By Carl Valle
With the popularity of the Raptor Test and my earlier contact mat article, I decided it was time to write something comprehensive on jump testing. What seems straightforward and easy to do on paper isn’t, and that’s why many teams that invest in equipment and methodology get emotionally distraught when it all fails weeks later. The truth is, vertical jump testing once is rather simple to do, but testing consistently and getting value from the data is a much different story.
In this guide, I fully explain three very useful benefits, and (hopefully) help remove many potential headaches. I cover the best approaches to team testing, which equipment makes sense to use, and what the science says regarding the data.
Why Test the Vertical Jump of Athletes in the First Place?
Most of the phone calls or emails I receive nowadays seem to be about problems with jump testing; usually, coaches or sports medicine staff expecting way too much from an isolated test. If I could share some of the horror stories I hear and sometimes witness, it would shock you.
Jump testing is now big business and there is more information available from the movement. Two common problems are emerging: coaches feel pressured to prove they are doing something with the data to reduce injuries and, at the same time, a perception that time to train is shrinking. The bad combination of expecting more with less is not unique to jump testing; it’s a growing trend in all parts of sport.
When I ask coaches why they jump-test their athletes I get the typical responses: to monitor fatigue, track progress, or evaluate talent. If they are already doing jump testing and have a plan with the data, my follow-up question is how is that helping them reach conclusions or make decisions. Most of the time, what should be a short answer becomes a long and frustrating explanation of their expectation not being as clear as they thought it would be.
The common problems I see with vertical jump testing are: expecting too much information from the jump data, failing to collect useful information, and spending too much time administering and analyzing the tests. A two-second test leading to an hour of confusion for many coaches trying to apply good sport science is an unfortunate new normal these days, and it’s getting worse as research-grade solutions proliferate in professional and college facilities.>
When testing the vertical jump, three good purposes for the test are to determine:
- How high can the athletes jump in the air with a specific technique?
- Will training make a difference in the athlete’s leg power?
- Is there any information gained from this movement that can indicate risk of injury?
None of these questions are going to have airtight answers—not even the first question. Jump testing is a voluntary event, so if you invest in equipment and the athletes don’t engage, you now have very expensive data that is unlikely to improve your program.
Who Can Benefit from Testing the Vertical Jump?
Because jump testing is now big business, the claims for what the data can provide border on false advertising. Getting jump testing done regularly does have a lot of value, but it’s important to know that jump testing is only one clue in the “sports performance crime scene,” and is best used in conjunction with all of the available information. Strength coaches, sports medicine professionals, team coaches, management, and the athletes themselves can all benefit from the knowledge of how different jumps are trending with heights or forces. So why does it seem that not much progress is going on in sport?
Image 2. The classic vertical jump test equipment, such as the Vertec, is still relevant today, even with advances in technology. Unfortunately, the Vertec is limited by the fact it can only test one type of jump and the test data is inflated.
The core issue in jump testing is that, without context, jump testing isn’t usually helpful to anyone, even jumping athletes. Stefan Holm, a gold medalist in the high jump, didn’t have a great vertical jump, but he did have the ability to transfer horizontal speed into one leg in the event. So why does everyone keep testing bilateral jumps? The general answer is that jump testing does have a relationship to leg power and general leg power does connect to both talent and an athlete prepared to compete.Without context, jump testing isn’t usually helpful to anyone, including the jumping athlete. Click To Tweet
The knowledge that someone is talented with general leg power when they are young does help predict whether they have a better chance to be fast. However, the fastest athletes in the world don’t have the best jumping scores, as the law of specificity rings true with all sports. For example, I met the NFL Combine record holder in the vertical jump and he was not the fastest guy in last year’s draft. What it does mean is that if you can jump test well, it’s likely you can use that jumping skill somewhere in the sport you compete in.
Finally, jump testing is not the same as jump training or jump games. Athletes love dunking in the gym for fun, if they have the springs, but they are not fans of squat jumps with their hands on their hips for scientific purposes. The limiting factor in jump testing is not the technology, it’s whether the athlete wants to jump or not. For the most part, athletes don’t have a high maximal drive to produce an all-out effort when the reward is usually low. If athletes are not engaged, the numbers are meaningless. Coaches must create a testing environment that is engaging, and only test if the answers they get are going to change what they do in a purposeful way.
Procedures Coaches Use That Help or Hinder Results
I have watched teams test vertical jumps for years, and some of the feats of athleticism are truly eye-opening. Even if you have a dream team of sport scientists and motivated athletes, jump testing is only a synthetic summary of jumping ability because most sports don’t utilize pure vertical jumps from a stationary position. A run-up or a few steps in advance is the reason some athletes can’t take advantage of their gross leg jumping potential. It is also the reason some athletes outperform their tests in the game.
Video 1. The classic countermovement jump is simple to do and useful with athletes. Many landing styles exist when testing, but as long as the athlete lands with a soft knee, the risk of injury is nearly zero.
