Jump Out of the Hole

The vertical leap has become a standard testing measure amongst coaches and trainers in determining the athletic ability of their players (or potential players). From NFL and high school football combines to college basketball and track & field, athletes try endlessly to improve their vertical leap performance to impress the coaches. Can something as simple as how high one can jump determine the athletic success of a player? There is a strong correlation between explosive leg power and athletic performance in many activities such as throwing, sprinting and, of course, jumping. The ability to move quickly and efficiency through the Universal Athletic Position (UAP) is a key component to athletic success. In this position, the knees are bent in a quarter squat stance, bodyweight is evenly distributed across the heels and the balls of the feet, the trunk is slightly flexed forward with the back flat or arched, chest is held high with shoulders back and directly over the feet (see picture). From this position, the athlete is ready for anything. He or she can react and move in any direction with relative ease from this position. This is the same position a defensive back starts in when covering wide receivers. Quarterbacks also assume this position when going under center. This is the defensive stance a basketball player takes when guarding an opponent. When a player jumps for a rebound, a block or jumps to spike a ball, he or she squats down quickly and explodes up through this position. Because of this broad spectrum of applications, training in through UAP is extremely important in the development of athletic speed, strength and power.

While many sport activities are a combination of these skills and more, most athletes must be able to use strength as quickly and forcefully as possible to perform at a high level of success. This display comes in the form of speed-strength or power (1). While maximal power can be useful, peak power is what we should be most concerned with when it comes to our power athletes such as football linemen, sprinters, and weightlifters. Peak power (PP) is the highest instantaneous value achieved during a movement (3). An exercise that has been observed to have mechanical similarities to weightlifting movements is the vertical jump (VJ) (3). For example, average power and PP estimated from a VJ could be correlated with lifting ability (i.e. squat, snatch, and clean and jerk) (3). Measuring peak power during movements such as weightlifting, sprinting or pushing a defensive end around would require expensive equipment such as force plates, V-scopes, and linear encoders, so for the average coach who wants to assess an athlete’s peak power measurements, the vertical jump becomes an easy and affordable alternative field test. But is vertical jump performance a true indicator of athletic ability?

Take a look at the average high level power lifter. Most don’t look very ‘athletic’, but are extremely strong. Certainly a power lifter can squat more weight than any other type of athlete. Many athletes train similarly to power lifters with large loads (<5RM) at a relatively slow velocity in an attempt to increase their VJ performance. Does this type of training work? Does a big squat equal a big vertical jump? It should be noted that the term ‘power lifter’ is inaccurate. While power lifters can move extremely heavy loads (maximal force/strength); they usually don’t move them very quickly (slow velocity). The actual power output of the power lifter is lower than expected due to the length of time it takes to complete the lift. They can squat 900lbs, but what sort of vertical jump would you expect an average power lifter have? In a 1999 study at Southern Cross University in Australia, researchers compared the strength and power of power lifters, Olympic lifters, and sprinters. Using the smith machine squat, countermovement jumps and jump squats they found that the power lifters were as strong as the Olympic lifters and sprinters but scored significantly lower in tests for power and explosive performance (4). In some instances, the power lifters even performed worse than the control group (group that had no weight training background) in explosive testing! In contrast, Olympic lifters use both standard resistance exercise techniques, which include heavy load, slow velocity movements and explosive type lifts such as the snatch and clean and jerk in their training (4). The Olympic lifters were comparable in strength to the power lifting group, were stronger than the sprinters and were the most powerful of all three groups. The sprinters recorded the highest jump heights which would make sense as their training focuses on similar characteristics of the vertical jump: low resistance (bodyweight), explosive, high-velocity movements (sprinting) (4). Sprinters may jump the highest, but are they truly the most powerful?

