Without any training, the athlete who can jump the highest will generally be the one who is most athletic. A greater proportion of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers, a posterior chain that is well developed, and an innate ability to move quickly in all directions will help you feel “athletic.” Athletic or not, with an organized training program you can defy gravity and increase your vertical jump with my top ten jump training tips.
Improving your vertical jump is one of the easiest ways to become a better athlete because jumping ability translates to so many sports—and in the process you will get stronger, quicker, and more flexible. There is a correlation between how high you can jump, how fast you can run, and how quickly you can move laterally.
The key is to gain strength and train the central nervous system for maximal explosive ability. Do this by using tempo training to your advantage—after all plyometrics are all about manipulating the amount of time your muscles spend under tension.
The Science of Jumping
The vertical jump is best trained by alternating between strength and power cycles because you need to teach the central nervous system the concept of acceleration. You need to be fast and able to generate extreme force quickly. First, train to build your strength relative to your body mass because this has been shown to independently improve vertical jump performance. To jump even higher, you need to do fast, powerful work to train the highest threshold motor units to produce peak power.
Doing fast and slow work in the same workout will be counterproductive. Training slow teaches your body to move slowly, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a time when slower movements will help you make gains in size and strength. The point is that these cycles need to be strategically planned and the body needs to be structurally balanced. Strength and balance provide the building blocks for teaching the body to move fast and jump high.
Tip #1: Strengthen the Glutes and Hamstrings
Strengthen the glutes and hamstrings because these muscles are the prime movers that act at the hip. Research into the biomechanics or movement patterns of the best jumpers have found that the glutes contribute about 40 percent and the hamstrings 25 percent to the vertical jump. Train these muscles during the strength phase with ground-based lifts such as the squat and deadlift. Research shows that both the squat and deadlift strength are strongly associated with vertical jump height.
Tip #2: Perform Full-Range Squat
Performing full-range deep squats will increase vertical jump more than quarter-squats. For example, one study showed that in a population of recreational athletes, vertical jump height increased by 8 percent after training deep full-range squats for 10 weeks. Quarter squats led to no gains in vertical jump height, indicating the importance of the glutes and hamstrings when jumping since these muscles contribute more in the bottom range of the deep squat and were not adequately trained with the partial-range squats in the study.
Tip #3: Train Pulling Movements
Train the basic pulling strength movements including the deadlift and variations of the Olympic pulls to provide a base for rapid power improvements once more dynamic lifts are introduced. A 2011 study recorded the EMG contribution of the prime movers in the lower body in a deadlift, back squat, and vertical jump. Results showed that the deadlift and back squat were nearly equal in the contribution of different muscles and that they both correlate well with vertical jump.
The only unique difference was that the deadlift required greater gastrocnemius activation, the biarticular calf muscle that contributes minimally to jumping. The researcher suggests both deadlifts and squats should be trained to increase vertical jump height, and in the case that only one can be trained, it may be better to spend the time on the deadlift since it does minimally train the calves.
Although you should not neglect calf training, direct isolation lifts for the calves and quads will not produce significant gains in jump height. For example, a study that looked at the effect of performing leg presses and calf raises showed very minimal gains in jump height (an average 1 cm increase in maximal height after six weeks of training).
Tip #4: Train the Posterior Chain for Strength and Flexibility
Train the posterior chain as a unit for strength and flexibility. Movement analyses show that improper power transfer down the posterior chain can produce weaker jumps. To enable better coordination and the transfer of force, train the posterior chain as a whole.
The erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings are linked by the sacro-tuberal and dorso-sacral ligaments allowing the whole posterior chain to benefit from compound exercises such as high bench step-ups, reverse hypers, and variations for the Olympic pulls. When pressed for time, the focus can be on these multi-joint lifts rather than isolation exercises for the posterior, such as leg curls for the hamstrings. Just as with the calf raises and leg extension, the isolation lifts don’t transfer much to improvement in the vertical jump. However, if more time is allowed for training, they can help for the long-term development of the vertical jump.
Tip #5: Stretch the Hip Flexors
Lack of mobility in the hip flexors and ankles can lead to faulty movement mechanics and keep you rooted to the ground. Keeping the hip flexors mobile allows for the hip extensors to fire maximally without having these muscles get in the way and decelerate the jumping movement. Mobility is also necessary for deep squat technique, which is a primary strength exercise for increasing vertical jump.
Becoming more mobile in your hip flexors will increase the number of motor units used in the hip extensors, resulting in a much greater contraction. Don’t let a lack of flexibility be a limiting factor to your performance. In the long run, it will put you at risk of injury and keep you from getting the air time you desire.
Tip #6: Use Plyometrics
Use plyometrics to increase vertical jump and power output. Research shows that doing plyometric exercises is effective at increasing vertical jump height because they train the body to optimally use the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) to produce power. Combined with adequate levels of strength and experience recruiting the highest level threshold motor units, plyometrics are even more effective.
