Lower leg training is one of the most misunderstood areas when trying to maximize an athletes vertical jump. The reason for this isn't that most people ignore calf training, it is that they think of the jumping muscles as mostly being the big work horses in the upper legs of the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
And on this they are actually right, this is where most of the power is generated. What they don't fully understand, and therefore don't properly train for, is the actual role that the lower leg has in transferring that power down into the ground to provide the necessary push you off.
The lower part of the legs being the calf muscles, feet and the ankles don't generate much of the jumping power. However as noted many times on this site, they do play an important part in not only maximizing vertical jump height, but in also efficiently absorbing landing forces.
Strong feet and ankles, and ankle extension by the calves allows for a more efficient transfer of power from the quads, glutes etc, into the ground. Weak ankles are like an energy leak in the system. To use a car analogy, you can have a big engine, but if your tires can't grip the road you don't go very fast. Strong calf muscles are like having great tires on your sports car.
As is the case with all vertical jump training, the key principles of muscle balance, explosiveness, and specificity need to be applied. The lower leg for the purposes of jump training is made up of the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus) the shins (anterior tibialis), and the Achilles tendon. The calves are the biggest and most powerful of these muscle groups and this is the area where the majority of your training will focus.
If you contract your shins and point your toes upwards this is known as dorsiflexion. If you contract your calves resulting in your toes being pointed down, this is plantar flexion. When you push off the ground as you are jumping your toes naturally point down in a plantar flexion fashion. Specificity of training therefore dictates that we need to explosively train the plantar flexion movement.
This can be done in a number of ways including the various types of calf raises, or as part of a follow through movement at the end of a squat. The nature of the plantar flexion movement in calf training also requires the muscles and tendons in the ankles and feet to contribute.
Maximizing your jumping potential isn't just about developing your calves however. To ensure full development, and also to help prevent muscle imbalance related injuries, you also need to train the shin muscles. This can be slightly trickier, but none the less, doing so is a vital component of your lower leg training.
Training your shins is done in the opposite way to training calves, i.e. by contracting your muscles via dorsiflexion. One of the simplest and most effective ways to add resistance to your dorsiflexion is to attach a jump stretch band to a non-movable object.
Once that is done you sit down with your legs outstretched in front of you and place your foot into the loop of the band. Now you simply stretch and contract the shin muscles by moving your toes away and towards your body.
How much lower leg training is required? This is a question that causes much debate in vertical training circles. The simple answer is not that much. The reality is that the lower leg already gets a lot of direct and indirect stimulation from many other jumping exercises. Just about every time you jump forcefully you utilize ankle extension which of course is driven by the lower leg muscles.
So whilst not a lot of direct, targeted work is required, some of the key drivers of your jump, including the Achilles tendons, are situated below the knee, so a some specific training is indeed beneficial.
There are a number of theories about the best way to include lower leg emphasis into your program. You can target them specifically through various calf and shin exercises. Alternatively you can incorporate the work through some minor adjustments to your technique such as exploding up onto your toes out of the squats for example.
In your jumping/plyometrics sessions, lower leg training may be as simple as including jumps that involve minimal knee bend, or even more simply, good old fashioned hopping. Hopping in particular is very effective and highly recommended for not only its ability to target the lower leg, but to generate a single leg plyometric response.
Another question you should ask yourself when deciding how much lower leg work to do is how much single leg jumping does your sport require. The reason for this is that in running jumps, and in particular, single leg take off jumps, the lower leg plays a much more important role. The more single leg jumping you do, the more emphasis you should place on your lower leg training.
Lower leg training needn't take up a whole lot of your precious time in your vertical jump program, but it is important if you want to jump as high as possible. Incorporating a balanced approach that focuses on training your areas of weakness will yield positive results to not only your vertical leap, but your overall athletic performance.
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