upper body training for vertical jump improvement: part 1

When it comes to jumping high, a question that gets asked a lot by aspiring high flyers is ho much upper body training is required? After all, jumping high is a full body activity for sure, but clearly most of the power comes from the legs, but you still need to do some upper body training. 

This raises a few obvious questions:

1) How much does your upper body actually contribute to your jump height?

2) If it does help, in what manner should upper body be trained for maximum explosiveness?

3) How much emphasis should be placed on upper body training in your program?

How Much Does The Upper Body Contribute?

It is very difficult to put an exact figure on the contribution the upper body makes. Estimates vary but most research we have come across puts it around the 5% mark (although we have seen one report that suggested up to 20%). 

Coaches and trainers love to talk this figure up, but the reality is 5% is a small portion. Logic would dictate that you should therefore only apply 5% of your training time to upper body work. If you are doing more you are just wasting your time on something that isn't going to contribute much to your jump height.

If you want to see an example of an athlete who has realized where the focus of his training should be check out this video of Cuban volleyballer Leonel Marshall. He has a 50 inch (yes that is 50 inch) vertical leap, and if you look at his build his legs are massive and his arms quite skinny. His jumping ability is beyond freaky.

If you look at most of the high flyers in the NBA, or any of the jumping athletes in track and field you will see the same thing - thin upper bodies with minimal upper body muscular development. 

Spud WebbMassive Vertical = Powerful Legs and Minimal Upper Body Development

How To Train The Upper Body For Maximum Vertical

Just for clarity, when we refer to the upper body training, we are talking only about the typical areas targeted by traditional body building regimes. These include biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest and back. 

When we refer to the lower body we mean not just the legs, but also all the other muscles that make up the vitally important posterior chain. With this in mind, it is important to remember a golden rule of jump training: if you want to be explosive, you need to train explosively.

Not training for strength and power is one of the biggest mistakes people make when training for vertical leap. They train their legs using sound power focused principles, and then they go and lift for their upper body with high rep sets and slow controlled movements that focus on time under tension rather than power development. On top of that they do this whilst performing all sorts of bodybuilding exercises such as bench press and bicep curls that in no way is going to improve their jumping ability.

Poor exercise selection is not the only mistake people make though. Another common one is the amount of effort athletes trying to improvetheir jump spend training for hypertrophy (increased muscular size) using rep ranges of 5+ per set. From a pure vertical jump stand point this is highly counter productive. 

Sure bigger muscles can potentially produce more power, but they also weigh more which not only makes it harder to jump high, but also creates more shock when you land. On top of this, if you get too big, your co-ordination may also be negatively effected. Your ultimate training goal is to improve your power to weight ratio, i.e. have more power, but without the weight. This is done using higher percentages of your 1RM for lower rep numbers (1-5).

big musclesIf your training to jump high and you look like this, it might be time to rethink your program.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing to remember when thinking about your upper body training for vertical jumping, is that the benefits that your arms provide is mostly due to the momentum they help create.

By swinging your arms downward on the eccentric portion of the jump you create higher levels of downward directional force which more actively engages the stretch reflex. Then on the upswing, your arms have the opposite effect, helping to thrust you into the air.

As such your focus should be more on speed of movement instead of strength.

How Often Should You Train The Upper Body?

This question is a bit more difficult. Some jump programs suggest as often as 3x per week, and many others prescribe no upper days each week. So which is it?

Well, like all things vertical jump related, it depends on the athlete, the nature of the sport they are playing, their individual ability to recover. As we know, high intensity jump training is very stressful on the body. Hitting the gym and doing some heavy squats or deadlifts fatigues not just the lower body muscles, but indirectly, the upper ones too! 

It is the lower body muscle groups that do the majority of the work in generating vertical jump height, and accordingly they should be the prime focus of your training. They should also be the prime focus of your recovery efforts.

Your body still only has a finite capacity for repair and recuperation. It is during your recovery phase that your body adapts and you develop the ability to jump higher. If you are putting in too much work on your upper body, you will limit the time you give yourself to fully recover and your vertical gains will not be what they should be.

When you factor in the need for maximizing recovery time with the lack of contribution into your jump height it is my opinion that you shouldn't be putting too much emphasis on upper body training. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that for an athlete looking purely to increase vertical jump that they do no specific upper body training at all.

The upper body muscles that provide the most noticeable input to your jump are the shoulders, upper back and lats. Ideally, a well designed program should include some type of barbell snatch, kettlebell swing, or medicine ball toss. These exercises all hit not only the posterior chain, but also those upper body muscles that contribute the most directly to your vertical jump. 

Now, we understand the thought of doing so little targeted upper body work might be too much for some athletes, so if your other performance goals require you absolutely must do something then try the following approach. 

When you start your program, do so with with no upper body training except the snatches and ball tosses as mentioned. Just focus on the key muscles groups required for jumping. After a few weeks of this, add in an upper body session per week. After a few more weeks you might then add in a second session with more specific upper body exercises.  

need help incorporating your upper body training into your jump training?

If you need any help in preparing an upper body workout that fits in with your training goals as well as your vertical jump workouts our jump coaching program might be for you. As part of the jump coaching you can have not only custom vertical jump training programs written for you, but also upper body training programs that are designed to not impede your jumping progress.

To find out more click on the image below:


No doubt there are are some excellent jumpers that are quite muscular, but the truly freaky jumpers, the Vince Carters, Kadour Ziani's, and Spud Webbs of this world, all have or had, limited upper body size. 

Don't get us wrong, we are not saying training the upper body is not important. It definitely is important. What we are saying is that greater gains will come by focusing on training the areas that provide the most lift to your jump, and it isn't those biceps or pecs. 

NOTE: This article has been written with a view of maximizing an athlete's vertical jump. It does not consider that some sports performance may benefit from extra strength and size. 

Most sports that require vertical jumping also require a variety of other physical attributes and if you are training for overall sporting improvement you certainly should give consideration to such requirements.


related articles

Upper Body Training Part 2 - Try this simple yet highly effective upper body workout for some pretty impressive results.

Kettlebell Training - How to use kettlebells to increase your vertical jump.

Olympic Lifting -  Olympic lifters are not only very strong, but they are also very powerful. Learn why the O-lifts can be so beneficial for athletes in developing that important explosive muscular power.

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