Vertical Ignition Interview

Joel Smith recently released his new vertical jump training book Vertical Ignition. The short summary is that it is truly excellent and I highly recommend you check it out.

I am not going to do a full review of the book here but you should know it is definitely one of the best vertical jump training books I have read.

There is an old saying that goes "catch a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time". This is what Vertical Ignition goes about doing. It does a great job of teaching the reader how to go about constructing their own vertical jump programs.

So, instead of doing a review I did one better and got Joel to answer a few questions about the book for me. Joel's responses were comprehensive that is for sure.

Vertical Ignition

JACK (VERTICALJUMPING.COM): How has your approach to vertical jump training evolved over the years to where it is now and what principles underpin your coaching philosophy:


When I was young, I was always trying to figure out what it was that allowed athletes to jump high.  In my early days, I figured it had a lot to do with how strong someone’s quads were in relation to their bodyweight, and after seeing an ad for Jump Soles, how many fast-twitch muscles you had in your calves. 

At that point, I had been obsessed with jumping for years, but didn’t really have any resources to dial in on the correct training methods.  My high school training evolved from Air-Alert, to teaching myself Olympic lifts, to “The Science of Jumping” program.  The Science of Jumping program, as it worked so well for me continues to be part of the bias I tend to weigh other programs against, particularly in terms of the training effect of high intensity plyometrics. 

Unfortunately, when all you have is a program, and not a philosophy, you don’t always realize just which pieces of the total training equation are leading you to your success.  When I was in high school, I put 2 inches or so on my jump with the Air Alert program, which I quickly lost when my knees couldn’t take the beating. 

Even knowing nothing about training, I had a hard time wrapping my head around being able to even perform over 100 “leap ups”, or why it was so valuable to do so.  It sure seemed hard though, so I kept at it until I found something better.

My senior year of high school, I took the school strength and conditioning class, and quickly found that deep squatting, something I had been avoiding to an extent for years, was an incredible tool for increasing my jump off of two feet.  Lots of squatting had an inverse relationship with my one leg jump, however, and as my two leg jump rose, my single leg plummeted, until I stopped squatting for a while, where it very quickly returned, and then some, over the course of the season. 

During this time, I was just lifting, and then playing basketball and of course, trying to dunk all the time. What I noticed my senior year, compared to the previous year where plyometric training dominated my preparatory period, was that my vertical was far more stable my senior year.  I could jump relatively high more often, compared to when I was just doing plyos as the meat and potatoes of the workout. 

When I got to college I decided to combine lots of high intensity plyos with lots of high intensity lifting.  The funny thing is that when I went to jump after pick up basketball games, I found myself ground-bound to a point I could hardly believe. 

I couldn’t understand how I wasn’t jumping so high even though I was getting stronger, and doing what I thought were “the magical unicorn” of plyometrics.  What I wasn’t doing in this time period was sprinting, specific jumping, specific jump variability, and general strength, four key ingredients in the mix that I wouldn’t realize until a bit later on in my coaching career, and one of them, not until over a decade later!

 As I went through college, my most successful season by far was when I changed my major and just trained under the head coaches sprint and jump program.  This program was heavy on competitive acceleration training and hill sprints, as well as lots of general strength and function work.

Looking back from the age of experience, I now know that, although I was a royal pain in the bollocks to my coach, I did need the autonomy, and depending on the psychological profile of the athlete, some need more than others (I address this in Vertical Ignition with some of the available frequency and exercise selection options).  After that season, I had high jumped 7 feet, was faster than I had ever been by a long shot and could finally dunk better than I could in high school.  Strength and plyos weren’t the deficiency, speed, general function, and consistency were. 

Through my career as a coach since then, much of it has simply been discovering more of the principles as to what worked for me when it did, and why, and then applying it all through the clients I coach online, as well as some of the athletes I work with in my day job as a strength coach. 

I feel like I generally have at least one “big” revelation each year in regards to training.  This past year, my biggest two have been in the muscle activation/functionality arena, and then the art and science of variability in jump training, digging into Frans Bosch’s ideas of attractors and fluctuators. 

VERTICALJUMPING.COM: What are the key things you believe contribute to an athletes success?

JOEL SMITH: If I had to give a quick, bullet point summary of what I’ve formed as my coaching manifesto in the years I’ve been blessed with a collegiate coaching position, they would be this:

  • Attitude and the subconscious drive of an athlete can over-ride “poor” programming, at least for a good while.   The mental side, and drive to succeed is the #1 variable in jump training.
  • You must train specifically to achieve specific results, but you must spend much of your time training close versions of that specific skill in an open (decision based, sport play) and closed (fixed, plyometrics and lifting) environment.  This is much of what Vertical Ignition is based on: close relatives to specific jumping that allow for continual progress.
  • Of all variables in a plyometric program, the trick is to be able to handle more high intensity training means more often.  The plyometric exercises that are the most helpful and important to master are in the depth jump family, and then triple jump family.  If you can do those two things well, you will jump high. 
  • Beyond the initial, skill transfer of lifting, chasing lift numbers is generally not a good idea, unless your mentally wrapped around it, and you are an athlete who naturally likes to put force into the ground for longer.  Being strong is important, but let the lift numbers come to you, don’t chase them.  
  • You need to have your training goals in balance according to what type of jumper you want to be.  This means that you’ll need to give an appropriate portion of your program to acceleration/speed, elasticity, specific jumping (some can handle more specific jumping than others), strength, and general fitness in order to achieve your best result.

Training setups and frequencies can vary, but ultimately, to perform well, you need to center things around having high quality speed/jump/plyo sessions when athletes are feeling good and ready to roll.  

I cannot believe how many coaches this principle manages to escape.

VERTICALJUMPING.COM: How have these key points been integrated into Vertical Ignition?

