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Get Maximum Benefits from Plyometric Training

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

Tom Beach from GymSmarts caught up with Mas Watanabe for this interview to discuss portions of his Developing Strength:Plyometrics DVD. This interview covers the basic ideas of plyometric training, and how and when to apply plyometric exercises for maximum benefits for the gymnast.

GS: Your view of plyometrics seems different than a lot of information I’ve seen. You appear to be careful with how much plyometric exercise the gymnasts do.

Mas Watanabe: That’s true, because basically in gymnastics training, you are actually doing lots of plyometrics exercises with many drills and in the training itself.  So if you are training, say five hours a day, what percentage of those five hours are you spending with that plyometric type of exercise. It is an amazing amount, but you just don’t realize it. 

GS: So you are looking at every time you punch while tumbling or vaulting, or run or block?

Mas Watanabe: Actually yes, because almost any dynamic movement is plyometric in its nature.  Whenever you apply a plyometric type of power it’s, the speed that is essential.  How you can get up high or how strong your can punch is, all based on the plyometric strength or power. So all the skills you do, you can’t even think about without the plyometric strength. So gymnastics as a sport in general, plyometric is the essential power that you are looking for. So when you take up that certain area of plyometric type of exercise and you pound on the your body, you must be extremely careful. You are breaking the body down so quickly and so much in a particular area. 

GS: Because plyometrics by nature breaks down your body.

Mas Watanabe: Right.

GS: So when you’re doing plyometric training the goal is to break down your body so that it can recover and be stronger.

Mas Watanabe: Right. Well, at the end of the process of recovering, that’s when you actually gain more strength. So, that process of, breaking down is necessary but when the body breaks down, obviously the rest of the body is also affected. That affects learning, it will affect on executing the skill, whatever you did before you may not be able to do it the same way. So there are many things that could happen by increasing the volume or the intensity you put into the plyometric exercises. That is why you must be very careful and you have to look at the total balance of exercises. 

GS: You talked in terms of 150 maximum exercises. I’m still not real clear on that.

Mas Watanabe Obviously, there are so many different levels of intensity for each exercise. Even if you’re doing the very simple exercises, by adding the ankle weights or wearing a weight vest, things like that would make the difference in intensity of the exercise. I said that in the video that the high intensity exercises, the repetition shouldbe less than 150; because that high intensity repetition would be lots of pounding on your body. If you are doing a simple jumping exercise, for instance jumping rope, 150times is very, very simple. It’s not that taxing on her legs so you can do more. However,high intensity punching type of drills, you need to be careful and you have to limit those numbers. It doesn’t have to be 150 but I think around the ballpark of that number might be a good number to keep in mind.   

GS: So you’re talking more about like the jumping over the balance beam is a higher intensity exercise.

Mas Watanabe: Sort of like that, but that is a medium intensity exercise.  Again, I am talking about a higher intensity, which is requiring close to your maximum push or punching power on each jump or each punch. You are using almost your maximum, when you’re asking your leg to put out in all the effort into doing the punch.  That is the type of high intensity punch I am talking about.  

GS: So that would be more like when you’re adding weights.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, something like that. 

GS: So you’re looking at 150 punches.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, punches. 

GS: Not drills. 150 punches.

Mas Watanabe: No, no, no. 

GS: OK, that’s a lot clearer to me. And you also talked about how much gymnastics isin the legs.

Mas Watanabe: Yes. 

GS: So even though you’re doing plyometric exercises, you need to do something for your upper body.

Mas Watanabe: Right. Of the four events, vault, uneven bars, beam and floor, threeof those events you mainly have to rely on the leg strength. So those three events areheavily loaded with plyometric types of exercise in the training itself. Three quarters of the training is really based on leg strength. Then there is the swinging event, uneven bars that requires plyometrics in the arms and shoulders. It’s not as plyometric intensive in the arms and shoulders as it is in the legs of the other three events, but it does require some plyometric strength.  

GS: I would imagine because by its nature, plyometrics breaks down your body, there is a strong psychological impact on the athlete. Is that a big concern for you?

