Innumerable studies have shown that plyometric jumping results in excellent gains in vertical jump performance. In brief, plyometrics are explosive exercises, usually done with body weight. More technically, what really defines plyometric exercises is that they are characterized by a stretch-shortening cycle (SCC), which is to say they include a phase where the muscle lengthens followed quickly by a phase where the muscle shortens rapidly. In plain English, a classic plyometric exercise is when you jump off a box and immediately rebound. It can be as simple, though, as sinking before jumping.
Best Plyometric Jumping Exercises for Increasing Leg Power and Vertical Jump
Until recently, there hasn’t been great evidence on which plyometric exercises have the greatest benefit for vertical jump. In 2009, Spanish researchers did an analysis of 56 studies on plyometrics and jumping. Their conclusion is that the greatest benefits result from mixing exercises, but for maximum benefit, it is essential to include drop jumps. The standard three exercises often used for testing and comparison are:
- Drop Jumps. Always include this one. For a drop jump, you start on a box or stool, jump off and rebound. This results in excellent muscle loading and tension and allows you to actually jump higher. It also is the most effective plyometric exercise for improving jumping ability. Many heights have been tried, but it seems that beyond about 8-10 inches there is little additional benefit, but greater risk of injury.
- Counter-Movement Jumps. This is essentially your natural jump. You sink down (the stretch part) and explode up (the shortening part).
- Squat Jumps. In this case, you sink into a squat and explode up. This is considered less effective than drop jumps, but studies show that combining these with the other two generates larger benefit.
Those are the foundation blocks of a plyometric training, but there are tons of other possibilities, and good benefits from single-leg jumps as well.
- Box Jumps. Jump off a box and straight back onto the box and keep going.
- Single Leg Jumps. Any plyometric jump done just on one leg.
- Lateral Jumps. Powerful side to side jumps.
- Shuffle Jumps.My favorite. Mark a spot on the floor (drop a sock or coin or whatever). Spring as hard as you can to the left three times. The feet do not pass. So your right foot comes up to the left, but never past. Then you immediately spring again three times. Mark how far you make it. Now spring back to the right. Quit jumping if fatigue prevents you from reaching one of your marks.
The Spanish researchers outline some other aspects of a successful plyometric jump program.
- Adding Weights. Adding weight (weight vest, holding dumbells) beyond body weight does not seem to improve outcomes. This is probably because it slows down the jumper and increases "contact time", the time the feet are on the floor.
- Fit athletes see better vertical jump increase than unfit athletes. So if you’re already pretty well trained, that’s good news. If not, you may wish to focus more on running, weight loss and normal weight training until you can follow a plyometric program. If you are fit enough to follow the program though, you’ll get the same benefits as a fitter athlete.
- It takes time. Programs that last longer than 10 weeks had significantly better results.
- Intense sessions have more benefit. The greatest benefit for a given effort seems to occur when athletes do two sessions per week, in sessions involving 50 jumps or more. Performing this many jumps at a high level is probably why unfit people don’t get great benefit.
- Beyond a certain volume, though, there is little added effect. In other words, more is not always better.
- Eduardo Saéz-Saez de Villarreal et alia, "Determining variables of plyometric training for improving vertical jump height performance: a meta-analysis," Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009, vol. 23:2, pp. 495-506.
- Dawn T. Gulick et alia, "Parameters that influence vertical jump height," The Sport Journal, 2009, vol. 11:3.