A large-scale review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at 26 studies that tested the effect of plyometrics on vertical jump. Results showed that plyometrics can increase vertical jump height by 7.5 to 8.7 percent. Of interest, the analysis found that plyometrics boost jump performance more in countermovement jumps, which are classified as slow SSC jumps, than in squat or “bounce” jumps (drop jumps without a countermovement), which are considered concentric or fast SSC jumps.
The SSC is the workhorse of jumping. It includes the muscle-tendon component of the muscular system, and when it is lengthened through an eccentric contraction, elastic energy is stored. If you perform a concentric contraction, the stored energy is released, allowing the for greater total force output.
The SSC uses the muscle-tendon to take advantage of the “countermovement” or eccentric contraction when preparing to perform a vertical jump, making plyos more effective for improving jumps that use the SSC because of the elastic and neural benefits the SSC provides. As mentioned, the BJSM analysis found the countermovement jump uses the SSC much more than the bounce jump or squat jump.
New findings on the benefits of plyometrics show that they can benefit even professional athletes. This study in the Journal of Sport and Health Research tested the effect of a high-intensity plyometric training program on vertical jump. Players increased vertical jump by an average of 23 percent, and gained 0.30 seconds or 9 percent in 20-meter sprint speed. They also improved agility by 8 percent and balance by 5 percent. The gains were due to improved neuromuscular function (better use of the SSC) and muscle coordination (central nervous system activity). Additionally, better proprioception, or a better sense of joint position and motion, was enhanced, which can benefit all athletes, but especially those with awkward or rigid movement patterns.
Tip #7: Train Unilateral Plyometrics
Unilateral plyometric training is more effective than bilateral jump training if athletes need to make rapid gains, or if they regularly jump off one leg when performing their sport. A comparison of the two types showed that unilateral plyometrics produced an 11 percent increase in peak power after 6 weeks compared to a 6 percent increase in the bilateral training group in both unilateral and bilateral tests. Unilateral training was superior for jumping off one leg at all time points, indicating its inclusion in the program of a basketball, soccer, or possibly football player. Bilateral training should be a staple for all athletes, and naturally, unilateral movements can be included in a bilateral training cycle.
Tip #8: Use Complex Training
Complex training will improve vertical jump because it takes advantage of the muscle activation that is derived from a heavy strength exercise. A near maximal load will allow you to generate rapid force (and height in the vertical jump) during a subsequent plyometric movement.
For example, one recent study compared the effect of doing complex training with either a squat at 75 percent of the 1RM followed by a vertical jump or a hang clean at 60 percent of the 1RM followed by a vertical jump. The hang clean group increased vertical jump more, likely because the rapid force generated in the clean translated to greater muscle activation and power output when jumping. Another option that I have had success with is pairing hang power snatches and vertical jumps.
Tip #9: Alternate Strength and Power Cycles: Vary Tempo
Be sure not to confuse or blunt adaptations by training for strength and power at the same time. You need both peak strength and maximal power to be able to jump high, but it is hard to get the body to adapt optimally with a disorganized program. Gain strength in your squat and deadlifts in order to make gains in the more dynamic lifts such as the power clean and snatch, which will translate to increased inches on your vertical.
In your strength cycles, keep the time under tension to 10 to 30 seconds per set and use a high number of sets (5 to 10 sets per lift). Use near complete rest intervals in the 4 to 5 minute range. Heavy weights should be used to maximally recruit higher threshold motor units. A longer time under tension, more reps with fewer sets, or more eccentric-enhanced lifts, will access lower threshold motor units, which won’t give you as much power.
In your power cycles keep the time under tension below the 10 second mark, with 6 to 8 sets per exercises. Depending on the exercise, the rest will vary from 3 to 5 minutes depending on the neuromuscular effect. For example, a set of 6 jump squats will be most effective with 3 minute rest intervals, whereas a set of 3 reps of the push jerk will require 5 minute rest intervals.
Don’t vary tempo within a workout. Tempo is an awesome tool for programming different workouts and training cycles, but it will be contradictory if you haphazardly perform power cleans and slow eccentric back squats.
Tip #10: Train the Shoulder Girdle
Arm swing can increase vertical jump performance because it improves the transfer of power down the posterior chain, translating into more “air time.” Research shows that when athletes try to jump as high as they can, range of motion at the shoulder increases and there is more activation of the shoulder and upper arm muscles, effectively “pulling” the rest of the body upwards.
If you are not convinced that arm swing and strength of the shoulder girdle contributes as much as 15 percent of the vertical jump, try jumping while keeping your hands on your hips. A study in the Journal of Biomechanics found that arm swing will increase jump height by as much as 28 percent and velocity by 72 percent at take-off. Researchers suggest that arm swing enhances performance because it shifts muscle activation to the posterior chain from the quads, resulting in greater work done by the muscles at the hip joint than the knee joint. Without arm swing, the knee joint contributes more and power output is less, leading to weaker jumps.
Athletes should train the shoulder girdle to increase vertical jump height according to the specific movement patterns required for their sport. For example, in jump training for figure skating, the shoulder abductors should be trained, while the shoulder flexors are more important for jumping in volleyball and basketball.
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