I’m not a born athlete, I was never the fastest kid on the playground, or the strongest athlete in the weightroom. I could jump (touch a higher object) higher than my peers as a youngster, but primarily due to the factor of having a pre-existing advantage from being taller with long arms, and then practicing leaping constantly to ensure my separation from any would-be higher jumpers/competitors in my class.
There was a period of time in my high school career, my senior year specifically, where I did have a 5-6 month streak of serious athletic feats where I truly separated myself on many levels from the athlete I was in my youth. I high jumped 6’8.5”, finished 2nd in the 100m dash at a low-key meet (a victory in my mind), and learned hurdles just 3 months prior to winning our conference championship in the 100m and 300m versions of the race. My junior year was good (HJ 6’4), but only incrementally better than my sophomore campaign (HJ 6’2), and this was only incrementally better than what I did as a freshman (HJ 6’0)!
I had incremental gains in high jump until my senior season, where I exploded in performance
This “high gear” of performance originally kicked off in the fall, as I was taking some time “off” of reactive and plyometric work through doing our high school strength and conditioning program (Husker Power Program with Squats and Deadlifts, Monday/Thurs, and Olympic lifts and upper body on Tues/Friday… I decided to only go hard on one of those days, rather than two, as was prescribed… it didn’t make sense to me at the time that I would actually be able to recover from that type of lifting volume).
The year or two prior I had done depth jumping programs in this time frame, which helped my vertical immensely, but these results often faded a bit during the course of basketball season, largely due to a lack of strength.
I went about 8-10 weeks of solid progression on this lifting scheme, and then went easy for a week or two, after which, I hit a new gear of dunking and jumping off of both one and two legs.
Eventually, during basketball season, some time in February (where the wheels had often fell off prior, due to a lack of base strength coming into the year), I reached a point where after our wind-sprint session was finished at the end of a practice, I felt pretty bouncy, and decided to see how high I could jump. The result was touching 2 inches above the top of the square behind the rim (about 11’6-11’7), while having to nearly dodge my head from the backboard, even limiting my final height incrementally. Afterwards, the assistant coach started to throw me a few “alley oops” where I was literally throwing down, in terms of the angle of my arms being close to parallel with the rim in the catching/dunking process.
At the time, this blew my mind, as I had never come even close to what I had just done. I had just barely gotten the top of the square the year before in peak form. I hadn’t grown since my Freshman year of high school, so how did this fall into place?
My thoughts on what happened in the lead up to this are as follows:
- A pretty low-volume, low-key summer, doing open gyms, and random plyometrics I’d do in my back yard; not the intense depth jump routine I had done a year prior that really helped me improve (see Jeff Moyer’s article on CNS sensitivity)
- A solid strength-building regimen in the fall. I put at least 30-40lbs on my back squat, and the same on my hang clean, while only gaining about 3-5lbs.
- Lots of confidence in my physical maturity as a senior, and growing athletic ability during basketball season.
- (The final push) A combination of very competitive wind-sprinting: “Happy-cides” and “5 for the team” (what this article is about).
I really like talking about “counterintuitive” training methods, and their potential influence on performance. Specificity is just that, we do need to train specifically to hit our highest performance, but, what about those times where strange things, like “speed endurance”, or “two-minute drills”, or running the 4×400 every few weeks seem to help out our raw speed and power outputs?
Sprint Hard, Sprint Often
I hit my big jump of 11’7” about 3 weeks after ceasing weightlifting, sometime in February. What was the brunt of our team training in that 3 weeks, and why wasn’t I lifting a lot? Well, I had laid off of weights, we were sprinting in basketball practice, and regularly at that, to the point where I didn’t have much energy to go home and lift in my basement (as was a common practice of mine).
Here’s what a typical basketball practice would look like:
- Dribble and layup drills
- Full court drills, such as “3 on 2”, “2 on 1”
- Technical/Tactical sets
The running specifically looked like this:
- 10-20 minutes of “down and back doubles” and “happy-cides (suicides)”
- Finish with “5 for the team”
The 10-20 minutes of initial running was fairly standard practice type work, running the lengths of the court, and then doing “happy-cides” (1 suicide typically equals, sprint from baseline to free throw line to baseline, to half court, to baseline, to opposite free throw line, to baseline, to other baseline, and back to the start again), which my coach termed as such, because “you’re happy to be getting in shape!” (I never was too happy at the point of hearing that, however).
