Facebook’s comment section quickly filled. Immediately, I knew I had to write a mildly aggressive, slightly quirky, and somewhat informative series on the vertical jump.
After all, I’ve been jumping my entire life — mostly intertwined with some kick, flip, or twist, so I know a thing or two about Catching Air. I know that in the absence of training, my vertical settles into the high 20’s. With strength training or shock training, mid 30′s. With both, high 30’s (into 40′s).
If you’re anything like me, you’re a bit tired of dry sports science. Don’t worry. You won’t find any force/time curves here. Only practical stuff that may or may not make sense as what follows is, as mentioned, a little quirky.
THE ULTIMATE ANALOGY
The vertical jump is kind of like seeing how high you can get a paint can to fly off of one end of a seesaw after slamming yourself into the other end. (Or seeing how far you can fling a straw wrapper across the room after orienting it perfectly on the handle of a spoon.)
The paint can represents your body weight. Too light, and you probably won’t fly too high. Too heavy, and you’re handcuffed by heftiness. You have to have a decent amount of “meat” and little “fluff.” Few people jump high without some muscle tone, although there are exceptions (which will eventually be discussed in future articles).
After the paint can (your body weight), the other variables deal with the empty side of the seesaw.
WHY FORCE ISN’T ENOUGH
Getting the can to move means applying force to the empty end. This sentence gives us our first buzz word: force.
Force is a word often thrown out in vertical jump context, but force alone isn’t enough. A pneumatic piston capable of applying one bajillion units of force won’t get the can in the air if it’s applied slowly. Speed, then, is an important second consideration.
Apply force quickly and the can jetpacks in the air. So, essentially, more force is better as long as it remains proportional to the speed at which it can be applied.
Force and speed combined are commonly known as power.
Traditional barbell exercises like squats and deadlifts give you the ability to apply more force. But, as we now know, this is all for naught if speed isn’t there.
This is where shock training comes into play. Depth jumps and drop jumps teach the muscles how to rapidly make use of themselves.
So you can be ox strong, but unless speed accompanies it, you aren’t improving your power. What you are doing, however, is improving your capacity for power. So if you ever decide to sure-up your speed, you’ll have the potential for higher power.
WHY THE TYPE OF SQUAT IS MOOT
I’m using the seesaw example for two reasons. First, because it just works. Second, because it almost singlehandedly answers the question: Do you need to squat?
Take three people.
- Joe can front squat 325
- Meryl can back squat 405
- Todd can deadlift 455
All of them are identical. Same weight, same body body fat, same everything.
Now, imagine they take turns slamming on top of the open end of the seesaw. Which guy will propel the can the highest?
If you answered, “I don’t know,” you’re correct.
I don’t know the answer either, and I’m pretty sure that anyone claiming to know the answer is lying.
The strength levels listed are comparable (meaning each guy is as strong as the next). Predicting who can fling the can highest is difficult because the three exercises in question accomplish just about the same thing: applying force to the ground to overcome an external load. In a general sense, that’s all squats do.
Body position is arbitrary when looking at matters on a general level. So when you’re dealing with people of an equal general strength level, the amount of power they could apply to the open end of the seesaw is going to be in the same relative ballpark.
BUT AREN’T SQUATS BETTER THAN DEADLIFTS?
If it doesn’t truly matter, when then did I recommend squats in the Athletic Fitness Tip?
- As a whole, squats are a more holistic leg exercise and typically involve a greater range of motion about both the hip and knee (making them a more accurate measure of leg strength). With the vertical jump, we’re primarily looking for leg strength, so this is all around a better selection.
- The deadlift can be hindered by grip or back strength, which ultimately limits the strengthening capacity of the legs. Sacrificing leg strength because of a weak grip isn’t ideal. The same argument can be made against front squats, as the thoracic region tends to limit front squat ability.
All in all, I think the deadlift is a fine exercise. It’s often turned into less of a leg exercise though. The first two videos are good examples of a deadlift done for general leg strength. The back angle stays consistent throughout the entire lift. This means the legs do their diligence off the floor and finish with powerful hip extension (good for jumping).
The third video shows a deadlift that is much more “back” than legs. That’s not to rag on the deadlift itself, as it’s massive. But just by comparing the videos, you can see something “different” between the three.
There’s a big difference between a competition powerlifting (or strongman) style deadlift (third video) and one used for more athletic pursuits, in my opinion. Most would consider the latter a “clean-style deadlift,” which is usually characterized by having a tighter upper back and lower starting position.
SO DO YOU NEED TO SQUAT?
While you probably don’t have to back squat to jump higher, it’s the most reasonable way to enhance force output as there’s no limiting factors or hitches with grip strength.
Chances are any kind of squat will do the trick. You won’t be much better off whether you’re leveling up back squats, front squats, box squats, any other kind of barbell squat you can think of — probably even “clean style” deadlifts too — because they all do the same thing: teach the body how to apply force to the ground to overcome an external load.
The main goal is to get the legs strong. As long as you do that, you’re on the right path.
With that logic, leg presses can also be used. The only issue here is that leg pressing doesn’t teach you how to apply force to the ground using the entire kinetic chain quite like squats and deadlifts. So they’re better than nothing, but not ideal.
YEAH, BUT WHAT ABOUT <INSERT CONCERN HERE>
I hear the whispers now.
- What about deadlifts? Don’t they train the posterior chain more? Isn’t the posterior chain important?
- Well front squats don’t involve the hamstrings. Aren’t the hamstrings important?
- Nothing compares to the box squat. Look at the guys at Westside!
The bottom line in all of this is that one exercise isn’t all encompassing. According to self conducted research by Bret Contreras, maximum muscular contraction of individual leg muscles is best done with separate lifts.
Want glutes? Go with the hip thrust.
|Exercise||Glute Max (Glutes)||Vastus Lateralis (Quadriceps)||Adductor Longis (Adductors)||Biceps Femoris (Hamstrings)|
|275 lb High Bar Full Squat||24.4||96.0||37.2||36.4|
|275 lb Low Bar Low Box Squat||18.2||83.6||31.5||32.3|
|225 lb Front Squat||30.8||74.3||35.0||37.6|
|405 lb Deadlift||52.6||50.6||27.8||105.0|
The point here is that no exercise is “perfect” from an encompassing muscular recruitment standpoint. Therefore, if you’re only going to pick one exercise, it should be efficient at accomplishing the task at hand — strengthening just about every muscle in the leg. As you can see, most exercises in question do just that. (Keep in mind, however, a lot more weight was used for the deadlift in the chart above.)
YOUR PLAN OF ATTACK
If you’re seeking a higher vertical jump, the most sensible plan of attack is to first increase your force output. All things considered, this is the “easiest” first step to take. Getting strong is a a lot easier than improving the other intricacies of the vertical jump.
So start by back squatting 1.5 times your body weight to parallel (an ambiguous word these days that traditionally means descending until the crease of the hip goes below the line of the knee) or deadlifting twice your body weight. Alternatively, just do any kind of squat with the emphasis on progression over time. It’s all in the name of learning how to apply force to the ground to overcome an external load. (I think I said that way too many times in this article.)
Once you reach that round-about strength point, you’re probably at the level in which your ability to produce force is outrunning your ability to apply it quickly. This is when more power-specific drills such as low intensity plyometrics can be introduced. These eventually lead into shock training.
I know discussing vertical jump methods is like discussing religion. So keep it clean down there and ask your questions. I always respond. Hit up the social media bar below too. Make sure you order a drink while you’re there.
P.S. There are more articles to come pertaining to the vertical jump, so if you have any concerns or ideas for future pieces, I’d love to hear them.