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The Five Elements of Dunking

Based off of Charles Poliquin’s original article, appearing on T-Nation.

Thanks also to Kelly Baggett for a section of information on neural wiring found in the VJB 2.0

Disclaimer: This article may delve into the realm of some “bro-science” and the assumptions of the physiology of the given dunkers may be disputable. However, I believe there is a lot of truth behind this article, and also had some fun with it in the process. Don’t take this whole article as gospel, but rather as a unique way to give you a new perspective on the human response to training means.

If you have been around training for a while, it is pretty easy to determine which athletes have gifts in certain areas. Dig a little deeper, and you will find that when you throw a workout program on a group of athletes, some respond well to it, while the results of others lag behind. As a track coach, I have routinely watched athletes who respond well to all sorts of different styles of training programs, volumes, intensities, and levels of specificity.

The goal of this article is to take some great information previously written about by great strength training authors, and take it to the jumping world. (You could easily make the transition to the sprint world as well… but honestly, I would have a lot of trouble digging up examples of famous sprinters from the bottom three types… mostly because they don’t exist!) The nice thing about jumping higher is that, due to the nature of the longer ground contact times, different styles of athletes, and particularly those who are wired for strength over speed, can find themselves successful!

I first came across Poliquin’s article on “The Five Elements” when I was in college. Upon reading the article, I reached a point of immediate dismay, as I pegged myself into the “Earth” type of athlete… bordering on the “Metal” type (as you will find in this article, these are not very genetically gifted speed/power athletes). As I have grown older and more mature since that point, I have grown confident that I do fall into the middle of the genetic lottery, but am completely happy with that. In fact, I wouldn’t have things any other way. Sometimes I hear people say “I wish I was like X athlete”, to which I think, why? Whatever “element” or type of athlete you are, the ultimate goal is becoming the best version of yourself you can be (thanks Elliot Hulse) and this article will give you some insight on how to do that.

Without further adieu, I give you the five elements of dunking:

THE 5 ELEMENTS OF DUNK
FIRE-WOOD-EARTH-METAL-WATER

The Fire Dunker: “The genetic freak”
Examples: Justin Darlington/T-Dub/Vlad Yashenko.
Physiological Wiring: Fast Twitch and Fast Nervous System

fire element

These athletes respond to high frequency, high intensity training very well. Characteristics of these athletes are fast twitch, high density muscle fiber layout, and a fast neurological wiring. They are also fast. Nearly all “fire dunkers” can turn in good 40 yard or 100m dash times in addition to jumping out of the gym. Because of their explosiveness, they lack endurance, and are not good at repping out low percentages of their 1 rep max in lifting. If you want to see the world’s most pathetic 5k Turkey Trot, throw a bunch of these guys in the race and see what happens.

Fire dunkers have a tremendous capacity to turn muscle fibers on and off extremely quickly, along with their high density muscle fibers. They catch on to various movements fairly easily and will develop good technique and body control after enough repetitions have been performed. Fire athletes stand in rare air. Even amongst the high end track and field athletes that I coach, I would say only about 10% of these athletes fit purely into this category.

Chances are, if you are reading this article, you are not this athlete. If you were this athlete, you would probably be out throwing down thunderous dunks or lifting heavy piles of weight, simultaneously laughing at the gravity bound weaklings around you rather than wasting your time reading “boring theory”.

Fire athletes do carry with them a tendency to carry a “talent mindset” rather than a “growth mindset”. Because of this, they tend to be lazy and, although they will usually still out-perform their counterparts, they will never become world champions until they take on a champion work-ethic. When these athletes are motivated, however, they can do the same thing for hours at a time until they get it right. For “fire” type dunkers, this means spending hours at the gym training various types of dunks.

This type of athlete is best served by performing high intensity jumping, sprinting, and lifting often. They should try and switch up their training stimulus frequently though, which would be whatever lifting or depth jumping they happen to be doing… if they are even doing it in the first place. Dunk training in itself is variety, so fortunately for these athletes, if all they do is dunk, keep dunking! The principle of variety helps explain why, when these athletes come out to track practice after basketball season, and there is no variety, their legs go flat.

Wood: “Driven and Gifted”
Examples: Stefan Holm, “The Dunkfather”
Physiological Wiring: Moderate Twitch and Fast Nervous System OR Fast Twitch, Moderate Nervous System.

wood element

The “Wood” dunker has a great nervous system and also responds to high frequency training like the fire dunker, but not quite as high of intensity. Can either accelerate, or maintain top speed with a Fire type, but will probably lose a 100m dash because of FT fiber composition.

