5 ways to improve your vertical leap

WHETHER IT'S AT the YMCA or on the blacktop hustling like Billy Hoyle, we’ve all daydreamed about driving to the hole, leaping up and over a defender, and posterizing some poor schmuck à la John Starks’ ’93 dunk over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant. Yet it rarely happens, and it often has more to do with your vertical leap than your ability to execute a pick-and-roll.

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WHETHER IT’S AT the YMCA or on the blacktop hustling like Billy Hoyle, we’ve all daydreamed about driving to the hole, leaping up and over a defender, and posterizing some poor schmuck à la John Starks’ ’93 dunk over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant. Yet it rarely happens, and it often has more to do with your vertical leap than your ability to execute a pick-and-roll.

To help you get above the rim, we used our own resources and asked Mubarak “Bar” Malik, the director of performance for the New York Knicks, for pointers. He says that “improving vertical leap involves heavy recruitment of the leg muscles, so training should emphasize vertical loaded movements like squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts.” And when on the court, follow these tips to perform your max leap each time you drive the lane and go for a slam dunk.

1. Incorporate knee-to-feet jumps

You’re probably less familiar with this plyometric move: knee-to-feet jumps.

How to do it: Come down to your knees and sit back on your heels. Swing your arms to help create momentum as you explosively jump up, driving your hips forward and bringing your legs and feet directly underneath you. Brace your body as you land in a squat position with your arms out in front of you. Lower back to the kneeling position, coming down on one knee at a time.

This move produces more lower body power, and, when done in tandem with a sport-specific lifting regimen for six weeks, can boost your vertical jump, according to research published ahead of print in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. In the study, 26 college athletes at Truman State University (participating in football, wrestling, softball, basketball, and track) saw improvements when they followed this protocol:

Week 1: Day 1 (test day), Day 2 (6×3 reps), Day 3 (5×4 reps)
Week 2: Day 1 (4×5 reps), Day 2 (3×5 reps), Day 3 (4×4 reps)
Week 3: Day 1 (4×4 reps), Day 2 (4×3 reps), Day 3 (3×3 reps)
Week 4: Day 1 (2×3 reps), Day 2 (3×2 reps), Day 3 (2×2 reps)
Week 5: Day 1 (4×3 reps), Day 2 (4×2 reps), Day 3 (3×2 reps)
Week 6: Day 1 (5×1 reps), Day 2 (4×1 reps), Day 3 (test day)

2. Do Bulgarian split squats

Do Bulgarian split squats

Your legs give you power to jump higher. (Another reason not to neglect your stems!) The Bulgarian split squat will help build strength, while improving your balance. To do it, stand a couple paces away from a bench, and place your non-working leg on it. The top of your foot should be on the bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand erect with your chest up. Descend until your back knee nearly touches the floor. Using the heel of your lead foot (the one that’s on the floor), push yourself back up into a standing position. That’s one rep. Try doing 3 sets of 8 reps on each leg on your lower-body workout day.

3. Practice depth jumps

A depth jump is performed by stepping off a box, then exploding up immediately after landing on the ground. This teaches reaction time and will help your lower body muscles activate when you need to catch air. Start by standing on a box that’s 6 to 8 inches off the ground. Step off. As soon as you touch the ground, jump as high as you can, reaching your arms overhead. Land softly in an athletic position. Take a second to recover, then step back onto the box, set yourself up, and repeat. Follow this progression:

Week 1: 3×3 reps
Week 2: 4×3 reps
Week 3: 5×3 reps

4. Start with small balls

Begin with a tennis ball, then move up to a softball, then a volleyball, then a youth-size basketball, then a regulation one, Malik says. If you can’t palm it, you’ll have to control the ball with two hands till the last-minute extension for the one-handed dunk. Then it’s time to take Sidney Deane to Sizzler.

5. Visualize being like Mike

Visualize being like Mike

Meditation and mindfulness can calm your body, which is essential for executing ballistic movements correctly, Malik says. Visualize touching above the rim and flushing the ball.

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