The vertical jump is a test of athletic ability, and we often marvel at the power and grace of gifted leapers such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Although these athletes may make it look easy, a vertical leap off one one or both feet is an explosive, powerful movement.
The most important aspect of a good vertical jump is the ability to generate a large amount of power and reach a full range of motion, specifically triple extension at the ankles, knees and hips. In our plyometric training and fad jump programs, we often focus on explosive knee-dominant jumps and quick pogo jumps for the ankles; however, the number one power generator comes from the hips and the ability to explosively load and explode. In addition, when done correctly, training hip extension is safer and provides less impact on the joints than high-impact plyometrics. If you aren't currently training explosive hip extension, you need to implement the following training strategy to increase your vertical.
Breaking It Down: Hip Flexion and Extension (How the Hips Move)
In any linear or forward/backward movement, there are two motions: flexion and extension. In terms of vertical leap and the hips, hip flexion refers to pushing the hips backward into a loaded position, similar to the position you would use for a defensive stance or the bottom portion of a Squat Jump. Hip extension refers to moving the hips forward and up.
In a jumping movement, learning to extend the hips properly from a flexed position is vital to developing explosive upward momentum. To achieve this position and generate power, athletes need to be flexible, strong and have great technique. Check out James Harden's Hip Circuit in the video player above.
Getting a Full Range of Motion: Start by Improving Your Flexibility and Mobility
The first component for achieving explosive extension is developing the necessary range of motion. The hamstrings, glutes, quads and hip flexors must be both strong and flexible. I recommend using at least one exercise to address the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) and one for the anterior chain (quads and hip flexors).
Posterior Chain — Assisted Hip Hinge Stretch
The most common movement inconsistency we see is athletes lacking hamstring flexibility and/or lower-back strength and thus compensating. The inability to flex the hips back while maintaining a strong core and spine is a major issue and one that needs to be addressed before we tackle explosive hip extension. Thus, creating mobility and flexibility is crucial. One of the best fixes for this is simple and effective. Use a PVC pipe or dowel to correct the hip flexion and extension movement and improve hamstring flexibility. Align the dowel along your spine, focusing on three points of contact.
- The back of the head
- The top of the spine just above the shoulder blades
- The tailbone
Then perform an RDL or hip hinge until you cannot maintain those three points. Once you have established the correct movement pattern, practice, practice, practice. When you feel you've made the proper neuromuscular adjustment and can perform a correct hip hinge, then you can load the movement.
Anterior Chain — Bridge Progression
Developing the ability to explosively extend the hips takes a great deal of anterior chain strength. This means athletes need to be able to extend their hips without hyperextending and reaching a poor pelvic tilt. Correct core positioning is vital. The bridge is a fantastic way to work on correct hip extension while maintaining a strong core.
The first progression is a basic Floor Bridge:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.
- Elevate your hips and squeeze your glutes so your hips extend up; focus on keeping your core flexed and do not arch your back.
- This is a great stretch but it's also a great way to learn correct pelvic positioning for movements that require hip extension.
- Once you have mastered this, progress to Single Leg Bridges, Elevated Bridges and so on (see below for full workout.)
Master the Technique: Med Ball Slam to Jump
Once you can move safely through a full range of motion, to improve your vertical power and explosiveness you need to perfect the technique. Fundamentals in training are the foundation for success.
- Hold a medicine ball overhead fully extended.
- In one motion, throw the ball straight down as hard as possible while simultaneously sinking into a loaded position (hips back, back flat.)
- From the loaded position, swing your arms up as fast as possible, extend your hips and jump; make sure to land safely.
This exercise can also be performed on one leg with a lighter med ball. The emphasis here is to use the reps to master technique before progressing to more challenging movements.
Developing Power in the Vertical Jump Movement
If you have put in some time to develop the flexibility and postural awareness needed for explosive jumping movements, it is time to develop power. Power is defined as force times velocity. To create a powerful movement, you have to develop high levels of force relative to your bodyweight and move at a high rate of speed. Training for power does not exempt anyone from using correct technique; in fact it amplifies the need for it. Using proper form is vital to gaining the results desired from power training for an improved vertical. In addition, the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here; so I have included only two power exercises to achieve mastery and improve hip extension.
Overhead Med Ball Throws
This is an excellent drill for creating power and speed with light resistance and an emphasis on form. (Make sure your ceiling is high enough to allow you to throw the med ball up.)
- Begin in an athletic position with your hips flexed and back flat.
- Hold the ball just above the ground and level with your feet, arms fully extended.
- In one motion drive forward with your hips until fully extended at the ankles, knees and hips.
- Use the momentum generated to swing the ball overhead and release it, making sure to avoid overarching your back or hyperextending your hips.
Kneeling Pop Ups
This is a great low-impact exercise for isolating hip extension and forcing you to generate force through your core and arm swing. (It can also be progressed to Kneeling Hang Cleans, Snatches, and Box Jumps. Master the basics first though.)
- Begin in a kneeling position with your arms extended overhead and your hips extended.
- Drive your arms and hips back, then explosively reverse the motion upward, making sure to land in an athletic position.
- Reset and begin again. If you have trouble getting off the ground or landing properly, go back to standing plyometrics.
Putting It All Together: A Basic Workout for Improving Explosive Hip Extension and Your Vertical Leap
This basic workout can be incorporated into your practices or current training sessions, or you can progress and expand it into an entire training session specifically focused on improving vertical power.
Perform a thorough dynamic warm up (15 minutes)
Positioning and mobility: Perform this circuit for 3 rounds.
1A. Assisted Hip Hinge Stretch x 10
1B: Two-Foot Floor Bridge x 10
1C: Single-Leg Floor Bridge x 10 each leg
Technique mastery: 3 rounds
1A: Med Ball Slam to Jump x 8
1B: Single-Leg Med Ball Slam to Jump x 4 each leg
Power development: Rest 60 seconds between sets
1A: Overhead Med Ball Throws 4x4
2A: Kneeling Pop-Ups 4x4