The fast nervous system versions of this type tend to be very good at jumping off of one leg due to their structure and reactivity. I coach a few high jumpers (2.17 or better in high school) who aren’t all that strong, and their standing vertical jumps are a joke, but they are tall with long legs, and have a ridiculous tap test score. Their lighting nervous system and good body structure enables them to be great jumpers, without necessarily being laden down fast twitch muscle.

The fast twitch/moderate nervous system side of this category will tend to make very good crossfit athletes because of their high strength and capacity levels in their fast-intermediate fibers, as well as the fact that they usually have a better work ethic than their fire counterparts.

These athletes still thrive on high intensity training, but will need to revert to submaximal work from time to time to avoid burning out, as well as maintain some sort of submax capacity.

(On a side note, for some reason these athletes tend to do well at attributing their vertical jump to special shoes or 500$ rubber-band strength machines. Companies that pay them to say so realize that they are the best targets for their marketing because they make more believable jumpers/dunkers than the fire crowd. Pay a fire jumper/dunker to promote their product and they will either: A. Laugh in your face or B. Not pay attention to you because they are too busy stamping their genitalia on a defenders forehead while simultaneously breaking a backboard somewhere. The average buyer is a sucker, but not sucker enough to believe that the very best dunker in the world got that way by using your product)

Earth: “Average genes don’t mean you can’t fly”
Examples: Ori Biala
Physiological Wiring: Moderate Twitch and Moderate Nervous System OR Fast Twitch and Slow Nervous System.

earth element

Ori Biala is a great example of a guy who has used strength training over years of training to bring him to his current vertical leap

This type can be a mix of a few different athletic qualities. These athletes are usually fairly strong, but they struggle at activities which require a high rate of force development such as top-end speed sprinting or long jumping. They are not the quickest athletes on the basketball court, but often their vertical is up there, through the use of proper strength training methods.

These athletes are often tough and hard workers. They are the guys that are the “hustle” players on the court and have a nice balance of endurance, strength and power and can gravitate their physiology towards whatever goal they end up training, although their genetic ceiling is lower than the wood and fire versions of themselves.

Earth dunkers will need to really build up their work capacity to reach the point in their training where they can sustain intense training often enough to get to a high athletic level. They will do well with about a 50/50 mix of intense and submaximal training efforts respectively in jumping and lifting. These athletes also must make the use of some sort of strength work to hit their genetic ceiling, as their system will need the neural and muscular growth adaptations that come from lifting weights. They will find it difficult using jumping and sprinting exercises alone to become powerful enough to hit their genetic ceiling.

The fact that an Earth dunker cannot get around lifting to hit their genetic ceiling can cause some confusion and/or overanalysis, so my advice to this crowd is to #1: find some good training partners that push you and call you out on overanalyzing and #2: lift, but make it as simple as possible through a system such as “Power to the People” or a 5×5 program. High lifting reps also can work very well for this crowd from time to time since that is one of their strengths.

Metal: “The Intelligent Dunker”
Example: Andrew Darqui.
Physiological Wiring: Slow Twitch and Moderate to Fast Nervous System.

metal element

Andrew Darqui is a great example of a guy who took his distance runner genetics to their vertical limit

“Metal” athletes are unlikely candidates for high vertical leaps, but can still pull out some solid vertical numbers through intelligent training. These guys don’t put on muscle very easily, and will generally be in the middle to bottom 50% of athletes running a 100m dash. They may possess an adept nervous system, have quick hands and feet, or be good at things like boxing or perhaps the button mashing games in Mario-party, which is what saves them from the category below.

They will tend to be really good at repping out a percentage of their one rep max and will generally do better using submaximal training rather than maximal training most of the time. Metal athletes will want to keep close tabs on the state of their nervous system and the amount of intense work they dump in their system. They have an advantage, however, in their capacity to tolerate a high frequency of submaximal training efforts and will need it in order to sustain intense training often enough to keep hitting PR’s. These athletes can still do pretty awesome things, provided they are motivated to do so.

Water: “The Anti-Dunker”
Physiological Wiring: Slow everything

water element

Race-walking is the perfect sport for “water” types.

The “Water” classification of athlete is the bottom of the athletic food chain. Their vertical jump is usually measured in pieces of paper. If they can dunk, it is probably on a hoop made by Fisher-Price. These athletes usually won’t respond to power training all that well, but it isn’t all about winning is it? No really it isn’t, and I am kidding when it comes to this athlete type. These guys and gals can probably end up being pretty good ultra-marathon runners, English-channel swimmers or triathletes…. or something that doesn’t involve sport at all, which may be a better idea because nobody wants to sit there and watch a marathon… let alone run one!

