At the 2004 Olympic games, Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm was nearly eliminated at 7’ 8”. He powered through his third jump, then went on to be the only athlete to clear 7’ 9”, winning the gold medal. He was 28 years old. After this dramatic finish, athletes worldwide clamored for glimpses of his training. Holm did not disappoint, casually hurdling six foot bars in this widely circulated video. Novice high jumpers, savvy basketball players, and other athletes seeking big ups immediately started hurdle hopping, trying to fly like Stefan.
Though he received a lot of media attention for that leap, no reports described the work which preceded it. By 2004, Stefan had been obsessively jumping onto, off of, and over objects almost daily for twenty years.
In every generation, thousands of ambitious athletes are mislead by coverage of spectacular athletic performances. Gatorade promised in 1992 that we could all Be Like Mike if we just chugged green sports drink. Nike made us think the Air Jordan 4 was all that stood between us and flying to the rim. Plenty of athletes bought the products; few can dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan.
Every ultimate player wants to know how to jump higher. The goal of this piece is to lay out exactly what work you need to increase your jumping ability. (No promises about dunking!) You will discover that there is more to gaining a big vertical than fancy bounces over hurdles, sugar water, or killer designs on your high-tops. In fact, there are three primary types of jump training which contribute to your leaping ability: jumping up, falling down, and bouncing.
In his book about developing talent, Nurtured By Love, legendary violinist Shinichi Suzuki related a Japanese children’s story about the training of ninjas. The ninjutsu planted a hemp seed in spring. As the plant grew, little by little each day, the ninjas-in-training jumped over the plant multiple times. Eventually, the hemp stalk was taller than the ninja. Allegedly, after several years of doing this, the ninja could easily leap over an opponent’s head.
When we discuss jump training, jumping up, out, and over come to mind first. These exercises emphasize concentric power — taking off from a not-moving, loaded position. If you stretch a thick rubber band, hold that tension for a few seconds, then let it go, we’re talking about the same sort of jump. When a disc floats high and two players bunch up, standing ready to leap for it, concentric power decides who comes down in possession. To develop this skill, ATX Speed and Strength athletes use the following progressions up to three times per week on lifting days in the offseason and up to two times per week in-season.
- Paused vertical jump from two feet: partially squat with your arms extended behind you, pause for one second, then throw your arms up and drive your feet against the ground, reaching for an object overhead. Five sets of three jumps, with one minute of rest between sets.
- Paused broad jump from two feet: partially squat with your arms extended behind you, pause for one second, then throw your arms forward and drive your feet back behind you, jumping beyond a line or cone. Five sets of two jumps, with one minute of rest between sets.
- Jump onto a knee-high box from two feet: standing 12” from a box, partially squat with your arms extended behind you, pause for one second, then throw your arms forward and upward and drive your feet back behind you, landing flat-footed on the box. Stand up, step down, then reset. Eight sets of four jumps, with one minute of rest between sets.
Start with paused, slowly-loaded take-offs. Progress to dynamic, quickly-loaded take-offs. The epic vertical and broad jumps that typically come to mind, with a fast arm swing and quick dip of the hips and knees, are exactly right. We use the same amount of work and increase rest between sets, either to two minutes or by performing other non-related exercises.
When should you advance from one upward jump exercise to the next?
When paused vertical jumps stop improving noticeably, usually three weeks into a training cycle, advance to dynamic vertical jumps. When those stall, advance to the paused broad jump, then on to dynamic broad jumps. Box jumps should always have graceful, flat-footed landings in training. Advance the height of the box two inches each week as long as landings remain controlled.
During those two dedicated months you spend getting stronger each year, take your easy gains in concentric power with these controlled take-offs, then continue seeking small improvements through the early season.
Standing on a rooftop, a traceur drops freely to the ground, bends her knees, then dives into a roll or breaks into a run. The mark of a talented parkour athlete is that you can barely hear their feet hit the ground. Jaguars can drop over forty feet from a tree branch and land in near-silence. In both cases, the magic is in the landing. Making those silent, controlled landings progressively faster so you can resume running or jump again develops eccentric power, which is the muscles absorbing force from falling.
In ultimate, force absorption is key to injury prevention and eccentric power is key to top speed running. Landing on your feet effectively and powerfully is a trainable skill. At ATX Speed and Strength, we use the following progressions at most twice per week on lifting days in the offseason and once per week or not at all in-season.
- Repeat vertical and broad jumps at less than maximal effort, sinking deep into a squat with each landing. Four sets of ten jumps, with two minutes between sets.
- Freely dropping from a knee-height box: strike with the balls of both feet first, sinking deep into a squat with each landing. Four sets of six drops, with two minutes between sets.
- Freely dropping from a knee-height box: strike with the balls of both feet first, only slightly bending the knees with each landing. Four sets of four drops, with two minutes between sets.
- Freely dropping from a knee-height box: strike with the balls of both feet, not bending the knees at all with each landing. Four sets of two drops, with two minutes between sets.
- Freely dropping from a mid-shin-height box (or two stacked 45-pound bumper plates): land on the ball of just one foot, slightly bending the knee with each landing. Four sets of three drops per leg, with two minutes between sets.
