vertical jump training

The Importance of Strength Training in Vertical Jump Development

Written by Jack Woodrup for

We can't say this any more clearly - you need to be incorporating some strength training into your program if you want to jump ridiculously high. It is nearly always the best thing an aspiring vertical jump athlete can do to make immediate improvements. Why? For a number of reasons.

Firstly, nearly all your athletic performance qualities (speed, jump, agility, etc) depend on your base levels of strength. In other words, how strong you are drives how well you can run, jump, cut, box out, throw, tackle etc.

Secondly, of all the things you can do to improve your vertical jump, strength training offers the greatest potential for gains. it would not be unreasonable for a beginner to improvetheir strength levels by as much 300%.

We will cover these top two points in a bit more detail in the rest of the article, however before we continue there is a third major benefit strength training provides which is that it involves a lot of full body lifts such as the squat and deadlift to movevery heavy weights.

In order to successfully continue to complete these sorts of lifts using progressively heavier weights your body must learn how to 1) recruit as many muscle fiber's as possible, and 2) fire them in the right order. This combination of events improves both your inter-muscular and intra-muscular co-ordination. This has some huge carry over benefits to your vertical jumping ability.

Strength is the Foundation of Power

When we mentioned that all your key sporting and athletic performance qualities are based upon how strong you are we weren't just being facetious.

In volleyball for example, vertical jump and spike power are very much derived from an athlete's strength. In basketball boxing out, shooting range, fighting through or setting tough screens, jumping, agility, speed are all also dependent on how strong the athlete is. Across all sports the story is the same - get stronger and performance improves.

Something else about strength levels and vertical jump capability that you might want to take note of is that there is a very high correlation between squat strength and vertical jump. Yes there are athletes who can't squat anything but can jump through the roof, and there are athletes who can squat hundreds of pounds but can't jump over their own shadow. But across a wider athletic population, it is generally the case that stronger you are (at the squat), the higher you can jump.

Some jumping gurus may claim otherwise about the importance of squatting and building strength but the numbers don't lie. Another interesting observation about the importance of strength is the number of studies that have been done on various training techniques and vertical jump capacity. In many cases the athletes tested that have made the most improvement in vertical jump has been those that were already strong, or worked on their strength.

Now this doesn't hold true so much where novice or beginner athletes are used (in which case just about anything works), but when experienced athletes are comparatively tested, it is nearly always the strong that see the greatest gains in power and jumping ability when explosive training techniques are added. Bottom line, you need the strength to create the power.

Before we go any further though we should quickly explain exactly what we mean when we talk about strength. There are actually a number of different expressions of strength, not all of which are as important as others for improving your vertical jump.

Some of the more relevant strength qualities are:

STARTING STRENGTH: The ability to accelerate a load from rest.

ACCELERATIVE STRENGTH: The ability to movethe load quickly through the concentric phase of a movement. Very important for vertical jumping. As Jon Hinds who invented the Portable Power Jumper says - "Slow jumping is low jumping". The quicker you can jump, the higher you will jump.

ABSOLUTE STRENGTH: Your ability to lift loads that are of a high percentage of your 1RM.

These three strength qualities are what famous strength coach Verkhoshansky defines as making up explosive strength. We feel that there is another couple of strength qualities that deserve a mention which Verkhoshansky misses in his definition, but which are very important to athletes wanting to propel their own bodies as jumpers do, and they are:

REACTIVE STRENGTH: The ability to convert eccentric force back into concentric or vertical power. It is basically your ability to use the stretch shorten reflex.

RELATIVE STRENGTH: We believe this maybe the most important strength quality a vertical jumping athlete can have. It basically refers to how strong we are per pound of body weight (athletes who have a high strength to weight ration, and who can apply that strength quickly, i.e. also possess high accelerative capabilities are generally very explosive).

High levels of relative strength is the reason you often see really skinny guys who can jump through the roof. They may not be able to lift much weight in the gym, but then again, they don't have much weight to lift on the court either.

Compare this to someone who just has high levels of absolute strength. They may be strong as an ox, but if they also weigh as much as one, then they will only be able to jump as high as one (Note: The ox isn't really known for its amazing hops).

We will discuss how to train for each of these different strength qualities a lot more in Strength Training Part 2: Techniques and Parameters. Now getting back to the point at hand, how exactly does strength form the foundations of muscular power? Fred Hatfield provides this great explanation of the role strength training plays in the development of power and why getting strong is so important:

"a 200 pound man capable of squatting 250 pounds for a single rep will have a mere 50 pounds of reserve strength available to propel his body upward during a vertical jump. Contrast this with a 200-pound elite-class power lifter capable of squatting 600 pounds. Now we've got 400 pounds of strength reserve available, and all things being equal, he will have a vastly superior vertical jump compared to the novice squatter."

