Improve Vertical Jump: Tips to Get You Higher, Part I

So you’re eying the rim and you want to dunk that ball in, or you just simply want to improve your vertical jump because you never know when you might need to pull a frisbee out of a tree. Let’s be honest, improving vertical jump performance is not something that comes easy, but takes time, dedication and persistence. So let’s say you’ve got all that, how do you get started? In Part I, we’ll get a brief overview of the importance of body weight and leg strength. We’ll discuss improving vertical leap with plyometrics, psychology and calf training in Part II of this basic series on improving vertical leap. Obviously, all these topics can fill a book, so this is just a basic once over and you’ll find more detailed info on these topics elsewhere on the site.

Lower Launch Weight

You know why it takes so much fuel to get the shuttle into space? Because moving big weight big distance takes power. Vertical jump is all about your power to weight ratio. For a lot of people, it will be easier to lower the weight than to increase the power. Do both and you can accelerate your vertical jump improvement. Obviously, this is a big topic. There’s a whole shelf of books on weight loss at your local Barnes and Nobles, but here are some basic suggestions:

  • Get real. By that I mean, get a skinfold caliper and get a rough measure of your body fat. If you’re over 15% for men or over 20% for women, those extra fat pounds are really limiting your jumping ability. Ideally, for men, you’d like to be under 10% and women under 15% (but not below 6% or 12% respectively otherwise you’ll have other issues). How much are those extra pounds holding you back? Well, assuming you’re a guy with 20% bodyfat and weigh 180 pounds, it means you have about 18 surplus pounds. Put a ten-pound dumbell in each hand and see how high you can jump. Sobering, isn’t it?
  • Cut down on sweet and high fat foods, bump up the number of veggies and protein that you eat. Monitor your calorie input and see how much you’re eating now. Cut 200 calories per day off that amount (just one Anchor Porter or Snicker’s bar per day). That’s 5 pounds in three months.
  • Add in a bit more exercise. Running a mile at a fairly reasonable 9:30 pace burns an extra 105 calories for an average weight male. Two miles three times per week is 600 calories. Another pound per week. Add in some weight training (below) and you’ll burn even more.

Increase Leg Strength

Strength is a function of the amount you can lift. Power is a matter of how quickly you can set that mass in motion. To jump you need power, but to build power, you need strength. In fact, exercise physiologists have determined that we humans have maximum power when we are working at about 70% of our maximum strength output. So if you want more power, you do need to get stronger. For leg strength, there are two exercises that are absolute kings: squats and deadlifts. Many people misunderstand the difference, thinking that if the bar is on your shoulders it’s a squat and if you grab the bar off the floor, it’s a deadlift. In fact, you can do a low-grip squat with the right equipment and the key difference is whether your center of gravity is forward and the legs start relatively straight, and you bend a lot at the waist (deadlift) or you’re more back and you bend mostly at the knees (squat).

  • Deadlifts are simple. Bend over, grab the bar, and lift it off the ground. With bad form, though, you could destroy your back. Start with low weight. Warm up with some easy lifts. Now rack up an Olympic bar. Keep the small of your back flat and keep your eyes fixed high (like the top of the wall, depending on the gym layout of course). You absolutely do not want look down as that will encourage you to let your back curl, which could cause injury.
  • Squats are also simple, but a relatively high-risk exercise. Renowned strength coach Mike Boyle recommends that most athletes not ever do squats with the bar on the shoulders, as this encourages bad form. Since by "most athletes" Mike means "most pro football players" that he trains, "most" means you. What Mike recommends instead is a front grip squat where you cross your arms across the chest and hold the bar against the clavicle (collarbone). This tends to encourage an upright posture (remember, the upper body is more upright in the squat, not bent over like a deadlift) and allows you to throw the weight off at any time if you have trouble. For this exercise, you’ll either need two friends to hodl the bar to get started, or you’ll need a squat rack (much better: a squat rack is just a metal frame that lets you load up the bar at the high point and then get under it, and it limits how far down it can go).
  • Single-leg squats. This is an even safer version and it makes your legs work independently. Very simple: just grab a dumbell in one hand (or not if you don’t have the strength yet), stand on your left foot and hold your right foot out in front of you. Squat down and stand up. No partner necessary for this one and very effective. You can also stand on a stable bench, step or box, but you don’t want to let your leg extend behind — that’s a one-legged deadlift.

For more quick tips for beginners, go on to Part II of this basic series on improving vertical leap.

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