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Joel Smith Talks Single Leg Jump Training

One of my favorite coaches to talk to about single leg jump training, or any form of jump training for that matter is Joel Smith. His expereince as both a competitive track and field athlete and a coach gives him a terrific perspective. I recently asked Joel a few questions specifically about single leg jump training and he provided some excellent thoughts in response.


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Verticaljumping.com: What are the 3 biggest issues facing an athlete wanting to improve their single leg jump and how do you fix them?

Joel Smith: The biggest issue is the way that the athlete practices jumping. If you only work to jump off of two legs and never practice off of one, you won't be very good at it, simple as that. If you are a good one leg jumper, try jumping off your non-jump leg and you'll see what I mean. That off-leg might be just as strong as your jump leg, but the lack of repetition and skill is going to hurt your ability there. Single leg jumping is a skill, so it must be practiced.

Typically, athletes who have a decent developmental background will be pretty good at this skill without anyone ever having to tell them what a penultimate step is. Athletes who don't have a good background in a variety of skills (blame the American physical education system) will have to be manually taught how to do this more-so than those who played every sport in the book growing up. Typically people with deep athletic "roots" figure it out themselves subconsciously.

The second biggest issue is the way an athlete loads during athletic movement. The best way I can describe this is to watch an athlete perform a standing vertical jump from the side. Athletes who bend their knees deep, past 90 degrees, into a squat are great at producing force, but poor at expressing it quickly. A single leg jump typically requires force to be expressed very quickly, and athletes who like to really "load up" will find that single leg jumping doesn't come as easily to them. They will therefore not practice it as much in favor of two leg jumping (which they are better at) and start a negative cycle.

The final issue is posterior chain strength and control. Both are important to a good jump. The strength built for single leg jumping is best built through general means (deadlifts, cleans, etc) and the specific work on control and timing left to dynamic track style work. In my opinion, the best way to teach an athlete to operate their PC properly is to do efficient track style drills which are focused on putting force into the ground through a flat foot and rigid knee, and infusing this with locomotive drills. Basically, do drills that help you recruit more posterior chain when you sprint, and it will show up when you jump.

Verticaljumping.com: Aside from practicing jumping technique itself what do you consider the most important things an athlete should train to improve their single leg jump are?

Joel Smith: Learning how to sprint utilizing the posterior chain. This is much more biomechanically similar to jumping off of one leg than a standing vertical jump. Skipping, bounding, and multi-jumps are all great teaching tools here as well, and ones that any track coach will use. Even though the energy system isn't spot on, extended stair work will build the drive that plagues athletes who load up a bit too much during their jumping.

sprinting helps single leg jumping

Sprinting: Very good for single leg jumping

Verticaljumping.com: How would you train a single leg jumper differently to a two legged jumper?

Joel Smith: Single leg jumpers have been described as skinny, strong and mean by Russian high jump coaches. For these athletes, they need to put a premium on short-contact elastic work that two leg jumpers don't have to worry about. In most cases (for an SL jumper), hypertrophy style training is addressed less, ankle strength is addressed more, squat depth is usually a bit higher in some of the training cycles, more sprinting and speed in general.

Be sure to use plyos with shorter contact times, so favor hurdle hops over standard depth jumps, etc. Single leg jumpers will benefit from higher reps of plyos while two leg jumpers don't need as many plyos, but they need more practice actually jumping. Long story short, more speed and slightly less strength in the weight room sense for a single leg jumper.

Verticaljumping.com: Random question. Do you recommend hip thrusts and if so would you consider a single leg hip thrust a better choice for a single leg jumper?

Joel Smith: Yes, certainly. I feel that the higher speed takeoff a jumper utilizes, the more hip thrusts will carry over. They help pelvic positioning, power routing and alignment in high speed jumping. Some athletes need them more than others though. A quad-dominant kid will likely see nice results throwing these in as a special strength exercises, while a hip dominant jumper might not really need them. I don't use too many unilateral exercises in the weight room aside from fixing asymmetries, so I won't use the single leg variety too much unless I am too lazy to put all the weight on the bar that the two leg version requires.

Barbell Hip Thrusts

Verticaljumping.com: 5) Generally speaking would you recommend more single leg exercises specifically for single leg jumpers or do you think a mix between bilateral and unilateral is the better way to go either way?

Joel Smith: I would favor primarily bilateral exercises. Leave the single leg stuff to actually running and jumping. I do like heavy barbell step ups a lot though, and those are always in my strength programs for my jumpers. That is an exercise I have always had good success with. I'll use RFESS in the first phase or two just to iron out some asymmetry, but after that I drop it, because it doesn't transfer all that well compared to sport squats or cleans.

Verticaljumping.com: How important is core strength in single leg jumping? (I am throwing this one in because I was stuffing around at the YMCA today and tried a few single leg jumps and found my kidneys got sore more than anything. It was weird).

Joel Smith: Haha, nice question. This is an area that philosophy comes in a little more than actual transfer/functionality/whatever. If you asked an FMS purist on core strength for athletes and threw out the typical flexion based core routines that most athletes do, they would probably get a mob together and try to lynch you. To me, core strength is simply the ability to have the pelvis and spine in the right alignment (neutral or slight posterior pelvic tlit) during the plant of a single leg takeoff. Most athletes can do this without every doing Ab-ripper X, 5 minute abs, or whatever tickles their fancy to look good nekkid.

On the other hand, doing "core" work in terms of abs, obliques, iliacus/psoas or whatever is useful, as most athletes feel good about themselves and their physique after doing it, and the good vibes from looking and feeling good have a nice effect on performance. Even though doing loads of repeated flexion based exercise is not great from a postural sense (it is actually not good in a postural sense), I don't mind if my athletes do it on their own because it typically helps them psychologically. Just make sure you are stretching your hip flexors regularly.

The core work I like to do that I think may transfer, and transfers to athleticism in general is gymnastic and total body stability work. Stuff that involves swinging from a high bar or on parallel bars teaches athletes to transfer total body force well… and it also gets you jacked. I also like multi-directional plank series work and any core work using medicine balls, as it combines some core strength with force transfer. Personally, I can't really remember the last time I did a situp, but at the same time I won't judge anyone who does Mike Chang's workouts a few times a week.

best vertical jump training to jump higher

About Joel Smith

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a strength coach at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. His degrees in exercise science have been earned from Cedarville University in 2006 (BA) and Wisconsin LaCrosse (MS) in 2008. Prior to California, Joel was a track coach, strength coach and lecturer at Wilmington College of Ohio. During Joel’s coaching tenure at Wilmington, he guided 8 athletes to NCAA All-American performances including a national champion in the women’s 55m dash. In 2011, Joel started Just Fly Sports with Jake Clark in an effort to bring relevant training information to the everyday coach and athlete. Aside from the NSCA, Joel is certified through USA Track and Field and his hope is to bridge the gap between understandable theory and current coaching practices.

You can read more from Joel at his website by clicking the image below:

just fly sports

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