Much like one of our most popular posts is: Is Direct Arm Work Necessary for Sculpted Arms? I wanted to bust some myths with the question: Is Calf Training the Key to Jumping High?
I’m not quite sure how the idea of calves being the one thing standing between you and throwing down a tomahawk style dunk became such a popular, ingrained, and accepted idea. So, I thought it would be a great idea to break down what it takes to get big air and how to prioritize.
The answer is a bit more complicated than just doing calf raises and jumping rope.
I get such a chuckle out of this idea! The calf muscle is not the whole picture and to really get a comprehensive vertical jump training program you need to make sure you are addressing all aspects of what will help you jump higher.
If you want to test how high you can jump with just your calves, try a max effort pogo jump. Do not allow your hips or knees to bend when you load or land, just use your ankle.
Now try test number two: a max effort vertical jump. Use your arms, your hips, knees, and ankles for the jump. This one will always be quite a bit higher.
To jump higher, we need to train all the muscles that are involved in a big jump.
Let’s break this down into priorities:
Priority #1 - Look at your Foundation
Are you following a well rounded strength training program? If you're not, you need to get on one. And even though we're training to jump higher, there are other parts of your body on the upper half that assist with jumping.
As an athlete or coach, you have to be concerned with what's going to happen once you're in the air, right? For most athletes something is happening overhead, that’s kind of the point!
What’s the end goal of jumping high? Scoring or blocking when in the air! I mean, even pole vaulters need to be pretty concerned with what's going on with their upper body as they go over the bar, but concerning basketball or volleyball, there's some big important stuff that's happening overhead once you are in the air!
Therefore, making sure that you're training your upper body during any vertical jump training program is extremely important. A strong and powerful upper body with directly assist with getting into the air. In particular, the muscles in the back need to be focused on.
Priority #2 - Core Strength
Are you training, with specific loading parameters, your core muscles? To attain effective core strength, you need to be training and focused on ALL of the core muscles. These include the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and abdominal muscles. This area is called the core because it's central to everything that you do as a human and as an athlete.
It is the glutes, In particular, that are going to give you the lift off the ground. If you are not training to get those muscles as strong as possible, you will be missing out on inches.
You can try any kind of training for this that you like, just be sure you are qualified to do so. Ideally, hire somebody that knows what they're doing to give you a custom program and coach you.
Everything from medicine ball throws to dynamic effort strength work, to maximum effort strength work, to repetition effort strength work, to single leg strength work will all be fair game and effective. Squat and deadlift variations are both critical to include, in some form or another.
There should also be included a wide variety of intensities and volumes, you want to be utilizing. A well planned structured program will move you forward, step by step.
Priority #3 - Develop Explosive Hip Extension
To start to bring things together, is the triple extension. The hip extension is concerned with the hips extending (this and knee extension happen most during priority #2); triple extension is when the ankle, knee and hip all extend simultaneously. That's what actually happens when you're jumping.
Exercises to include are snatch and clean variations. For inexperienced or young lifters, utilizing the medicine ball is a perfect solution.
Priority #4 - Productive Jump Practice
The training of actual jumping is going to be on the much lighter end of the weight spectrum. Most people are going to be using bodyweight only. Very advanced athletes who are quite strong and have done a lot of strength training, as a prerequisite, may be qualified to do weighted jumps. But you can get a ton of mileage off of just practicing moving your own body.
Exercises to include for this priority would be bounding, double leg and single leg bounding, all kinds of box jumps, depth drops, etc. Sprinting short distances (starts up to 10yd) should also be included.
Unlike the strength work, the total volume of jumps should be fairly low and should not vary quite so broadly. The focus is primarily on low volume and high intensity jumping. When our main concern is jumping higher, getting in just a few very intense and high quality reps are more than sufficient for development and progress.
On the low end for one exercise you might do 5 total jumps, and on the high end, that might be a total of 15 jumps for someone well conditioned and depending on where they are within their training cycle.
It’s important to remember the goal is a higher maximum effort jump. When you are trying to squeeze out another inch or two, it logically does not make any sense to jump 100 times in a row. And yet, this is how many people think they should train to increase their vertical jump.
Priority #5 - Training Robustness
Finally, we get to the calves! Or more specifically, the Achilles tendon. The goal is to train the Achilles so that it is capable of being as spring-like as possible.
Conditioning of the lower leg requires a high volume of repetitions accumulated over a very long period of time (years). Many exercises are appropriate for this, but a few examples include: jump rope, sprinting, skipping, and practically any low amplitude repeated jumps.
One of my favorite drills to use is called aerobic plyometrics. This is for lower leg conditioning, in particular. It will help prepare the joints and tendons and get them sturdiness and resilience capable of handling the impact that comes from jumping.
While the high quality jumps are going to be max effort, or close to max effort, and low in volume, to train robustness you will be using a higher of lower amplitude jumps. It’s always best to start conservatively, but once all is going well you can work your way up to pretty high volume. To progress aerobic plyometrics, I'll usually start people at three minutes, see how they react, and then move up to a continuous 10-12 minutes. This allows the athlete to accumulate hundreds of low amplitude jumps during that time.
Even though this is broken down into five different priorities, this is really the blueprint for what could become an extremely detailed jump training program.
To determine what you or an athlete will get the most benefit from you need to do testing of some sort to understand basics about where they need to spend the most time training. One athlete will often have different needs than the other.
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