Want to jump higher? Then step up. Literally
We all should know by now that building strength is very important for increasing your vertical jump. It is also generally agreed that the squat and the deadlift are the big dogs of any leg workout. However for better overall strength development no solid leg session should be without a good single leg exercise.
For many coaches their preferred unilateral exercise of choice is the split squat, however for me, my favourite single leg exercise is the step up which I believe is a superior choice for a number of reasons.
There are many things to like about the step up.
First it is really easy to learn. There are not as many technical cues to remember as say a barbell back squat or deadlift. Basically you find a box, put your front foot on it, and then step up onto it. The main thing to remember is to try and eliminate as much momentum off the back leg as you can so that the majority of the work is being performed by the working leg (i.e. the one on the box).
Two simple tricks you can do to help here is to raise the heel of your back foot so that you are resting on your toes, and/or place your back foot onto some foam padding so that it absorbs some of the downward force your rear leg puts out as you push off to start the rep.
In terms of box height the generally accepted practice is to use a box that has your front quad about parallel to the floor. However you can mix it up to add variety to the exercise. A higher box places more emphases on the glutes and hamstrings, while a lower box tends to place more emphasis on the quads.
The last thing to remember when performing a step up, especially for vertical jump development purposes is to try and bring your rear leg up into a high knee position. Why do I recommend this extra step for jumping athletes? Well what this does is it provides an element of hip extension on the working leg. At the top of the exercise, you should get a pretty strong contraction of the glutes.
If you are a single leg or two legged jumper being able to follow through with a powerful glute contraction is important for developing maximal power on your jumps. It is this hip extension that I think separates it from other single leg exercises. With the other popular choices such as split squats and lunge varieties there is much less hip extension involved than a step up that incorporates a strong rear leg follow through.
Hip Extension: A vital component of maximum jumping power
The only real drawback I have found with step ups is that it isn't always easy to find a sturdy adjustable box to step up onto. Many commercial gyms don't have a good adjustable height box to use and so you end up having to use a bench. The problem there is that the padding on top of the bench makes the exercise a little unstable which isn't ideal and can be a bit of a safety issue if you aren't careful.
There are a few different varieties of the step up I like to use. The variation that comes to mind is the basic weighted step up for strength. However another version I absolutely loveis the ballistic step up. This is where you try and drive up off the box with maximum power and then switch legs while you are in the air. This really is one of the best ways I know to develop explosive knee drive and will help any running and jumping athlete with their take offs.
If you haven't seen it I have made a short video discussing the step up in a bit more detail which you can watch below.
I never like to get too into "which exercise is best" type discussions because a well written vertical jump program will use exercises that compliment each other, and regardless it is also a good idea to occasionally mix it up with your exercises to prevent stagnation in your results by becoming overly adapted to what you are doing.
However neither of these things can stop me from having my favourite exercises, and in the case of choosing my number one single leg strengthexercise, step ups are my clear choice. So next time you are in the gym try knocking out a few heavy sets, making sure that you bring that rear leg up aggressively to maximize the hip extension. You will be glad you did.
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