This three weeks in particular, there was a lot of egging on from my coach that I was “the fastest guy on the team”, which continually led me to win the “happy-cides”, racing mostly against our all-state multi-sport athlete (soccer, basketball, golf). We rarely raced the doubles, the doubles were essentially extensive tempo, as nobody ran them particularly fast, since we knew how draining the “happy-cides” would be, and our coach seemed to let us get by with the slower running at particular points, or sometime, the whole running session (minus “5 for the team”).
The fact that we rarely raced the doubles was kind of funny, since the running my freshman and sophomore years on the JV squad was MUCH harder… every sprint was fast, think of an “intensive tempo” pace for every run, for 20 minutes, and if you didn’t go hard enough, this was sure to be met with an ass-chewing from the coach, (and more running).
Not many people would think of it this way, but the happy-cides were of the essence for me reaching a higher gear of athleticism due to the demand on deceleration, and change of direction. The only way I really could win was to destroy everyone in the first couple changes of direction, and then willpower the last full-court sprint.
For me, one of my continual weak links is my quadriceps strength, and I’m a guy who can make good (weightroom) strength gains through sprinting and plyometrics. The hypothesis is that I can get very high quadriceps and gluteal muscle-tension doing these decelerations, and re-accelerations, where some athletes may not reach those levels, and the strength doesn’t grow, but this is a bit theoretical.
Doing those happy-cides pedal to the metal, 2-4 times per week was a “concentrated dose” of strength to my sprinting and jumping muscles. You can only accelerate what you can decelerate, and I was getting a huge dose of deceleration, done as fast as humanly possible.
Needless to say, the senior year running served me much better, partly due to the “extensive tempo” breaks in the running, and partially to the intensity of the happy-cides, and “5 for the team”, the last of which I’ll get to into now.
The “Magic” of 5 for the Team
“5 for the team” was how we always finished sprints on the varsity squad, where, no matter what the nature of the running workout prior, we finished with 5 all-out wind-sprints, racing against each other the length of the basketball court, just one time, baseline to baseline.
I actually, rarely won these, at least not my junior year. My senior year was better, but I still didn’t win everything (change of direction and anything involving quickness and agility was more my forte).
The “5 for the team” was the critical piece to this running, and my own athletic enhancement. The strength work I was doing at this point could more be classified as “1×10” (in the same vein of 1×20, 1×14, 1×8, etc.), and my primary “lift” was barbell step-ups onto a 10” block with some other random work scattered throughout. Lift sessions rarely took me more than 15-20 minutes.
I am personally much more of a “warrior” type, than “worrier”, meaning that I need substantial environmental stress or competition to be near my best. If I train alone for the majority of my workload, I won’t come close to performing to my maximal level. Racing team-mates was a critical component.
In the several weeks where these wind-sprints were really concentrated, I wasn’t lifting much, and, as goes the theory, doing something regularly will allow you to adapt to it extremely quickly (and afterwards you need to change the exercise)!
Finally, the adage of “your body remembers the last thing you do in a workout” rings very true in these situations. We would slog through a good amount of “extensive tempo” with occasional “intensive tempo in the form of acceleration-deceleration”, and then finish with all-out speed. Doing this regularly met my eccentric strength needs, as well as raw power, and I noticed at the end of basketball season, having not squatted much at all, my squat was actually halfway decent!
Again, after a season of this type of running, and a big concentration of it, and racing for about 3-4 weeks in the absence of resistance training led me to my highest reactive strength levels (as exhibited by one-leg jumping) to date, and this performance sustained itself as I finished basketball up and went through my track campaign.
Of course, this whole idea never registered to me for some time beyond this, and it wasn’t until close to a decade later that I realized that I needed that type of sprint work in my program (the large factor being racing someone).
If I had to tie all this into some take-home points, they would be as follows:
- Building weightroom strength carries results longer than plyometrics alone in many cases.
- Some athletes generate very high tension when sprinting/jumping, etc. that can maintain their lifting, where other athletes may not have this effect to as high of degree.
- You can only accelerate what you can decelerate…. change of direction, or deceleration is a forgotten ingredient, even in linear speed building. For me, maximal suicide sprints gave my muscles a good stimulus here.
- Some athletes need to race hard and do it in enough volume to really get a result. Some athletes need more stimulus to really move the needle.
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