The other day, a few coaches asked me if I still hated box jumps, and they were taken aback when I said that I still use them in specific circumstances. Overall, most of the box jumps I see are high repetition conditioning or video highlights of athletes, not quality training.
In this article, I cover more than just a list of the pros and cons of box jumps—I get into more science and better practice than the original article I wrote years ago. I also cover different exercise options and tweaks that make conventional box jumps great for athletes, while introducing some novel progressions. The goal of the article is not to continue to trash the exercise, as it’s constantly abused and that’s only getting worse because of social media, but to help coaches see that they can be productive with the exercise.
Bruising Egos and Managing Reality Checks
I will get the ugly side of box jumping out of the way, and I don’t mean injuries from falling off equipment not meant for true training. Yes, it’s common to see videos of users falling off stacked boxes, usually in the aerobics room of a commercial fitness center, but there’s another ugly side of box jumps besides injuries. Box jumps are popular because they falsely present jumping ability in a tangible, visual display. Think about it: Just jumping in the air is hard to evaluate compared to jumping on a box or jumping at the same time as a competitor, like in goal kicks.#Boxjumps are popular because they falsely present jumping ability in a tangible, visual display, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A successful jump onto a box naturally demonstrates an accomplishment to an athlete. When athletes celebrate their squat jumps on a force plate like they do their box jumps, I will be amazed. Ten years ago, I first got public about the egos of box jumps when I saw videos of athletes with low verticals using boxes to inflate their abilities. Years later, we now see more support for using box jumps properly with messaging like this great tweet from Lachlan Wilmot.
Jump training needs to improve COM displacement, not hip mobility, a higher box doesn't mean you’re jumping higher! pic.twitter.com/hEcKWcfjLZ
— Lachlan Wilmot (@lachlan_wilmot) September 23, 2016
To me, slam dunking is a better standard than box jumping, because the height is universal and the function is far more useful in sport. Box jumping, while sometimes a part of solid training, mainly feeds the egos of athletes. I love challenging athletes and have used box jumps to get athlete arousal up, but I always kept a watchful eye on landing mechanics and whether the athlete was descending on the box rather than trying to land higher than they jumped. Like cheating on the Just Jump mats or any contact grid, those who focus on better scores versus actually being better athletes seem to love box jumps.Some coaches like programming #boxjumps because nearly anyone can do them, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another issue with box jumps is that they are easy ways to keep athletes busy, and it’s common to see them as a way to fill time. Like rolling a ball out instead of coming up with a curriculum in physical education, some coaches like programming box jumps because nearly anyone can do them, including general populations. Box jumps are safe if they use padded equipment, so they are seen everywhere now. Why individualize training when anyone can jump on a medium box? Most athletes who have some training can jump on a box and look fine, but jumping off a box is where most athlete differentiate themselves. In no way am I saying that box jumps are evil, but like any training modality they can be abused easily.
Eccentric and Elastic Training Arguments
I don’t want to beat a dead horse for why box jumps are not great true plyometrics options, but we should cover the discussion point now that more science is available. The main purpose of plyometrics is to exploit the stretch shortening cycle, and box jumps are not great options compared to other exercises. True, during a countermovement, stored elastic energy is perhaps utilized to jump up on the box, but if you had to compare jumping off a box to jumping on a box, the preceding option is likely better every single time. Jumping on a box decreases the stress of the exercise, but the stress of landing is what makes athletes better, if prescribed and instructed right.
Doing #plyometrics for conditioning is like using a sports car for Uber rides or pizza deliveries, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Some eccentric landing benefits do exist, as box jumps are not a pure concentric exercise, but those loading styles are not primary means of improving athleticism. As I mention later, teaching one repetition at a time for a complex movement makes sense, but repeated rhythms of motion really help teach, so I like plyometrics that are harmonic in nature or purposely broken in rhythm to challenge athletes. Box jumps are single effort exercises, but some coaches have made them into a conditioning circuit, and to me, this defeats the whole purpose of plyometrics. Doing plyometrics for conditioning is like using a sports car for Uber rides or pizza deliveries—it’s possible, but not the intent of the equipment.
For seniors or some athletes who have been medically compromised, box jumps may have value and I would never recommend coaches remove an exercise unless it’s inherently dangerous. I believe box jumps are for beginners only, and you should use them with quality technique and effort, sparingly.
The Kinetics of Box Jumping
Science and logic are the perfect antidotes to bad box jump training, and we have more research now than we did in 2015 when the first article was posted on Freelap USA. The bad news is that the number of studies and amount of details within the research are so scant that this section is more about my findings than a solid array of good studies. I looked at research for months, and most of the references to box jumps were not on jumping up, but jumping off or down. If a study did mention box jumps, it was more of a study of conditioning or inclusion of a training program than a study of the forces of box jumping. What I wish I had are the following:
- Details of the landing forces based on the relative height of the box, the athlete’s jumping ability, and the landing strategy.
