One question I’m probably asked more than any other is, “What is the best exercise to improve my vertical jump?” Or, “What is the best exercise to improve my speed?” A lot of people think there’s some secret exercise or movement that will turn them into explosive superstars overnight. In truth, there is and that exercise is called consistency and hard work!
If you aren’t willing to put forth consistent effort no single exercise will give you what you want. Having said that, there are many quality exercises that will enable you to focus on the specific targets that your workouts must hit and save you gobbles of time in the process of achieving your performance goals.
In this article I’ll attempt to shed some light on these questions and help you avoid going round and round playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey searching for that elusive magic bullet. I’ll give you some of the top proven exercises for both speed and vertical jump improvement.
Instead of wasting your time I’ll break speed and leaping ability down and show you the exact qualities your workouts must target and then give you the secrets, or exercises, that will enable you to hit those targets and make the most of your training time.
A lot of you may wonder if the exercises to improve one area (speed or jump) work to improve the other. In fact, the ability to accelerate quickly and jump high correlate well with each other.
This is because the qualities of strength required are similar. In fact, due to this, you can many times get faster without running, and jump higher without jumping, as long as you’re enhancing the type(s) of strength required in each through your training regimen.
To prove this all you have to do is take a look around. Have you ever seen a good sprinter who can’t jump high and a good leaper who’s slow as molasses? Me neither.
First understand that there can’t be a single best exercise for everyone because different training has different effects and the type of strength that one person needs to improve his or her speed and jumping ability may be the opposite of what another needs. For example, someone who’s lacking in basic strength will get great results with common strength exercises such as the squat.
Another person might have plenty of strength, but not enough “spring”, so an exercise like depth jumps will be his best training tool while the squats will do far less.
Understand that different training means have different influences on speed and vertical jumping ability. Speed and jumping ability both require an athlete to display large amounts of power. If you’ve read the power training article you know that power is a combination of strength and speed.
POWER = STRENGTH X SPEED
When performing a sprint, you can think of power as the amount of force that you apply into the ground with each stride. Obviously the greater the force, the more ground you’re going to cover with each stride. This is what is responsible for your stride length. Your stride length is then combined with your stride frequency or the speed at which you cycle your legs when you sprint, to determine your running speed.
So, you can increase your speed by either increasing your stride length or increasing your stride frequency with the largest potential increases coming from an increase in stride length, where power is of utmost importance.
In the vertical jump, you can again think of power as the amount of force you put into the ground at toe-off, which is responsible for the speed at which you leave the ground and the height that you jump. The more power you apply with respect to your bodyweight – the higher you’re going to go – and with respect to technique – that’s about all there is to it!
TIME OF FORCE APPLICATION
Realize in a sprint you have anywhere from .10 to .20 seconds to apply maximal power with each foot-strike. As you accelerate you have about .20 seconds but as you gain top speed and your stride frequency increases your legs naturally move faster so you only have about .10 seconds when running at top speed.
In the vertical jump you only have about .20 seconds to apply max power. This is why the ability to jump high and the ability to accelerate quickly have such a good correlation.
In order to display optimal levels of power you obviously must have good levels of strength and speed. This is influenced by the following strength qualities.
This is the amount of force you can apply irrespective of time. Limit strength can also be thought of as the strength of your muscles when speed of movement is of little consequence. Lifting maximal weights such as performing a 1 repetition max in the bench press or squat will test your limit strength capacity.
Attention should be paid to developing limit strength in the muscles of the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, lower back and calves, as these are the most important muscle groups for sprinting and jumping.
The muscles of the hip extensors should be given special attention because they are usually the weak links in the large majority of athletes. These muscles are the glutes, hamstrings and lower back.
Refers to the ability to develop max force in minimal time without the use of the plyometric stretch-reflex. Jumping from a paused position and sprinting out of the blocks both require nearly pure explosive strength because you don’t have the luxury of winding up and utilizing plyometric ability like you would if you took a big run-up before jumping or a lead-in to a sprint.
Explosive strength relies on starting strength, which is the ability to “turn on” as much force as possible in the first .03 seconds of movement.
In order to develop maximal force in minimal time you obviously must have enough raw force or strength to draw from or to tap into quickly. This is why limit strength serves as the foundation for explosive strength. A rocket capable of 100 pounds of force isn’t going anywhere!
Is displayed when your muscle/tendon complex is stretched prior to contracting and is otherwise known as plyometric strength, reversal strength, reflexive strength, rebound strength etc. This type of strength is evident when you perform a quick countermovement (bend down) before jumping. You can jump a lot higher that way then you can by pausing and then trying to jump can’t you?