A closer look at the force plate measurements shows an interesting finding. The sprinters and Olympic lifters were similar in average jump height, yet Olympic lifters produced higher peak velocities, higher peak force, higher peak power, and higher jump heights in comparison to the power lifters. As a result one can conclude that the Olympic lifters are both forceful (strong) and powerful (fast). These two qualities are key components to basic athletic performance and are the main reasons why Olympic lifts are a mainstay in all college and professional strength and conditioning programs. Does this mean athletes should dump heavy squatting all together? In a word, “No”. You heavy iron lifters out there do not fret, the dynamic nature of the parallel squat is highly conducive to enhancing neuromuscular efficiency (e.g., facilitating the stretch reflex). This in turn allows for excellent transfer of the power to other biomechanically similar movements that require a powerful thrust from the hips and thighs, such as vertical and horizontal jumps (1). Certainly, heavy squatting has its place in an athlete’s program, but must be combined with plyometrics to fully utilize the close working relationship between neuromuscular efficiency (e.g., multiple fiber recruitment and facilitating the stretching reflex) and dynamic strength performance (1). A study at Oregon State University in 1992 compared the results of 3 different 6-week programs on improving vertical jump. The first group used a squat only program, training twice a week, increasing the loads from 70%RM in week 1 to 100%RM in week 6. The second group performed a plyometrics only program consisting of depth jumps, double leg hops and split squats. The third group performed both the squat only and the plyometric programs. Results were quite amazing. The squat only group improved their VJ by an average of 1.28 inches, the plyometrics only group performed slightly better at an average increase of 1.48 inches but the combination group bested them all with an average improvement of 4.16 inches! So while plyometric exercise is the most common answer when someone asks how to improve their vertical jump, heavy squatting may be the most underrated and overlooked aspect of vertical jump training and it’s inclusion in a jumping program is essential in providing optimal results.

With the value of heavy squatting established, how does one choose which plyometric exercises to perform? There are a wide variety of movements to choose from with the squat jump, countermovement jump and the depth jump being the most popular used by strength coaches. Studies have shown that while all three are effective at increasing VJ, depth jumps have shown to be more effective as they can enhance neuromuscular factors that affect the specificity of training (2). In fact, under a variety of jumping conditions (start points, foot placement, arm swing etc) subjects who trained using depth jumps showed not only an increase in jump height but also positive energy production during all of the conditions. These results are noteworthy for athletes as sporting activities usually involve multiple jumping conditions as such jumping with feet firmly set versus jumping off one foot or jumping while off balance. Proper depth jump technique is important also to avoid injury and to maximize positive results. Do not jump off the box, step off it. When you touch the ground, minimize the time you are in contact with the ground. You should bounce and explode upwards as quickly as you can, the more time you spend in the “hole” the more elastic energy lost and the effectiveness of the jump is compromised.

While there are a million “vertical jump programs” on the market ranging from 50 page step-by-step manuals to funny looking jump shoes, save your hard earned cash. You can effectively enhance your vertical jump with your own combination of heavy load squats, Olympic lifts and plyometric movements. Jump out of the hole!


1. Adams, K., O’Shea, K.L. and M. Climstein. The effect of six weeks of squat, plyometric and squat-plyometric training on power production. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 6(1):36-41. 1992.
2. Gehri, D.J., M.D. Ricard, D.M. Kleiner, and D.T. Kirkendall. A comparison of plyometric training techniques for improving vertical jump ability and energy production. J. Strength and Cond. Res. 12(2):85-889. 1998.
3. Carlock, J.M., S.L. Smith, M.J. Hartman, R.T. Morris, D.A. Ciroslan, K.C. Pierce, R.U. Newton, E.A. Harman, W.A. Sands, and M.H. Stone. The relationship between vertical jump power estimates and weightlifting ability: A field-test approach. J. Strength Cond. Res. 18(3):534-539.2004.
4. McBride, J.M., T. Triplett-McBride, A. Davie, and R.U. Newton. A comparison of strength and power characteristics between power lifters, Olympic lifters, and sprinters. J. Strength and Cond. Res. 13(1):58-66. 1999.

Mark-Anthony Bailey is an Exercise Physiologist and a Certified
Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the NSCA. His goals
have been to ensure that his clients receive the latest information
on training techniques, nutritional guidelines and lifestyle modifications needed to obtain optimal health and performance. As a former Afloat Fitness Director for the U.S. Navy and a Strength & Conditioning Coach, he as worked with a wide range of clients including NCAA athletes, US Marines, and Navy SEALs. He can be contacted at markanthony@mostmuscle.com.
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The Universal Athletic Position

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