Being a jumper i have always been obsessed with why some people are able to be more adept at leaping than others. No matter what situation it was, there was always that one person that just had ‘it’ when it came to the vertical leap. In High School we had a guy who could leap over the trestle tables in the playground which seemed a pretty stupendous event when you are 10 years old in the playground. Then in Dance college there was the one little scrawny bugger who had the best ‘balon’ out of all of us. He couldn’t just do triple tours, but quadruple tours, and no matter how much you did your best to out split him, out pirouette him or even out ‘prince him’, he always had the biggest leap. Then as a volleyball player there is that effect that comes from having the hang time that no-one else has, and no matter how late your delay your opposing defensive block, some skinny little Korean guy just out hangs you at the net and passes you easily as if you were a mere 5’ midget from Game of Thrones.
Now there are many opinions on what is the most important asset that gives you a giant leap. Some say a big butt, some say great legs, and others say great feet. As a jumper I’ve always wondered what was the defining character. There is some conjecture and many theories proport different factors that can even come down to big toe vs 2nd toe. But when it comes down to it, it comes down to a type of triple threat - the Triple Extension that is a combination of all of these major (and some minor components) that creates the greatest hang time.
Jumping is about big quads, a great butt and an impressive posterior chain. For a long while it was reputed that a great vertical jump came from the claves. Outdated training programs such as the Air Alert program (promoted by NBA players who were obviously seeking a great marketing and monetary stipend for sanctioning a training program that promised increased vertical jump) promoted development of the lower limb muscles and in particular the gastrocnemius as the means of increasing your vertical jump. Scientifically this is challenged as the muscles of the gluteals, hamstrings, lower back and quadriceps all contribute to the vertical leap and it is promoted they are responsible for almost 80% of the leap factors in vertical jumping.
HOWEVER - when it comes to the biomechanics of the vertical leap, the lower chain muscles do play a role in the transferance of kinetic energy through the lower chain and achilles tendon and thus help to generate power in the veritcal leap. A lot of it comes down to the simple act of Plantar Flexion, the ability of the ankle and foot to point downward and generate an upward force in elevation. In this way being able to target the gastrocnemius, and the soleus and indeed the smaller muscles such as the Plantaris and the Flexor Hallucis Longus become more important as they can contribute, when trained properly to make significant increases to the transferance of force through the ankle which transfers the vertical jump.
The vertical jump is in fact a combination of 3 main synergistic actions. The Triple Extension is something that is coined in the quest for the vertical jump and that is the combination of hip extension, knee flexion and ankle extension. These three movements when combined together have the capacity to create the synergistic eccentric and concentric actions required to perform the vertical leap. In this way the gluteals become the all important focus as they are a primary hip extensor and can generate the greatest force in this action. Next comes the hamstrings that contribute to both hip extension as well as knee flexion. Without knee flexion the power generated by the hips is limited .
To harness the full power of the hip extension, the knees need to be bend. Try standing on straight legs and jumping without first squatting. You will get a certain amount of elevation, but when you add knee flexion into the mix, you can generate a whole lot more hang time than just from the toes or the hips extending. The ankle extensors, whilst important for generating the transference of all these factors and pushing off against the ground are not the powerhouse of the vertical jump. They are important but having big calves doesn’t lend yourself to giving you a big vertical jump. Much to the chagrin if one of my ballet buddies who enviably had the best calves of all of us (but he couldn’t quite jump as much as the wiry kid with the long achilles).
The quadriceps play an important role in the synergy of the vertical jump as they are involved in the action of knee extension. They generate the syngergistic force of knee extension along with hip extensions that helps to generate the power of the vertical leap. Oddly, the main quadricep, the Rectus Femoris is NOT involved in this action so much as the other 3 quads, the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis and intermedius. The Recuts Femoris is a bi-articulate muscle that helps to stabilse the pelvis in hip extension and in this way is a contributor to stability for the action but not the main protaganist.
Now there is the factor of the Flexor Hallucis Longus that is the muscle that connects to the 1st Digit Metatarsals or The Big Toe. This muscle can make a difference to a vertical max jump if it is trained well owing to its ability to flex the big toe as well as supinate the ankle. This has a direct effect to assist with biomechanics of generating force through the ankle in the take off of the leap. Whilst it does not make the most impact in terms of the vertical leap, it can increase the height of the max vertical jump via its improvement in bio-mechanical levers.
So when it comes to the image of the big jumper, we can all be body nazi’s. It’s not the big bulbous calves that we are seeking and nor is it the massive trunk like quads - its all about the butt! A powerful gluteal chain gives you the most power to perform the vertical jump and be leaping like an All Star on the basketball ring. But sadly as is always the case, there is no point having just size if you don’t have the flexibility to harness all that power and transfer it into kinetic energy that can elevate you upwards. In this way, factors such as having lengthy Achilles tendons as well as long Plantaris Tendons (small muscle deep in the posterior lower leg compartment that is actually the longest tendon in the body), reasonably flexible hips and a good lower back extension to boot all contribute to the amount of power you can transmit to your action. If you can’t bend the hips well enough because your big booty is too tight, then all that size is wasted in terms of movement. Likewise those big quads don’t serve you well if your hamstrings aren’t able to also extend and transfer the power into the knee extension that is part of the Triple Extension.
So no matter how attractive you think the muscles all are individually and the make up of your glamour body may be - it all is lost if it can’t harness the power it can generate and perform the complex and synergistic motion of the vertical jump across all three major joint components. There are many programs that promote the rights types of exercises that can help with developing your vertical jump and part of that involves a whole heap of just pure volume training. But in the end, you have to co-ordinate it all together and in that way, there will always be the freaks who just seem to have it above everybody else. And unfortunately as much as you squat, calf raise, ankle mobilise and extend your back - that slam dunk may sometimes forever be frustratingly, narrowly elusive. For all but the chosen few.