Updated: May 14, 2020
In the athletic world, very few things draw more attention than someone’s 40-yard dash, pitch velocity, or vertical jump. On one hand, these measurables can be superfluous, misleading, and overvalued by coaches and athletes alike. On the other hand, not only are they practical and important for athletic success, but we’re lying to ourselves if we suggest that blazing a 4.4 forty, clocking 93 mph on the gun, or hitting a 40” vertical aren’t wildly impressive feats that can singlehandedly change the recruiting process for a young athlete.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to completely ignore the genetic factors of jumping and athletic performance. Aside from that skewing the message, I am far from a geneticist, so we’ll keep this simple. I always view athletes on a spectrum of speed vs strength. Naturally, athletes have propensity for either being speedy (or “twitchy”) or strength athletes. This may come as earth shattering news, but for the twitchy guys/girls, we need to concentrate on strength and for the naturally stronger athletes we need to focus more on the speed-based exercises.
Absolute Speed <---> Speed-Strength <---> Strength-Speed <---> Absolute Strength
Generally speaking, athletes will fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with a slight affinity for one end or the other. This is especially true with high school and youth athletes, as their bodies haven’t developed enough to be truly elite performers on one end or the other. With the vast majority in this population we should focus about equally on both ends in order to optimize performance. As the athlete matures, they will begin to realize their natural abilities and it will be much clearer to determine where their individual strengths and weaknesses are.
Jump height, at its simplest root, is the byproduct of an athletes ability to produce force rapidly, elastic strength, and body mass. We can translate that by also viewing this as a byproduct of lower-body strength, ability to produce vertical power, and again body mass. In my view, I know that I need to include each of these elements in our training, the “guess work” is merely determining how much strength vs. how much power/plyos we need to work. In the paragraphs to follow, remember that this is assuming we need equal work on both ends. That all being said, this is the approach I take for increasing vertical jump height for the majority of athletes.
Step 1: Increase lower-body strength
A general rule of thumb that I follow with younger athletes (16-18 y/o) for demonstrating proficient lower-body strength is that the athlete should be able to back squat their body weight. For more intermediate-to-advanced athletes, this number should be 1.5 times their body weight, and for the advanced athletes (thinking collegiate level) they should be able to squat twice their body weight. I generally don’t emphasize numbers on compound movements with athletes under 16, unless they are truly high performers, so I don’t want to give a ratio for that population. Just assume that they need to get stronger in the lower-body.
These guidelines, of course, are not an inherent demand, and there is definitely variance and outliers to these. For instance, it is exceedingly more difficult for a 6’7” basketball player to perform a good back squat than it is for a 5’10” running back due to the obvious differences in limb lengths. Most collegiate basketball players for that matter, are probably going to have significantly greater difficulty with squatting than athletes in other sports. So, it isn’t a hard-line requisite, but again, in most cases this is a good rule of thumb to follow.
But we also need to remember that when we’re discussing lower-body strength, this goes so far beyond simply quantifying back squat ratios. What about single-leg strength? Well, many will argue that single-leg strength is an even more significant factor to not only jump height, but also overall performance and mitigating injury risk. Make no mistake about it, single-leg strength is tremendously important, and is also important for increasing bilateral jump height. There have been numerous studies examining what is known as the bilateral deficit effect (or phenomenon) which suggests that the summed unilateral force is greater than the collective bilateral force. In layman’s terms, when we train on one leg we are able to work up to, arbitrarily here, 110% of what we would be able to do on two legs if we divided the force between each leg. A hypothetical example of this would be the following:
-1-RM back squat = 300 lbs.
-1-RM RFE split squat = 175 lbs.
-175 + 175 = 350 lbs.
Make sense? Great. Point being, get strong as hell on one leg, it will not only transfer to sport in a myriad of ways, but will also directly contribute to increasing bilateral squat numbers, thus vertical jump height, as well.
Step 2: Work on reactive strength (aka plyos), often
Does jumping on to a box increase your vertical jump…? Kind of, but not really.
Does jumping off of a box increase your vertical jump…? Yes. For a little while, at least.
Does jumping up, down, left, right, one leg, two legs, and at varying tempos increase your vertical jump…? Damn straight.
