An impressive vertical jump is the ultimate standard of lower-body power and explosiveness—an attribute that pays as many dividends in high-impact sports like basketball, football, and soccer as it gets you wide-eyed looks in the gym. Increase your hops, and chances are you’ll also be able to run faster, lift more weight, and maybe even throw down a dunk at your next pickup basketball game.
But if you think your standard gym rat training sessions are going to lift you to new heights, you’re mistaken. To jump like an elite athlete, you need to train like one, starting with the five exercises we’ll outline here.
How To Jump Higher: 5 Exercises To Improve Your Vertical
This list of movements was compiled by a pair of trainers who know a thing or two about making athletes more explosive: Jason Benguche, former assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Carolina Panthers and Director of Performance for Jet Movement Labs (@movement_mogul on Instagram), has worked one-on-one with NFL quarterback Cam Newton. And Firdose Khan (@dose_9), head trainer at Nine Innovations athlete training facility in Houston, has worked with such athletes as former NBA MVP Derrick Rose and NFLers Arian Foster, Braxton Miller, and Brian Cushing.
Follow their advice, as demonstrated in the video above by the talented Hannah Eden (@hannaheden_fitness), a distinguished coach in her own right, and you’ll be jumping out of the gym in no time.
Muscles Used for Jumping
A jump is the result of triple extension: the simultaneous and explosive extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. Whether you’re watching an Olympic weightlifter perform a clean, a sprinter take off down the track, or a basketball player go up for a dunk, triple extension is the driver. Below are the muscles that make it possible.
–Glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius), for hip extension
–Quadriceps (vastus lateralis, intermedius, and medialis; rectus femoris), for knee extension
–Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus), for ankle extension (plantarflexion)
–Abdominals and core (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, multifidi, erector spinae), for trunk stability
How To Test Your Vertical
Before we explain how to build your jump, let’s make sure you know how to jump properly in the first place and can get a baseline measurement for it. See 00:25 in the video above for Eden’s demonstration and a walk-through of all the steps.
How To Jump
Step 1. Stand with your feet directly under your hips. If they’re wider than that, you won’t be able to translate as much power from your legs directly into the ground. Drive your knees outward without moving your feet, so you feel tension in your hips. This will turn the hips on for better jumping power.
Step 2. Quickly dip your hips and knees, throwing your arms behind you to gather momentum. Picture a half-squat position or slightly shallower—your hips must be behind your knees. The hip action in a jump is the same as the hinge pattern you perform with your hips during a deadlift or clean—bend them back while keeping a long spine.
Step 3. Jump as high as you can while flinging your arms forward and overhead. When you leave your feet, only reach up with one arm; you’ll be able to reach a higher point this way versus reaching with both arms. Land softly with a slight knee bend, being careful not to let your knees cave inward. Drive them outward as you did when preparing to jump in the first place.
How To Measure Your Jump
At the competitive level (i.e., the NFL and NBA combines), vertical leap is measured using a “jump tester”—a tripod with a series of thin plastic sticks one inch apart. If you have access to this equipment, it’s your best bet for getting an accurate measurement. A cheaper, more feasible option is to do your jump next to a wall and mark the highest point you touch with a piece of chalk.
Whichever equipment you use, the first thing you’ll need to do is measure your reach standing flat-footed on the floor with one arm fully extended straight overhead. (You can measure your reach up against a wall for the chalk option.) Then, when you mark the highest point you touched, you’ll subtract your reach from that number. For example, if your reach is 90 inches and you touched 115 inches up on the wall with your chalk, your vertical leap is 25 inches.
After warming up, make anywhere from 3 to 5 jump attempts.
Most official vertical jump tests do NOT permit any steps to be taken leading into the jump. No running start or even a power step allowed. Stand on both feet in one spot and jump from that spot.
How To Stretch Before A Jump Workout
Before we get into the exercises that will build your jump height, warm up with these moves from Onnit’s Director of Fitness Education, Shane Heins (@shaneheins). They will help to improve mobility in your hips as well as durability in your knees and ankles, improving performance and reducing the risk of injury.