Anyhow, the “Water” athlete probably isn’t a dunker at all unless they are 7’3 or we are talking about donuts. Unfortunately, these athletes just are the purest form of hard gainers. Put 80% of their squat max on the bar and they might be able to get it 20 times or more! This reminds me however, athletes who set records for insane feats such as the most bodyweight squats in an hour or “who can hold a plank the longest” could certainly sit in this category.

Conclusion:

Chances are that you can pretty much figure out which element, or blend of elements you are from reading the above classifications. If you had a natural ability to fly high without ever touching a weight or doing a depth jump, I’ll bet you fall somewhere in the fire/wood category. If you can jump high, but aren’t the fastest guy (or gal) in a 40 yard dash, and had to furiously strength train for every inch of your vertical… you might be more in the earth/metal category. If you have trained hard for years only to touch “top loop” of the net while standing 6’4”…. then I would say it is a safe bet you can find yourself in the bottom rung of the classifications.

Remember, don’t feel bad if you aren’t a “fire” type, who cares! It just means that you have a different path to follow to reach your athletic goals, and when you get there, it feels just as good, or better, than the next guy.

Finally, if you are interested in some extra help in your training, check out the “online training” section of my store page to check out some of my online training packages to help you make the best of your own physical abilities and achieve your training goals.

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Edición Española

33 comments

  1. Hello

    How would “heavier” people fit into this paradigm ? What about Olympic weightlifters/ shot put ?
    What constitues a high vertical leap for someone that weighs 200-250 ? How about realtive squat values ?

    • Hi Brandon, thanks for the question!

      If we are talking about heavier athletes and not dunkers, elite powerlifters/O-lifters/Shot putters are almost invariably “fire” types. Those that rise to the top have the genetics that love high neural drive often. Heavier “earth” types may do better in bodybuilding (provided they can lose the bodyfat!) If I had to give a relative squat value, I would say it breaks down like this:
      Fire: 2.5x bodyweight
      Wood: 2.0x bodyweight
      Earth: 1.75x bodyweight
      Metal: 1.5x bodyweight
      Water less than that.

      Of course, these are just relative values, and there are a few exceptions, especially based on neural wiring and training level, but for the sake or discussion, that’s what I got!

      Hope that helps,

      Joel

  2. Joel,

    Amazing article and I can vouch for everything you say based on my own training and things I have seen in training partners. Im somewhere between a Metal and Earth. As a soccer midfielder for years it put me into the Metal category but without the aerobic stimulus lately (or as much of it) I am moving into a bit more of an Earth.

    • Mat,

      Thanks! This is one of those articles I wrote that was based off of my experience more than what I have read. I don’t think though that we can change “types”, but rather we experience normal adaptations as we progress from beginner to expert. Like Cressey has said, advanced lifters respond better to lower reps than beginners…but I think how low those reps go are dependant upon basic type.

      Joel

  3. Nice work. Very informative. Thank you.

  4. This is awesome, Joel. Great info. I’m interested in the tap test. I’ve always thought my CNS was pretty good, but I’d like to hear what kind of scores your top (fast CNS) athletes get. This is number of finger taps in 1 minute?

    • Jordan,

      Thank you for the kind words,

      The tap test I use is based off of the website “press the spacebar 2000”. Google it and you will find it. I do the 5 second test. Most of my good athletes get over 48, but I have a couple down in the 41-42 range. I have tested a lot of my athletes to see if there is any correlation between tap test and performance. I think there may be a weak correlation, but I need more numbers.

      Joel

      • Wow! I got a 38 at best on that haha. Maybe I’m overtrained? The only reason I think I have a decent CNS is because my full squat max is about 320 at a bodyweight of 180, yet my running vertical is 40″ and standing is 35.5″. According to Kelly’s Vertical Jump Calculator it should be a lot lower than that. Thoughts?

        • Jordan,

          What is your sprint speed like? Like I said, it is a weak correlation between that and athleticism… I have a girl who is a 42′ triple jumper and highly ranked who could only get 38 or so. Also, it is highly possible to have a good vertical even if you don’t meet the squat criteria if your jumping skill is well developed and you have a good body-type for it such as long femurs and high calves.

