Jumping higher is one of the most common goals that people have for general sports performance and following ankle, knee and hip injuries which have limited their jump height. It could be the life-long dream of being able to dunk or get more rebounds in basketball, or compete better for headers in soccer, or take more contested marks in football, athletes of all skills would like to jump higher as part of being more athletic. For physiotherapists, the ability to jump higher and absorb high landing forces is a sign of good hip, knee and ankle joint and tendon health.
Jumping is a powerful movement. High power movements are performed through applying high strength at a high speed and can be represented by the following equation:
Strength x Speed = Power
Therefore the stronger you are, the more powerfully you can potentially move.
The muscles that you use to jump will depend greatly on whether you are jumping with a running start or a standing start:
When you jump with a running start:
Greater forces are required through the calf muscles and Achilles tendon and is usually a jump off 1 leg. Common in football and basketball.
When running from a standing start:
Greater force is required from the quadriceps, patella tendon, hamstrings and glute muscles and take-off is usually off 2 legs. Common in basketball, volleyball, netball and soccer.
We will come back to these differences in Part 3.
What are the best exercises for these muscle groups and will any exercise which targets them be ok?
Simply put - no. For the rest of this article I will focus on my preferred exercises for jumping higher and will be split into 3 parts: 1) Strength exercises, 2) Functional exercises and 3) Plyometric exercises
Part I: Strength training
My favourite strength exercises for jump height:
Dumbbell or Smith machine single leg calf raises (straight and bent knee) off the edge of a step
A question we often get is what rep range is good for building strength?
The 3-10 rep maximum range (mainly the 3-5 range) has been shown to be best for gaining strength - meaning you should be able to achieve ‘failure’ within this range, and if you haven’t then increase the weight or resistance for an optimal stimulus for strengthening. However, considerations must be made for training experience, lifting technique, current and previous injuries and total volume (reps x sets x other exercises). For those who are rehabilitating from an injury or those who are relatively new to strength training, I prefer the 8-10 rep range for strengthening so that the resistance isn’t too high to cause potential problems. For reference, the 6-10 rep max range is ideal for muscle hypertrophy and >12 for muscular endurance.
A specific exercise can be performed once to twice a week, ensuring the muscles, tendons and joints have recovered from the loading. For strengthening, avoid training through DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) as the muscles have yet to fully recover from the load.
Part II: Functional training
Jumping is of course an upright activity, and therefore the best functional exercises to do for jumping will be standing exercises which will have better transfer to jumping than exercises that might involve laying on the ground.
My recommended functional exercises for jumping higher:
Mid thigh pull
Load and lift with a band
The mid-thigh pull trains all 3 components of the ‘triple extension’ (the hips, knees and ankles) at the same time just like they would be working together when jumping from a standing start. The difference is your feet will not lift off the ground during the exercise.
The load and lift is a functional exercise which also involves training the triple extension, but with specific focus on the Achilles tendon, which must produce more force during a running start to jump as opposed to a standing start. The side being trained is the side which remains planted on the ground. There are 2 movements: On the return to the start position, the movement should be purposely slow and a heavy stretch sensation should be felt in the Achilles tendon. A forward propulsion leading with the other leg should follow and should be relatively quick in comparison to first movement. This builds Achilles tendon stiffness, which helps to quickly transfer force from the calf muscle to the ankle:
Part III: Plyometric training
To top off the return to regular jumping in sport after an injury, countermovement exercises have been supported in research to improve jump height. Not only that, they are also very functional and reflect actual movements which may be performed during sport. Countermovements are upwards or forwards movements immediately after a downwards or backwards movement, without a pause in between. For example, the following compares a typical ‘squat jump’ to a countermovement jump:
There are many different variations of countermovement exercises for the legs depending on what needs to be trained, the sport and the nature of the injury. This first example involves a sideways jump, followed by an immediate jump onto a bench and is great for improving jump height from a double-leg start position. This approximates the ‘hop step’ in basketball and can be modified to better reflect movements in other sports. The second involves a ‘drop jump’, which is a jump or a hop after dropping off a step, and hurdles and has more focus on the Achilles tendon and hop height. The purpose of this is to improve jump height from a running start. The third exercise is similar to the second but involves jumping onto a bench rather than over hurdles as a further challenge.
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