Jump Higher with These 5 Exercises
1) Depth Jump
(See 01:26 in the 5 Exercises To Improve Your Vertical video)
The defining characteristic of the depth jump is that the jump is preceded with the strong eccentric (negative) muscle action caused by dropping down from a raised surface, as opposed to a standard box jump where you start on the floor. This makes the depth jump a true plyometric movement, where the muscles are stretched suddenly (by the impact of the landing), producing a powerful shortening of the muscle fibers.
“The depth jump utilizes the stretch-shortening cycle to improve CNS activation and rate of firing,” says Benguche. “The shock of rapidly absorbing, and then producing, force trains the body to respond with greater levels of reactive force to improve the elastic components of the lower body.”
Step 1. Stand on a plyo box that is 10–30 inches high (start with a lower one if you’re brand new to depth jumps). Your body should be fully upright and your feet hip-width apart, hands at your sides.
Step 2. Step off the box, leading with one foot and then following with the other, to drop yourself down to the floor. You’re not hopping or jumping off the box; your body should simply fall to the floor.
Step 3. Land squarely on the floor on both feet (again, around hip-width apart) and immediately jump as high as you can, straight up in the air. It’s important that you spend as little time as possible with your feet on the floor before the jump—it should be a split-second reaction. Don’t lower down into a squat before leaving your feet. Just let your hips and knees dip naturally, then extend them explosively to launch upward. Drive your arms straight up as you do so.
Step 4. Land back down on the floor with soft knees, settle yourself, then step back onto the box and repeat the sequence for reps. Don’t be in a rush between reps; the objective of this exercise is explosive power, not conditioning.
Technique Tip: Be mindful of your body position as you land on the floor and go into the explosive jump. Your hips should be over your heels, and your weight over the center of your feet. You want to jump straight up (vertical), not out in front of you.
How to Use the Depth Jump
Timing: Do depth jumps early in your workout, after you’ve warmed up thoroughly and before lower-body strength exercises like squats.
Sets/Reps: Benguche recommends keeping the total volume of reps very low on depth jumps: 2–4 sets of 2–5 reps.
“No additional load is necessary,” he says. “However, the height of the box for the depth jump can be progressed over time to increase the challenge and stimulus.”
In the absence of a plyo box, depth jumps can be performed using a standard weight bench. Since benches are lower to the ground than many boxes, they’re a good option for those new to the exercise.
Athletes often do depth jumps with two plyo boxes: one to step off of and another to jump onto. Essentially, it’s a depth jump into a box jump. When doing this variation, make sure to leave enough room between the boxes to allow you to land and jump safely (3–5 feet between boxes should work). To advance within this progression, increase the height of the second box gradually as you develop more strength and power.
2) Medicine-Ball Broad Jump
(See 02:31 in the video.)
Adding resistance to jumping exercises (versus using bodyweight only) can help increase strength and power. And it doesn’t take much weight to get the job done—a 10-pound med ball will suffice.
With this exercise, you’re going for maximum distance instead of height, but the benefits will carry over to your ability to jump vertically. “The med-ball broad jump is great for developing hip explosion, due to the power aspect that comes from loading the hips with the hinge-type motion,” says Khan.
Step 1. Stand a few feet back from a wall holding a medicine ball (about 10 pounds) in both hands. You should have plenty of floor space in front of you to jump. Start with the ball overhead, arms extended, and your feet hip-to-shoulder-width apart.
Step 2. Lower your arms toward the floor and bend at the hips and knees to create elastic energy for the jump. (This is technically the eccentric, or negative, phase of the exercise.)
Step 3. Without hesitating, explode out of the “hole,” pressing through the balls of your feet and throwing your arms out ahead of you. Toss the ball into the wall and jump as far out in front of you as possible.
Step 4. Land with bent knees, through your heels, and absorb the eccentric force by going into a squat if necessary. (This finishing squat is not a crucial part of the exercise—just a safe way to land.) Catch the ball as it rebounds if you can, or, if the wall is further away, let the ball fall. Then pick it up and repeat for reps.
Technique Tip: When doing a broad (long) jump for maximum distance, you want to get some height, but not too much. Aim for your trajectory to be under 45 degrees.
