Mastering the Vertical Jump Lesson II - Programming Your Master Computer

If you were to take a muscle, any muscle, and hook it up in the laboratory to a special high-powered electrical device, you can accurately determine how much force that muscle is capable of exerting. This figure is the definition of absolute strength.

Absolute Strength- is the maximum amount of force you could apply if you were able to contract every single muscle cell in a given muscle at the same time.

Potential is big here because it turns out most folks aren't able to use and apply anywhere near the potential force their muscles are capable of exerting. In fact, untrained folks might only be able to voluntarily use around 50% of their potential absolute force in a given task. Highly trained athletes with years of experience can approach 85-90%.

The nervous system inhibits you from using all your potential strength in 2 ways. First, getting all your muscle cells turned on instantaneously requires strong and efficient neural (electrical) signals emanating from the brain and spinal cord. These signal your muscle fibers to turn on and exert force. The stronger and more efficient these neural signals are the more muscle fibers you can "turn on". The faster you can send these neural impulses, the quicker you can get your muscles turned on.

Now, the reason this is difficult is largely due to the fact that if you were able to easily turn on all of your muscle cells instantaneously, you'd stand a good chance of ripping your muscles right off the tendon! Therefore, the body naturally tries to inhibit you from doing this. That's good for injury prevention but not necessarily good for performance.

Fortunately, it is possible to condition your body to push this natural inhibition back with proper training, which is why trained athletes can use more of their ability than sedentary folks. This also partly explains why some small guys are exceptionally strong, powerful, and explosive, while some large guys are weak as kittens - Or some strong guys lack explosiveness.

Second, and this example will be more specific to jumping, eccentric stretching brought on by plyometric activity (which leaping inherently relies on) causes the muscles and tendons to store energy like a spring. When this energy is released it causes a reflexive, or involuntary contraction that can increase force output more than double. The faster the speed and more forceful the stretch in one direction, the greater the level of force put out in the opposite direction. This is why we instinctively use plyometric contractions in just about everything we do (rearing the arm back to throw, dipping down prior to a jump etc).

However, most are not able to fully take advantage of their plyometric ability because the muscle/tendon complex has proprioceptors. The job of a proprioceptor is to monitor the degree of the eccentric stretch in the working musculature and prevent overstretching and injury by basically shutting the muscle down when the stress or stretch is too great. The problem is, sometimes these proprioceptors kick in sooner than you would like and they inhibit you from taking full advantage of your reactive, or plyometric capacity. Not good but not the end of the world.

To illustrate this for yourself perform a simple vertical jump from the floor (down and up) and measure the height you jump. Next, find some aerobics step boxes about 6-8 inches high and stand on one, step off, and as soon as you hit the ground immediately jump as high as you can and again measure the distance jumped. The large majority of you will notice you can jump higher when stepping off the box then you can from the floor. This is because by stepping off an elevated box and hitting the ground, you increased the rate and force of the eccentric stretch in your lower body muscles and tendons. Thus, your muscles were able to respond with a stronger reflexive/reactive contraction and you were able to jump higher. Notice you didn't have to really try any harder, the added force just kind've came reflexively which is what plyometric strength is all about.

Next, keep increasing the height of the boxes until you find the point where your jump begins to decline. For some this might be an 8 inch box, for others 15, for others 25 inches or more. Wherever that point is, it signifies the point where the force of the eccentric stretch begins to cause your proprioceptors to kick in and cause muscular inhibition. Fortunately, this can be improved with an increase in muscular strength. An increase will translate into increased jumping prowess. This is what real world plyometric training is all about.

Examples of Superhuman abilities

Under extreme circumstances, such as life and death situations, adrenaline causes the nervous system to send stronger then normal electrical signals to the muscles and proprioceptor inhibition is largely removed. This allows nearly all the muscle cells to turn on and one can utilize nearly 100% of their strength potential. Have you ever heard stories of 110 lb women lifting cars off of children? Have you ever been chased by the cops, an attack dog, or anything else that scared the living daylights out of you and noticed how much faster you ran!? Have you heard stories of people on PCP or other drugs being able to bust out of straight jackets and handcuffs? These are all good examples of natural manipulation of the nervous system.