- Kinetic information on jumping on and up from boxes when stacked in a stair-like manner, along with other boxes horizontally with bounding and hopping using low platform-style equipment.
- Evidence of ground reaction forces with box heights and other visual motivators like a Vertec system.
I did find a few studies that were physiological rather than enlightening to actual physics, such as bone density of step aerobics type box jumping and a CrossFit study. Lee Brown did help with a box jump study, but it wasn’t very clear that the intentions were to help problem-solve the value of the exercise.In the research, most of the references to #boxjumps are on jumping off or down, not on jumping up, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The main problem with box jumps is that the materials used—wood or industrial plastic—are not ideal to add force plates to. Also, most three-dimensional plates, useful for research but not necessary for training, are usually too large to make a study convenient unless you are really dedicated to knowing more about the exercise. Perhaps the scientists are wise enough not to focus on box jumps as they put their energy towards assessments of athletes jumping off a box for ACL screening and prevention.
What we can conclude with box jumps is that the rates of eccentric force and absolute force are far less with landing on a box than landing off one. I do know that some athletes who near their maximal jump height will sometimes reduce their ground reaction forces as they are already thinking about hip flexion and landing, but some arousal benefits occur from the sensible height—a distance that motivates but doesn’t distract an athlete.
So, the easiest way to summarize box jump kinetics is that jumping up and landing tend to be inverted. The higher the box, the lower the landing forces, but athletes require higher amounts of propulsion to get up onto the surface. As with hurdle jumps, we can conclude that the athlete is producing equal or more force if they have to land and quickly jump to the next box. I like wide and deep stadium stairs for extended “box jumps,” provided plyo strips are carefully placed. Repeated jumps are okay with stacked boxes if properly supervised, and this is a topic that demands an entire article down the road.
Why I Don’t Like Double Box Jumps
The previous article didn’t cover another bane of mine, the now epic “double box jump.” For those not familiar with it, it’s a hybrid between box squats and box jumps, and it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Many coaches are fine to program it, but for the most part it doesn’t rank high in my exercise arsenal.
My main issue is that the double box jump requires a rolling motion or a strange setup, thus defeating the purpose of sitting on a box in the first place. If you purposely use a box for concentric starting power, don’t jump on a box, just jump up or jump out without a prop. Static starts are part of sport, but if athletes need that quality, it’s better to just do the sporting action in practice or train it properly with loaded options.
Video 1. Whether they jump from a rolling or static start, athletes tend to become robotic and less fluid when there are too many restrictions. I personally don’t like double boxes and never include them in my program.
Some coaches will claim that working concentrically with variations that incorporate a seated position encourages rate of force development, and I would agree if it was box squatting. However, there is too much rolling forward to jump up and out onto a box to exploit the potential mechanisms of the neuromuscular system. It may sound good in theory, or even look good on paper, but double box jumps don’t have enough strong supportive arguments to compel me to place them into a program.
Double vs. Single Leg Options
In the years since the original article, I have seen more and more videos of single leg landings on a box, both initiated by two legs and taking off from one. I understand the thinking behind the popularity of single leg training, but single leg box jumping seems compromised. While any plyometric activity has risk, I don’t like landing on one leg on boxes that usually are too high to begin with. I do like step-ups from time to time, but why not just train hops on the ground? On the other hand, single leg landings one at a time are not a bad idea if you want to teach quality movement, since they force the athlete to focus rep by rep.I understand the thinking behind single leg training, but single leg box jumping seems compromised, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The only time I use single leg options with boxes is bounding or hopping drills with very skilled athletes or track athletes. Due to the skills required, I don’t do any single leg horizontal exercises with team sports as it requires way too much individualization. Hopefully, coaches who are very talented will find better progressions and approaches in teaching for specific training with low boxes, but for now, most of our box work is double leg landing and takeoffs. I don’t currently consider jumping on a box from one leg or landing on one leg as time well spent unless it’s an advanced option.
Loaded or Resisted Box Jumps
I like loaded box jumps from time to time, and generally we have three modifications to choose from. During heavy training periods, sometimes jump squats become a little taxing on the tendons, and if the athlete has the nervous system to handle more explosive training, then loaded box jumps are fine. Using a medium height box, jumping on the box is great if the athlete is loaded.
Video 2. It’s possible to load with dumbbells for athletes who want to use loaded jumps for power. A small box adds a little complexity to a routine exercise, but keep the height low, as it’s about the ground forces not the box.
I have seen a few useful options with loaded box jumps, and each resistance modality has a unique purpose that really makes a difference. Coaches can use weight vests, dumbbells, and medicine balls. When programming, it makes sense to use the right loaded option and make a point to explain the difference to athletes. For example, weighted vests are great for utilizing arm action and moderate depths, while dumbbells or kettlebells are fine for heavier loads and a focus on leg drive. Medicine balls are perfect for those wanting to challenge athletes, but they require a little more attention to landing and are only useful for those that have the right platform.
Video 3. I prefer weight vests with loaded jumps, as the natural loading is far more comfortable than other means.