So why is the test stationary or from a static position? The answer is simple: This enables it to be repeated over and over. The more complex a jump test is, the less likely an athlete can repeat it for comparison. When you compare jump test results for the same athlete or the same population, tests are very simple to perform to ensure they’re reliable in the field.Make sure the jump testing procedure is so clear that anybody can replicate it. Click To Tweet
If I had to give only one piece of advice about jump testing, it would be to make sure the procedure is so clear that anyone off the street could replicate it. Making any causal changes to the testing procedure could ruin the data, even if you have everything else perfectly set up and done flawlessly. I could get into the chronobiology of when you test during the day or talk about targeting for more arousal, but the key is to make sure the athlete wants to jump, period. The No. 1 problem with advanced athletes is that they may not see progress or testing bores them.
Here are some other considerations you must weigh when doing jump testing:
Familiarization: Some tests are more complicated or new to athletes, and some tests are hard to perform but appear simple. It takes time to polish the technique of any test, so athletes will see their scores change—and usually improve—just by testing more. On the other hand, testing too frequently may result in boredom or staleness, thus decreasing motivation and output.
Arousal: Athletes will jump maximally when they are aroused, and this type of motivation usually comes from a competitive environment or a desire to please the people who make important decisions. Combines get great performance results because millions of dollars are on the line, and the dunk contest having risk without big reward usually keeps some talents from competing there. I have mentioned this many times: Most athletes tire of testing if you don’t make it engaging. Even the most entertaining jump competition doesn’t always attract athletes, so prepare to experience even more struggles in training.
Realization: Athletes will value anything if they can see a direct correlation between the measure and how it connects to their performance. For instance, many athletes don’t like lifting heavy for leg power, but if they see the connection they are more willing to try. This is an educational gap that the coaching and sports medicine staff, as the primary contact points, must solve.
Don’t wing it on testing. If you don’t have a checklist or procedure written down, you likely don’t respect the test and will collect infected or tainted data. I have learned the hard way that good testing means being a little bit militant, but doing a good job relies on preparation and replicating the conditions of the test as best as you can.
The Equipment Needed to Test Vertical Jumps
When testing vertical jumps, you need to ask yourself if you are trying to mimic the sporting action or trying to get jump data for other purposes. The biggest assumption in sport is that a great jumper only needs high leg power. It’s often the combination of an athlete getting into the right jump and using their elevation that makes them athletic. The stretch of an athlete reaching for the last few inches tends to be what makes a catch, block, or save.
- If you look for range or the athlete’s ability to cover distance, you need both body measures and jumping displacement.
- If you want just general leg power, most jumping tools provide more than enough data to get an indication of what is happening in training, talent identification, or rehabilitation.
I already went into repeatability, accuracy, precision, and even drift with this velocity-based training article years ago. On average, the general trend is that the more money you invest, the better the data quality and the more information you can get from the tests. A simple Vertec can get you a good measure of how high someone can jump with their arms and reaching, but the gold standard is still a force plate for both quality and quantity of data. In between, many cost-effective solutions are convenient and reliable for team testing. It’s more about what you need than what you can get with jump testing equipment.
Vertical jump testing has four primary options, and the most commonly used is a contact mat by Probotics. By using flight time, the system estimates jump height with a simple equation, but the data is far from perfect because athletes game the tests by cheating on the landing technique. The fact that contact mats don’t sample force is the reason a coach must supervise all jump testing. Still, the research says contact mats are acceptable and the price point and simplicity are the reason teams, even professionals, use the system. Fortunately, many options exist and they are:
Measured Jump and Reach Tools: The Vertec is timeless, as nothing is more robust than a piece of equipment that doesn’t need power or much instruction. However, as I stated before, an athlete not fully reaching up as far as they are able can game the test. In addition, athletes must have some skill to time the tap of the measuring flags at the apex of their leap. Many smart coaches use reach tools to help athletes target by placing a ball for visual guidance and motivation.
Force and Pressure Plates: I went into force plates a while ago, and pressure mats are not the same as contact mats or research force analysis tools. A force plate, whether one or dual, is the most comprehensive way to evaluate a jump and is the gold standard in research. Pressure plates can get contact times and estimated flight duration to calculate what an athlete is likely doing, but only a force plate can’t be cheated or gamed. Force plates can be bilateral for right and left leg comparison, and they are nearly medical tools because their data is strong enough to make very important decisions on how an athlete is rehabbing.Only force plates give you the true value of jump power during the time sequence. Click To Tweet
Linear Positional Transducers (LPT): Line- or tether-based systems extract additional data from the length of the wire by sampling the rate of displacement. Most of the time, athletes will choose to use a barbell or dowel with the line instead of tying it to their waist, but both measures are very good for seeing changes and embedding testing into training. Due to their portability, and because they handle bar velocity tracking, coaches like traveling with LPT systems.