Here’s why. The countermovement quickly stretches the tendons throughout your lower body. This allows your muscles and tendones to gather energy and create recoil like a rubber band. This reflexive/reactive response occurs quickly whereas a voluntary response to muscle stretch would be too late. Reactive ability enhances the force you can generate in the first .10 seconds of movement by anywhere from 200-700%!
With each stride and foot contact of a sprint the same thing happens as your achilles tendon stretches and recoils back like a spring or rubber band. The stretching reflex responds to the speed at which your muscle/tendon complex is stretched prior to movement. Try to slowly bend down before jumping and you’ll see what I mean. The faster and greater the stretch the greater the corresponding reactive force.
This is why you’ll notice people with excellent leaping ability descend down quickly and sharply in their countermovement. They create greater force in one direction that can then be transformed into force in the other direction. When your reactive ability is good the more force you can take in the more force you can put out.
Guys with subpar leaping ability have a hard time utilizing reactive force in the hips and quads so they don’t perform the countermovement with near the velocity, smoothness and proficiency. Fortunately this can be improved.
Most of the force generated from reactive contractions is involuntary, that is, you don’t have to think about it. This is why you can bounce a lot more weight when doing a bench press then you can whenever you pause a maximum weight on your chest before lifting it – even without really trying to.
We tend to use reactive force naturally whenever we are given the opportunity to do so and do it without thinking about it. In fact, one of the ways you can improve reactive ability is simply to avoid screwing it up. It’s there naturally and all training should enhance it and not detract from it.
One of the ways you can screw it up is with bodybuilding style training – which basically teaches your body to do the reverse of what it’s programmed to do. This is going to go against what you’ve heard but cheating, bouncing and accelerating a weight through the sticking point are all natural occurences and utilize and enhance reactive ability. You can detract from this with an over-reliance on prolonged eccentric training and slow training.
So, to quickly recap, the power in the vertical jump and sprint come from a combination of explosive strength and reactive strength – with limit strength serving as the foundation for both. When you put the 3 together you get what is known as your static-spring proficiency. A static-spring proficient athlete is otherwise known as a spectacular athlete.
Think of basic strength as the unseen concrete foundation of a house and your reactive strength and explosive strength as the result of that foundation (your beautiful home) that everyone sees. In a static-spring proficient athlete you see the end result, the ease of movement, speed, and jumping ability, but you don’t necessarily “see” the foundation behind that.
If you’re someone without a solid foundation you must train with slow heavy weight strength exercises to build that foundation, along with using explosive strength and reactive strength exercises to enhance power or the display of your foundation.
If you are already fairly advanced then all you have to do is determine which part of your power pyramid is the weak link (limit strength, explosive strength or reactive strength), and address the deficiency accordingly.
Now I’ll break the training methods down into categories of limit strength exercises, explosive strength exercises, and reactive strength exercises and show you the top exercises from each category. Really there are countless exercises that are all effective, but these exercises will give you a lot of value for your training dollar.
LIMIT STRENGTH EXERCISES
The goal of limit strength exercises is to simply increase the force or strength producing capabilities of your muscles. Progress will be evident in the amount of weight you can move in basic movements. The goal here is not to try to necessarily “mimick” sports movements, but rather just to increase the contractual force producing capabilities of the muscles that are involved in the sporting movements.
Whenever you perform limit strength exercises the repetition scheme can vary, but in general, the total length of the set should be kept under 25 seconds.
Full Back Squat – There should be no real reason to have to describe this exercise but make sure you descend down to parallel or below. This exercise works all the major muscle groups we need for speed and leaping ability. Perform for 3-8 repetitions per set.
Deadlift – Simply load up a bar and bend down, grab the bar, and pick it up while keeping your back straight and using the power of your glutes and hamstrings to initiate the movement. Deadlifts are a superior strengthening exercise for the glutes and hamstrings and also develop whole body power through their influence on the traps, grip and upper back. For extra hip and hamstring recruitment try performing deadlifts with a wide grip while standing on a box. Perform 3-8 repetitions per set.
1/2 Deadlift – This is like the deadlift but instead of starting from the ground you place the bar in a power rack or on boxes set just below the knee level. Again grip the bar and keeping your back straight or arched concentrate on squeezing with your glutes and hamstrings to pull the bar up. It also helps if you think of yourself as a bull pawing the ground down and back with your feet. Your feet won’t actually move but thinking of this action will correct your form and make sure you place stress on the appropriate musculature.
