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How to Increase Your Vertical Jump with Olympic Lifting and Kettlebells

September 22, 2008 01:24 PM

Perusing the Dragon Door forum, several queries' came up on training ones vertical jump.

Now there is a ton of info out there on improving your vertical, yet I had an interesting result from training a friend that I thought I'd share, along with a new exercise. (More on the new exercise in a bit.)

Treves plays basketball with a group of people every weekend and on one occasion he saw me playing around with my kettlebells while at a picnic. He watched for a bit and then asked me if I knew of a way to improve his vertical jump for basketball. He mentioned that he jumped about like everyone else, nothing spectacular. So of course I said: "Meet me at my place next week."

Well, I'm no expert on vertical jump training, but hey, it can't be all that hard. To become an expert one must learn and then do. And usually relearn after they figure out they did not know what they thought they knew. It is a continual process. Learn, unlearn.

Treves shows up and I knew he had no access to Olympic training equipment at home. Olympic lifters have excellent vertical leaping ability. It comes from jumping with the weight every time you clean, snatch or jerk. And that's with a lot of weight on your body! The way they receive the bar upon landing removes a lot of the trauma associated with jumping with weights. Check out Dan John's site at for some excellent info on the Olympic lifts.

I have four Olympic bars and 700 pounds of plates, yet Treves stated he wanted to train at home because his work schedule was pretty crazy. So the O lifts were out.

Enter the kettlebell. I love saying that!

I trained Treves several times; first making sure his form was spot on and then just checking his form a week later. I set him up with a program of swings and the variations of the swing, tactical lunges, one leg dead and overhead press. I figured this was a good start and after a few weeks or more, I would introduce some other exercises. Well that never happened. He was so busy we never got to train again. When I spoke with Treves about training he said all he did most of the time were the swings.

Well, here is the interesting part. After several months I met one of the guys he played basketball with. Kyle did not know that I knew Treves, and in the course of our conversation he brought up basketball. Next thing I knew he was talking about this guy who could not jump much better than anyone else and how he "suddenly" seemed to start jumping and flying all over the court faster than the other guys. Kyle said his friend was now getting all the rebounds. So when I asked Kyle who this guy was, well of course it turned out to be Treves! So I told him about the KB training. Kyle tells me that when he asked Treves what he was doing to get better at jumping and running, all Treves would say was: "I have a secret weapon". So I sort of let the cat out of the bag on Treves without knowing it.

The funniest thing is Kyle had no interest in learning about the Kettlebells! When asked about getting together with me for some training he was just not interested. That kind of blew me away.

The weird thing is, I had chosen specific exercises for a specific reason for Treves.

The press, to develop better strength and stability in his shoulders and arms so the drive from his legs could be transferred more efficiently to the ball when he took a shot. Plus the ability to connect his arm to his body so when he was on guard he would not get his shoulder tweaked from the sudden shock of another player bumping into his outstretched arms. The get up would be good for this also.

The one leg dead to develop the ability to root better, to stabilize his knees and create better ankle and hip mobility. Plus he would strengthen his glutes and hams to improve his vertical and greatly reduce the chance of a hamstring and ankle injury.

Tactical lunges with a long step back were added to strengthen the knee and stretch/strengthen the hip flexors and the gluteus muscles. Also it would teach him how to drive off one leg with more power.

The one leg deads and tactical lunge are great for taking the "wind" out of one leg movements. In most sports we need to drive forward or up from one leg at a time or from a staggered stance. We cannot always be square to our target. You'll notice when we do a one leg exercise or a lunge for the first few times there is a lot of "wind", in other words there is a lot of other activity going on, the knee is blowing all around, or moving like a blade of grass in the wind. Perhaps there is a better word for that. Uncoordinated?

There is a lot of extra nervous energy going on in this movement that is not being used to stabilize the joint or create movement in the proper angle. Things are not too coordinated. Energy or applied force is being lost. There is a leakage. If that is the case while doing the exercise, will it be any different on the field? I think not. The leakage will still be there, only masked by the speed of the play on the field. And leakage of applied force can cause injury in the joint that is not stable under the loading of acceleration/deceleration. At least that is my limited view of it.

By having a person perform lunges or one leg deads slow and controlled, you can easily see this. Performing the movement quickly hides the shaking, the lack of coordination, the "wind". Reread that sentence again. Slow and controlled first, build the base, and then you will later launch faster and stronger from this stable base with less chance of injury.

So much for my program! It seems Treves got the 80% he needed to improve his vertical from the 20% of the program he did because he focused on the swings. Truth be told, he is in his early twenties and said he did not like exercising, so that is why he did not do most of the exercises. Perhaps he would do even better if he had?

So the lesson? If you want to improve your vertical jump and do not want to learn the Olympic lifts, get a kettlebell and learn to swing! Also, don't overcomplicate the training program. Pare it down to the minimum to get results. Change one thing at a time to find what works best. Don't go the shotgun approach. Be sure to keep records of your results.