          Joel

          • My sprint speed isn’t fantastic, but I haven’t trained it a lot since high school (starting to do more now cause it’s fun and helps with my jumps) so it’s tough to say. I would say the majority of my vertical is caused by “skill,” since I’ve been working on it very consistently for about 7 years. Also, I re-did the tap test with my wrist elevated and got a 48. Is that how you have your athletes do it? I feel like the strict “wrist on the table, 1 finger tapping” tap test is the most accurate for measuring CNS efficiency, but perhaps I’m mistaken. Thanks for the reply!

      • Interesting, I got 46 on my first go, and I’m an old 42 y.o fart now… :p

        • Colin,

          I would imagine that raw neural speed levels stay intact for quite a while? Your beating me pretty badly in the tap test, that is for sure!

          Joel

  5. So hey, this was a really cool and interesting article but would my height affect the element that I am if I’m 5’4-5’5?

    • Jason,

      Your height doesn’t effect your “element” per say, but strength coaches have noticed that shorter athletes have the capacity to recovery faster from heavy training then taller athletes.

      Joel

  6. Joel – love the article as usual. Keep up the good work, inspiring to see someone so passionate and pushing themselves to continue to learn and educate.

    Aaron

  7. Thanks Aaron for the kind words, that means a lot to me!

  8. Joel,

    I am in the tapering week for a template of your single leg jump program. I plan on testing Saturday and I am not certain how to peak the final week and last few days. I watched Dan Pfaff’s lectures on acute relieving syndrome and also his mentioning of neural stimulation using olympic lifts the night before a morning test or the morning of an evening test or competition. Do you think I should concern myself with this or just have a light day the day before? Any help on this final week would be excellent. Your programs have helped me immensely.

    • Mat,

      Olympic lifts, along with some light jumps and sprints the day before have always worked great for me. Up until then in a tapering week, it is usually 60/60 vol intensity on the lifting and 60/90 on the dynamic stuff.

      Joel

  9. Joel… I know many people have contacted you. I feel like my situation is somewhat unique. I am 26 years old, 6’4 with 6’4 wingspan (arms aren’t too long), 220lbs, around 11-12 percent body fat. I am currently high bar parallel squatting 350lbs and deadlifting 460lbs. I have always been an average one footed leaper meaning i could throw down an okay looking dunk off one foot rarely in a game. I have a fast first step and very good overall quickness and explosiveness until it is time to take off the ground. For some reason i could never translate my athleticism vertically and believe me I have tried the best of the best programs out there. No matter how hard I try my one footed jump stays the same or decreases as my two footed vert increased by about 3 inches over the years. I have never thrown down a two footed dunk despite my lifting numbers. This is mind boggling and discouraging to me as I have increased my strength dramatically and still no impressive gains. Please let me know your thoughts. I patiently and kindly await your response.

    Best,

    Deevee

    PS. I feel like I fall into a few of the categories you listed as I am currently a decent sprinter and have acquired pretty impressive strength in a short period of time but was wired for endurance initially. Or at least I thought I was.

  10. I guess Im a fire type.Im learning everything so quick im playing basketball for 1 and a half year now and I can dunk on 9’10 rim.When i started to basketball İ was 5’7 and almost touching the 9’10 rim.Iam dunkin on 9’10 for 4 months now.My current height is 5’8 and Im 112lbs.(yes Iam weak lol) My standing vert is also good I didnt trained for vert.Im also fast in running and very quick in games.Just for 2 months I trained upper body (I wanted to train my legs but my coaches didnt allowed me because my its stops my growing etc.) for gain some weight and my muscles growing fast I think there was a big power change in my arms in 2 months.So what do u think about me? I am a fire or wood or what?

    • Hi Hasan,

      Sounds like you are on the upper end of things, fire or wood type, but I think you need to tell your coaches you are going to lift some weights! At 120lb, some mass is well needed, and you should respond very well. If you havent’ lifted much before, any lifting program will be helpful; that and trying to pack in as many calories as you can. At 120lb, you’ll be more likely to get injured, so some good weight gain will be helpful.

      Kind regards,

      Joel

      • Thanks for answer,something made me confused you wrote that “At 120lb,you’ll be more like to get injured…” I can get injured while doing what? I mean while training weight or playing basketball and dunking? If you pointed while playing you are so right because when I jump my groin and my calves hurt so much.What do you think about that? It’s reason can be lack of strong body? I sprained my ankle 5 months ago and its still hurts.

