An increased vertical jump is possibly the most important developmental goal for a basketball player. I have worked in basketball for over a decade—including at the professional and international levels—and no matter what you do in training and what S&C program you look to put in place, the same question comes back from players: Will this increase my vertical leap?
I’ve seen a lot of training advice online and in magazines, and it usually focuses on very high-volume plyometric activities, without much thought behind logical progressions and long-term impact. The usual problem is based on the fact that most players are not physically developed well enough to tolerate high-volume plyometrics without risk of injury.1 Anyone who has worked in basketball or other jumping-dominant sports will know that knee injuries are all too common.2The problem is that most basketball players are not physically developed enough to tolerate high-volume plyometrics without risk of injury. Click To Tweet
Studies have shown that basketball players can make more than 60 jumping movements in a game, with perhaps more in daily basketball training sessions.3 Do they really need more jumping on top of that? And a more important question: What will this increased jumping do to their bodies?
I am reluctant to prescribe high-volume jumping activities for a new athlete solely because they’ve requested them. Instead, I try and get them to buy into a long-term program that I know will get results. This isn’t always easy, as the foundational basis of training isn’t as desirable and doesn’t offer an obvious direct transfer to jumping ability. Expedience is not my aim, however, and it shouldn’t be for an athlete, either. We are often too quick to offer a fast solution to athletes, rather than taking the time to work with them and get them to understand that most things that will benefit them take time and effort.
Specific Jumping Ability and the Performance Chain
The evidence is quite clear with regard to the optimal progressions required to develop an increased vertical jump.4-8What I am talking about is the application of force, and what we find with many athletes is that their ability to generate force is limited because they are not very strong. Over my years of testing, I have used 1RM scores/estimates as well as an array of jump protocols. These include a squat jump (SJ) with a pause at the bottom, a countermovement jump (CMJ), and a drop jump (DJ) from a 30-centimeter box. Each of these jumps, along with the 1RM score, tells us something different about how the athlete generates force and is therefore a great diagnostic tool.9,10
My common findings with basketball players are that they have a relatively low 1RM, along with a large difference between their SJ and CMJ scores. I also often look at a jump using a step-in and an arm swing, like they would when jumping in basketball. This is where you suddenly see the skill application of jumping ability. While the basketball player shows modest SJ ability, their basketball-specific jump is very impressive, sometimes as much as 100% higher than their SJ.
What this tells us is that they have already trained their specific jumping abilities a great deal, and there are limited gains to be made by purely focusing on this aspect. It doesn’t matter how much more jumping they do—they will not improve their jumping ability more because they have reached their ceiling. Instead, then, we must look at the weakness (which, in this case is literal weakness). By increasing their strength and overall force-producing ability, we will increase their overall capacity to jump higher. We are, in effect, increasing the ceiling. To put it another way, all things being equal, the strongest athlete will be the one who can jump the highest.Once athletes hit their ceiling on jumping ability, increasing their strength and overall force production will increase their overall capacity to jump higher. Click To Tweet
So, we can now use our knowledge of S&C to work backwards along the performance chain. We start with the vertical jump and look at what physical qualities it requires. We then work backwards to power, then to strength, and then to hypertrophy and movement ability. Of course, the labels that I use here are not true physiological variables, since what I am really talking about is the ability to produce force in a limited period of time. (Less than half a second for a CMJ, but different jumps in a basketball game might need to be performed in different time periods. It therefore makes sense to develop an array of jumping abilities).11
The rationale, therefore, is that to perform a vertical jump, you must go through a flexion and subsequent extension of the ankle, knee, and hip. This must be done with high levels of force, in a relatively short period of time, in order to propel the body into the air. This means that we need to produce a high-impulse or take-off velocity.
Now, in order to create a large impulse, we need to get our high threshold motor units to fire very quickly. We also need to use the spring effect of our muscle-tendon unit and coordinate the movement as efficiently as possible. The graphic below highlights some of the variables we may wish to consider.
First Steps to a Higher Jump
The performance testing that we have already carried out gives us an indication of what we need to work on first. We know that the athlete already has good jumping skills and has trained this jumping movement a lot during their sport, so we can infer that there may be limited benefit to performing more jumping drills. We also know that they are relatively weak and that their force-generating capacity is limited. So, we should certainly look at developing their levels of muscular strength. Research tells us that this can be done through high-intensity resistance training (>85%) to improve neural drive and develop the type II fibers.4
However, force-producing capacity is also determined by the cross-sectional area of the muscle, and therefore, if our muscles are relatively small, our overall ability to produce force is limited.12 So, we must also look at increasing the size of the muscle. This can be done by introducing moderate- to high-intensity resistance training, with higher volume. But we must also be mindful that the mass of the athlete will affect jump height, so overall hypertrophy should be kept somewhat minimal, with a focus on the type II fibers.
In order to train at this required volume and to develop an athlete who will be as robust and injury-free as possible, we must also consider their tissue capacity and resilience, and ensure that the basic movement skills are in place. If we have an athlete who has done very little work with weights and does not display good mobility through the ankle and hip, then we must first look to develop these skills. This can be done using an initial block of training at a lower intensity, with slow controlled movements, through a full range of motion. This should help ensure that optimal muscle balance is in place, which could be a factor in future injury occurrence.13
What we have done here is work backwards from the endpoint of the vertical jump, ensuring that all of the relevant prerequisites to performance are in place. So, we can now start by training the foundational movements, such as full squat, split squat, deadlift/RDL, and step-up. This ensures a balance of squat and hinge movements with both one and two legs. We implement this with some relatively high-volume training and moderate intensity and look to develop these movement qualities first.