Mas Watanabe: Yes, that’s why I think plyometric exercises in general need to be viewed in terms of a whole year cycle. It’s much more effective to do it off season. If you see that a certain area of legs, or punching power, need to be developed, that has to happen gradually over time. If this is the area that needs improvement, you need to work on it during the off season so that it does not affect on their performances, in the routine. So I think it’s smart to think about that in the off season, which means after the competitions. 

GS: You also talked working about plyometrics when they’re fresh, maybe at the beginning of practice. Doesn’t that break you down for training too? 

Mas Watanabe: Well, yes.  But I was talking about if you’re looking to develop power orstrength, it is most effective. I mentioned this in the strength exercise tape, when your  body is fresh, you actually can put out more effort and more power, close to your 100% output. Plyometrics requires your body to break down, so that it can rebuild. So it is better to do before your body is fatigued already. That principle applies in the regular strength exercises or the plyometric exercises. That’s why it’s more effective to do it when your body is fresh. Of course I realize that doing the exercises in the beginning will affect the rest of the training. Yes it does. But you have to remember that gymnasts can also recover during the time period. So your body can adapt to do both, the exercise andthen the training session. When you change the set of conditioning exercises that you  are doing in the beginning, sometimes the new exercises will affect their body. So theirtraining is less efficient, but only for a while.  As the body adapts to the new exercises, then the training efficiency comes back. That is the process of gaining strength. That’s a part of the training so they need to get used to the pattern. When the coach is planning a training session, obviously, he should expect that to happen.

 GS: You also talked about earlier in the week is better than later.

Mas Watanabe: Right. I think I would say the body is a little bit fresher and it will be more effective in terms of getting results.   

GS: Since recovery is so important, you don’t want to do plyometrics every day.

Mas Watanabe: Right, at maximum every other day. Of course, that means no more than three times a week. I mean  average plyometrics should be done probably two days, two to three days per week. That is plenty.  Remember you are already doing plyometric exercise in the training itself. So many drills are based on the plyometric exercise. So you need to look at the entire program first and what type of training you are doing.   

GS: How do you regulate that with your own gymnasts?

Mas Watanabe: Well, let’s say you are preparing for the competition then it’s easier for you to measure the volume of pounding that they are doing. Off season you are actually doing more drills and do more of the parts repeating that certain part of the skills or exercises. So that actually you need to break it down and look at what type of training you are asking the gymnasts to do. That’s why I said you need to look at the entire  training from beginning to the end. During the exercises you should constantly be  looking at the balance of the training and where that heavy emphasis is.  

GS: Can you tell with your athletes when they’re doing too much?

Mas Watanabe: Yes, if you are keying into it. Obviously you can tell who is putting out100% effort most of the time, or who does not put in much effort every time. You needto really observe the gymnast, their effort level in the training individually. There aresome gymnasts whose general tendency not to put the effort in every time. Howeverthere are certain individuals who put much more effort on every turn so you need to beaware their training pattern. Some gymnasts put less effort in the training and put a lotmore effort in the competition and are very successful that way. So you need to be aware that individual differences. This is why it’s very difficult when you are working with a group of gymnasts and you come up with one plan for the group. When you apply one plan to a group of individuals, sometimes you need to be careful or you need to be aware that one thing works more for one individual than the others.   

GS: So you create different plans for each athlete?

Mas Watanabe: Yes, well you have to make some adjustments by individual so each athlete is getting the maximum benefit from their training. 

Mas Watanabe - Working the Strap Bar

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

Tom Beach from GymSmarts caught up with Mas Watanabe for this interview to discuss working the Strap Bar. In this interview he talks about how much more can be done because of the Strap Bar. If you would like more information on Mas Watanabes’ coaching, GymSmarts carries an extensive DVD library of his training methods that are available on line.