When explained like this the need for strength becomes obvious. Clearly the stronger athlete will be able to apply more force in the power equation. Better still, when we apply this to real life, it nearly always holds true. Power lifters (well Westside ones who also do a lot of RFD work) and Olympic lifters who have extraordinary levels of relative strength do indeed frequently have great vertical jumps.

After all Power = Force x Velocity

If you can currently squat 250 and apply that in 1 second your power = 250 as follows:

Power = Force (250) x Velocity (1)

However if you increase your maximum squat to 350 without adding a heap of bulk from hypertrophy work, then clearly your power producing capacity, and therefore your vertical jump is going to improve(P = 350 x 1 is obviously higher than 250 x 1).

As you can see improving your relative strength is therefore a tremendous way to improve your vertical jump. It doesn't however explain why we think it is generally the very best way to improve your vertical jump. To understand that you need to know why....

Strength Training Offers the Biggest Potential Gains

Let's get straight to the point about strength training and the role it plays in vertical jump development. Basically a huge vertical jump comes from having a great power to weight ratio. In other words you want to be able to generate a lot of power whilst not having too much excess body weight. Power is a function of Force/Time (or Force x Velocity). So essentially there are 3 things we can do to improveour vertical jumping capability.

1. We can improveour power to weight ratio by losing weight in the form of reduced body fat or unnecessary muscle mass.

2. We can train to movequicker to reduce the time component (or increase the velocity) of our movements.

3. We can get stronger to improvehow much force we can produce.

All three of these things are important in the big scheme of vertical jump development, however in terms of percentage change, it is strength training that offers the greatest potential for development.

Firstly let's look at reducing bodyweight. Even people who are grossly overweight can only lose so much. For example if you were only 5'10" and weighed 350 pounds you would be one seriously fat individual. If you were to drop half your size and get to a more reasonable 175 pounds this still represents only a 50% improvement.

Next let's look at speed and strength improvements. Renowned plyometrics expert Donald Chu states in his book Jumping into Plyometrics, that you can only improve your speed by about 10%, but you can improve your strength by 300%.

This statement says it all about why strength training to maximize your vertical jump is so important. Obviously those figures aren't absolutes, but they are a pretty good guide as to what you can hope to achieve.

In practical terms this means if it takes an athlete 0.7 seconds to complete a vertical jump, than even with technique improvements and plyometrics to enhance their CNS responsiveness, the best sort of gains they can expect to see in speed and velocity are 0.07 of a second.

However, if that same athlete weighs 175 pounds and can only currently squat their body weight (i.e. 175 pounds), then they potentially can get strong enough to lift 525 pounds. Can you imagine the different level of athlete that person would be!

Now we should clarify a few things about these statements and examples lest you start to think we are deceiving you with words. Firstly, in terms of percentage gains a 1% improvement in weight loss will not necessarily produce the same vertical jump benefits as 1% increase in speed or strength.

Also we used an extreme example of an obese person. If they were that tall and weighed that much the chances are they wouldn't be able to get off the couch let alone off the ground.

Also we used a novice trainer in our examples. Experienced trainers simply won't make the same improvements as newbie's. If you can already squat quite a high percentage of your bodyweight (150%+) the chances are that you won't be tripling that value any time soon. For example, when Fred 'Dr Squat' Hatfield became the first man to squat 1000 pounds he wouldn't have been thinking about how he go on a new program to get that up to 3000 pounds. It just wasn't going to happen.

Now despite these points of note, the principles illustrated in the examples still very much hold true. You can only lose so much weight and moveso fast and you will reach these limits much, much quicker than you will reach your upper limit of strength.

Is Vertical Jumping Just A Matter of Getting Strong Then?

No, absolutely not. Whilst it is true that increasing your strength, particularly your relative strength, is incredibly important for increasing your vertical jump, it is just as important to remember that jumping involves a speed element as well. This speed element is comprised of concepts such as accelerating strength and rate of force development.

It is the speed of not only vertical jumping, but pretty much all sporting activities that prevents our training from just being purely strength related. The RFD requirement in jumping creates diminishing returns in jump height from any extra gains in muscular strength.

Basically you might be able to improve your maximum squat from 350 to 550 which in itself is a fantastic achievement, but for the act of jumping, there isn't always enough time to recruit the extra muscle units in the split second it take to complete a jump (or a throw, or a sprint etc).

Another nice way of looking at this is that if vertical jumping was just about getting strong, everyone who could squat 2x+ their body weight would have great vertical jumps. Obviously this isn't the case so you absolutely need to work on your rate of force development etc as well.