All three resisted box jumps are great from time to time, but again, they are secondary choices compared to other ways of developing power. What makes all three of the loaded box jumps special is that when sequenced or selected properly, they contrast or complement other modes perfectly.
True Plyometric Boxes vs. Commercial Boxes
Many coaches who are new or even experienced are confused by what a box should look like in the first place. Most of the boxes for “plyometric training” in catalogs look like cubes of 2-3 feet in height. The problem is that this leads to a very narrow definition of box jumping, as it pigeonholes a coach into doing the same exercise when there is an awesome variety of options out there.
In fact, I find that I use low boxes for plyometric exercises more than commercial boxes designed for jumping. We use three styles of boxes: iron boxes for jumping off, padded for jumping on, and wooden for exploding from. I don’t have athletes jump on iron boxes anymore, and padded boxes are now affordable. Low boxes are great for many purposes, such as snatching or acting as a top for jerk boxes or blocks.
Do your homework and never force training on a surface that isn’t proper for jump training, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Some coaches have built staircases for Frans Bosch drills, and I see a lot of boxes used for those exercises, but I am more of a fan of Cometti training with plyometrics and “stacked” boxes, if you will. If we are going to use stairs, I want them for general preparation training with extended step-ups or repeated jumping. Not every athlete needs to be Werner Gunthor, but the right set of jump stairs makes a big difference if you want to implement frog jumps. As brought up earlier in the kinetic section of the article, proper box stacking is necessary to encourage safe and effective jumping. Stadium steps are popular for jumping, but most are designed for walking up and not for jumping, so do your homework on them and never force training on a surface that isn’t proper for jump training.
A lot of jump and sprint coaches will be familiar with low boxes or polish boxes from Piasenta’s books or high jump training. Any athlete who is athletic and can perform bounding and hopping with great technique is a candidate for low box plyometrics, and this topic deserves an entire article series, not just a mention here. Still, it’s important to know that many popular exercises are popular for reasons outside of results, so if you are doing vertical jumps on a box, horizontal jump exercises may fit your needs better.
Popular Exercises and Training Design
Box jumps are basically straightforward, but some nuances are worth noting if you want to do them correctly. You can do them from a static or countermovement start, or use a walking approach or very short run-up. Take care not to land with more horizontal velocity than vertical speed, though; otherwise, it’s likely the box is too high or you are defeating the purpose of the exercise. The main goal with box jumps is to teach an athlete to project themselves up and use the height to motivate and unload, not to force an athlete to compromise safety. By following these guidelines, you should be ready to go with basic box jumps.
Video 4. A jump in place or with a direction helps to keep a simple exercise challenging. I find pre-jumps before medicine ball throws very useful and add them in when I can.
Continuous jumps up and down are not worth covering, and I definitely don’t endorse them. If circuit box jumps are done for athletes, I am fine, provided it’s a remedial exercise with bouncy foot play like skipping rope, but not done with higher boxes. The primary value I see with box jumps is that it is one jump at a time, if challenging enough. So, like squats, it’s better to focus on the quality of reps than use a stopwatch for junk reps. I prefer coach-guided intervals for super low box or platform hops, and prescribed reps with more sets are better than a high number of continuous contacts.
Technically, most coaches think of box jumps as max effort or max height attempts, but most of the jumps should be lower heights and maximal efforts with slightly more volume. For some reason, a lot of coaches see a box and gravitate towards going all-out for a few reps instead of doing slightly more work with lower boxes. Quality does matter and stimulates adaptations, but box jumps are not flying sprints or single rep testing options.If you are doing vertical jumps on a box, horizontal jump exercises may fit your needs better, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Common options with box jumps have been mentioned already, such as loaded box jumps and even repeated box jumps up. Ricochet jumps or false jumps are common, but I would rather use hurdle jumps first than add a very skilled exercise for team sport athletes. Advanced jumpers can use ricochet jumps with a qualified coach, but the goal of most box jump training is to dictate landing or add a change in take-off demand to the legs.
In my own program, box jumps are early teaching tools and secondary options during heavy training. I personally prefer most of the jumping to take place from a ground surface versus a box, but I am not a purist. Due to the lower demand eccentrically, athletes can do slightly more repetitions or contacts than most other plyometrics, but if an athlete is a little sore, keep the volumes the same or less.
Place Box Jumps Selectively and Carefully
Box jumps are part of a program, but should be only a small part, considering there are so many great options that can deliver excellent results. When adding box jumps, whether vertical or horizontal, consider the needs analysis and purpose behind it. Don’t be seduced into pursuing high heights like hurdle jumps, as it’s about producing better leg motions, not chasing visual feedback of achievement. It’s harder to program smart, because the rewards are not immediate, but over time results will come.#Boxjumps should be about producing better leg motions, not pursuing high heights like hurdle jumps, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Boxes are not new, and athletes have been jumping off and up on boxes since well before there was electricity. I have used all sorts of boxes and workouts and am still learning, so don’t worry that you are missing out if a new exercise variation is promoted on social media.
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