GS: In your gym, it seems like the strap bar is full all the time. You have two strap bars and there’s almost always somebody on both strap bars.Mas Watanabe: Well, as I explain on the Working the Strap Bar DVD, the strap bar is the probably easiest and safest place to teach any skill on the bars.  Obviously you cannot do 100% of the skills on the straps but you can do most of the essential skills. I’d say that 80% of the essential skills you can teach on the strap bar. There are several reasons the strap bar is so effective, the most important one is the safety and reduces fear for the gymnast. Also there is less friction on their hands so they can do more repetitions, and the diameter is so much smaller so it fits the younger gymnasts hands so much better. You are working with young children and of course naturally they don’t have big hands so they feel so much easier for them to hang onto the bar. Even though you are strapped onto it, but still should feel the control in your fingers, in your grip. The feeling of security is extremely important. So there is no question in my mind that the strap bar is the easiest and simplest place to teach skills.GS: So you believe this is the place to start because you can take the younger gymnasts and do so much with them there.

Mas Watanabe: Right. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much more you can do on the strap bar. It doesn’t matter what they can do on the bars right now, because once the skill has been learned on the strap bar that means you have developed the movement pattern, the body positions, timing and rhythm, all the essence of the skill. Once the skill has been mastered there, then it can be repeated on the actual bar. Of course it will take a little longer to transfer it to the actual bar because it’s harder to create the momentum, harder to hold onto the bar, and of course, the mental aspects of coping with fear. You have to overcome all of that, but once the movement pattern has developed, it is much, much easier for you to transfer a skill from the strap bar to the actual bar.

GS: It’s almost like you’re comparing strap bar to the uneven bars as you would tumble track to tumbling. 

Mas Watanabe: That’s exactly right. So this two step process makes learning and reaching the final goal so much faster.

GS: Yesterday you mentioned Tracee (Talavera) when she was younger. Did she work a lot of strap bar?

Mas Watanabe: Actually we used the men’s low horizontal bar with regular grips, a high bar lowered down, because we didn’t have a strap bar then. Yeah, I did that because I realized that Tracee was very young and has small hands and that was the safest way for her to hang onto the bar. So I spent 70-80% of the time on the men’s high bar, single bar, teaching the skill there and then they may go over to uneven bar and play with those learned skills. Just to play with as much as they are able or capable of handling in terms of the fear and the momentum issue. I had them do it by themselves and I did not necessarily push the kids to do those skills in the beginning stages. So those transitions came to them pretty naturally because they did not push themselves beyond what they can handle.

GS: Their physical capacity?

Mas Watanabe: Yes. So that way they learned it pretty naturally, pretty easily.

GS: So the majority of the skills that she had, she was already doing on the men’s low bar?

Mas Watanabe: Yes, already on the low horizontal bar.

GS: If you knew about strap bar you probably would have done that.

Mas Watanabe: Oh, if we had the strap bars then we would have gotten to the harder skills much quicker and efficiently. There’s no question about it. Now these days we do use the strap bar all the time so we are quicker.

GS: The variation of skills that the gymnasts are doing, especially the younger ones, is pretty impressive.

200703mw1.jpgMas Watanabe: It is pretty amazing. If they have developed essential strengths, such as plange strength and good straddle press strength, then they can apply to the skills and they can learn or pick up the skill quite rapidly. In this plange strength exercise, a female gymnast cannot hold the position by herself, so that the coach should spot her and lifts her up to the proper handstand position while she is maintaining the hollow body.

GS: Because you’re not doing just doing giant swings but also the clear hip circles, endo and stalder shoots.

Mas Watanabe: Right. They work on most of the inbar type skills and of course, any type of giant such as forward, backward and “L” grip giant as well. So the children are able to pick up all those type of skills on   the strap bar, quite easily.

GS: So you’re looking at, if they have the proper straddle press to handstand and the plange press strength (with a spot) you can apply their body position easier on the strap bar.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, for instance, the straddle press to

handstand, that pressing part of the strength is used in the Stalder circle and it is an essential part of the body position in the skill. So if they can do the press that means their body can maintain shape and maintain that control. That is essential for the skill. Of cause, the plange press handstand strength will be for the clear hip circle to handstand. If they too can do these exercises properly, they can apply the body position and the strengths to the actual skill. It’s so much easier to do it on the skills on straps because the strap bar has such a less friction.

GS: And it’s easier to create those positions with the speed?

