During my professor duties, I have the privilege of teaching a college-credit basketball course. I love basketball, and I have always attempted to actively participate in my classes. My love of the game sees me in attendance these days at almost every home University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball game. Yet basketball is rarely viewed as a lifetime activity. One of the reasons for this is the toll that repeated jumping and landing on a hard surface has on the body. Myself, I have suffered two torn ACLs and have arthritis in my left knee from years of, perhaps overzealous, athletic endeavors.

Another important part of my life currently is my participation in summer sand volleyball. While the cushioned give of the sand softens the impact of landing, it can still have a cumulative negative effect on the body’s joints. Without intervention, I am inevitably much less powerful and energetic by the end of the summer than I was at the beginning. This obvious wearing down as we age has begun to catch the attention of professional sports as well, fueling the desire for ‘load management’: a method of managing one’s physical condition by taking carefully planned rest days, or active recovery days, from their regularly scheduled competitions or training regimen.

For many sports, the ability to explode vertically into the air remains a vital component of player success. However, adding additional training methods in vertical leaps can have the opposite effect on improved performance. Increased repetitions with vertical impact can begin to contribute to player fatigue and the potential for injury.

A small case study

Each semester, my college credit basketball students measure some baseline data in various exercises. Students are measured with a testing mat in the standing vertical jump test and the ¾ basketball court sprint test.

For the standing vertical jump, students step onto the mat and go into what we like to call ‘beast mode’. Beast mode is achieved by getting the backside, or glutes, back and down, arms thrust back, with the chest up. They then explode straight up, reaching their hands high toward the ceiling, and land with both feet on the mat. The feet cannot be tucked during the jump, or it is an invalid test result. The mat starts a timer when the participant leaves the mat and stops the timer when they land. This result is plugged into a mathematical formula that instantly gives the resulting height the participant was from the ground in inches.

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For the ¾ basketball court sprint, participants begin at one of the baselines (endlines) of the basketball court. From there, they sprint across the mat, which is located at the free-throw line at the other end of the court. Participants begin on a whistle, and the mat begins its timer with the same whistle. When the participant’s foot strikes the mat, the timer stops with a result in seconds. Participants are encouraged to sprint full speed across the mat and then begin to slow down. Part of the impetus for doing a ¾ basketball court sprint is to allow for plenty of space after the sprint for participants to be able to slow down.

For this small case study, there were 13 participants of varying ages. Some were male, and some were female. Participants were of a wide range of heights and weights. I often propose some questions to my students before they begin to complete these tests:

  • Do you have a prediction for who will have the best vertical jump? Most of the time, students look around at each other and gravitate to the tallest one in the facility.
  • Do you have a prediction for who will have the best sprint time? This question is generally met with indecision, and predictions for this can vary wildly.
  • What would you say if I told you there is a very accurate way of predicting who will have the best vertical jump? Not only that but what if I told you we can accurately rank everyone in the vertical jump? Students are generally quite dismayed at these notions, as they are not sure how there can be such a method beyond judging each other through outward appearance and making a guess.

Physics in action

I love physics, and I think that physics is at its most interesting when it goes beyond formulas and mathematics and enters the realm of our senses. For my bowling class, when students ponder which ball to use and look at the screen to see how fast they are rolling the balls, I ask them if they remember the equation for force from physics:

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In the equation for force, read as “force equals mass times acceleration”, m stands for the mass of an object, and in this case that is the bowling ball. The a stands for acceleration or the speed at which the ball is thrown toward the pocket between the 1 and the 3 pins for right-handed bowlers who are eager for a strike. Yes, they can choose the 8-pound ball that the smaller children use if they want to, but they might find that their results are lacking. Why is it that the pins seem to explode when the balls of some of their classmates make an impact, but they give way only with a slow crumple at the impact of their ball?

Suddenly, the equation makes sense in ways that it never did. For many students, it is an eye-popping epiphany, and suddenly they understand. The heavier the ball they use, and the faster they roll it, the larger the resulting explosion of pins on the other end. Einstein himself would be proud.

We can similarly use physics for quite an astonishing bit of prediction when it comes to vertical jumps. As it turns out, vertical power has a direct correlation to horizontal speed. Barring external factors such as form, injury, court conditions, etc…we can almost without fail state that the participant with the highest vertical jump will be the participant with the fastest horizontal (¾ basketball court sprint) speed!

