We see a lot of athletes and trainers tying bungees to the athlete’s waist and going through multiple drills, applying the resistance from an anchored point behind the athlete, while the athlete runs forward, side to side, forward then back, or some combination of all. Sometimes the trainer runs behind the athlete, maintaining tension on the bungee. On the surface, this seems to make sense as a way to add resistance to functional movement patterns. But looking more closely reveals the many flaws in the approach, both in terms of training efficiency, and more importantly, potentially doing more harm to the athlete than good.
In almost every case, the resistance, as it increases (or even if maintained steady), slows the athlete down. In many cases, he/she stops and changes direction, and then is “pulled” back to his/her starting point, actually assisting the athlete (the opposite of applying resistance)
Bungee workouts are ostensibly used to apply resistance while the athlete performs functional movements mimicing the movements they make in their sports, in order to improve the efficiency of these movement patterns…but do they? Or are the adaptations that result harming the athlete’s ability to move as well as they could in game/match time circumstances?
So let’s take a look at what the athlete’s body is actually being trained to do while bungee training, and determine if it is the optimal way to train…
MUTLI-DIRECTIONAL MOVEMENT UNDER BUNGEE RESISTANCE IS NOT POSSIBLE, AND THEREFORE INEFFICIENT
For the most part, multi-directional movement under resistance is not possible with bungee training. Most times, the athlete must train against resistance first to one side, come back to the middle (with the assist of the bungee), and then train the other side…not terribly efficient, at best, because the athlete’s return to center (1/2 of all movement) is not being resistance trained at all. Worse, the assisted training on return to middle is harming the athlete's movement (see why below).
BUNGEE TRAINING WITH CHANGE OF DIRECTION TRAINS THE ATHLETE TO MOVE WORSE, NOT BETTER!
At the most important moment of all, the change of direction, the bungee method gets it completely backwards! Right when you want to be training deceleration, the bungee has been sequentially slowing the athlete down, so there is almost no (or greatly diminished) deceleration training effect as the athlete comes to a stop. Just the opposite of the real game/match, when the athlete accelerates towards the change of direction spot, and then must decelerate as quickly as possible. The bungee fails miserably to train deceleration, because it is pulling against the athlete.
As the athlete stops, changes direction, and pushes off in the opposite direction, the bungee does just the opposite of what you want it to do. You want to neuromuscularly apply resistance from the opposite side, improving the push-off as the athlete accelerates back in the opposite direction (getting back to the center of the tennis court, for example). What does the bungee do? It reduces the training effect, by pulling the athlete back. The athlete would be better off using his or her own bodyweight to train change direction, than using the bungee.
TRAINING TO MOVE SLOWER, NOT FASTER, IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION
Things get worse as the athlete returns to towards the resistance. The body’s natural reaction to being pulled in one direction is to resist that pull to maintain balance. Watch any slo-mo video (or images) of an athlete being pulled horizontally or backwards, whether they are shuffling or using a crossover step, and you will always see the athlete “tilting away” from the direction of the resistance.
And if you watch their foot plant, you will always see the lead foot (closest to the resistance’s origin) “brake” as it lands, in order to maintain balance as the athlete is being pulled back. These “braking,” balance-maintaining movements are true no matter the direction of the pull…lateral, backwards, or something in between. The only exception is forward running, commonly known as overspeed training, where straight line overspeed running can generally be maintained without the “braking effect,” at least for a short period of time.
It can be argued that, if you are training deceleration, the braking-effect is your goal, so there is some benefit to bungee assisting lateral movement, but only if you are isolating deceleration. But whenever an athlete is training to move faster in multiple directions, the braking effect is training the athlete to move slower, not faster. They should be working to push off from their outside leg, not applying the brakes with their inside foot.
OPPOSITE DIRECTION HAS NEGATIVE TRAINING EFFECT
Even without the braking effect, which is a natural reflex, which cannot be effectively “unlearned”, the pull exerted by the bungee is making it easier, not harder, for the athlete to return after changing directions. What you’d really prefer, is that the athlete has to work harder against resistance in both directions, out and back, and for that matter, no matter what direction the athlete must move: out, back, forward, back, etc., you always want the athlete working against resistance, not against it on the way out and with it on the way back (forward overspeed training excepted). Not only does the athlete lose the training effect you want at change of direction and return, but from a coaching efficiency standpoint, every drill must be repeated in every direction.
AN UNNATURAL FORCE
Horizontal (sheer) resistance is being applied to the athlete’s waist, pulling from behind. Under what circumstances does an athlete ever experience sheer resistance while playing his/her sport? The answer is never…unless maybe if they are playing into a hurricane-force wind😀. So as the athlete is moving, his/her body is adjusting, or being trained, to move against a force, which will not exist when the resistance is removed. That begs the question…how can this training style optimally improve functional movement, when all the fast-twitch and stabilizer muscles and neural pathways are adjusting for this alien force, and then being asked to make the same movements against an entirely different force (gravity) during an actual game/match?
UN-TRAINING NATURAL CENTER OF GRAVITY
So much of an athlete’s movements are dependent upon his/her maintaining a solid center of gravity. The sheer resistance applied by bungees disrupts an athlete’s natural center of gravity, as there is always this unnatural pull against which the athlete must adjust while moving. If resistance training is about the body adapting to the force being placed upon it, then the athlete’s body is being untrained for optimal center of gravity while moving. One can even argue that the training effect of the bungee must be “unlearned” when the athlete resumes bodyweight only movement, against gravitational (vs. sheer) forces, like they will experience in a game/match. So is the athlete being helped or harmed?
THE PROS AND CONS
In summary, bungee training for multi-directional movement is being widely used for essentially only one positive training effect (working against resistance), which itself is of questionable value, as the resistance is training adaptation to an unnatural center of gravity.
This questionable benefit (sheer resisted training) comes at the cost of up to five negative training effects (at deceleration, change of direction, return, altered center of gravity, coaching inefficiency).
SO WHY ARE BUNGEES USED SO OFTEN?
So why do so many coaches use a method of resistance application that in almost every use case, has far more negative training effects than positive? There seems to be a widespread belief, even today, that all applications of resistance, which makes the athlete work harder, are good. This, unfortunately (as many coaches know in theory) is simply not true. How resistance is applied is even more important than if resistance is applied. Resistance applied incorrectly results in a training effect detrimental to the athlete. As I have demonstrated above, there are very limited positive training effects from bungee training, and multiple negative training effects.
Defensible uses of sheer force bungee training are straight line forward overspeed training and deceleration training, both, ironically, applied in the direction of the resistance and not against it.
But as long as the notion persists that resistance applied to movement, no matter what type of resistance or from where and how it is applied, is always a good thing, then athletes who are being trained with sheer force bungee resistance are overall being trained to move worse, not better.