I've been training athletes to jump higher for over a decade, and I've seen plenty of means and methods in vertical jump training. Since so many methods are available, it can be easier to look at what mistakes not to make in training, and in doing so, understand how all of the pieces of explosive jump training fit together.
In order of priority, here are the top mistakes I see when training athletes in the vertical jump.
Mistake 1: Over-lifting
Explosive athletes can do a variety of things well, and one of them is the ability to lift heavy weights, but herein lies common misunderstandings.
Since putting more force into the ground in a well coordinated manner leads to a better vertical jump, we know the creation of more force is essential. Even so, weights are only one way to accomplish this, and there are many times when serious shortcomings arise in the process that go unnoticed by many.
Lifting too much, in hopes of hitting a magic squat or deadlift number, has the following consequences such as:
- Routing of force away from the forefoot and the hip
- Decreasing the ability of muscles to produce immediate tension upon ground contact
- Increasing the size and strength of auxiliary musculature that doesn't contribute much to the jumping process, and registers as deadweight in a jump
- Stealing an athlete's ability to adapt to explosive training
So what is lifting too much? It's not the same for everyone, but I find that a good way to understand how much you need to lift is to start with minimal doses. This means that you would want to try things like 2 sets of 5 at 60-70% of your 1RM, performing main lifts like the Squat and Deadlift, and perform this this 3-4 times per week.
Other options would be things like the "1x20" program developed by Dr. Michael Yessis, that many strength coaches are finding deliver the same strength results as powerlifting based programs, but with much better results in vertical jump and speed performance in trained athletes.
Once you are utilizing the "minimal effective dose" of lifting along with your other speed and jump training, you can start to understand that you might not need that powerlifting program to continue to build explosive jumping strength in an efficient manner.
Mistake 2: Not jumping enough
Simply put, athletes who are looking to jump higher often aren't jumping enough. Many athletes will look to do anything to improve their jumping ability, besides actually jumping. Until athletes are getting at least 50-100 maximal jumps in a week, they shouldn't be thinking that there are magic bullets outside of jumping itself that will help them in their quest for a better jump.
Many athletes, of course, are already getting plenty of maximal jumps in the course of playing their sport, and in this case, they would be exempt from many extra efforts, but many athletes looking to jump higher are not getting enough jump attempts, period.
Mistake 3: Not jumping in a stimulating and diverse manner
It is important to jump in an appropriate volume in order for athletes to jump high, but it is also critical to jump regularly that is both adequately stimulating, and diverse.
What I mean by this, is that jumping in the exact same way, time after time gets boring, and limits the body's ability to adapt and improve. On a basic level, plyometric exercises fill this void, but for intermediate and advanced athletes, there needs to be an emphasis on jumping in subtly different ways.
Perhaps the best example of jumping in subtly different ways can be highlighted through watching slam-dunk specialists in basketball. Each dunk has a slightly different takeoff angle, as well as visual, vestibular and proprioceptive contribution.
Athletes who are playing team sports get this stimulus all the time, especially sports like volleyball, where maximal jumps in game situations are the norm. With a sport like volleyball, no two jumps are exactly the same, as the takeoff, opponents, and the direction the ball is flying through the air will be slightly different each time, just enough to provide stimulus to systems of movement to be continually challenged. Other sports, however, will have maximal jumps throughout the course of the game, but a much greater percentage are submaximal, compared to volleyball.
For athletes in other sports seeking a better jump, care should be taken to make sure maximal jump efforts are of a diverse nature. An athlete's sport of choice is the best way to do this, so creating situations where athletes jump maximally in various game like situations is important to maximizing how high one can eventually get up.
Mistake 4: Over-conditioning
Studies have shown that in "concurrent training," where strength and endurance are trained at the same time, an athlete can still get strong, but his or her speed will really suffer in the process.
Athletes who are doing too much conditioning will find that, no matter what their efforts are, they won't be able to quite get that explosive pop they are looking for. This limit on conditioning is also going to differ for each athlete. The muscular fast-twitch fireplug athlete typically isn't going to respond all that well to slogging laps around the football field. On the other hand, leaner athletes of moderate twitch and power can still benefit from an appropriate amount of conditioning to their sport, as they are built to tolerate this well.
What is the line here? As a rule of thumb, if you are looking to jump higher, limit aerobic and interval style training to less than 60 total minutes per week, or less depending on the tolerance to aerobic work.
Mistake 5: Not training the reflex system and coordination
The final area coaches and athletes should be aware of when it comes to building a better vertical jump is the role of the reflexive systems and coordination in jumping higher. There are two reflexes that exist when it comes to gait, which are the stumble and crossed-extensor reflexes. The stumble reflex is responsible for the horizontal movement of the leg swinging forward, and the crossed-extensor reflex is responsible for vertical force production in sprinting and jogging.
What many people don't understand about jumping is that all jumping, outside of a standing vertical leap, is a unilateral activity, meaning each leg doesn't do the exact same thing. Jumping off one or two legs is much more closely related to sprinting gait than many people realize. The reflexive action of the swing leg in a single-leg jump, or the stiff plant leg of a two-leg jump swinging forward are both dependent on a powerful reflex system. This is yet another reason why relying on weights and barbell training to give a desired vertical jump will fall short if the reflexive systems of an athletes aren't powerfully active.
There are a variety of ways to improve an athlete's reflexes, but the best ones are linked to rhythm and coordination. An example of a reflexive sprint drill is shown in the video below:
The drill above isn't magic by any means, but most athletes who want to sprint fast and jump high should have at least a basic ability to perform this type of movement and its derivatives.
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