How to Use the Medicine-Ball Broad Jump
Timing: Do medicine-ball broad jumps early in your workout, before heavy lower-body strength movements. Khan prescribes glute activation work with his athletes before jumping exercises, such as hip bridges or lateral band walks, to help the glutes “wake up” and fire harder.
Sets/Reps: Khan recommends 3 sets of 5 reps, using a 10-pound medicine ball.
Those new to explosive jump training should start with no added resistance. In this case, simply do the standing broad jump without the med ball.
Khan often adds an extra layer of resistance to the med-ball broad jump with his athletes: a heavy-duty elastic band attached to the back of the waist with a belt and anchored to a solid structure behind the athlete at floor level. As the athlete jumps and travels through the air, the resistance from the band increases as it stretches.
3) Back Squat
(Seein the video.)
Strength begets power, which leads to a better vertical, and there’s no better exercise for increasing lower-body strength than the classic barbell back squat.
“The squatting pattern is one of the best ways to train the body for improved strength and power,” says Benguche. “Quads, hamstrings, and glutes will be the primary drivers of the squat, and all have high importance for helping improve the vertical jump.”
Step 1. Set up in a squat rack and grasp the bar with your hands as far apart as is comfortable. Step under the rack and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, wedging yourself under the bar so that it rests on your traps or the back of your shoulders.
Step 2. Nudge the bar out of the rack and step back, setting your feet at shoulder width, with your toes turned slightly outward. Without letting your feet actually move, try to screw both legs into the floor, as if you were standing on grass and wanted to twist it up—you’ll feel your glutes tighten and the arches in your feet rise. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core, pulling your ribs down so your torso forms a solid column.
Step 3. Keep your weight over your mid foot and your eyes facing forward. Bend your hips back and spread your knees apart as you lower your body down. Go as low as you can, while keeping your head, spine, and pelvis aligned.
Step 4: Push through your feet to come back up, extending your hips and knees.
Technique Tip: Keep your heels on the floor while squatting. The bar should remain over your mid foot (not the balls of your feet) throughout both the positive and negative portions of the lift. If your heels come off the floor, it means the weight has shifted too far forward.
How to Use the Back Squat
Timing: For maximum strength gains, do back squats as either the first or second strength exercise in your workout.
Sets/Reps: For general strength and lower-body development, Benguche recommends 3–6 sets of 3–8 reps with moderate loading—70%–85% of your one-rep max (1RM). For developing more speed and power, he recommends lighter loads (55%–70% of 1RM) for 3–6 sets of 2–5 reps. Squats performed with light weights but done so explosively that your feet leave the floor when you come up are called jump squats (see “Progressions” below).
Scaling the back squat for beginner-level athletes generally entails sticking to lighter loads (even bodyweight only to start) while learning proper technique. Goblet squats with a kettlebell or dumbbell can be used to practice form, but keep in mind that goblets are an anterior (front-loaded) variation and won’t directly mimic the mechanics of the back squat.
As you gain experience, multiple barbell squat variations should be rotated into your program. Jump squats in particular will help you develop more explosive strength that translates directly to a vertical jump.
In the jump squat, you lower your body only until your thighs are parallel to the floor (you don’t go for maximum depth, as in the conventional back squat). As you come back up, do so explosively so that your feet leave the floor at the top—three to six inches is high enough. Land softly with a slight knee bend, reset, and repeat for reps.
4) Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat (Bulgarian Split Squat)
(See 04:48 in the video.)
This isn’t just some light-duty assistance exercise. The rear-foot elevated split squat (aka, Bulgarian split squat) is a legitimate movement for increasing pure glute and quad strength, which will in turn enhance power and vertical jumping performance. Even if you’re a two-foot jumper, focusing on one leg at a time like you do here will ensure that your dominant side isn’t compensating for your weaker leg during the movement.
The exercise is also a great option for those with lower-back issues, as the rear-foot elevated position requires a more upright torso than a standard squat. This prevents shearing forces on the lumbar spine, which are a common cause of injury in the classic back squat.
Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand lunge-length in front of a bench that’s 18–24 inches high. Reach back with one leg and rest the top of that foot on the bench.
Step 2. Take a deep breath, brace your core, and lower your body as far as you can, or until your rear knee is just above the floor (you should feel a stretch in the hip of the trailing leg). Keep your front heel grounded—don’t allow it to rise off the floor. Complete your reps on one side and then repeat on the other immediately.
