Written by Team Juggernaut
By Chad Wesley Smith
A great vertical jump is a quality that is coveted by many athletes, particularly basketball, volleyball and football players. This demand for big vertical jumps has caused many trainers to resort to gimmicks in search of a quick fix for a lagging vertical. This haze created by plyometric platform shoes, increase-your-vert-by-a-foot-in-a-month online programs and other gimmicks, has clouded people’s view of what is necessary to jump higher.
A vertical jump is a simple expression of several basic principles of physics, most notably Newton’s 2nd (Force=Mass x Acceleration) and 3rd (For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction) Laws of Motion. To simplify that, the harder and faster you push your feet into the ground, the greater reaction will occur and the higher you will jump.
So, now that we have a basic understanding of physics we understand that there are 3 ways to jump higher. 1) Better Technique-This takes no special skill, just practice. More efficient jumping technique will allow you to utilize your physical abilities to a greater degree. 2) Stronger Ground Contact-The stronger an athlete is relative to their bodyweight, the greater force they can potentially apply to the ground. 3) Higher Rate of Force Development-The more quickly an athlete can apply their strength the more power they are creating. Power=Work/Time, so the more rapidly a given load (Work) is moved, the more power is created. In the case of a vertical jump, the Work is the athlete’s bodyweight.
For the purposes of this article I will not address the techniques of an efficiently executed vertical jump. I will simplify things as much as possible and divide this article into 2 sections. The first will be exercises that will help the athlete drive their feet into the ground HARDER and the second are exercises that will help the athlete drive their feet into the ground FASTER.
Before getting into the exercises that will help you have a great vertical, lets look at the anatomy of great jumpers. I have had the opportunity to train with and around many athletes with tremendous verticals, but the top two in my experience have been Dwain Chambers (World Champion 60m Sprinter from Great Britain) and Angie Pressey (Outside Hitter for the US National Volleyball Team and Sprinter/Long Jumper for the Cal-Berkeley Track Team). Dwain and Angie share many of the physical traits you will find in great jumpers, these are tremendous development in the posterior chain (Glutes, Hamstrings, Low Back), impressive musculature in the quads, low body fat percentage and ‘hi-cut’ calves. Wouldn’t it make sense that to become an elite jumper, you too should develop these areas of your body? Dwain and Angie weren’t doing any fancy or gimmicky training methods to build these great jumping physiques, they were squatting and deadlifting, performing Olympic lifts and their variations, jumping and sprinting, all within the context of a well thought out and periodized training plan.
Now let’s look at some exercises that will help you develop those areas of the body we just mentioned and drive your feet into the ground harder, the first step to achieving a higher vertical jump….
Squat and Deadlift Variations
It doesn’t get anymore simple than this, the more you can squat and deadlift compared to your bodyweight, the higher you will jump. My 800 pound squat contributed much more to my 35” vertical at 290 pounds bodyweight, than any sort of fancy jump training I could have done. Dwain, Angie and other elite jumpers don’t have jacked quads and hamstrings by accident, nor were they just born that way, the put in work at these exercises to develop strength and power in those areas. People tend to shy away from these exercises and say that great jumpers were born like that for two reasons, 1) These exercises are hard and 2) They are too lazy and want to look for excuses why others can do what they can’t.
- Being strong makes you jump higher, period. That is why football players, the strongest of all major sport athletes, have the highest vertical jumps, not basketball players. At the 2007 NBA Pre-Draft Camp the average standing vertical leap was 29.12” with a high of 39.50”. At the 2010 NFL Combine, the average was 34.16” for DEFENSIVE LINEMEN, with a high 38.0” (done by 4 players). These are athletes that weigh 250+ pounds jumping on average 5 inches higher than NBA players. This is happening because these athletes are stronger and can apply more power into the ground to overcome gravity.
Back squat, front squat, trap bar deadlift, straight bar deadlift, it doesn’t really matter, be strong at all of them and watch your vertical jump soar.
