Leg muscle power and vertical jump performance are considered critical elements for successful athletic performance, not to mention for simply performing successful daily activities. Not surprisingly, a lot of research has focused on the development of vertical jump performance. Here are three studies that I think stand out from the crowd.
In a study called opens in a new windowDoes plyometric training improve vertical jump height? A meta?analytical review, the researchers found that, yes, plyometric training significantly improved vertical jump height. Researchers actually saw an increase in jump height between 4.7% and 8.7%. With results like that, plyometric training appears to be an effective form of physical conditioning for augmenting the vertical jump performance in leaping individuals.
Then there is a study called opens in a new windowImproved Maximum Strength, Vertical Jump and Sprint Performance after 8 Weeks of Jump Squat Training with Individualized Loads which concluded that eight weeks of jump squat training resulted in significant improvements in countermovement jump, squat jump, maximum isometric squat force and average force over 100m, as well as 50m sprint time. This suggests that short-term (8 weeks in this case) jump squat training can improve your vertical leap plus a bunch of athletic performance abilities simultaneously.
Finally, a study called opens in a new windowEvaluation of Plyometric Exercise Training, Weight Training, and Their Combination on Vertical Jumping Performance and Leg Strength provides support for the use of a combination of traditional weightlifting, Olympic-style weightlifting exercises, and plyometric drills to improve vertical jumping ability and explosive performance in general.
Take a balanced approach to your training inputs in order to maximize the different strength characteristics involved in jumping.
This final study, combined with the other studies, reinforces the importance of taking a balanced approach to your training inputs in order to maximize the different strength characteristics that are involved in jumping. Weight training improves your ability to generate force, while plyometrics help you apply that force quickly. Put them all together and they will help you jump higher.
How High Can You Jump?
I don’t know who said it first (someone smarter than me, for certain) but it is true that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. So, let’s look at how you can measure your own jump height before we try to improve it.
Here is one way to measure jump height:
- Find a wall that is high enough for you to execute your highest jump and not be limited by the ceiling (or anything else that could impede your vertical velocity).
- Stand next to the wall and extend your arm fully above your head. Mark your standing reach on the wall (or get a friend on a ladder or chair to help).
- From a standing start, jump as high as you can and touch the wall at the top of your jump. Wet or put some chalk on your fingertips so that you leave a distinct mark on the wall.
- To get your vertical jump distance, measure between your standing reach and your jumping reach. Done. Now you have a starting point.
You can have a few tries, and either take an average of the tries or choose your highest jump. It is up to you. Once you can touch the ceiling, I guess you have to move to a bigger house? I don’t know. I’m a white guy and everyone knows we can’t jump.
How Do You Stack Up?
The first thing to keep in mind is that average vertical leaping ability differs quite a lot between men and women. This is due to differences in muscle mass, body size, and strength.
You can have the greatest jumping muscles in the world but if your brain does not yet know how to recruit those muscle fibres in an effective and efficient manner, it’s all for naught.
Also keep in mind that if you don’t jump on a regular basis, don’t have cause to jump often, or have never spent any time thinking and working on your jumping abilities, you are starting with a distinct disadvantage, neuromuscularly speaking. You can have the greatest jumping muscles in the world but if your brain does not yet know how to recruit those muscle fibres in an effective and efficient manner, it’s all for naught. Don’t worry though, all it takes is practice. Your brain will figure it out.
Another thing that factors in is age. As we get older, our muscles get weaker and less springy. Most studies have shown that our highest jumping heights occur when we are in our 20s. In fact, the average jumping height for 20- to 29-year-olds is 20 inches. On average, our best jumping happens before we hit 30 years of age. After that, it slowly goes down by about three inches for each decade we age. Keep in mind this is a rough average but it gives you somewhere to start.
One more thing to keep in mind is that it has been shown that depending on what sport you play, the average vertical leap differs as well. Athletes in sports where jumping ability is an integral skill and is often tested, measured, and focused on (such as basketball, volleyball, or football) have higher scores on jump tests compared to athletes who don’t need to jump to perform (like distance runners, hockey players, or swimmers).
How Do We Jump?
The secret to jumping prowess, whether the jumper is human or otherwise, is rooted in basic physics. Increase your power-to-weight ratio and you will jump higher—it’s pure science!
Let’s break this down a little further. First, what is power?
Power = Force x Velocity
- Force is the maximum amount of strength that you have.
- Velocity is the maximum amount of speed that you have.
Increase your power-to-weight ratio and you will jump higher—it is pure science!
When you find a way to increase your strength and your velocity in relation to your body weight, then your vertical jump will improve.
Let’s break this down even farther.
The most important strength components, when we’re talking vertical jump, are exercises like the back squat, front squat, calf raise, and deadlift. If you are able to increase the amount of weight that you can effectively lift in these exercises, you increase your strength. If you keep your body weight relatively the same (or lower), you will increase your power to weight ratio.