I won’t turn this into a hierarchy of jump progressions, but it is important to address exactly what I mean by reactive strength, as well as what types of plyos are best suited for increasing vertical jump. Because, contrary to popular belief, no, not all plyos are created equal. But before we get to that, here is a very rudimentary introductory progression to box jumps:
1.) Depth jump
2.) Depth-to-vertical jump
3.) Reactive depth jump
4.) Box-to-depth jump
5.) Seated box jump
**Note: What I refer to as a “depth jump” some refer to as a “drop jump”, these are synonymous.
Box jumps are, without question, one of the most bastardized, misused and misapplied exercises on the face of the planet. I mean, seriously, how many videos of someone “HITTING A 184” BOX JUMP!!” are we going to see circulating the Twittersphere before we start to get it? The purpose of a box jump is two-fold, the first of which is to give the athlete an external target to focus on, and secondly, to absolve the eccentric forces upon landing. That is literally it. Those videos exclaiming a “65-inch box jump” aren’t impressive beyond them demonstrating their ability to execute a high degree of hip flexion, and as far as I know have very little carryover to vertical jumping.
So, how do you implement box jumping? Well, I’m glad you asked…
We should always start with the depth jump. No matter the sport, no matter the athlete, I am going to introduce the depth jump first when working with young athletes. As important as it is teaching the jumping mechanics, it is arguably even more important to teach the proper landing mechanics. Moreover, where jumping on to a box mitigates the eccentric forces upon landing, jumping off of a box accentuates them. Remember, eccentric strength is the underpinning to overall strength… you can’t speed up what you can’t slow down. So, the depth jump is our ground zero, and we will build everything to follow off of this. Once we’re proficient in the depth jump, I like to add a subsequent vertical jump to it. Have the athlete fall into the depth jump, execute a perfect stick upon ground contact and in a good “ready” stance, then explode into a maximal effort vertical jump, and then again stick the final landing. With this we have three different forces occurring:
1.) Eccentric loading on the depth jump.
2.) Reactive strength via the stretch-shortening cycle on the counter-movement preceding the vertical jump.
3.) Concentric strength on the execution of the vertical jump itself.
Next, the reactive depth jump (#3 on the list above) we’re simply speeding up what we already know. On this variation, rather than having the athlete “stick” the landing and holding that position, here we’re looking for an immediate change of direction upon ground contact. The goal of this is simple, try to have the absolute least amount of time between initial ground contact and subsequent takeoff or flight without compromising jump form. The technical application here is what is known as the reactive strength index (RSI), which is quantified as the jump height divided by the ground contact time.
RSI= Jump height (m)/ ground contact time (sec)
RSI, which is becoming more popularized and more of a ubiquitous measure, is a representation of stretch-shortening cycle function that demonstrates an ability to rapidly shift from an eccentric to concentric contraction. This is also known as the amortization phase, in case you want to impress some friends at a party. Improving the RSI, thus the stretch-shortening cycle function is not only imperative for increasing vertical jump height, but probably the bread and butter for most mid-level athletes. Someone a hell of a lot smarter than me, Eamonn Flanagan, wrote an amazing manual on the topic of RSI, which you can access via the link below if you want to read more into the RSI and all of its applications and functions.
As with any exercises, plyos are no different. That simple five-step progression can be, and should be repeated under load, and then again in a single-leg fashion. For me personally, that list above would populate the first mesocycle, then in the second mesocycle repeated with either a light weight vest or med ball, and again in single-leg form during the third mesocycle. It’s easy, and enticing, to make plyos sexy and complicated, but the reality of it is very little will have transferability if these more conventional jumps aren’t damn near mastered first.
The final point I have for reactive strength training is to apply some plyometric-based concepts to conventional lifts. Back squats, for instance, can be modified a thousand different ways to potentiate jump height. A simple yet effective way to start sampling this is to perform squats at ~50% and execute them FAST. This can be done with slow eccentric lowering to a rapid concentric, or fast eccentric lowering to rapid concentric. Each of those can be done with and without a pause (a paused squat removes the utilization of the SSC, requiring more effort concentrically). And of course, this can all be applied to a front squat (NOT the jump squat though), split squat, RFE split squat, and even an overhead squat if its conducive to training. We can go forever on this, but those are the nuts and bolts of getting started with reactive strength training.
Step 3: Body mass matters, confidence does too.
