by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS
Over the years, athletes have learned to jump higher with the help of plyometrics and strength training for the lower body. However, we have fallen behind in teaching the landing portion of the jumping movement. Of course, working on landing technique isn’t as fun or sexy as seeing how high we can jump, but it is as, if not more important than the concentric (upward) motion of jumping.
What exactly are we talking about?
Basically, we’re looking at how effectively someone loads and absorbs force as they descend from a jumping movement, while putting themselves in a prime position to re-initiate running and jumping movements. The vast majority of athletes will naturally land stiff legged in a very rigid manner. As a result, all of the impact is absorbed between the hip, knee, and ankle joints. It is
much more advantageous for people to land softly and transfer their force to the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calf musculature.
One of the long standing discussions within strength and conditioning communities is athletes who are quad dominant v. glute dominate. Quad dominant athletes tend to use their quads to shift their weight forward with squatting and jumping movements. This not only transfers a lot of pressure to front of the knee, but puts a large load on the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) (1). It is important to realize that the quads are at a mechanical disadvantage when compared to the glutes, making quad dominant athletes less explosive and less likely to succeed in speed and power sports. In figure 1, you will see an athlete who is squatting in a quad dominant pattern. Conversely, figure 2 shows an athlete who is much more glute dominant. Notice the shift posteriorly with the athlete’s weight on their heels.
When landing and jumping, we want to utilize this glute dominant position. We know that to maximize jumping, we need the “triple extension” consisting of hip extension, knee extension, and ankle plantar flexion. That is, with the legs completely straightened and toes pointed. When an athlete uses their quadricep muscles as a primary source of movement (quad dominant), they have difficulty getting a full hip extension and appear as though they are always sticking their rear out (figure 3). This position robs them of valuable power production as the glutes are the most powerful muscle group of the lower extremity.
Why are landing mechanics important?
There are two main reasons for focusing on how athletes land: Injury prevention and power production. Both are equally important for athletes of all ages, levels, and positions.
All athletes expose themselves to lower body injuries ranging from ankle sprains to low back pain; osteoarthritis to fractures; and probably the most feared by athletes, the ACL tear. With that being said, recurrent hard landings by an athlete will lead to premature wear and degeneration of the ankle, knee and hip joints. These frequent jolts of the lower extremity transfer force up the kinetic chain at a rate that is 10-15 times that which the body normally experiences during activity. Teaching the athlete to land softly, without noise and slowly decelerating the weight of their body will significantly lower the impact forces, decrease the risk of injury and extend the life of joints.
The other major concern related to poor landing techniques is the dreaded ACL tear. The most common position for an athlete tearing the ACL is foot pronation, tibial internal rotation, and a valgus position of the knee (2). In other words, the foot flattens out, and the lower leg rotates inward, while the knee collapses towards the body’s midline. For our athletes (especially female) who have weak muscles of the outer hips and poor muscular control of their lower body, this position may be common while attempting to decelerate the body (Figure 4)(3). This is why most non-contact ACL tears happen while slowing the body down to change direction.
By strengthening the outer hips and teaching the athlete to be aware of the position of the lower body upon landing, we will significantly reduce the likelihood of entering such a poor position.
The ACL is further unloaded with proper landing mechanics when the athlete loads the glutes upon landing. When you look at the role of the ACL in the knee, its primary role is to prevent the tibia from sliding forward during movement. When we look deeper into the biomechanics of the human body, we see that the hamstrings originate at the lower pelvis, and end on the back of the lower leg. When they shorten in conjunction with the glutes upon deceleration of the body, they pull the lower leg back into the knee joint and unload the ACL.
As I touched on earlier, landing mechanics are extremely important for power production during sports. If an athlete doesn’t land and decelerate themselves after jumping with their weight distributed over their entire foot and their glutes firing, they will be in a poor position to reinitiate explosive jumping or sprinting movements. Many times in sports, athletes are expected to jump multiple times in a row and/or combine jumping with sprinting movements. Athletes must learn to not only initiate the first jumping movement in an advantageous position but also land in the correct position to initiate the next movement.
When should you work on Landing Mechanics?
The answer is simple, everyday. Everyday that athletes train in our facilities, we are addressing this issue. Many times we teach it with a simple box jump (Figure 5). Sometimes we work on it specifically with single leg lateral bounds, teaching them to land softly and hold for 3 seconds before initiating the next movement. We may also choose to combine it with traditional plyometric jumping drills by performing multiple hops for quickness (enhancing the stretch reflex) finished by a soft, glute dominated landing. But, even when we aren’t specifically teaching landing mechanics, it should always be in an athlete’s mind with every ballistic movement they perform.
The last concern that most people have is whether or not athletes can take this concept into their sport and perform them at game speed. Keep in mind that the neuromuscular system is very active during sporting activities. Research tells us that it takes 3-6 weeks for athletes to fully learn new movement patterns. During this stage of motor learning, the nervous system is working very hard to perform the activity. Once the movement is successfully mastered, the body creates specific motor programs that become rather permanent fixtures within our neuromuscular system (4). So, once an athlete has learned the basics of landing, their body will be very likely to apply at least portions of the motor programs whenever possible. Even when an athlete comes down in an awkward position, they will be much more likely to initiate their glutes and land more softly than before.
The key points in teaching landing technique are:
- Land as softly as possible, making no noise when the feet come in contact with the surface (“absorb force with your muscles, not your joints”).
- Land flat footed, keeping weight evenly distributed over the entire foot.
- Shift the glutes back and keep the knees behind the toes (“butt out”).
An athlete should start their basic landing technique training with 1-2 exercises 2-3 times per week. Keep the sets and reps fairly basic (2-3 sets x 6-10 reps) as this should be considered an accessory exercise. It should be performed early in the workout, after a quality dynamic warmup and prior to the strength portion of your training.
Jumping and landing training are highly demanding on the nervous system. Thus, the body must be warm enough to perform the exercises efficiently, but not too fatigued to allow for proper motor learning to take place. Once an athlete has mastered the basics of landing, only general daily maintenance (1 exercise, 2 times per week, 2 sets of 6-10 reps) is required to keep them injury free and very explosive.
- Wilthrow TJ, Huston LJ, Wojtys EM, Ashton-Miller JA (2005). The Relationship Between Quadriceps Muscle Force, Knee Flexion, and Anterior Cruciate Ligament Strain in an In Vitro Simulated Jump Landing. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(2):269-274.
- Arnheim DD, Prentice WE (1993). Principles of Athletic Training, 8th Edition: 558-561.
- Claiborne TL, Armstrong CW, Gandhi V, Pincivero DM (2006). Relationship between hip and knee strength and knee valgus during a single leg squat. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 22(1):41-50.
- Hammett JB, Hey WT(2003). Neuromuscular Adaptation to Short-Term (4 weeks) Ballistic Training in Trained High School Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(3):556-560.