Finding Vigor in Your Vertical Jump: A Brief Guide to Flying High
Rubber bands. Bulldozers. What do they have in common? They’re both ways to conceptualize each end of the vertical jump spectrum. Knowing where you lie within the spectrum is the first step to improving your vertical jump.
One on end, there are elastic properties of the musculotendon complex. This is the rubber band. Fast. Quick. Yet, all things considered, relatively low when it comes to force. A rubber band isn’t going to break down a brick wall.
On the other end, there are frictional properties of the musculotendon complex. This is the bulldozer. Slow. Grinding. It might break down the brick wall, but it’s going to be going rather slow.
The height of your vertical jump depends on some kind of relationship between each end of the spectrum. Often times, it comes down to where you land and then training the opposite end.
Let’s find out how.
Five measures can be used to get a comprehensive picture of how your body functions:
- the vertical jump
- the back squat
- standing vertical jump with one second pause
- running one legged jump
- depth jump
The vertical jump is the comparison number, consider it’s the middle-line between friction and elasticity. The other four are framed in reference.
- The back squat is your friction marker.
- The standing vertical jump with a one second pause is in between the middle (vertical jump) and friction (back squat) marker.
- The running one legged jump is your elastic marker.
- The depth jump is in between the middle (vertical jump) and elastic (running one legged jump) marker.
Just to make sure we’re all reading the same playbook:
- The back squat is done where the crease of the hip descends below the level of the knee. This is the most realistic depth marker for a gauge of holistic leg strength.
- The depth jump is done by stepping (not jumping) off of a 12-24” platform, and quickly rebounding in the opposite direction by jumping as high as possible in the air. You want to pretend like the ground is molten lava.
DISSECTING THE RELATIONSHIPS
Starting from the top:
- If your standing vertical jump with a pause is similar (only a few inches shy) to your regular vertical jump, you’re likely friction based. And you’re likely a candidate for speed/elastic/reactive work.
- If your depth jump is similar to or above (not uncommon) your regular vertical jump, you’re likely a candidate for friction/strength work.
The other two numbers are validation.
- There’s a good chance that if you’re standing vertical jump with a pause is good, you have a good strength to body weight ratio, and you’re likely squatting 1.5-2x your bodyweight. Your running one-legged jump probably doesn’t hold up well next to your vertical.
- There’s a good chance that if you’re depth jump is similar to (or above) your standing vertical jump, your running one-legged jump won’t be too shabby. Your squat probably isn’t quite twice your body weight though.
Using these bullets, you can then guide your training to either side of force-elasticity spectrum.
If you have good markers all around - just about even, with a depth jump on par with the vertical jump all while squatting twice bodyweight - then you’re inching closer to your maximum expression of vertical jumping ability. That’s not to say you can’t improve, but you’re probably at a point in which you need to deeply specialize in either elasticity or friction in different blocks, eventually bringing them up on bar with each other as you hop from focus to focus.
INCREASING FRICTIONAL ABILITY
The muscles most responsible for powering a vertical jump are the big muscles of the legs, which runs contrary to a lot of popular thought that puts most emphasis on the calves. The type of squat matters less than squatting itself, but, in general, the back squat rules here as it’s one of the few lower body exercises without an upper body limiting factor.
The front squat is a great leg exercise, but it’s handcuffed by the upper back’s ability to hold the torso in an upright position. And thus, a weak upper back could mean a weak front squat. And that means you’re losing out on leg strength on account of your upper back.
A similar case can be made for the deadlift, as the grip is often a limiting factor. Aside from that issue, however, the deadlift isn’t as comprehensive of a leg exercise from a range of motion standpoint. Self guided EMG research by Bret Contreras does suggest that it activates the glutes and hamstrings quite well though.
The calves are less important than the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, but they are important. Good old calf raises will take care of their frictional need. If you want to be as comprehensive as possible, pick a calf raise exercise with a full range of motion about the ankle. Something like a donkey calf raise works well here.
Increasing elasticity is all about quickness. Often times, this is called improving movement efficiency, and it starts with a solid connection between the body and the ground.
This starts with ankles and calf muscles that can stay strong and stiff, because if the ankles can't hold strong, effective force transfer diminishes. To develop ankle stiffness, point your toes to the sky and perform Ankle Bounces with a slight knee bend. When you are airborne, bring the tops of your feet to the sky. On the descent, recoil your forefeet forcefully into the ground.
Move into more intense speed exercises - traditional plyometrics followed by shock training. Keep in mind that shock training exercises were performed under close supervision with careful monitoring for fatigue. In his book Special Strength Training, Verkhoshansky recommends athletes start with as few as six to eight reps of a shock training exercise for minimal sets (I should also mention that this is just to build the capacity for them, so the height of the box should be low.)
Yet hundreds of programs have attempted to mimic Verkhoshansky's exercises, some of which prescribe hundreds of jumps and other explosive exercises performed daily with minimal rest in between sets.
It’s also worth noting that shock training exercises are not beginner exercises. In fact, until you can squat one and a half times your bodyweight, using shock training or high-level plyometrics to increase your reactivity will often fall short of expectations. You can use less stressful methods to still see results.
By identifying the weaker aspect of your vertical jump and adjusting your training to improve it, it won’t be long before you’re flying high.
Take the Challenge to Improve your vertical jump - use Anthony Mychal's tips and training advice.
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