Split Squat – This is basically a single leg squat, with the non-working leg elevated on a bench behind you. Perform this exercise by holding a dumbell in each hand or with a barbell on your back, descend until the back knee touches the floor and then explode back up to the start position. This exercises torches the glutes, hamstrings and vastus medialis while also developing flexibility in the hip flexors. Perform 5-15 repetions per set.
Good Morning – Start off in a squat position with a barbell on your back placed down low on your traps – next arch your back keep your chest up and push your hips back as far as possible. As you do this your upper body will descend forward and you will feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings. Dig down and back with your feet to rise to the starting position. Perform 5-10 repetitions per set.
Glute Ham Raise – If you don’t have a glute ham apparatus you can always do these the old-fashioned way. Find someone or something to hold your feet down while you place your knees on a pad of some sort. Next starting from the top arch your back, keep your chest out and control the downward descent. You will feel this extensively in the hamstrings. Next, try to pull yourself up with your hamstrings but assist yourself with your hands as much as you need. Perform 5-15 repetitions per set.
EXPLOSIVE STRENGTH EXERCISES
The goal of explosive strength exercises is to either perform the movement with more speed, or with more height. Generally, speed of movement, especially the beginning of the movement, is more important than the load involved when it comes to these exercises.
Explosive strength movements focus on developing maximal starting and explosive strength, without much involvement of the reflexive stretch-shortening cycle (reactive strength). They inherently make you focus on applying max voluntary force as quickly as possible.
Box Squat – Using a wide stance sit back on a box just below parallel and pause before each repetition. Use a load equivalent to 50-60% of your best back squat and explode up trying to use your hips and hamstrings. You can also execute these with bands and chains for added effect. Perform anywhere from 2-5 reps per set.
Paused Jump Squat – Use a load of 15-30% of your max squat. Descend down just above parallel, pause for 3 seconds and then jump as high as possible. Perform 5-10 reps per set.
Jump Shrug – This is a lead in to a clean or snatch movement. Starting from either the floor, or from the “hang” position, explode up initiating the movement with your legs and hips. As you extend your hips and start to leave the floor follow through by shrugging your shoulders up. Re-set in between reps. Perform 3-6 repetitions per set.
Clean And Snatch Variations – These movements are explosive by nature and in order to perform them correctly you must instantly be able to develop maximum force. They also heavily involve the hip extensors, which are key for speed and jumping ability. Explaining the movements is beyond the scope of this article but if you can perform them correctly you can work them into your program. Perform 2-5 reps per set.
Standing Broad Jumps – Simply jump as far out as you can for distance and try to have a mark to shoot for. Pause momentarily between repetitions. Perform 3-5 reps per set.
On-Box Jumps – Find a box, stand in front of it, and then jump onto it and then step off and repeat. You can challenge yourself 2 ways on these. Either jump onto a low box trying to bend the legs as little as possible, or find a high box that requires you to really give it all you’ve got. Perform 3-8 reps per set.
1-leg Split Squat Jumps – Stand to the side of a box with one leg on the box and the other leg on the ground. Next, quickly straighten the leg that’s on the box and attempt to elevate yourself as high as possible by pushing off with the lead leg. Pause momentarily between repetitions. Complete all the reps for one leg before moving on to the other leg. Vary the height of the box to focus on different areas. You can also add weight to these by holding light dumbells. Perform 5-10 repetitions per leg.
Hurdle Jumps – Line up a row of hurdles or other barriers and jump over them one after the other, pausing momentarily in between each repetition. If you only have one such hurdle or object you can simply jump then turn around and jump again etc. Perform 3-8 reps per set.
REACTIVE STRENGTH EXERCISES
The goal with the reactive strength exercises is to execute the movements with either less time spent on the ground or more height. Each exercise and repetition places a premium on stretching of the muscle-tendon complex, which will boost your reactive/reflexive capacities by increasing your ability to absorb force, stabilize force, and reflexively react to that force. These movements allow you to take advantage and build upon the reflexive forces that come from the plyometric effect.
Ankle Jumps – An ankle jump is performed jumping off of the ground in rhythm by just springing off your ankles. While you’re in the air you want to pull your toes up. You also must prevent your heels from ever touching the ground. The key to this exercise lies in your ability to keep your knees locked while jumping and landing on and off the ground, as well as spending the least amount of time on the ground as possible. Perform 20 reps per set.