Once our athletes are competent and have developed some muscle size and tendon/ligament strength, we can then increase the intensity of the training and focus on developing the output from the high threshold motor units and type II fibers. It is important by this stage of training to emphasize maximal intent when lifting. Even if the intensity/load is high, meaning that the observed velocity is low, the intent should be that they’re going as fast as possible.
Following that, we can then look to recruit this new, higher level of force in a shorter period of time and look to coordinate the movement as well as possible. This will involve:
- Loaded and unloaded jumps, initially through a full concentric portion of a movement, and then progressing to incorporate the countermovement/ stretch-shortening cycle.
- Next, we can develop a reactive element through bounding and repeated jump activities.
- The final stage may be to try and sustain these improvements while under fatigue, while also looking at developing different jump strategies.
A good analogy for this process is to think of our muscle fibers as individuals on a sports team. Now, if that team has no individual star players but is drilled so well that members outperform their expectations, this is the equivalent of the basketball athlete with relatively weak muscle fibers. Even though the individual force-generating ability of the muscle fibers is relatively low, the coordination and skill element are trained well enough to display good overall results.We want to train our athletes so they have the all-star team of muscles, but also drill them well enough with jumping movements so they outperform their own expectations. Click To Tweet
Now, you can think of the opposite scenario, which would be an all-star team with superstar players who have never trained together, and therefore underperform in competition. This would be the situation where someone is very strong and powerful but has never trained the jumping mechanism sufficiently, and therefore the overall measure of their jump is surprisingly low. What we want to do is train our athletes so that they have the all-star team of muscles, but also drill them well enough with jumping movements so that they outperform even their own high expectations. This is the Olympic-level athlete. This is the Dream Team.
A One-Year Plan
If we now consider a full season, we can plan how to develop these qualities, and we can perhaps predict that if we stick closely to this plan, we will increase our jumping ability by 3-6 inches by this same time next year. I have found exactly this with many of the athletes I have worked with, and the great thing is that they then become role models for others the following year. Players see the athletes who bought in and the results that they have achieved, which serves as motivation for them to also buy in.
The following training plan that I present offers a rough guide that would be suitable for most basketball athletes. However, it does not incorporate exercises for other parts of the body, and it does not consider individual needs or the demands of scheduling. Your athletes may require different intensities or volumes, which can be judged through good monitoring and coaching. Exercise selection could also be different.
The individual coach may prefer a different squat pattern exercise or a different power exercise, such as a clean. The specifics of this are not as important as the thought process behind such programming. However, the ideas presented here can be successfully implemented into the training schedules of most athletes. This is the basis of what I have used with hundreds of basketball athletes over the past decade, with excellent results.
(I should also note that some low-level jumping and stability work should be done right from the start of the training cycle. This can include hop + holds and box jump + land type activities.)
May–June: Movement + Hypertrophy
This block will develop the foundational movement patterns and tissue quality, which will be required for the season ahead. It will use unilateral and bilateral leg exercises, as there are different benefits to gain from each type of exercise. The seated calf raise is included to enhance the calf musculature and, in particular, the soleus and Achilles tendon. The intensity is not the most important aspect of this phase, but it should ideally be over 60% max.
July–August: Strength + Hypertrophy
Using similar exercises as the previous training block, this phase will look to develop higher force outputs and elicit some gains in lean muscle mass. This will be achieved through higher intensity, possibly up to 80% max.
This is the final block where strength gains will be the main priority. This will be achieved through intensities of around 85% max. This should develop the high threshold motor units and type II fibers.
November–December: Strength + Power
This is where we begin to incorporate the higher velocity (power) exercises, such as loaded jumps. Initially, this is done using a full range of motion, with a focus on the concentric portion of the lift. This will enhance neural drive, synchronization, and overall contraction velocity. The intensity on the jump squat would be up to 40% max and the intensity on the back squat up to 90% max.
This next block looks to develop the counter-movement aspect of the jump, which means an improvement to the functioning of the muscle-tendon unit. You will likely be able to lead to a higher intensity with the trap bar jump in comparison to the squat jump, which is useful as we are hoping to develop force across a range of velocities. Notice that key lifts such as the back squat and hip thrust are still included to help maintain muscle balance, strength, and mobility. The use of the bands on the back squat means that we can overload the top portion of the lift more, which relates more specifically to the vertical jump.
March–April: Power + Speed
In this final phase, the goal is to work on the reactive capacity of the body, with a focus on velocity and more specific basketball movements. The jump squats would be loaded minimally, with perhaps just the 20 kg bar used. The plyometric and basketball-specific jumps would be unloaded. This would also be a good time to incorporate other speed or agility work, if desired.
Understanding Long-Term Power Development
As a final note, I would emphasize that this program is suitable for the “typical” basketball athlete, which, in my experience, is more than 95% of all basketball players. There may be situations where the athlete is well-trained and developed in the hypertrophy and strength areas and would therefore benefit more from direct power training and jumping activities. However, this is the exception, not the rule.
I have, however, encountered athletes like this who have transferred from one sport to another. An example, which is common in rugby, is an athlete who displays good 1RM strength and a reasonable SJ, but a comparatively poor CMJ or DJ. This may be an athlete that you can program for differently, but this should be determined through proper diagnostic testing and evaluation.We often start by being too specific in what we try to achieve with basketball players, instead of looking at the prerequisites that need to be in place. Click To Tweet
To summarize, the framework and rationale outlined here are appropriate for the vast majority of basketball athletes looking to increase their vertical jump. While this does not go into specifics regarding the types of jumps and plyometrics to perform, this outline does justify a sustainable and effective approach to vertical jump development. The point is that we often start by being too specific in what we are trying to achieve with basketball players, instead of looking at the prerequisites that need to be in place. I would hope that coaches and athletes consider these elements when designing and developing training programs, and that they will appreciate the long-term benefit of training in this manner.
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