F= m x a
The 2nd of Newton’s golden Laws of Motion… force = mass x acceleration. So, how does this apply to jumping? The bigger the athlete is, physically, the greater the likelihood of them being able to generate greater force output is. Now of course, this isn’t always the case, but for the most part, that’s true. However, when we’re considering jumping, we have to consider that flight time is adversely affected as mass is increased. The higher the mass, the harder it is to fight gravity. No surprise to anyone.
I’ve never really been one to emphasize body mass with my athletes, aside from weight-class sports. But I try to just give them the tools or input they seek out, if you want to gain a little weight try x, y, z… you want to cut a little weight, try this and that. I don’t know, I just never really felt that was my place as a strength coach. Nevertheless, when it comes to increasing vertical jump height it most certainly is a factor, and therefore must be considered. I want to be perfectly clear in saying this- your body weight should be governed singularly by performance and feel. No matter your jump height, or any singular measurable for that matter, should never take precedent over how you perform on the court or field. Never compromise your ability to perform come game time for some ancillary measure. That being said, assuming it won’t contraindicate performance, we can work to tighten up some if we’re trying to squeeze out an additional 1-3” on our vert.
What’s important about this is not only avoiding altering performance come game time, but also, we don’t want to redact all the foundational work we put in to improving jump height. What I mean by this is having athletes start doing a shit ton of “cardio” to shed 5 lbs. or so, meanwhile de-training the legs we just worked so hard to build up. When it comes to manipulating body weight, it always starts and ends with what’s on your plate. Evaluate the nutrition first and foremost to ensure we’re optimizing the diet, and again, this will have positive effects everywhere, not just with jump height. Next, evaluate sleep, hydration, and supplement intake. If we’re sleep deprived, dehydrated, or taking (or not taking) certain supplements we’re missing the point. All of these things need to be up to par, otherwise we’re spinning our wheels. And for those snickering about sleep and hydration status, you really think the function of your central nervous system doesn’t play a role in jumping ability…? Think again.
My suggestion would be to add in some anaerobic conditioning 1-2 days/week and perform this for about 4-8 weeks depending on need and response. Hopefully you’re picking up on the theme by now but this, too, will not only help get you to where you’re going with jump height, but also have positive effects in general. Anaerobic conditioning can be done quite simply, as it does not take much time or resource. An assault bike, treadmill, versa climber, slide board, Concept2 rower or ski erg, or just 200 square feet will all suffice. Your work:rest intervals should be somewhere between 10-20 seconds work and 90 sec.-3 min. rest, and you’d want to repeat 8-12 times. This will help to kick a few lbs., without taking away the strength and power work you’ve put in and help contribute to a better vertical jump.
My final point on this topic is the influence of confidence. You’ve probably heard the saying- “look good, feel good, play good!” right? Well, I am a huge believer in this.
I’m a former basketball player, and for whatever reason, I’ve always had an ability to jump. I say it like that because despite my jumping ability, I was always remarkably slow, and generally speaking the two go hand-in-hand. But anyhow, the only reason I ever even got recruited to play in college was because I won a dunk contest at some invitational camp at Virginia Tech many moons ago. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance that had on me, but looking back now it was rather profound.
I started dunking regularly my senior year of high school, after several years of vigilantly working on jumping higher damn near to a fault. But once I really started taking off and got a few in-game dunks my whole game started to elevate (pun fully intended). I noticed I was playing with a different aggression, a different feel, a different swag. I felt like I was in the driver seat, no matter who was guarding me. Not only that, but I had developed the confidence that I was able to get by anyone because of my newfound explosiveness. I’m not relishing or getting trapped down memory lane here either, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that nothing, tangibly, was really different. I mean really, think about it, physically how could there be any difference from October to December? Sure, I got my “basketball legs” back coming out of football season, but realistically I wasn’t all of the sudden more explosive, quicker or stronger. What was occurring is that I was simply realizing my own ability and exercising it. The only thing that changed, or perhaps what I needed, was to win some meaningless dunk contest and get a few bangers in game to start taking that tenacity to other elements of my game.
Realizing athletic potential or ability is a labyrinth, and by no means am I suggesting that adding 5” to a vertical is all that’s needed for elucidating an athlete’s ability. But what I am suggesting, vehemently at that, is that confidence is without question a trainable quality; it just happens to be an indirect training outcome most, if not all of the time. Seeing an athlete realize their abilities or potential is a beautiful thing to witness, and for vertical-sport athletes, increasing vertical jump is potentially a way to achieve this.