How Strong is Too Strong?

Given what we know about the benefits and limitations of strength training, how do we know when we are strong enough? Basically you are strong enough when any further improvements in strength stop resulting in improvements of your vertical jump.

So if your squat is 2.0x your bodyweight and your vertical jump is 33 inches, and you continue your strength training until you can squat 2.2x your body weight, if your vertical jump remains at 33 inches, then the chances are, you are strong enough.

This of course is a broad simplification as there will be times when you will get stronger and the gains to your vertical jump will not be immediate. In a western, or linear periodized training program, there is a section called the conversion phase. The goal of behind this phase is after a period of pure maximal strength development, you then concentrate on explosive training with lighter loads in order to start tapping into your new strength reserves. What this phase is designed to do is reduce an athletes ESD (Explosive Strength Deficiency - Difference between an athlete's maximum strength and how much strength they can apply quickly).

The moral of this story? If your strength gains don't immediately convert to jump improvements, don't necessarily assume you are as strong as you need to be. Sometimes physiological adaptations just take place at different rates. You might get stronger for a few weeks without seeing vertical improvements, but then two to three weeks later, your vertical will suddenly go up a bit.

Also, as discussed earlier, if you happen to in a phase where you are just training to improve your absolute or relative strength base and nothing else (i.e. not doing any speed type work), then your vertical may not improveat all. However the extra strength you are building is a base for future vertical jump gains because it increases your force producing potential.

Strength Level Standards

In the previous paragraphs we talked about when you should start to consider further strength training to be less advantageous to achieving your vertical jump goals than other methods. The answer we gave is correct, you should reduce your emphasis on strength when you are no longer seeing gains in your vertical jump.

However, we are often then asked when approximately this will start to occur. We can't give you a definitive answer for this because each athlete is different, however we can provide some general guidelines that you may want to consider.

It is commonly accepted that you should be able to squat a minimum of 1.5x your body weight before you start doing serious plyometric training such as depth jumps. The reason for this is as we stated at the start of this article, you can train your CNS to fire your muscles quicker and more explosively, but if your muscles don't have the strength capacity to exert much force in the first place, you still won't jump high.

A 1RM of the equivalent to 1.5x your bodyweight squat basically means if you weigh 180 pounds you are be able to squat one time with good form, 270 pounds (180 x 1.5 = 270). Something to consider about this is that if you have 1.5x body weight max squat you are only performing at about the 50th percentile of the athletic population.

A 1.5x bodyweight max squat isn't that difficult to attain and most people we know have managed to reach that first check point within a relatively short period of time.

Now in the next class up of athlete, the truly freaky jumpers are generally much stronger. To really start seeing some serious gains in your vertical you need to be aiming for a MINIMUM of 2x or more.

Some good examples of athletes with high levels of relative strength are sprinters and Olympic lifters. Top level sprinters for example often squat 2.5x - 3.0x times their body weight and many of them have 40+ inch verticals (not to mention their obviously blinding speed). Elite Olympic lifters also are squatting much more than 2x their body weight and they too frequently have great verticals (particularly in the lighter weight categories where the power to weight ratio of those athletes is just incredible).

Unlike the 1.5x standard, a max squat of 2x your body weight is not so easy to achieve. If it was everyone would be able to do it. If you can reach that level of relative strength not only will it put you in the top 95th percentile of athletes, but it will also put your vertical through the roof. If you do want to get that strong, be prepared. It will take time and dedication. A 2x body weight squat is not something that generally happens overnight or even in a few weeks.

One final thought about strength training standards is that we have spoken hear in terms of squatting strength, or more correctly, back squatting strength. The reason for this is that squat strength is the most easily understood and widely known standard. There is however one major shortcoming with using this strength training standard to measure yourself against.

The problem is that not every athlete, particularly those taller folks, are particularly well suited to back squatting. Some athletes are going to be much more suited to doing deadlifts, front squats, box squats, or lumberjack squats due to their size, flexibility limitations etc.

In these instances the 2x standard may not apply directly, but the message is the same. Get as strong as possible as you can on your prime move big lifts and you will see great gains in your vertical jump.

More Powerful Than a Locomotive

Figure 1: More Powerful Than a Locomotive. Whilst you may never be able to haul trains, it doesn't hurt to aim high with your strength training!

Conclusion of Part 1

In this part of our strength training discussion we looked at why strength training is important to the maximal development of your vertical jump. In part 2 we will look at some of the strength training methodologies you can employ to improvethe different strength qualities needed to jump high.

Click below to read part 2: Strength Training Part 2: Techniques and Parameters

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