Barring external factors such as form, injury, court conditions, etc…we can almost without fail state that the participant with the highest vertical jump will be the participant with the fastest horizontal (¾ basketball court sprint) speed!

Similarly, we can faithfully predict that the slowest sprint speed will also test with the lowest vertical jump, and, in general, the rankings of both will correspond along those lines. This is regardless of age, gender, height, weight, or other demographic information. These general predictions have accurately played out time and time again to the astonishment of class after class.

I am often approached for wellness advice, and some questions pop up over and over again, such as, “How do I put on muscle?”, “How do I get abs again?”, and “How can I increase my vertical leap?”

For this last question, I often ask the students, what is the largest and most powerful muscle in the human body? It is the answer to this question, which few of them know the answer to, along with their newfound physics revelation, that a fresh approach to improving vertical can be seen.

The small case study data

Before we explore alternative vertical training strategies, let us look at the data from this particular small case study:

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The above double bar graph has the following information:

  • Students have been anonymously labeled as students A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, and M.
  • To make the graph more palatable to our eyes, the results for vertical and sprint speed were first ranked and then inversely ranked. There were 13 participants in this small case study, so the best vertical score was given a rank of 1 and then flipped to its inverse of 13. The same was done for horizontal (sprint).

Here are the takeaways from this graph: - Student M had the highest vertical jump and the fastest sprint speed.
- Student E had the lowest vertical jump and the slowest sprint speed.
- Student I had the second lowest vertical jump and the second slowest sprint speed.
- Student H had the third-lowest vertical jump and the third-slowest sprint speed.
- Student K had the third-highest vertical jump and the third-fastest sprint speed.
- Except for participants B and D, the remaining students had vertical jump and sprint speed rankings all within 2 or less.
- There are many possible reasons for the rank difference in participants B and D, including form, injury, fatigue, and effort.

This data has been collected with different groups in different courses over several years now, and invariably, the physics remains the same. We can accurately predict vertical jump rank by sprint speed rank, and this sheds new light on a popular desire.

The three keys

There are 3 keys we must understand and consider to inform an alternative plan for increasing vertical leap. That is an alternative plan to doing exercises that involve jumping to get better at jumping.

  1. The largest and most powerful muscle in the human body Is the Gluteus Maximus (buttocks). It is also one of the most under-trained muscles in the human body and is therefore prone to inhibition and weakness that can contribute to chronic pain, injury, and athletic under-performance.
  2. Do we have to jump to improve our vertical leaps? While jumping does have benefits as an exercise, it does carry drawbacks. Each time we jump, gravity accelerates us back down to the earth. The higher we jump, the more impact upon landing. Over-training on jump exercises can contribute to multiple physical issues.
  3. If we improve our sprint speed, we WILL increase our vertical leap. Why? Because physics demands it be so. The natural laws of the universe literally bind our bodies to this fact: run faster and we will jump higher.

Jumping higher: an alternative plan

With an interest in self-preservation and prolonging one’s athletic career and vitality, an alternative plan can now be formulated for increasing vertical jump. While it is beyond the scope of this article to address all the specific exercises and training methods one might choose for such a plan, there are some overarching themes to keep in mind:

  1. Low impact: To avoid the additional wear and tear of jumping exercises, we can avoid these types of exercises when possible.
  2. Focus on the glutes: Your glutes are the power station of your athletic performance. They provide the burst for horizontal acceleration and the power for leaving the ground and defeating gravity on a vertical leap. As a part of your workout routine, make sure to include a focus on exercises that strengthen your glutes, and you will see a wide range of benefits.
  3. Sprint faster, and jump higher. You do not have to do broad jumps, depth jumps, box jumps, jump ropes, and other jumping exercises to increase your vertical jump. The fact is, if you improve your sprint speed, you will improve your vertical jump. Therefore, any training methods that accomplish horizontal domain improvement will reap benefits in vertical domain improvement.


We often associate vertical jumps with height. However, the distance one’s feet can remove themselves from the ground has nothing to do with height. One of the greatest leapers in NBA (National Basketball Association) history was the diminutive Spud Webb. Standing at just 5 feet 7 inches tall, Spud Webb had an astonishing 46-inch vertical jump. With many of us now falling into the category of weekend warriors, it is more important than ever to do what we can to preserve our bodies for a lifetime of competitive and physical performance. By incorporating physics and biomechanics, we can adjust the way we train in a way that maximizes results without creating a decline in our longevity.