Infrared Beam Options: I use the term “contact grid” with IR (infrared) devices because a mat tends to be more physical. The primary benefit of contact grids is that they use the tested surface to ensure the data is more natural to the environment. If the turf is managed and cropped, true field tests can be done. Testing on the track can be done for both speed and jumps, and also in indoor facilities such as weight rooms.
Video 2. Rapid joint stiffness is trainable, but development takes time and must be tested. Only compare each athlete to their own data if they use their own jumping style, as comparison is not possible with different techniques.
Other systems like accelerometers, camera-based systems, and even tape systems tied to the waist are all possible. Only force plates give you the true value of jump power during the time sequence, so it’s important to decide what data can be modified by training or resting before investing in a system.
Primary Vertical Test Options for Coaches
I don’t have a distribution chart to show the most commonly used test, but teams and Olympic sports use all of the tests below. What I can tell you is that, as the test becomes more complicated and longer to perform, the more likely you need to interpret and rehearse the data for it to be valuable. Vertical jumping, while simple, is still a skill, and rebound jumping done right takes weeks of exposure before the proficiency is high.
On the other hand, the more skilled the test, the more likely it is to have a short contact time or ability to transfer to sporting actions. Coaches should note that general power training bleeds everywhere, so it isn’t always clear where improvement is coming from.
Squat Jump: A squat jump is valuable because it’s easy to perform and it represents what an athlete can do concentrically. Unfortunately, an athlete may see anemic jump numbers and not understand that not using their arms and having a countermovement are the big factors. Several sports need to create forces from a stationary starting point and it’s good to use for those wanting to see the eccentric utilization ratio (EUR).
Countermovement Jump: Combined with the squat jump, a coach can use a countermovement jump (CMJ) to determine the EUR and see a nice indication of leg power. Several technology vendors think the countermovement jump can be analyzed to provide more value than neuromuscular performance, but it’s important to let the peer review process with science guide you as to the extent of what can be interpreted.
Countermovement Jump with Arms: Most Americans are familiar with the classic jump test and not the Bosco test because Dr. Carmelo Bosco is not as well-known in the U.S. The countermovement jump with arms is a great foil to the other jumps to see how athletes use athleticism to improve ground reaction forces.
Reactive Strength Index: The contact time-to-flight ratio of jumps from a box is a great gauge for fatigue due to the specific time frame, but it does require a lot of focus and skill. Coaches can test the RSI with or without boxes, and the test requires some skill development, so it’s valuable for team sports.
Rebound Jumping: Serial jumps, or constant jumping, is a very skilled test that can get valuable stiffness information, including joint-specific data such as the ankle complex. Contact mats and force plates are the best options here due to their sampling frequency.
All of the jump tests above are suitable for both single and double legs. The issue with single leg tests is that they require double the amount of time to collect general data, and asymmetry risk is mostly only viable with baseline data and careful interpretation during the return-to-play process. As contact time decreases, more elastic energy is likely to be used, but it’s also more likely for it to correspond to horizontal speed.
Vertical jump testing is popular because it’s simple and safe, and requires less skill than most horizontal tests that are either bounding or hopping (exercises that large or unskilled athletes often fail in). If an exercise has too many skill requirements, the test value is low because of the time required to properly learn the test. Down the road, coaches will cover horizontal tests, but for the most part they are more difficult to administer even if they have value in sports performance.
What Can Coaches Do with the Data?
Coaches can do a lot with force-time curves from research-grade force plates, but sometimes simple data tells a more important story. For example, one team learned a lot about the season when each calendar month successively had less and less data available. Athletes simply could not jump because of their various contact injuries from tackling and collisions. Many teams believe that force-time curves can dramatically reduce injuries, but that is not the case outside of gross strength levels and eccentric abilities.
I took the Bosco tests years ago and created a simple protocol to embed the testing into a warmup as a practical way to manage power development in the weight room. The test teaches athletes how “barbells create barbarians” from using a LPT or accelerometer attached to the equipment. From the test sequence, I could look at the EUR, estimate fiber type profiles, monitor trends in fatigue, evaluate elasticity changes, and decide who trained in the off-season.
Jump testing can support athletes with great reactivity or even poor symmetry, as any system can do single leg hopping. All of the systems are mobile enough to travel with in some capacity, and customizable for seamless integration into modern weight rooms. Generally, coaches want to use jump testing to see how their program is changing, hopefully for the better.
Starting with Jump Testing
Next to speed testing, jump testing is the most popular evaluative measurement in sport. Carefully evaluate the importance of the data and your ability to change training, competition, and rehabilitation with athletes based on the data. The irony is that the more professionals there are on a team, the fewer training and decision-making capabilities each staff member has, but it seems they all monitor jumps frequently.
Actionable data means you actually change what you were planning to do or follow through on what you planned. If you don’t have the ability to make changes and are just protecting your job, jump testing may still have value because it’s a good teaching lesson on what goes wrong for others to learn from later. Jump testing is very useful for getting a point across, so use it when you can to help athletes value the cause and effect of their training lifestyle, and maximize each test by following best practices.