Technique Tip: Determining how far out in front of you to place your front foot may require some trial and error. At the bottom of the motion, your front knee should be somewhere above your heel to mid foot. If your knee is behind your heel, your foot is too far forward; if it’s out over your toes, step out further. One trick to find the right distance is to start in the bottom position and adjust your stance from there.
How to Use the Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat
Timing: Perform split squats as one of the first two exercises in the strength portion of your workout. If done for low volume with no added resistance, it can also be done as part of a warmup prior to explosive jumps (see below for the isometric hold variation).
Sets/Reps: 3–4 sets of 5–8 reps, using a moderate weight. Because balance will be an issue with the staggered stance and rear foot elevated, you’ll have to go lighter than you would doing a standard split squat or lunge.
One training method Khan utilizes is a 30-second isometric hold in the bottom position of the split squat, followed by 5 reps; this is typically done with no added resistance, pumping the arms in a running motion on each rep. “The time hold creates endurance and strength in the quads and glutes,” says Khan.
The rear-foot elevated split squat can be a difficult exercise from a balance standpoint. The first time you try it, use no added resistance (bodyweight only) to practice the technique. If you’re unable to keep your balance, perform a standard split squat with your back foot on the floor (not elevated).
Holding the resistance in a higher position can increase the difficultly of the exercise and call on more core engagement. Examples of this include holding a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands in the “goblet” position below your chin, or doing the movement with a barbell across your shoulders (the most advanced version).
5) Kettlebell Hike Swing
(See 05:32 in the video.)
A variation on the basic kettlebell swing, the hike swing gets you used to exploding from a dead-stop position, so you learn to generate force quickly out of nowhere.
Step 1. Place a kettlebell on the floor and stand behind it with feet shoulder-width apart. Soften your knees.
Step 2. Hinge your hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Your head, spine, and pelvis should form a long, straight line.
Step 3. Grasp the kettlebell and try to snap the handle in half. This should cause your shoulder blades to drive downward and your lats to tighten.
Step 4. Hike the kettlebell back between your legs until you feel your forearms contact your inner thighs.
Step 5. As soon as you feel your forearms touch your thighs, extend your hips explosively, as if you were standing up quickly and tall. Squeeze your glutes as you come up. Allow the power to raise the kettlebell up in front of you to shoulder level.
Step 6. Control the kettlebell on the way down and park it back on the floor. That’s one rep.
Technique Tip: This is an explosive lift, where the objective is to get the kettlebell moving upward as fast as possible. That said, keep the exercise safe, particularly for the lower back, by staying tight in the core and having your hips low coming off the floor—do lift the kettlebell with a rounded lower back, and avoid hyperextending your back at the top of each rep (i.e. don’t lean back).
How To Use the Kettlebell Hike Swing
Timing: Do hike swings early in your workout, before lower-body strength exercises.
Sets/Reps: 4 sets of 3–5 reps.
If starting and stopping each rep feels awkward, just work on the regular kettlebell swing instead, going for fluid reps (and higher reps, like 10 or more). If you’re not familiar with this move, we’ve got the ultimate guide to the kettlebell swing.
When you’ve got your explosive hip hinge mechanics down, a squat clean exercise can be a good next step. See our guide to the squat clean.
How to Dunk a Basketball
Once you’ve boosted your lower-body strength and power via the aforementioned five movements, it’s time to carry that newfound explosiveness over to the court—because if your goal is to jump higher, chances are dunking a basketball is high on your list of things you’d like to do with that skill.
These expert tips will help you with the finer points of dunking. Combine them with a respectable vertical leap, and you’ll be throwing one down soon enough.
7 Tips for Parlaying Better Hops into Monster Jams
1) Wear the Right Shoes
Remember the Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) 1989 Nike commercial? (Yeah, we’re old too.) In reference to Michael Jordan’s epic hops, Lee exclaims, “It’s gotta be the shoes.” The line was a tad hyperbole, but it is worth putting some thought into your footwear.
A pair of relatively new basketball shoes (i.e. not Chuck Taylors) is a good choice for dunking, especially if you have unstable ankles; basketball shoes offer good lateral support, as opposed to running shoes, which can easily lead to a turned ankle.