I had Treves doing one hand and double kettlebell swings with 16kg kettlebells. So that is merely 70 pounds of resistance. However, those 70 pounds of swinging resistance is very deceiving! He never took me up on using more weight. Measure your vertical. Go on a month long program focusing on swings and add the other exercises if you want. Check your vertical at the end of the month. Post your results on the Dragondoor forum. If you are more adventurous, read on.

What about squats? Mechanics are different and I don't want to use the energy in arguing this one. Squats and deads are good for developing a strong stable base, but more is needed.

Actually, it is hard to beat the Olympic lifts for improving the vertical. If someone considers their self an athlete but say they cannot learn the Olympic lifts, I'd say their athletic ability is highly questionable. Speed squats may work for powerlifting, but I do not feel they work well for increasing the vertical leap. We do not squat down to jump; we push the hips back and load the glutes and hams, much like the swing. So that got me thinking.

Dangerous, I know.

I plan to put this on a DVD but I will share it now. The best way to test an exercise is to use it on a large variety of people, cautiously of course, and note the results. Use at your own risk and don't call me if you do something stupid, although it is really pretty simple: Swing Jumps.

Get set in the position to do a regular two-hand swing. Swing the bell back and as you drive the legs into the ground and come upright, tightening the glutes, literally jump straight up. The kettlebell should be straight out in front of you as you jump. Drive through the heels. You will come up on the toes as your body leaves the ground. You and the bell should go straight up; the kettlebell should not pull you forward if you do it correctly. If the bell pulls you forward LET IT GO! Your feet should leave the ground as you jump.

As you land you will notice you actually land on your feet as the kettlebell is still traveling upward. This gives you time to adjust, if necessary, to quickly receive the kettlebell in the proper swing form so you can safely swing it back for another rep. The harder you jump the higher the bell will go, even though your body does not go much higher. Be sure to project the force of the swing through the body and into the bell.

Too heavy a kettlebell and the form gets thrown off. I found a 24kg kettlebell was just right for me. You may have to experiment with different sized kettlebells to get just the right feel.

I would suggest you start off with reps in the 5-10 range with a lighter bell and about 3-5 with a heavier bell. Build up the volume gradually. You have been warned. Heavier bell, lower reps.

Some people swing really low, in other words their entire back ends up almost parallel with the floor when they reach the bottom position of the swing. It is not necessary to go that low when you do Swing Jumps. You may have to experiment with a lighter bell to find the groove. Get tall as you jump, don't be all hunched over. And don't land hunched over. Land in good form and you will have time to get set to swing the kettlebell back for another rep. The kettlebell should go up over head height even as you land, so you have time. Don't rush to swing back and don't overanalyze the movement. Just grab a bell and try it. After a few reps it just flows together.

One problem with most forms of jumping with weight is the landing. If you play a sport and you jump a lot in the sport, more jumping can create overuse injuries, particularly if you are jumping from heights or landing with weight on the body. It creates a lot of extra stress on the joints.

This is the great thing with Swing Jumps. You really can't jump that high even with a lighter kettlebell. Try it you'll see what I mean. Try as hard as you want, you still won't jump that high.

So, first off, you land on your feet from a lower height than if you did depth jumps off boxes or even if you simply jump with no weight straight up. This translates into fewer traumas to the joints since the force of landing is minimized.

Second, you will not land with a weight on your back or even in your hands as you will land with bodyweight only, since the kettlebell is still accelerating upward. Again, less chance of injury.

Third, you get the overload of jumping with weights. You can really jump as hard as you want with out the negative aspects of jumping with weight on the back or in the hands as in jumping up to a box or off a box. You can apply a massive amount of force without a great risk of jumping and crashing on a box when you miss the jump or having a weight crash down on you when you land. It's a little more forgiving.

Measure how high or far you jump. Then do about 5 reps for a set or two of the Swing Jumps and then retest your vertical or horizontal jump. I think you will find it interesting.

A program might consist of swings to loosen up. Then switch to a heavier kettlebell or better yet, some double kettlebell swings for a few sets and really focus on driving the legs into the ground. Finally, do a few sets of the Swing Jumps. Experiment with sets and reps. Do this several times a week for 4-6 weeks.

Of course, maybe someone has already introduced this exercise and I am unaware of it so I apologize that it is not "new", but if not, you saw it here first. Have fun. Keep track of your vertical before and after and post results. I could test the Swing Jumps out myself, but hey, I'd rather test it out on you! If you can't handle it, go back to your needlepoint, whatever that is.

I had to ask my wife.


Walter J. Dorey


Two for one deal: You may also want to try Frog Swing Jumps. Simply do swings with the kettlebell and time your jump to coincide with the kettlebell as you swing it forward. Explode upward and forward. It is basically a kettlebell broad jump. Again, landing is not too bad because the kettlebell is still traveling upward as you land. Try Frog Swing Jumps for 10-20 yards. Make sure there are no kettlebell induced holes in the field so you don't twist an ankle. And yeah, you will look like a frog jumping. Play with it; it is not that hard to learn if you have the mechanics of the swing down pat. Post your results, comments on the forum.