Mas Watanabe: Right, and of course then you’re talking about the shape of your body position and not the timing of the skill.

GS: So the timing and rhythm of the skill doesn’t change too much going from the strap bar to the actual bar and it’s just a matter of confidence and hand size.

Mas Watanabe: Right. So that’s why the strap bar isGS: Do you go any particular order when you are working on strap bar?

Mas Watanabe: I do, usually the order comes from the actual routine development. For instance at the very early stage, you do need to teach the clear hip circle because most of the kids learn back hip circle very early, at the compulsory level. So that move has already learned so going in from a back hip circle to a clear hip is a very small step. Whereas playing with the sole circle for instance, it is more complex even with the bent legs. Going around the bar backward or forward and going up toward the handstand from the toe on position. It requires a little more strength as well as good body control. So that’s why naturally we start from an easier skill to a little bit more complex skill and in order. But once they have good strength and a good handstand position, there’s not much difference between most of the in-bar type of movements. So, for example, I have a ten year old who already can do most of the skills that I mentioned, the clear hip and sole circle, forward, backward and stalder circle. Also they are doing the giants forward, backward and even the L grip giant. They can do it very safely on the strap bar which is remarkable. If you think about that ten year old, can already simulate, or actually execute, some of the skills that the level 9, 10 or elite gymnasts are doing on the bar.

GS: So right now, they’re competing as first year level 8’s and they’re already doing all those skills.

Mas Watanabe: Not all of it but some skills. So when you look at that, it is amazing what you can do with the strap bar. So you really can’t afford not to have the strap bar set up in the gym and not use that device to teach the skills because this will make the teaching process so much easier.

GS: What do you look at in terms of repetitions?

Mas Watanabe: Well, this is another advantage that you have using the strap bar. Basically you eliminated most of the hand problems because there’s no friction, your hands are not scraping every time directly onto the bar. You are just hanging onto the PVC pipe and the wrists are strapped on so you have virtually no problem with the hands and you never develop the problem with the hands. Sometimes the kids develop wrist problems because the straps actually rub into their wrists so they need to wear a very thick wristband. Sometimes even with a thick wristbands, it creates a little bit of a problem of soreness on the skin or develop a little bit of soreness in the wrists. So that it  a create a problem by overdoing it. But that would be a very, very minimal problem. It’s very seldom we have a problem actually overworking on the strap bar. They can do many, many, many repetitions. It’s unbelievable. That’s why they are able to pick up the skills so much faster because they are capable of doing maybe five, ten times the amount of repetitions they might be able on the actual bars with the grips.

GS: So as they are developing they can do more repetitions. It looked to me like the ultimate for these in-bar skills is to repeat it precisely from handstand to handstand several times in a row.

Mas Watanabe: Right. Of course, you know, you are strapped onto the bar so the variation of the skill is limited obviously. You can’t do any pirouetting, dismounts or release moves. But you can do timers for some of those skills, say for example a Tkatchev, so you can develop the exact pattern of the swinging part of the movement. So working the action using that strap bar is very, very effective. Many of the level 9, 10 and elite level gymnasts, when they learned the release move or the tap for the dismount, they do use the strap bar in the beginning stages. Once the pattern for the body movement is developed, then they can transfer very quickly from the strap bar to the regular bar and the actual skill.

GS: You’ve even talked about L grip giants on the strap bar. Do you find it that much different when they’re doing L grip than when they’re doing the regular giant?

