Pieces of the Puzzle: How to Improve Your Vert, Part 1

Per usual, this year's NBA Slam Dunk Contest was an exhibition of skill, power, grace, and creative genius. Zach LaVine threw down some of the most cold-blooded jams we've been blessed to see in a long time. It's demonstrations like this that really bring home the point that there is no limit to how explosive and powerful an athlete can be. Being 6'5" is definitely a good start, but having a 46" vertical can absolutely separate you from the pack.

A vertical like that is rare and is a product of not just genetic predisposition, but also hyper-focused effort and specific training. Every athlete can improve their vertical, but they need to apply the proper measures and address their weaknesses. Improving vertical jump ability isn't limited to just basketball players. The vertical is a time honored measurement that is tested across a wide breadth of athletic populations. It's easy to see why basketball players would value having an impressive vertical, but what import does it hold for athletes who don't rely on jumping within their sport? The answer is POWER.

Mike Favre is the Director of Olympic Strength and Conditioning for the University of Michigan Wolverines and Volt Advisory Board Member. He needs his athletes to be powerful. Whether they are battling it out on the wrestling mats, clashing on the soccer field, or dominating the court in volleyball, power is must for his athletes to succeed. Testing their vertical is an easy and effective way to measure an athlete's power output. I've asked Coach Favre to share some of the reasons why he believes strength is a grand starting point for increasing vertical jump height.

Mike Favre: "As jumping can be used to assess power, it stands to reason that the more we can enhance their ability to produce power, the greater their jumping potential will be. We know that Power = Force x Velocity, with Force (strength) being the easiest variable to manipulate within that equation. Training for max strength can also enhance rate of force development (or RFD for short), which is one of the most important performance measures. Max strength training can enhance RFD through maximum contraction velocity, rather than movement velocity (the other means of developing RFD)."

Increasing either the force or the velocity within a movement increases the overall power of that movement. Take the vertical jump for example. It demands high force and velocity generated from rapid knee and hip extension. The speed variable of the equation relies heavily on neural factors, genetics, the training age of the athlete, and jumping technique. These factors are difficult to alter as compared to the strength of the athlete. A solid strength training program will directly improve the force behind the hip and knee extension by building strength in the squat. This is why squats are a primary tool used by coaches like Mike Favre.

Mike Favre: "I put a great deal of time into developing my collegiate athletes' max strength, especially with squats, in order to improve their vertical jump.  For starters, there is the obvious similarity between squatting and jumping actions. Enhancing the force production capabilities during hip and knee flexion and extension (as seen in both squatting and jumping) is important for jumping."

But while improving overall strength is important, it is the RELATIVE amount of strength that is truly critical. Squatting 350 pounds while weighing 250 pounds doesn't have the same power output that squatting 300 pounds at 170 pounds has. Because strength is only one piece of the equation for power, simply having a huge squat doesn't correlate to having an impressive vertical. 

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Mike Favre: "More than just absolute strength, is the importance of relative strength (in relation to their body weight). The greater their leg strength to body weight ratio, the easier it is for them to accelerate, decelerate and control their body. In regards to jumping, the less their body weight is when compared to their back squat 1RM, the less demanding it is to propel their body upwards. Landing is also less demanding on them due to their ability to not only produce greater force, but absorb it as well. Strength (force) is the easiest variable to enhance within the power equation. Yet, how strong is strong enough? Several articles mention needing to be able to squat 2x body weight; that would indeed be beneficial and many of the best jumpers in the world can do just that. Realistically though, if one can't squat their body weight equivalent on the bar, you need to get to work. The point here is, it's not how much you can lift, but how much you can lift in relation to your body weight that is important."

The equation for power carries two variables, force AND velocity. We've covered how strength plays into improve vertical jump ability. In my follow-up, I'll tackle the velocity side of the equation. Until then, squat strong and squat well. 

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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the Head of Performance Training at Volt Athletics and is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Seattle Pacific University. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.