JOEL SMITH: Vertical Ignition is really, getting back to the roots of my own vertical jump experience with an exponential amount more knowledge behind what I was doing over a decade ago. 

 After 10+ years of training athletes as a full time job, I’m not sure if there is a theory of training out there that I’m not familiar with.  Knowing a lot of programs and methods doesn’t really matter in the end though, it’s how you are able to critically think about the success factors of those programs.  It’s about being able to take the things you were doing that you weren’t quite aware of, back when you were wildly successful in training, and quantifying that into a way that the everyday athlete can understand and succeed with. 

 What I did for Vertical Ignition was try and make the above principles into a program that was as much a philosophy as it was a “12 week training bout”.  Vertical Ignition is heavily based on transfer of training as shown by Bondarchuk’s famous chart.  It is also based on getting athletes to learn their optimal training split, as well as allowing them autonomy in choosing the exact strength exercises they end up utilizing for the course of the program.  

It is also a very balanced program for athletes who want to jump high, and do so particularly off the run.  It’s one thing to squat the quads into submission to gain a better standing jump, and it’s another completely to optimize the skill of running jumps in a balanced attack between speed, strength, plyometrics and general body connection and function.  I think that some of the results I’ve seen from the program in already highly trained athletes (my favorite group to work with) have been favorable to those ideals.

VERTICALJUMPING.COM:  What can the average reader expect to learn in Vertical Ignition that they wouldn't find in other jump training books?

JOEL SMITH:  Great question. Vertical Ignition also different because it is one philosophy that can be applied indefinitely.  Rather than writing a half dozen to a dozen programs (which was the idea of one of my original books) and having athletes skip and jump around, I wanted to write about one philosophy that an athlete can take with them forever, and one that they can build on, even if they move onto a slightly different training method over the course of their training life. 

 All of us who have been coaching for a while know that any program will work for novice and intermediate athletes, and those are the ones that end up writing the testimonials for many of the jump programs out there.  I always love those stories, and as a youth striving for a better jump, there was nothing more exciting than touching a little higher on the net or rim than I had before. 

What I care about the most for the Vertical Ignition program is the effect it has on those who have been training for a long time. I do think that it helps to put things in a good perspective for these athletes, and open the door to them for further training and performance gains.

VERTICALJUMPING.COM:  Moving away from Vertical Ignition for a bit and speaking more generally, what are some of the more effective things the average athlete can easily introduce into their jump training program?


  • Get elastic.  Do plyometrics with intent!  Learn the basics of plyometric work with silent landings, and small knee bends.  Work on your posture.  If you can transfer energy well, you are ahead of the crowd. 
  • Do strength and barbell work, but expend minimal mental energy on your program.  Don’t pound your head into the wall to hit a better max.  You probably don’t realize it, but much of what lifting is doing to help you jump higher is happening on a skill level, and that skill transfer is actually somewhat independent of the weight you are using.  Just because there are a few freaks out there who swear by their squat max, and are the purest form of force jumpers doesn’t mean you should train like them.  95% of athletes won’t respond so well to 1RM focused training.
  • Learn how to bound and do various bounding combinations.  Do single leg bounding.  See how far you can go in 5 bounds, or in 10.  Make this distance farther every time you do it.
  • Play an explosive sport, but not to the point of total exhaustion.  Playing 3-4 pickup games to 11 is good.  Playing 3 hours of running up and down the court will hurt more than it helps.  Play a sport that put a premium on quick reactions, such as racquetball, or futsol.  Don’t forget to have fun while training.
  • Jump a lot in front of peers.  Find people who have similar interests as you in your jumping journey, and start jumping  a lot.  Practice jumping and dunking on low rims.  Low rim work is one of the premier ways to have fun, and achieve fluctuation in takeoff style, while finishing with the common attactors to vertical jump skill. 
  • Sprint fast, and do so a few times a week.  Compete.  Try different starting positions.  Be sure to time yourself when you can. 

VERTICALJUMPING.COM:  In your experience what sort the things do you think most athletes do wrong when trying to jump higher?


Good question, I’ll just make a list here.

  •  Putting too much emphasis on lifting volume and maxes.  This doesn’t hurt too many athletes short term, but it really hurts on the advanced and elite level.
  • Being too scared to put their ability on the line regularly and jump with peers and in a competitive setting.  This, and then obviously not jumping enough.
  • Not believing that they can jump high.  Most people wouldn’t think about this, but what is in the mind is in the body, and only when you have an attitude of being able to jump out of the gym if you put the work in, will you truly achieve it. 
  • Not balancing their training out in terms of the correct sequencing of speed, jumping, plyos, strength, etc.  This is where I feel Vertical Ignition does a great job of helping athletes understand what proper balance is.
  • Not varying the type of jumping they are doing.  This kills people like high jumpers (who only really jump with one type of plant) more than anyone.  Dunk athletes plant slightly differently most times they jump, so they can get away with more specific practice more often.  Try to find different environmental and mechanical factors to make your jumping different. 
  • Thinking too much.  Let your subconscious mind take on the job of improvement.  You can’t jump higher just through the will of your conscious mind.  To help your subconscious mind out, don’t fret things like lift numbers, and be sure to regularly have fun and variation in your training.  Jumping over hurdles (or people) is a great example of where your focus is on adventure and adrenaline, more so than just “jumping a particular height in inches”.   Playing sports obviously takes care of this factor too from time to time.  Just let yourself jump, and immerse yourself in positive talk and great situations to enjoy one of the greatest skills known to man, the art of the jump.  

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference.  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.

To order a copy of Joels excellent vertical jump training book Vertical Ignition visit Joel's site Just Fly Sports.

Joel Smith: Author of Vertical Ignition


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