Explosive movements like box jump variations, Blast Strap push-ups, and jump squats have been increasingly popping up (pardon the pun) in mainstream training programs. Are the benefits derived from these exercises even worth the risk to the populations performing them, or are there safer ways?
I train predominantly amateur athletes – ages 10-22, with some parents sprinkled in. My clientele is 95% baseball, a sport in which the career injury rate is essentially 100%.
As a strength coach and injured athlete myself (I struggle to stay afloat in professional baseball), I'm constantly assessing risk, and I treat my athlete clients like they're worth a million bucks. After all, if we both do our jobs, they someday could be. An injury could steal that dream in an instant.
We know that injuries can't always be avoided, and training hard poses more risks than training half-assed. An athlete wanting to chase the dream with less than perfect genetics must push themselves to the limits. However, there still needs to be a dialogue of risk versus reward with every chosen exercise.
Important Questions To Ask
- Is this exercise essential to reach one's goal?
- If yes, is it more likely than other exercises to cause injury?
- If yes, is the risk reasonable when considering the contribution to said goal?
- If yes, do all parties understand and consent to the risks in performance of the exercise?
- Are there suitable alternatives that would yield a similar benefit while providing increased safety?
If you answered "yes" to the last question above, the exercise is probably not worth it. Pick another – no exercise will make or break any person's life or athletic career.
The biggest question, however, is this:
Is this exercise worth risking an athlete's career and/or exposing the trainer to litigation should an injury occur? (The answer is no!)
1 – The Box Jump
Enter: The Post-Injury Parent Conversation
"How did my son tear his ACL, Dan?"
"He fell awkwardly off a 55-inch box while attempting to jump onto it."
"Why was he doing such a high box jump?"
"I wanted to increase his jumping ability."
"Was having the box at his max jumping height essential to the exercise?"
"Well, no. I suppose we could've put it at 53 inches and he would have made it atop safely."
"So you needlessly risked my son's career over two inches?"
"I suppose I did."
"We are not paying for his surgery. You'll be hearing from our lawyer."
I will never have this conversation. Why? Because this hypothetically irate parent is 100% right – box jumps at personal record heights are unnecessary.
Reducing the height to a level easily cleared would eliminate a tremendous amount of risk while only marginally, if at all, reducing the effect of stimulating the athlete's maximum jump intensity. After all, the training effect of the box jump is minimal, while risk is very high.
Box Jumps Do:
- Teach intensity by way of a goal to jump to
- Demonstrate jumping ability
- Demonstrate hip mobility
Box Jumps Do Not:
- Provide reactive stimulus for CNS
- Provide overload stimulus for muscles
- Showcase the jump used in sports (ever see LeBron tuck his legs while dunking?)
Box Jump Risk:
- Awkward fall to floor from 2-6 feet
- Skimming shins (on wood/metal boxes)
- Hands hitting the box on the upswing. Broken fingers, anyone?
Box Jump Reward:
- Show others how high you can jump
- Show others how mobile your hips are
- YouTube Hero
- Find out how strong your ACLs and bones are when you inevitably fall
Remind yourself that there's no real training stimulus here except for intensity – your ability to jump is already determined, the exercise is entirely aimed at eliciting 100% of it.
Increasing one's explosive power, especially that of a high-level athlete, requires exercises that force the athlete to increase the rate of force development. Furthermore, as briefly mentioned above, jumping height will depend to a high degree on hip mobility.
How To Make Box Jumps Safer
- Lower the box. Seeing a 48-inch box is intimidating, even if you know you can jump 50-inches. If you think you have to challenge your PR to get adequate jumping intensity I'd counter that if no one told you, you couldn't tell the difference without measuring. All you need is enough height for your body to really need to get up.
- Remove them altogether. They just aren't a great exercise – they demonstrate ability without providing the reactive or strength stimulus to build jumping ability. You have to summon your own mental intensity to jump higher, rather than have an external stimulus train and force you. Once you max out, all the intensity in the world won't stimulate your body to go higher.
- Use them as conditioning at low heights. Though CrossFitters are often the culprit of "box jump PRs," I don't hate the CrossFit notion of using low but repetitive box jumps for conditioning. It's relatively safe as long as the height doesn't challenge a person at any point. Jumping at 30-50% of your max height for reps will give you a nice anaerobic training effect.
I can hear the skeptics already – "Joe DeFranco box jumps all his high-level athletes!" I have tremendous respect for Mr. DeFranco and his methods, but I guarantee he knows the risks of the exercise, talks it over with his athletes, and likely takes measures to ensure the height they choose is one they will make 99% of the time.
He's also training a higher percentage of 18+ athletes who can decide for themselves the risk of an exercise in a football environment where injuries are somewhat tolerated.
Lastly, just because he might churn out box jump videos doesn't mean his athletes train that way all the time. Jumping high is sexy and gets YouTube views; jumping down and absorbing impact inspires YouTube yawns.