 Mas Watanabe: I think if you really to understand the good front giants, particularly the front giant with a tapping action, it is very similar. The shoulder extension and how it should come down from the top to the bottom should be identical. The tapping action through the bottom and the lifting at the end of the swing prior to the handstand is no different other than the shape of the body in the second half. The inverted giant will have more pronounced hip pike compared to the front giant. Obviously the other major difference is the grip. So first of all, gymnasts need to have good shoulder flexibility, and also good wrist flexibility to be able to get into that support and be able to push in a handstand. So we did initially lots of drills on the floor bar, for example, kicking up to a handstand with that inverted L grip position. We made sure she can hold a in a straight position. Also, she worked many repetitions of handstand, pike down and open back to straight handstand while pressuring the bar. That type of exercise is done quite a bit as a preparation. We also worked lots of flexibility for dislocating shoulder in and out to develop greater flexibility in shoulders. So, those preparations are done prior to the inverted giant. Then teaching how to swing from the bottom of the swing, under the bar first, and then gradually develop the height of the swing. Then working on how to push the bar once the body goes above horizontal, because as they go up higher, the pressure on the bar becomes greater. So you must actually teach how to push in that position. As they come close to the handstand, the pressure increases so they need to develop the feeling gradually from the lower angle to the higher angle. As their body rises up close to the handstand, you can spot them and lighten the pressure a little bit by holding their body slightly up, so that they can develop the feeling of that pressure gradually as their swing gets bigger. It is a very natural way of teaching, very similar to the front giant so I don’t see that it’s such a drastic change from that position, from teaching giants to inverted giants.

GS: Should they do the inverted giant with the tap swing or just straight giant swing?

Mas Watanabe: I prefer a tapping action. This is a more dynamic movement and also the tapping action would teach them a few things. The tapping action itself through the bottom transfers to different movements later on. Also, tapping actually forces them to extend their shoulders more and it helps them get into the inverted support position, in an L grip. So it makes the turning of the wrist and shifts the wrist on top slightly easier. Naturally, you can do the very same thing without the pronounced tapping action, but the extension and the shift, would be a little more subtle.

GS: Great, thank you.

About Mas Watanabe 

For over 38 years Masayuki Watanabe has been at the cutting edge of both men’s and women’s gymnastics.  As a coach for may national & international champions and Olympic gymnasts, program director for USA Gymnastics, and world-wide gymnastics consultant, he is one of the most respected leaders of our sport today.  Mas Watanabe has many DVDs available from GymSmarts, on Coaching, Tumbling, Bars, Vaulting and Strength. Visit his blog at GymSmarts

Mas Watanabe - Team Dynamics

Monday, January 8th, 2007

200701mw1.jpgGS: The current group of girls you are working with are fun to watch. The dynamics of the group seems very positive and each one seems to bring different strengths to the group.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, I enjoy working with girls that I have right now. I have four, only four but each of the gymnasts seems to have a different quality. For instance, one gymnast is extremely good in air awareness and she strives for that. A couple of the gymnasts are more powerful and quickness is extremely good. Another gymnast is very weak in shoulders however has tremendous leg power and also very good in plyometric type of power. Another one seems to have good coordination of the skill. Each gymnast has different qualities but yet they feed off from each other. So if I have only one gymnast working with me, probably it would be very difficult for her to learn moves fast or develop quickly. Where as you work with a group of gymnasts, they could interact with each other and also they can feed off from each other. That’s what makes the whole group to develop so much faster. I can see that this is happening on a daily basis with my group.

GS: Do you feel like you need to do anything to make that happen?

Mas Watanabe: No, I don’t, I think it’s more a matter of creating a positive atmosphere in the gym. They need to have fun in training and enjoy themselves while they are there. I help them create a very positive environment with positive reinforcement so you actually lift the kids by commending them more on their strength and strong areas. So that once you commend one individual, then the other kids would try to achieve the same level of skills or put more effort to reach that level so that they will receive the same reward from the coach. I mean I’m not really looking for it but they naturally seem to do that, try to reach themselves, push themselves to the same level.

GS: In that same skill?

Mas Watanabe: Yes, in that same skill. So they feel that I’m as good. So you know that’s the natural desire they have.

GS: So if one’s getting very good at twisting and the other two aren’t, when they hear you say, “Wow, that was really good”, they want to be able to improve their twisting and hear you say “Wow, that was really good.”