Velocity is the speed at which you move. In this case, the speed at which you perform your vertical jump. And that is pretty darn fast! Most vertical jumps take a mere 0.2 seconds to execute. When you have some super quick velocity, you can use your strength maximally.
Exercises for Vertical Leaping
As we found out from the studies earlier, the best approach to increasing your vertical leap is through a combination of exercises. Strength exercises that are done in slow, controlled movements like squats and lunges develop one aspect. Power exercises that use fast and explosive movements like plyometrics and hang cleans develop another aspect. And of course, practicing your maximum vertical jump will also help—remember what we learned about the brain-muscle connection.
Here are some exercises that you can try, in a rotation, for a few weeks before redoing your leap test to see how much you have improved.
1. Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian Split Squat develops strength and balance at the same time, both of which are important for successfully launching yourself into the air and then landing again without hurting yourself.
Stand a few steps in front of a bench or chair with your back facing it, and place your non-working leg up on the seat with the top of your foot flat on the surface. Using the front leg that is anchored to the floor, lower your body until your back knee is nearly touching the floor, then push back up through the heel of your front foot. This is one rep.
2. Knee to Feet Jumps
This one is fun and deceptively tiring, and does a great job of building extra lower-body power.
Get down onto your knees and sit on the heels. Swing the arms, for momentum, as you explosively jump up, shoving your hips forward as you rapidly swing your feet and legs underneath your body. Land the movement in a squat with your arms out in front of you. Slowly lower yourself down into a kneeling position again, moving down one knee per time. That is one rep.
3. Box Jumps
To get the most out of this one, use your maximum power at all times. Don’t just use the minimum amount necessary to avoid faceplanting.
Find a sturdy box (or piece of furniture) that will hold your weight and not slip around on the floor. Place it in front of you and jump up onto the box. Then jump back down, landing with soft knees, in a crouching position. To get the most benefit out of this one, focus on intensity over quantity, meaning once your form starts to suffer, the workout is over.
4. Jump Rope
Jumping rope strengthens and helps build springiness in the muscles you need to execute a vertical leap. It also helps improve your general jumping abilities and develop those nueromuscular connections.
You can find some opens in a new windowgood jump rope workouts in my past article but basically, grab your rope and jump on a firm surface where you have plenty of room. A good place to start is to jump for ten minutes per day. Feel free to break it up into smaller chunks if doing that all at once is intimidating.
5. Calf Raises
Shaquille O’Neal reportedly did 1,000 calf raises every day before bed. By doing this, he apparently increased his vertical leap by 12 dunking inches. Whether that is folklore or not, calf raises are an effective way to add some coil and recoil into your jump.
Calf raises are a simple exercise and when you are doing that type of volume (please, don’t go from zero to 1,000) you don’t need any weight or gear. Although, I am a fan of doing them on the edge of a stair for maximum range of motion.
6. Depth Jumps
This one is likely the most common exercise prescribed to increase your vertical jump. If you only do one exercise from this list, do this one.
Use the same platform that you used for the Box Jumps and simply jump off the box, then immediately jump up off the ground vertically; the very second your feet touch the ground after jumping downward, you should start jumping upwards. This trains your body to use and re-use the elastic energy in your muscles to propel yourself with velocity and power.
As you get better and better at this exercise, you can modify it by adding obstacles, hurdles, faster repetitions, and of course by increasing the height of the box.
7. Trap Bar (hex bar) Deadlifts
I would recommend this exercise over the weighted squat but both can help build the strength and force necessary to jump high. The thing I like most about this (over the squat) is that it uses similar biomechanics to a vertical jump. The fact that the weight is centered around your body can allow you to stay upright and in a more “jump-like” pose.
Stand in the center of a trap bar and grasp the handles. Keep your back straight and lift the bar up off the ground in one smooth and slow motion. Pause for a second or two at the top and then lower the bar back down to the ground, in a smooth and controlled motion.
8. Hang Clean Pull
At first, you may think this one is out of place but if you watch a video of someone doing a Hang Clean Pull (and I highly recommend that you do before attempting it), you will see that the motion being executed is basically a weighted jump—without leaving the ground. Which makes this both a strength and a plyometrics exercise that targets the quads, calves, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and traps.
Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart with a barbell at your feet. Squat down and pick up the barbell and hold it at waist level. Then bend at your knees and waist (keep your back straight) and lower the weight to the top of your knees. Explode upwards with your legs, hips, and calves while pulling the weigh upwards with your shoulders. Reset the barbell to waist level and do it again.
Word on the street is that Wilt Chamberlain had a vertical leap of 48 inches (that’s four feet) with Darrell Griffith and Michael Jordan close behind. But the average NBA player can only jump 28 inches (“only”…ha!) so don’t despair if you can’t measure up to Wilt “The Stilt.” I mean, neither can LeBron. Just sayin’.
In the end, if you want to jump higher, you need to practice jumping higher. But by including some of these exercises in your workout regimen, you will certainly get there faster. Remember, it’s all physics.