Remember, it only takes one awkward landing, and 50+ inches is pretty high to break the fall. You can go ahead and "don't be a pussy," if you choose, just don't cry to me when you're rehabbing from that one bad rep.
2 – Blast Strap Push-Ups
I love Blast Strap push-ups, don't get me wrong. I use them personally and with all my athletes who demonstrate adequate core and pushing strength.
I cringe, however, when I see people performing these with feet elevated, with vests on, on one leg. There's no good way to save yourself should you fail to make the rep.
My weaker athletes perform this at an incline. At an incline, one can step forward with the leg to catch the body should a rep stall. However, in the lowest position or with feet elevated, the knees are too close to the floor to allow this safety net.
We know that going really low on the bench press is a strain on the shoulders, and this exercise allows for infinite downward movement of the chest. If you stall at the bottom, you're basically screwed; forced to let the hands fly out and hope you're close enough to the floor for your chest to touch before your shoulders dislocate.
Put your feet on a box, and the situation gets worse. Even if you're strong, remember it's a stability exercise. Sometimes, balance gets out of whack and things go wrong.
How To Make Blast Strap Push-Ups Safer
- Only allow the elbows to go to 90 degrees. I see most reps fail in this exercise when people shoot to the bottom, getting in a very disadvantageous position for the shoulders. Stop at 90 and you'll be in way better shape.
- Don't elevate the feet. It's a stability exercise – you don't have to load it up for it to fulfill its purpose.
- Don't add weight if you're parallel with the floor. This is a rare instance where decreasing resistance by way of gravity while adding external resistance makes sense. Get the same training load that you would from parallel at an incline that is safe enough to step forward should you stall.
3 – Barbell Jump Squats
Let's consult Bill Nye on this one: What do you get when the following collide:
- A human spine
- A heavy steel rod loaded with 100+ pounds
You don't need to know the Periodic Table for this answer – an injured spine.
I remember doing jump squats in college, and the fear I had on each rep. After reading an article a year ago, I was reinvigorated and decided to give jump squats another try. I quickly remembered why I hated them.
To perform a jump squat correctly, you need to hold a barbell in the back squat position (both high bar and low bar have their unique cons). Squat down to half or quarter squat position, and wham! Jump back up, trying dearly to hold that bar down onto the back.
Chances are that barbell got a little bit of air and smashed back down on your vertebrae with a tasty calcium crunch.
I personally don't enjoy barbells smashing into my spine; my athletes don't seem to like it, either.
The fundamental problem is that jumping requires a balance of relaxed power. Like sprinting, you can't do it tensely. And to pin a loaded barbell to one's back requires tremendous tension in the upper body, so much so that it almost negates the point of the exercise. And, despite enormous tension, it's still really, really difficult to keep that barbell pinned to the back.
How To Make Barbell Jump Squats Safer
- Use an empty barbell. Jump higher.
- Use a barbell loaded with bands. The bands will help pin the bar to the back.
- If you must use heavier weight, try holding a kettlebell goblet style at the chest in lieu of a barbell. It's easier to hold in place and won't be anywhere near the spine.
- Use a 41-inch band by itself, stepped on and pulled over the neck.
4 – High-Rep Olympic Lifts
I'm not going to bother mentioning the specific fitness movement that's popularizing this type of madness, because there's more than enough people hating on it already. But here's what I'll say:
High-rep Olympic lifting is the most potentially injurious trend in fitness right now. There's really no contest.
Olympic lifts are great for building explosive power, if done with low reps with the right population, namely strong, athletic people. They're difficult, technical, and require heavy loads to be thrown overhead at high speeds.
However, high-rep sets produce high fatigue. Trying to perform a very technical, high-speed lift under higher fatigue causes form to break down, leading to inefficient movement that puts higher stress on joints and tissues.
There are countless videos on the web of people snatching with shaky arms and shaky legs because it's their 11th rep of a 5-rep weight. Their "workout of the day" tells them it's a good idea and good conditioning – it isn't.
Where is that barbell going to fall if your legs give out? Which way is that elbow or shoulder going to bend when it no longer has the strength to hold that weight up? All questions with painful answers.
How To Make High-Rep Olympic Lifts Safer
- Don't do them. It's senseless, and there are countless other compound exercises that can be safely performed for high repetitions
- Choose a weight light enough that perfect technique isn't required at any point.
- Don't do them. Just don't.
Live and Let Die
Understand, I'm not saying that all of these exercises are evil and should be thrown in a bonfire with your copy of Catcher in the Rye. Rather, I'm positing that these exercises rank poorly on the risk versus reward ratio, and that there are other, safer alternatives. Still, with simple tweaks you can make them all vastly safer and keep them in your routine.
But at the end of the day, I'm not your Mom. If you can live with the risk ratio after some careful deliberation, fine. If these exercises work for you and you swear by them, to you I'll say "Live and let live" – do what works for you. As I walk away, however, I'm going to sing Paul McCartney to myself. "When you were young, and your heart was an open book..."