumping off the single leg. Land on the same leg and hold for 2 seconds. Continue for the desired number of sets and repetitions.
• Jumps with stabilization. Athletes can perform this exercise in the "rocket" or "ankle flip" position. For the rocket position, stand with feet together and arms at the side. Swing the arms forward and reach above the head while jumping. Both legs should move away from the body's midline. During landing, assume the starting position and hold for 2 seconds.
Ankle flips start with the feet shoulder width apart, and arms at the side. Swing the arms forward while jumping, flipping the ankles up in dorsiflexion. Land back to a starting position and hold 2 seconds. Repeat for desired repetitions and sets.
• Tuck jumps with stabilization. Swing arms forward, jumping up while bringing knees up and forward. Land on both feet and hold 2 seconds. Repeat for reps.
• Squat jumps with stabilization. Squat down, swing arms forward and explode up, landing on both feet in a squat position and hold for 2 seconds. Repeat for reps.
• Repeat multi-planar hops. Begin in a single-leg standing position on either leg with arms at the side. Hop forward on the single leg, and after landing hop backwards to the starting position. Then hop laterally and back to a start position. Repeat for the desired reps and sets.
• Repeat ice skater. Jump laterally to the right, landing on the right leg. Hold the landing, then explode back to the left, landing on the left leg.
• Repeat butt kicks. Swing the arms forward and jump up, attempting to kick the heels to gluteus muscles. After landing, explode up again and repeat the movement for the desired number of reps.
Plyometric exercises are especially useful for athletes involved in sports that require speed and strength, such as baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, racket sports, volleyball and track and field. Introduce plyometrics once a solid base of functional strength has been established, along with adequate kinetic chain and functional efficiency.
These exercises should be included during the power phase of sport-specific training or rehabilitation. Frequency is 2 to 3 times per week. Specific functional exercises such as plyometrics should be an integral component in every training, reconditioning and rehab program to facilitate a complete functional return.
Outside the Box
Plyometric exercises capitalize on gravity to build strength and power. This can be enhanced by using a step-up box, which can facilitate more complicated compound movements.
The basic box jump begins with a starting position of an athletic stance, with legs slightly bent, feet shoulder-width apart and arms to the side. The box should be placed 10 to 12 inches from the feet.
To complete the movement, the athlete swings the arms forward, exploding up and landing on the box. After holding the landing, the athlete steps off the box, and repeats for the desired number of sets and reps.
There are variations on the basic box jump. Unless otherwise noted, the starting position is identical to the basic box jump.
• Repeat box jumps. Swing arms forward, exploding up and landing on the box. After holding the landing, step off the box, then repeat at a quicker pace. Repeat for a desired time or number of reps.
• Depth jump. This exercise is the reverse of the box jump. An athlete begins by standing on the box with feet shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance. Step off the box and land onboth feet. Hold the landing for 2 seconds and repeat for reps.
• Depth jump to squat jump. This compound movement starts with the subject standing on a box in an athletic stance. Step off a box and land on both feet. Immediately move to a squat position and swing arms forward, exploding up and landing again on both feet. Step back up on the box and repeat.
• Depth jump to sprint. Begin by standing in an athletic stance on a box with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at the side. Step off the box, landing on both feet, and sprint forward 10 to 12 steps.
• Depth jump to long jump. From a start position on the box, step off and land on both feet, and immediately move into a squatting position. Swing the arms forward, explode forward for distance, and land on both feet, holding the position.
• Depth jump to bound. Step off a box, landing on both feet, and move into a squatting position. Swing arms forward, and explode forward off one leg for distance.
• Low box crossover. Stand to the right side of a step-up box. Cross the right leg over and place it onto the box. Follow through with the left leg, placing it on the ground on the opposite side of the box.
After bringing the right foot to the ground, complete this exercise by crossing the left leg over and placing it onto the box. Follow through with the right leg and place it onto the ground. Repeat the motions with precise movements at a fast pace.
Aquatic rehab is growing by leaps and bounds, and combining the potent principles of aquatics and plyometrics is one way to give clients a competitive edge. These exercises provide basic ideas to begin a program, and allow your creative potential to build from this foundation.
For a list of references, go to www.advanceweb.com/rehab and click on the references toolbar.
Murphy Grant, MS, ATC, NASM-PES, is director of sports medicine at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.