How to Jump Higher With a Basketball in Your Hands
(And learn about general and specific strength work along the way)
There is a question I get every now and then, which also happens to be an issue I had in early high school. 15 years later, I finally have a good answer for it.
“How do I jump higher with a basketball in my hands”
In my early years, the easiest way for me to dunk was off of an alley-oop. By far. My younger brother’s one and only (and also amazing) dunk was thrown to himself off of the backboard. Everyone jumps higher without having to drag a basketball along with them, but some have a harder time than others. At my peak of things, I could nearly get my elbow over the rim, but taking the ball along for the ride cost me at least 6” off of the final product. Many others have this same issue.
Over the years, I got much better at it, but didn’t realize entirely why. Until now. Here is how to jump higher with a basketball in your hands.
Tactic #1. Motor learning
If you have read my articles before, you know that I tend to beat this point to death, but it still completely true. To get good at jumping with the ball, you must practice jumping with the ball. Jumping without the ball is a different motor skill than jumping with the ball. This is more true with a two leg jump than a one leg jump. Jumping off of one leg is more or less deflecting the human body off of the ground, and not much changes without the extended use of the arms in this scenario.
Off of two legs, however, things change just a bit. Different types of athletes will jump using different loading strategies. Mesomorphic (muscular, thicker) athletes with more muscle and good weight room numbers will often use a jumping strategy utilizing a good amount of knee bend. On the other hand, lighter (and weaker) athletes tend to operate on momentum. They don’t like to bend their legs too much when they jump, or they will lose energy during the stretch shortening cycle. Their legs aren’t strong enough to rebound energy from deeply flexed positions, so they tend to rely on power off the ball of the foot and through their core (by core, I mostly mean their hips).
In order to deliver more energy to their legs during the short time they have in contact with the ground, these athletes will typically get a pretty big arm swing going to produce a greater vertical loading of the legs as long as they are in a strong, ¼ squat position. This athlete will also tend to use a lot of speed to really load the legs up to take flight. Below is a quick illustration of what this athlete looks like while loading up their jump:
The issue here is that that this athlete is going to be very used to using a big arm swing, and little loading of the lower body during jumping. When this athlete tries to jump with a ball, they are without their arm swing and the typical order of events that lead them to a jump, and this will greatly reduce their overall vertical. In order for this athlete to get better at jumping with the ball, they must practice!
Through practice, the athlete will usually find out that since they can’t use their arms as much to apply greater loading to the jump, they must hit the approach with a greater speed to get more power into a shorter window of time. They will also find that they will have to improve and refine their posture into the plant in this high-velocity setup. Finally, this type of athlete might just have to learn to use a bit more knee flexion in the jump. In this case (and most of the time anyways) squatting is going to improve the athlete’s ability to create force and stability in the positions requiring a high level of knee flexion. We will cover this a bit more in the next point, however.
- Jumping with the ball is a different motor skill than jumping without a ball.
- Athletes who don’t use much knee bend when they jump are at a disadvantage when jumping with a ball due to a reduced arm swing
- These athletes need to refine their technique or use special and general strength methods such as squatting to improve jumping with a ball.
Tactic #2. Posterior chain integrity and strength
In order to jump well with the ball, it is important to be strong. When I say strong, I am referring to two types of strength: general strength, and special strength. These are track and field style terms, but they carry over to the training of any sport. Let’s start with general strength. General strength refers to typical weightroom strength: squats, cleans, deadlifts, etc. In order to jump well with the ball, an athlete who tends to struggle must be able to transfer force well through their posterior chain. The reason for this is that they will have to learn to handle a fast takeoff to negate not having much of an arm swing during the course of a jump, which requires P-Chain strength!
A quick rule of thumb is that the faster and more dynamic a linear, non-decelerating movement is, the more it relies on the effectiveness of the posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors).
In order to maximize the general strength of the posterior chain, deadlifts and cleans (if taught properly) do the trick well. If an athlete turns to the side and nearly disappears (no glutes) some auxiliary exercises such as glute bridges or hip thrusts are in order as well. In regards to general strength, obviously squats will help immensely as well in regards to helping an athlete jump with the ball because it will help them create force and stability through a deeper knee bend, which is much more conducive to jumping with a ball in the hands!
The final piece of the puzzle is special strength work. In track and field terms, special strength is light (around 30% of 1RM or so), fast and specific work, relative to the athlete’s needs. For example, a track and field jumper may use barbell skips with 50 kilos as a special strength method for improving single leg jump power.
In order to develop jumping with a ball, special strength can be quite useful. In this regards, I am talking about using various medicine ball drills, both throws, and jumping with the medicine ball (or a heavy basketball), in order to maximize the final outcome. We will dive into this in our next point, exercises and training considerations.
- Posterior chain strength is vital for running jump approaches at high velocity
- Deadlifting, kettlebell swings, medicine ball throws, and Olympic lifting are great ways to improve the strength and power of the posterior chain
Tactic #3. Exercises and training considerations
So in terms of the exercises an athlete can do to improve jumping with the ball, we have the following: (Note, this type of terminology is typically reserved for track and field event coaching, but why? Jumping with a ball is an outcome based event, so why save the terms used to coach the greatest athletes in the world for one sport?)
Competition Exercise: Athletes can improve their jumping with a ball by practicing jumping with a ball, and also experimenting with various takeoff speeds and degrees of knee bend. Realize that making a biomechanical change to your jumping technique may not deliver results the first few sessions either, but may take several weeks or months to bring about the benefits. Regardless, the human body is pretty smart and will often figure out an efficient way of doing things for a simple motor task given enough practice.
Special Strength Exercises: For special strength in regards to jumping with a ball, I would recommend first off, jumping with a slightly weighted medicine ball in the 1-2kg range. Anything heavier is going to throw the skill of jumping with a basketball (or whatever ball you are trying to jump with) off a bit. On the heavier end of special strength, vertical medicine ball throws with heavier med balls (3-5kg) tend to work well. These also work well when done on the tail end of a depth jump from a low box (30-60cm). See the video below for a good example of a depth jump-vertical medicine ball toss used to improve general upper body power and linkage of the hips.
Another great special strength exercise for learning to jump well with a ball is the kettlebell swing, just make sure you are doing it right! A proper kettlebell swing will help an athlete to gain a more powerful loading and elastic release of the posterior chain, particularly the hamstrings, glutes and lats.
General Exercises: In order to maximize the loading, knee bending mechanism of jumping (if you are an athlete that is on the taller, weaker end of thing, and doesn’t like to bend your knees when you jump) you will need to work on improving your squat. I have found that reactive isometric style squats work particularly well for improving this type of movement in athletes. See the video below for an example of what I am talking about.
Aside from this, full catch cleans and snatches tend to do the trick well. Catching 150kg (or even half that) above your head in a full squat position requires just a bit of core stability and leg strength. I have had a good handful of clients who seem to instantly gain on their jump when I program full catch work in their training cycles, as it greatly improves the loading mechanism of these athletes, which will in turn, improve jumping with a ball in the hands.
As mentioned above, deadlifts are always going to be a fantastic way to teach an athlete to perform an effective and powerful hip hinge, which will allow greater force transmission through the legs with a ball in hand.
If you want to see the effect of some of these methods in action, check out the final progress of online client of mine, Ori Biala in the video below. Ori had come to me already in a highly trained state, and had trained with fantastic trainers in the past, but I feel he was able to make the final transition to reach more PR’s through his hard work ethic, intelligent programming and some good exercise selection. Notice that Ori jumps very well both with and without the ball as a two foot jumper.
You can also check out Ori’s own personal site at oribiala.com
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