  11. hello just fly sports, great site you got there…
    but let me just get to the point straight on,

    Im 18 yrs old, 6’3″ tall, bodyweight just under 190 lbs, 6’6″ wingspan and long legs as well, 100m dash under 12sec, standing long jump over 250 cm, high jump off 2 feet over 160cm,

    Im a 2 foot jumper, got about a 32″ max vert at the moment (which is good enough only for a weak 360 dunk)

    tho I can easily get about a 28″ off left leg and over 30″ off right leg I dont feel comfortable jumping off 1 leg (when jumping off left leg left knee and shin soon starts hurting, and when jumping off right leg it dont feel comfortable beacuse Im right handed as well, and jumping and dunking right leg- right hand style is really messed up…)

    anyway, I never worked out with weights (I hate that), but Im sure I can squat my own bodyweight., just playing bball and/or dunking twice a week maybe., I trained track and field for a while but I was very inconsistent with my trainings cause coach was always pushing me for long distance runing and not for jumping that I love so much, so Im pretty much done with all that now.
    so I never done any constant and intense training, but I was always in some moderate phisycall activity.

    the reason Im telling you all this is that I want to know what do you think what type of a dunker am I., and also, after reading that jordan kilganon article, Im thinking about going his way, and I need your opinion, is that possible for me, to do it just like jordan did it, mostly just dunking all the time, based on the info I gave you, do you think I can seriously improve that way?

    • Hello Maminho,

      Every athlete is different, and although lifting weights really helps (if you do it right), the most important and specific ingredient of vertical training is jumping and dunking often in a highly motivated state. If you have a jump of 32″ standing, this would put you somewhere between the “Wood” and “Earth” type, and 32″ running with no weightlifting, probably somewhere in the “Wood” end of things. All athletes have different baseline levels and different levels of trainability, so with some proper training and essential lifting, you may be able to improve an awful lot!

      The only thing that matters when it comes to the whole wood/earth/fire/metal etc. types is to use this as a guideline for how often and how intense you should train. Typically this requires a few “testing periods” where a coach can get an idea of how you response to training volume/intensity/etc. I would say that you are likely in the middle of things and will respond to a well-rounded program.

      If you have any further questions, just shoot me an email: joel.smith.7@gmail.com

  12. hi there i just rode that article guess im a fire type,and this feels good,feel like a lot potential i have,at 50kg and 5’9 hit a 40inch,never trained before…what ya think?

    • Quite possibly! There are a few factors at play, but if you have really, truly have a 40″ standing jump having never done lifting or plyos, you are likely in the “fire category”. If this is off the run, then it depends, but chances are you are in the upper categories.

  13. Hey Joel I’m 17 year old athlete and greatly improved my athletic ability over the last year with your principles.
    I’m 6 ft with long arms and can grab rim of off my right foot. Around 8’1 reach Before I couldn’t even touch rim. The biggest improvement is my speed I went to be by far the slowest on my team to be at average speed. I want to dunk by the end of senior year. I fear I’m a water athlete because of my poor starting athleticism.

    • Hi Adam,

      No worries at all on your “poor” starting levels (and compared to the average male, they aren’t that bad). Some athletes have a higher training “ceiling” than others, and much of what might limit you is actually in your mind. If you have improved as much as you have already, there is no reason that you can’t improve more! Myself, I’m in the “Earth” category, as far as I know, and managed to jump 7 feet in high jump, and do windmill dunks, and could have done better if I was exposed to some of the training I know now. I wouldn’t put any limits on yourself.

      Kind regards,

      Joel

  14. Joel,
    Im 17 years old and a basketball player. Im a bit overweight but im still the highest jumper on my team and probably the most explosive one too. Im 5’9 and 176 pounds and i guess im about 17-18% bf. My 100m is 13 s. I have a ~39″ max vert of one foot and about 34″ off 2 but my standing jump is a joke. My squat is also a joke. About 200 pounds. I have noticed that lifting doesnt really help me because i lose the stifness and the powerful extension through my toes even if i dont lift much and extensively. I feel like the most helpful (and enjoyable) thing for me is sprinting and bounding along with jumping. Do you think that i can get away without lifting (just some bodyweight strength training) if i lose some fat too?? Also, could you make an estimate of what type of athlete am i?? It would mean a lot for real!!! Looking forward to your answer!!
    Kind regards,
    Dreif

    • Forgot to mention that i put on weight/muscle really fast (my glutes got HUGE only after a month of hip thrusting and i felt them powering my sprints/jumps A LOT). Also, i dont know if that helps defining what type of jumper am i but i went from ~32″ max vert off one to about 35″ with just some plyos and pistol squats for 2 weeks. I love high frequency training too. I hope you can provide some help!!
      Best,
      Dreif

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