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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.