“It doesn’t matter too much as long as they’re not sandals or boots, but I would say the lighter the shoe the better,” says Bobby Jones, a former NBA player and all-Pac-10 standout in college at the University of Washington, who currently plays professionally in Italy. (Visit Jones at BobbyRayJonesJr.com.)
Tyler Harris, a professional basketball player for the Sendai 89ers in Japan and brother of NBAer Tobias Harris, has one pair of shoes in particular he prefers to dunk in: “Kobe [Bryant] low-top Nikes are one of the best shoes to wear for dunking,” he says.
2) Warm Up Properly
Dunking (or attempting to dunk) is a high-impact, highly intense activity that deserves a sufficient warm-up prior to a throw-down session. Just as you would for a lifting workout, start your warmup with a few minutes of low-intensity cardio, then progress to more dynamic movements—dynamic stretching/mobility drills as well as jumping. Before attempting your first dunk, take a couple dry runs with no ball where you’re touching or grabbing the rim at the top.
“Warming up is very important for preventing injuries,” says Harris. “I would recommend warming up and stretching for at least 30 minutes before any basketball game or just practicing dunking the basketball.”
Harris recommends warmup and stretching drills (both dynamic and static) such as: jumping and touching the rim; high knees; ladder drills; lateral defensive slides, seated and standing hamstring stretches; seated straddle stretch; and Achilles stretches. Hold each stretch 15 seconds.
3) Decide If You’re a One-Foot or Two-Foot Jumper
Should you go off of one foot or two feet when dunking? That depends on what you’re more comfortable with as well as your athletic ability and coordination.
Jumping off one foot means you’ll be taking a running start and launching a few feet in front of the rim (since your momentum will carry you forward as well as up). When going off two feet, you won’t take a running start—more like a few hard steps and a power dribble. You’ll take off right in front of the rim and go straight vertical.
“When most people first start trying to dunk, it’s usually off one leg,” says Jones. “You’re banking on your speed, so this means you want to have a running start to gain momentum. If you want to dunk off two, that requires more athletic ability, more coordination, and using the power dribble to gain momentum. If you have a nice set of calves and a big butt, this might be the way to go.”
4) Dunk One-Handed, if Possible
It takes a higher vertical leap to get both hands up to the rim versus just one (and don’t forget, you’ll be holding a basketball as well), so if you’re cutting it close, try for a one-handed jam. Being able to palm the ball will obviously help, but it’s not totally necessary; just make sure you keep the ball in both hands until you leave the floor so you don’t lose it.
“Dunking with one hand is definitely easier than two,” says Jones. “It’s one less thing to worry about, so you can focus better on the task at hand.” When the time comes that you’re dunking easily, then you can start dunking with two hands for more authority.
5) Approach the Rim from the Baseline
When your goal is simply to throw one down, you want to be as focused as possible on your target: the rim. Because of this, Jones recommends coming in from the side (along the baseline) instead of straight on.
“Starting from the mid baseline or corner to dunk, I think, gives your mind an easier target and is less distracting,” he says. “That way, you can just focus on getting as high as you can, sort of like doing the long jump. When you’re trying to dunk straight on, you visually see the entire basket and might get distracted, scared, and lose focus.”
6) Take Plenty of Rest Between Dunks
Giving yourself the best chance to throw one down requires you to be as fresh and explosive as possible. You want full rest between dunking attempts—just as you would when maxing out on a big lift like a squat, deadlift, or bench press. After each dunk attempt, take at least a minute or two to rest and recover.
7) When Performance Diminishes, Call it a Day
In any power and strength activity, there comes a point of diminishing results. This is why powerlifters typically don’t do more than three heavy sets or one-rep max (1RM) attempts for any lift in a given session.
Dunking isn’t much different. You’ll likely find yourself getting slightly higher with each attempt at first, but before long, fatigue will set in and your vertical leap will decrease. At this point, it’s a good idea to end the session, rather than try to push through and force yourself to jump higher. It’s an indication that your nervous system has mustered all the energy it has to help you jump, and you need to let it rest. Give your legs a couple days’ off, then come back again and try.