Posterior Chain Training
The bulging glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors you see on great jumpers didn’t come around by accident, they are the result of dedicated work for the posterior chain. Make sure these exercises are a staple in your program to get strong in those areas and bring up your vertical jump…
Glute Ham Raises-These are the best way to simultaneously develop all parts of the posterior chain. If you don’t have access to a GHR bench, do natural GHRs, with you knees on a pad and a partner holding your feet down. If you aren’t strong enough to properly perform GHRs, start loading up the weight on 45 degree back extensions and perform controlled negative reps on the GHR with a spotter, until you are. At Juggernaut, some of our best jumpers are doing sets of 6-10 GHRs with 45+ pounds behind their heads. For more advanced athletes, using a band for resistance is a great way to make this exercise even more beneficial in the development of the vertical. My favorite banded GHR variation is to hold a band at your chest to create an accelerated eccentric, drop the band at the bottom movement and explode back up.
Kettlebell Swings-Kettlebell swings do a great job of strengthening the entire posterior chain in a dynamic fashion. Powerful hip extension is key to a great vertical and these will teach you how to do just that. Band resisted swings are an even better option, once you have mastered the regular swing.
Unilateral/Quad Dominant Training
Great jumpers not only have tremendous development in their posterior chain, they also possess strong and powerful quads. Single leg (Unilateral) training is one of the best ways to develop strong quadriceps and an impressive VMO.
Bulgarian Split Squats-These do a great job of building powerful quads, while also creating a dynamic stretch through the hip flexor, another important trait to have a great vertical. Do these with a weight vest, dumbbells or barbells.
Step Ups-These build strong quads, flexibility (depending on the height of the box you step onto) and joint stability. Emphasize driving down into the box through your heel and accelerating to the top of the box as fast as possible. Weight vests, dumbbells and barbells are all acceptable loading options for step ups.
Calf strength is often mistakenly thought to be a catalyst for a big vertical. Calves serve primarily as an ankle extensor, and while the ankle is an important part of triple extension, it is rather trivial when compared to the knee and hip extension driven by the quads, glutes and hamstrings. You don’t see many great jumpers with huge calves, rather they have ‘hi-cut’ calves, which is indicative of a long Achilles tendon. The longer the Achilles, the more energy it can potentially store for a jump. While you can’t alter your genetics or muscular/tendon attachment points, you can stretch your Achilles. Just let your heels hang off an elevated surface, so your heels drop below the level of your toes. Hold this for 30 seconds at a time a few times a day.
Now that we understand how to push into the ground harder, lets examine what needs to happen to push faster and complete the process of acquiring a great vertical jump…
Box jumps are a very simple way to develop and measure your rate of force development. Standing box jumps and seated box jumps both will do the trick here. It is simple, each week jump on a higher box than you did the week before and do less total jumps than the week before. One important thing when performing box jumps, that many lose sight of, is the way you land on the box is of great importance. Be a great box jumper because you can jump high, not because you can pull your knees up to your ears. Yes, box jumps will help you develop flexible hips, but when trying to build a big vertical, you need to concern yourself with how high you can propel your center of gravity (hips), so try and land your box jumps in a parallel squat or higher.
Weighted jumps are the best of both worlds, they force the athlete to move with both speed and strength. You can weight jumps in many different manners, holding weights, wearing a vest, ankle weights, resisted by bands, the list goes on. You can do box jumps with weights or just squat jumps. I particularly like to jump on foam when doing weighted jumps. We do this for two reasons, the landings are easier on the joints which is particularly important with the increased load, and to force the athletes to rely on their muscles, not their tendons, to produce the force.
Reactive jumps rely on the exploitation of the stretch reflex to produce power. Depth jumps, hurdle hops, and bounding are all great reactive jumping variations that will build your jumping power. Always emphasize a short ground contact time when using reactive jumps. Short ground contacts are much more important than the height of the box your stepping off of or the height of the hurdles you are jumping over. Keep in mind when using reactive jumps as a part of your program, that they are much more taxing to the body, so volume should be kept low and they shouldn’t be used for more than one cycle in a row.
Building your vertical jump is much simpler than many ‘vertical jump gurus’ would like to make you think it is. Use elite jumping athletes as a model for what you need to do to jump better, see their physique (big, strong hamstrings, glutes, low back and quads, with low body fat) and examine their training (simple barbell exercises, jumping and sprinting, free of gimmicks). If you are looking to build an awe inspiring vertical leap, be honest with yourself, put in the hard work, get stronger and faster, improve your technique and let your results speak for themselves.