- Freely dropping from a mid-shin-height box: land on the ball of just one foot, not bending the knee at all with each landing. Three sets of three drops per leg, with three minutes between sets.
When should you advance from one drop jump exercise to the next? After three to six weeks on each progression, even if it feels too easy.
Absorbing force is first about landing mechanics (smooth roll from ball of foot to full foot support; thigh aligning with ankle; balanced, controlled “stick”), second about tendon and ligament adaptation, and third about neuromuscular training.
In my coaching experience, a self-aware athlete’s mechanics improve rapidly in the first four training sessions. Research from the Oxford Journal of Rheumatology suggests tendons may require from five weeks to five years to fully adapt to strain from training. Maximally improving the speed of communication between your brain and the tissues involved in landings, called myelination, requires between five weeks and four months for any one particular skill, according to the European Journal of Morphology. Based on those facts, depth drops are prescribed very conservatively.
In addition to my recent training article, Ren wrote in March 2015 about our existing tendency as ambitious athletes to overtrain. Haphazardly adding drops into your training program while playing ultimate year-round, running until your legs quiver on the track every week, and dabbling in volleyball or basketball leagues is begging for an Achilles tendon tear or plantar fasciitis.
Unless you take several months off ultimate each year, avoid drops and invest in coaching for Olympic lifting or catching medicine balls in order to practice absorbing force safely.
As a child, two of my favorite toys were pogo sticks and bounce balls. Compress the thick, heavy spring on a pogo stick with a large force and the energy of the coiled spring launches you into the air. Bounce balls operate under more interesting physics and those physics directly apply to your running and jumping ability. When you casually drop a basketball from chest height, it typically bounces to your hips. When you casually drop a bounce ball from chest height, it typically bounces to your ribs. When you aggressively throw a bounce ball at the ground from any height, it rebounds well over your head. This is due to the bounce ball’s elasticity.
The word plyometric was originally used in translations of Soviet-era sport textbooks in the eighties. It was derived from phrases describing reactive power or elastic power. True plyometric training, like the movement from the weight plates onto the box in this video Ren recorded, develops this bounciness. Unlike acceleration, the physics of which I explore in this article, every step you run after thirty yards relies almost entirely on elastic power.
Imagine a player and defender running sixty yards for a disc, then leaping into the air to retrieve it. Elastic power determines the better jumper from a running start. At ATX Speed and Strength, we develop bounciness in ways specific to each sport. For ultimate, these progressions are used up to twice per week on sprinting days during the offseason and not at all in-season.
- Jump rope on two feet with stiff knees. Five hundred or more jumps.
- Jump rope on one foot continuously. Three sets of fifty per leg with one minute rest between sets.
- Two-foot hops over 12”, 18”, and 24” hurdles. Up to four sets of ten hops with other non-jumping exercises in between.
- One-foot hops forward, over ten yards. Up to eight sets with other non-jumping exercises in between.
- One-foot hops over 12” and 18” hurdles. Up to four sets of six hops per leg with at least three minutes between sets.
- Bounds over 30 yards. Up to five sets with at least three minutes between sets.
- Three-step, five-step, and running vertical jumps. Up to twenty jumps, with as much rest between as time allows.
When should you advance from one plyometric exercise to the next?
Again, only after three to six weeks. You must be able to bounce effortlessly before increasing the difficulty or height of your jumps.
Organizing Jump Training
I have written about my own zeal for jump training and the terrible Achilles injuries which have resulted. Every day I still do massage and calf raises to manage those tears. Such injuries inspire my conservative recommendations.
So how do you begin jump training and minimize your injury risk? Begin with assessment to discover your weaknesses. Ren wrote an excellent test battery for evaluating your own power and explosiveness.
Here are “better than average” benchmarks in my five favorite jumping tests against which to compare yourself, drawn from my data on Texas ultimate players:
- Standing vertical jump – women 20” – men 24”
- Three-step vertical jump – women 23” – men 26 1/2”
- Standing broad jump – women 6’ 6” – men 7’ 0”
- Three hop test (single-leg) – women 18’ 0” – men 20’ 6” (Ren has a great tutorial on this)
- Three hop test (two-leg) – women 19’ 0” – men 22’ 0”
Measure one of the standing jumps, one of the three hop tests, and your three-step vertical jump. Compare those numbers against the standards above. The test on which you perform most below the standard (or proportionately least above it) represents your weakest jumping skill. Schedule the first progression for that type of jump into your training and get to work! Test your numbers again after six weeks if you have a full offseason. Otherwise, use the in-season recommendations, test during the week before each tournament, and be conservative when advancing between exercises.
There is a limit to how much you can improve your jumping ability in one year and, theoretically, a limit on your maximum improvement in a lifetime. By testing to identify your weakness, training with logical and structured jumping progressions, and working consistently without injury, you can capture those gains in less time. Perhaps with a ten-year investment, you too might leap completely over opponents’ heads like this. Get started now!
If you want more details about any exercise or want more from my two years of performance tests on Texas ultimate players, post questions to the comments or visit my website.