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
The Fire Dunker: “The genetic freak”
Examples: Justin Darlington/T-Dub/Vlad Yashenko.
Physiological Wiring: Fast Twitch and Fast Nervous System
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Ultimate Blueprint for Vertical Jump, Speed, and Explosive Performance Training
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