All athletes want to be as athletic as they possibly can to outmatch their opponents and also be able to take their athletic careers as far as possible. In many sports, that includes maximizing vertical jump. Now there are many ways to increase vertical jump, some better than others, and some may work for one athlete but not for another. This article will be touching on 3 ways to increase vertical jump that generally work for all athletes (more effective if they are beginner or novice) and can be done at home without any equipment at all. To be most effective, these should be done with a periodized strength and conditioning program, but if none is available, they can be done on their own and still see results.
Ankle Stability and Strength
One of the first building blocks to a higher vertical jump is increasing ankle stability and strength. Stability and strength may seem synonymous but you can't have stability without strength, but you can have strength without stability. The ankle joint plays a role in vertical jump mechanics by not only providing a take-off platform along with the foot but also by helping transfer energy from the lower leg into the ground.
A study done by Feger et al (2014) took 15 healthy young adults and 15 young adults who had chronic ankle instability (CAI) and compared EMG data from musculature near the ankle, knee, and hip during functional jumping exercises. In this study, they found that individuals with ankle instability had significantly lower EMG activity in all areas and during all tests when compared to healthy individuals. What this study is saying is that the instability of the ankles of the individuals with CAI, inhibited the muscles of the lower extremity to contract as effectively as their peers with stable ankles.
Building these 2 attributes takes time and patience, and again, can be done in a number of ways. When I first start training ankle strength and stability with beginners, I use basic balance exercises. Those exercises include barefoot and flatfooted, starting with single leg balance and progressing into moving the body around that one leg in different planes of motion with a bodyweight deadlift or a reach to one side or the other. The point of moving the body around the leg is to redistribute weight unevenly, similar to what they might see in sport. The next progression would be to have the athlete do the same exercises as before but instead of flat-footed, the athlete raises up onto the ball of the foot. This engages the soleus and gastrocnemius in the calf, in addition to other ankle stabilizers used when flat-footed. In my opinion, most of these exercises should be done unilaterally since most sports require athletes to be on one leg at a time normally. Not only does training ankle stability and strength help with a vertical jump but it may also reduce the risk of ankle and knee injury.
Improving Jumping Mechanics
This next attribute sounds very simple and obvious but is often something that is ignored in team settings or when a vertical jump is not the only thing being trained. The concept is simple, getting better at jumping can make you jump higher. Sounds easy, but it is much more complicated than that.
There are many factors that go into proper jumping mechanics: 1 leg takeoff vs 2 leg, foot placement and strength, ankle stability and strength, shin/torso angles, approach, penultimate step, timing, and arm swing, to name a few. This section will go a little more into detail about arm swing.
Properly timed arm swing is among one of the more important factors in maximizing vertical jump. Everyone knows if your arm swing is mistimed or non-existent, your vertical jump height will be lower. From an approach, the arm swing should be timed so that on the second to last step (penultimate step), when the hips begin to enter flexion, the elbows should be back ready to carry the body up vertically. The arms should begin to swing forward violently when the plant leg hits the ground and the body turns horizontal force into vertical force.
Many coaches and athletes are familiar with arm swing timing, it's nothing new. But what may not be as well known is exactly how arm swing effects these mechanisms to increase vertical jump. A study done by Hara et al (2005) looked at how arm swing affected lower body torque, power, and work during the vertical jump. Five subjects performed a squat jump with arm swing and a squat jump without arm swing. They found that arm swing increased vertical jump but it actually increased the work done by the ankle and hip joints and decreased the work done by the knee joint. Overall, they found that total work done by the lower body when arm swing was incorporated was twice that of a vertical jump with no arm swing.
Everyone knows that plyometrics is one of the best training methods to increase vertical jump and overall athleticism. Choosing which plyometric is best depends on the athlete, sport played, training age, training outcome, and coach among other things. One plyometric that doesn't get as much credit when it comes to vertical jump training is sprinting. For the sake of this article which has to do with increasing vertical jumping without any equipment, we will strictly discuss free sprinting. Resisted and assisted sprinting have been proven to increase sprint speed and vertical jump, but so far the research has found that there is not a significant difference in CMJ and squat jump between resisted and free sprinting (Gil et al 2018).
One of the reasons sprint training may work to increase vertical jump is that it trains the stretch-shortening cycle similar to other plyometrics - short, powerful ground contact times. The reason I like sprint training for vertical jump other than how it trains the SSC, is that by getting faster you can add more horizontal force into an approach jump which can then, hopefully, be efficiently transferred into vertical force thus allowing for a higher vertical jump. A few rules about sprint training for a vertical jump are: sprints must be maximal. This isn't conditioning. We are here to get faster which means fewer reps of higher quality and full recovery between reps. Running mechanics should at least be decent to get proper adaptation from sprint training and also limit the risk of injury associated with high-intensity training. However, not everyone is a track athlete and it may not be necessary to spend weeks or months on sprint mechanics when the end goal is to increase vertical jump. Finally, the sprint program should be properly progressed/regressed for the athlete's sake of injury and adaptation.
These are just a few among many factors that go into increasing a vertical jump. The factors discussed can be practiced without any equipment, but if it's possible, they should be done as part of a periodized strength and conditioning program, supervised by a strength and conditioning professional for maximum results.
Feger, M. A., Donovan, L., Hart, J. M., & Hertel, J. (2014). Lower extremity muscle activation during functional exercises in patients with and without chronic ankle instability. PM & R : the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation, 6(7), 602–611. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2013.12.013
Gil, S., Barroso, R., Crivoi do Carmo, E., Loturco, I., Kobal, R., Tricoli, V., Ugrinowitsch, C., & Roschel, H. (2018). Effects of resisted sprint training on sprinting ability and change of direction speed in professional soccer players. Journal of sports sciences, 36(17), 1923–1929. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2018.1426346
Hara, M., Shibayama, A., Takeshita, D., & Fukashiro, S. (2006). The effect of arm swing on lower extremities in vertical jumping [Abstract]. Journal of Biomechanics, 39(13), 2503-2511. doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2005.07.030
Kotzamanidis, Christos. (2003). The effect of sprint training on running performance and vertical jumping in pre-adolescent boys. Journal of Human Movement Studies. 44. 225-240.