Shock Jumps – Also known as depth landings or altitude drops. What you do here is find a box equivalent to about the height of your best vertical jump. Next, step off the box and upon contact instantly try to absorb the impact without any movement and without letting your heels touch the ground. Picture a gymnast landing from a vaulting maneuver. You want to land in a powerful, yet quiet manner. You can continue to increase the height of the box until you can no longer land smooth and quiet. You can perform these by landing in a slight knees bent position, or by landing in a deeper squat position. The more knee bend the more the hamstrings and glutes are involved. Reactive strength improves as the speed of stretch increases, so you can increase the effectiveness even more by attaching elastic bands to the ground which then attach to your belt. Perform 3 reps per set.
Depth Jumps – A depth jump is a carryover from a shock jump and is performed by stepping off the box and then exploding upward upon ground contact. Try to keep the ground contact time short. To find the correct height for you simply find the height that allows you to jump the highest. So if you jump 22 inches from a 12-inch box, 30 inches from an 18-inch box and 28 inches from a 24-inch box the 30-inch box would be the correct height. If you find you can actually jump higher from the ground then you can by preceding your jump with a depth jump then you need to spend some time engaging in shock jumps before you perform this exercise. An advanced form of depth jumps calls for attaching stretch-bands to your body to increase your velocity as you descend, and then having the tension released as you begin your jump. Recall that concentric force increases as the speed of the stretch increases. This is probably the ultimate reactive technique but is an advanced exercise. Perform 3 reps of depth jumps per set.
Reactive Squats – This is a rhythmic jump squat variation. From the upright squat position pull the bar securely down on your shoulders and quickly descend down into a 1/2 squat position and bounce back up attempting to jump. If you do the movement correctly you should feel a stretch on the muscles of your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes as you absorb, stabilize, and react to the oncoming force. Use weight anywhere from 15-50% of your maximum squat. Perform 5-10 reps per set
Reverse Hyperextension – This movement works hip extension hitting the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors all during the course of one rep. If you don’t have a reverse hyper device you can get backward in a back raise or glute-ham machine and apply load by placing a rope or chains strung through weights around your ankles. To initiate the movement raise your legs up to parallel. You should feel a strong contraction in your glutes and hamstrings. Next, quickly allow your legs and the weight to fall and then about 2/3 of the way down regather tension and explode back up. This creates a reactive contraction in the hip extensors. Perform 8-15 reps per set.
Sprints – Very few exercises are as inherently as reactive as sprints and if you’re wanting to increase your speed you’re going to need to work on your sprinting technique. I recommend you sprint with maximum speed only once per week. On one other day go out and warm-up and build up to about 70% of your max speed and work on some technique drills. Just don’t strain too much during your “easy” session. To increase your acceleration perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 30 yard sprints. To improve your maximum speed perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 60-yard sprints.
Vertical Jumps – There should be no real need to explain this one, but one of the best ways to improve your vertical jump is to practice vertical jumping! You can use the vertical jump in place of a reactive exercise. I like to use a “3-steps plus jump” approach. Find a high object you can use as a goal or mark to shoot for. Next take 3 quick steps, jump stop and attempt to touch the object. Perform 3 reps per set with maximum effort.
THE RECIPE FOR SUCESS
A surefire method to quick progress is very simple and consists of 3 things.
- Get your limit strength exercises heavier.
- Get your explosive strength exercises faster.
- Get your reactive strength exercises higher.
If you do all 3 of these you can’t help but improve at a phenomenol rate! If you do even one of them you will still notice substantial improvement.
STRUCTURING A ROUTINE
If you want an idea how to set up a convenient training split simply select one exercise from each category at each training session for a frequency of twice per week. Just make sure you have one weighted squat variation in either the limit strength or explosive strength category each workout.
Limit Strength Exercise
Pick 1 and perform 5-6 sets of whatever repetition scheme is outlined for the particular exercise.
Explosive Strength Exercises
Pick 1 and perform 6 sets of whatever repetition scheme is outlined for the particular exercise.
Reactive Strength Exercises
Pick 1 and perform 6 sets of whatever is listed for the particular exercise you choose.
If you wish to address certain deficiencies you can simply increase the volume for a particular strength quality. For example, if you know you’re strength deficient, instead of performing 1 limit strength exercise you might perform 2, and then only perform 1 reactive strength exercise and eliminate the explosive strength exercise. This will leave you with the same volume but a different training effect.
If you know you’re reactive deficient you can perform 2 reactive exercises along with 1 limit strength exercise and eliminate the explosive strength exercise.
These are just a few simple ways of incorporating these exercises. Any of these exercises can be incorporated into any training split with great efficiency and a big boost in your training economy, and I hope an even bigger boost in your training awareness.
You can contact us at K2 Strength and Conditioning with any question.