Mas Watanabe: Yes and at that level. That’s why they will achieve so much and so quickly. So I think the important thing for my role is to create that positive environment and help them make it fun then they will actually push each other and compete with each other. They literally have little friendly competitions amongst themselves. So that generally creates a very fun atmosphere for them, even the skill level doesn’t matter sometimes. It’s almost a little game you are developing, or creating. So they enjoy doing that. Sometimes I found that they would improve quicker with these little competitions among themselves. Especially when you are working with the younger gymnasts, I think this is very critical. Positive reinforcement will take them so much further with less effort. Of course I have seen some of the negative or I would say demanding type of coaching methodology and I also see the benefit of it. But the method that putting the lots of pressure on the kids to teach the skills also would have a detrimental effect as well. So I would prefer, especially with the young ones, a more positive approach.

200701mw2.jpgGS: It would seem a lot more fun when the gymnasts are creating that internal motivation between themselves.

Mas Watanabe: Right. That is much more fun for coaches also and much more fun for the gymnasts as well. Obviously as we know, you cannot do that all the time, in order to improve in sports. So you have to tighten up certain areas. When you demand a certain quality of work that the gymnasts sometimes don’t like to do, but you have to push them so that they will do it. That is a very delicate balance. In those times, if they make any changes, you need to make sure to recognize it and you commend them a little bit more for their effort. That will tends to lift them up a little. Then you can push them more that are a little bit harder. If you have a good balance with it, they will tend to improve faster. That is what I think is the art of coaching. I think that’s why that some coaches are better than others because they are aware of that balance, that very fine balance.

GS: Filming yesterday was a lot of fun because you could just see, especially with the younger gymnasts, they were working at close to their limit on some of the skills on the strap bar.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, they surprise me every day and you never underestimate their ability. Sometimes I feel they are not ready but yet sometimes they surprise you, or surprise me what they do. By putting them in a certain environment, for instance, they are being videotaped and they are demonstrating for the camera, that puts them in a very special circumstance, a special environment. Then they go beyond what they think they can do. It was a great surprise for me to see when Courteney did a three Stalters in a row, which she never had been able to do that before. I was very impressed and very, very happy to see that.

GS: It was obvious she was at the very edge, just inside that edge of her ability.

Mas Watanabe: Right, exactly. But she was willing to go for it, to push herself to her limit and stay within that edge. If she was not in that circumstance, trying to push herself to go for the second one, and go for the third one, which is extremely difficult thing to do.

GS: Or even Cari with the Clear hip circles, you could see her working to the edge of her ability or Marissa on the Endo Shoot.

Mas Watanabe: Yes, right, and I think that’s how you can make big jumps and progress sometimes. Then once you do it, once you go over that limit, then realize, ‘Oh, wow, I’m capable of doing it’. So, the second time around it becomes a lot easier. The hardest time is the very first time to push past what you believe is your limitation. But you do it once, then you can do it the second time, the third time, and pretty soon it becomes normal. That’s how a lot of times how we progress. So it is exciting to see that.

GS: Yes that is exciting! So when we are looking at that group dynamic, it’s not just in reference to the physical skills though, you’re talking about the personalities too.

Mas Watanabe: That’s right.

GS: Where you have one athlete that you can tell really wants to be good and maybe another athlete that’s a little bit more subtle.

Mas Watanabe: Right, and I think sometimes those personality traits and characteristics come, in some kids, come up in front. Some show more competitiveness in training, while some kids take more turns simply because she wants to do more or simply she wants to go higher. Some kids are subtle but they are internally very competitive. So when she goes, she goes really all out and shows the greater dynamics sometimes. Of course you know, sometimes the gymnasts are not as aggressive. Some gymnasts are not as aggressive but she would come out of her shell simply just because the rest of the group are doing more things and going harder and taking more turns. That pulls her up to that level. So naturally the other kids would push her to stay in that group dynamic.

GS: Where she wouldn’t be able to do that by herself?

Mas Watanabe: Right.

GS: Or at lease it would be much harder.

Mas Watanabe: It would be much harder. I just feel very fortunate to have four different types of gymnasts that have different strengths so that the group dynamics actually brings the whole group up faster.

GS: They’re moving in harmony.

Mas Watanabe: Right, exactly. That’s why I said you need to create an environment where it is very positive, fun and very energetic. You need to create these basic environment. Then kids would really enjoy being there, working hard, and naturally those areas of strength will come out and gel together to move the group along faster.