Alright I’m going to throw you a curve ball, I know the title mentioned plyometric exercises but what if I said you don’t need that just yet.
What you need is STRENGTH! I’m talking Strength Relative to your body weight.
Let me explain – the vertical jump is the ultimate expression of explosive strength, to jump high, you need to be able to generate a large amount of force relative to your body weight.
Not only do you need to generate this force but you need to express it quickly, also referred to as RATE OF FORCE DEVELOPMENT.
The moral of the story is that you need to be strong especially in the muscles that are involved in jumping, which are predominantly your legs.
However do not disregard the importance of your upper body strength in relation to your jumping ability because you will pay the price if you do. The shoulders play quite a large role in your jumping ability, more so than your calves.
Have you ever tried to jump with your arms tied down by your sides? Trust me, you won’t jump very high.
Plyometric exercises improve rate of force development which is how quickly we can express the strength that we have. This is an important prerequisite to improve your jumping ability.
However, if we don’t have a foundation of strength, it doesn’t matter how quickly we can apply the strength that we do have if we are too weak to generate enough force to jump as high as we want.
There are many factors that may determine how high someone can jump. For instance, it has been shown that the tendon and muscle insertions points play a role and the longer the achilles tendon the higher someone can jump. The Kangaroo is a perfect example of this, they are extraordinary jumpers and have extremely long achilles tendons.
So genetics do play a play in someones jumping potential, although the important thing to know is that the vertical jump is trainable and can be improved significantly if you put in the work on a consistent basis.
Therefore, especially for younger athletes aged 14-24 getting in the weight room and getting stronger will yield much greater results, making them run faster and jump higher much more effectively than plyometrics.
This is why young athletes who have never been introduced to strength training should focus on building strength because they are already playing alot basketball that involves a large volume of jumping.
This is not to say that plyometrics aren’t important, they have there place but should not be the focus, especially for those new to strength training.
Below are five key exercises I believe that are essential to building strength and improving athleticism in younger athletes:
1. BACK SQUAT
The first initial goal is to achieve a 1 rep max with good form of 1.5 x your body weight. The end goal is to have double body weight back squat. If you can squat double your body weight, you are a strong mofo! You will run faster and jump higher than you ever have.
Once you can squat 1.5 to 2 x your body weight, this is where plyometrics will become extremely beneficial to take your vertical to the next level.
A big mistake that some athletes make is by doing too much volume with plyometric exercises especially when they are already playing basketball 5-6 times a week.
It’s crucial to ensure that when back squatting, your form is on point otherwise you will only further facilitate poor movement patterns and reinforce your muscular imbalances leading to poor performance. Either get coaching or learn off someone who knows what they are doing. It will save you a hell of a lot time and frustration.
Initially you will want to work with light weights until you have learnt the movement, ingraining it in your nervous system which is only done through repetition. The volume is also important as it will prepare your joints for heavier loads.
However, its the low volume, high intensity approach that will make you stronger and improve your vertical. So this means lifting heavy weights for only a few reps. Common examples are 3 sets of 3 reps, 2×5, 5×2, 6×1 etc
2. GLUTE HAM RAISE
The key to becoming athletic and improving your vertical is by strengthening your POSTERIOR CHAIN.
The posterior chain are the muscles on the back of the body, the ones you cant see and are generally ignored in the wight room for this reason.
These muscles are generally weak due to the lifestyles we lead and strengthening them, especially the glute and hamstring complex is what will make you explosive.
The glute maximus is the largest and most powerful muscle in the body. In terms of jumping high and injury prevention having strong hamstrings and glutes is crucial.
Its for this reason that I believe the Glute Ham Raise is an extremely important assistance exercise to develop the glute and hamstring complex. With this movement you’ll want to take a higher volume approach. For example 3×8, 5×5, 2×15
3. SPLIT SQUAT VARIATIONS
Developing leg strength with single leg variations that challenge your balance and stability is also another very important key. These variations, if done right, also hit the glutes hard!
For athletes, especially basketball players who spend a lot of time on one foot, these split squat variations are money in the bank!
Another added bonus with these split squats is that they will help open up the hip flexors. With most athletes being short in this area, these movements kill two birds with one stone.
With these you would want to take a higher volume approach similar to that of the Glute Ham Raise. These are a good assistance exercise to perform after your main strength exercise, for example after you back squat.
4. LOADED CARRY VARIATIONS
There are a lot of different variations that can be used here but the reason these are a powerful tool set for athletes is because depending on the variation, they help improve core strength and help develop acceleration.
These are also a good finisher and usually best done at the end of the workout.
5. MED BALL THROWS
In terms of developing POWER med ball throws are extremely beneficial.
Training triple extension through explosive movements is what will make an athlete more athletic, developing their rate of force.
That’s why the Olympic lifts have always been viewed as key movements to improve the vertical, as it involves a violent triple extension to get the weight over head.
However, the Olympic lifts are an extremely technical lift and require a large investment of time before you get to the point of reaping the benefits that they have to offer.
Med Ball Throws offer the same benefit and require much less time to learn. Meaning we can achieve the same results in a shorter time span. Efficiency is king.
6. BOX GAUNTLET
The box gauntlet is all about teaching the athlete proper jumping and landing mechanics. Before an athlete starts plyometrics, its essential they understand how to LAND AND ABSORB FORCE.
However, most jump straight into plyometrics without much consideration on the landing and focus purely on the jumping phase. The landing portion is where most injuries will occur, so in terms of injury prevention, it is critical that the athlete has good landing mechanics.
When discussing the vertical jump, understanding reactive strength is also very important.
A way to explain reactive strength, is the ability to convert the landing phase of your jump, which is the ability to absorb the force into the jumping phase.
The faster the contact time is between the feet and floor will determine how much force you will be able to express, allowing you to jump higher.
This is why training a variety of plyometrics that focus on reactive strength is important. The box gauntlet is a good introduction to all aspects of the vertical jump.
The box gauntlet has three parts:
1. The first variation focuses on landing mechanics. Teaching the athlete to absorb force and correct positioning.
2. The second variation focuses on landing and jumping mechanics. A lot of athletes, especially younger athletes will have a tendency to knee knock when they jump. This is poor jumping mechanics and needs to be addressed (this is a other topic in itself)
3. The last variation combines both landing and the jumping phase adding in a reactive strength component. There is a lot more you can do to develop reactive strength but this drill is a good introduction to a young athlete that will build the basis for more advanced plyometrics once they have developed that foundation of strength.
Plyometrics are the bridge between the weight room and the court and are an important tool but they should not be the focus. STRENGTH SHOULD BE! Don’t make the mistake of getting wrapped up in all the fancy woo ha out there.
Oh and don’t forget the importance of mobility when it comes to increasing your vertical. If you have tight hips, you will not be able to take advantage of your posterior chain and your athleticism will suffer. Mobility is where you should start!