Because of the apparent life or death situation, inhibition is removed and all the muscle fibers are able to fire, with the outcome being apparent superhuman strength, force, and power. Unfortunately, the people who accomplish these tasks often end up hurting themselves.

Why You Get Up Better In a Game

Here's another less dramatic example of this. Have you ever noticed how you can jump quite a bit higher and run faster whenever you're feeling really energetic, fired up, or maybe even anxious? Most players notice they can get up better or move faster in a game when their adrenaline is pumping. This is because you produce more adrenaline and this adrenaline increases the number of muscle cells you can fire. This is called muscular recruitment.

One of the main objectives of this program is to increase muscle recruitment without needing an adrenaline surge or life or death situation to do it. Imagine what would happen if you went from using 50% of your potential muscular force and you suddenly increased that to 100%? The results would be very, very impressive to say the least!

Putting this information to use

So how do we learn to use more of our potential muscular force when we jump, increase muscle recruitment without a life or death situation, and increase the threshold of our proprioceptors? The first step towards improving all of the above is to have a good strength to bodyweight ratio. The stronger you are the more muscle you can recruit, the more force is exerted when a muscle does contract, and the more force you can absorb in the negative phase of a plyometric movement before proprioceptors cause it to shut down. To illustrate, a space shuttle with a 5 horsepower motor isn't going anywhere!

You Gotta Have Horsepower

One thing many people don't realize is that the best leapers are ALWAYS powerful for their bodyweight and even more importantly, strong for their given structure. This doesn't mean they can ALWAYS demonstrate their strength in the weight room proficiently or that they even have experience in the weight room, but someone who naturally jumps high will also be able to naturally produce a lot of force, even if they don't proficiently demonstrate that force in the weight room. In other words, one can be strong even though they're not good at strength exercises because strength movements require a technical component. Now take someone who "naturally" jumps high, throw them in the weight room and give them a month or so to master the technique of the strength movements, and you'll see just how strong they are.

To give you an idea, Kobe Bryant routinely does squats with over 400 lbs and so did Michael Jordan. Same goes for Vince Carter. The average olympic high jumper squats over 2 times his bodyweight. So does the average national class volleyball player. The average olympic sprinter squats up to 3 times his bodyweight. The average NFL defensive back has a 40 inch vertical jump and squats over 450 lbs. The list goes on and on. As my vertical jump progressed from 23 to over 42 inches so did my squat - it went from 185 to over 405 lbs.

Having said that, many high level basketball players with their long limbs aren't able to demonstrate strength in the weight room to the same extent as football players, but the best athletes are almost always stronger then they look and strong for their structure. If you don't have that natural strength the only way to get it is to train for it! If you do have it you need to learn how to take advantage of it.

How Do You Stack Up?

So how do you know how you stack up here? Here's how to determine where you're at.

Take a look at the following chart. Determine your build and see how your strength levels stack-up in comparison to other good athletes with your body structure. The lifts you need to pay attention to are the full Squat and the Deadlift.

Men's Strength Chart

Women's Strength Chart

So where do you need to be? At a bare minimum you should be in the "good" category for both the squat and the deadlift. If you're not, you will make your best improvements focusing up in the weight room and improving your general strength levels. A routine such as squats and leg curls for 4 sets of 5 reps each on Monday, along with Deadlifts and Lunges for 4 sets of 5 reps on Thursday will work just fine if you're not up to par.

In the next installment of Mastering The Vertical Jump we will cover the following topics:

The Importance Of Individuality - Why a Cookie Cutter Routine Is Not Optimal

Identifying individualities- What type of jumper are you? Are you a strength jumper or an elastic jumper? What type of training will you respond best to now and in the future?

Jumping Styles- The difference between a single leg and 2-leg jump and how to train for each style.

Until next time!