Increasing Your Volleyball Vertical Jump
At Warbird Academy, we train a lot of volleyball players. Like…a lot. In addition to the 40+ players we train in house at our academy, we also write the strength program for one of the most successful volleyball clubs in the nation, Illini Elite, which rosters over 100 players and cranks out college volleyball commits like Goodyear cranks out tires (note to self: come up with better simile at a later date).
When you spend as much time as we do training these players, certain questions seem to pop up time after time. By far the most common question you could probably guess…
“LUCAS! How do I increase my vertical jump?!”
Well, I’ve got some good news and bad news. The good news? The theory behind increasing your vertical isn’t really that complicated. The bad news? The practical application of that theory can require some strategy and hard work. In this article, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about adding those precious couple inches to your attack and block jumps.
QUICK NOTE: I am NOT a volleyball coach. I am a strength coach. This article is written from a strength and conditioning perspective. While I will touch on jump technique very briefly, I am not qualified to comment on the mechanics of an approach or attack. Just keep that in mind as you read on.
SO, HOW DO YOU STACK UP?
Before we start, we should get some perspective on what constitutes a “good” vertical jump.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association reports that the average vertical jump (no approach) for a typical, 17-year-old girl is 13-14 inches. The average for a collegiate volleyball player? 17-21 inches. And, it’s generally accepted that elite jumpers (i.e., Division 1 middle blockers and outside hitters) can touch a minimum of 10’0” – 10’2” on their attack jumps (block jumps are typically 25-27% smaller than attack jumps). Oh, and then there are girls like Rhamat Alhassan, the 6’4” middle from the University of Florida, who has 37”+ vertical and can reportedly touch 11’3”…yikes.
So, if you’re not Rhamat Alhassan, two or three inches on your vertical can be a huge deal in your hunt for a college scholarship. Thing is, you really only have three ways to get those inches:
1. Get stronger
2. Get “faster”
3. Get better at jumping
I have the least to say about number 3, so let’s start there.
IMPROVE YOUR JUMP MECHANICS
One way to add height to your jump, assuming everything else remains constant, is to perfect the mechanics of your jump.
Jumping is a skill and, as a skill, it can be improved with practice. Now, as I said earlier, I am not a volleyball coach so I can’t offer much advice on how to improve your approach but what I can tell you is that a lot of young jumpers lose power potential through their knees and hips via a phenomenon called “valgus collapse.” What is valgus collapse? It’s this…
Valgus collapse (or, “knock-knees”) zaps jump potential and predisposes athletes to knee injuries. Your hips and the sides of your butt are what predominantly help prevent valgus collapse from happening and, from what I’ve seen, lateral hip work (e.g., hip abduction and external rotation) is vastly underrepresented in most strength programming. If you want to jump higher and stay healthy, start by strengthening your hips.
Generally speaking, however, most volleyball players are fairly skilled jumpers. While gains can be made perfecting your jump mechanics, I am of the opinion that, in terms of “bang for your buck,” it offers the least amount of return on investment. I’d rather see you in the gym.
GETTING STRONGER and/or GETTING FASTER
To fully understand this part, we first need to explore the concept of “power.”
In essence, power is a measure of how quickly an athlete can express force (or strength). The more powerful you are, the higher you jump. And, given that power is quite literally the product of strength and speed, we can increase it by becoming stronger or by increasing the rate at which we develop force (which, to keep things simple, from here on I am going to refer to “rate of force development” as RFD).
So, what exactly is RFD? Well, simply put, it’s how quickly you can recruit the strength that you currently possess. In a vertical jump, you have about 0.2-0.3 seconds to apply force. The more muscles you can activate in that tiny amount of time, the higher you will jump. Imagine there were two volleyball players of identical height and weight who could both squat 185lbs for three reps. Girl A can jump 22” but Girl B can only jump 19”. We can deduce that Girl A has a higher RFD because she is able to exert a higher percentage of her strength than Girl B, in an equal amount of time.
Making sense? Ok, so then how do we increase our RFD?
Increasing RFD is all about teaching your body to use a maximum percentage of its total strength in as little time as possible. This is most commonly accomplished using a specific group of exercises called “plyometrics.”
SIDE NOTE: You may have heard programs like P90X or Insanity referred to as “plyometrics.” They’re not.
Most plyometric exercises typically attempt to take advantage of a muscle property called the “stretch shortening cycle” (SSC) to help teach maximum force output in minimal time. For simplicity’s sake, you can just think of the SSC as the rubber band-like nature of your muscles. If you stretch a muscle out by adding a load to it, it’s going to want to “snap back” to its original length.
A good example of a plyometric exercise is the “depth jump.” In a depth jump, the athlete starts by standing on a box (typically 12”-36” tall) and then steps off of the box, lands on the ground with two feet, and immediately tries to jump as high as possible. The goal of a depth jump is to maximize jump height with minimal ground contact time. During the depth jump, the athlete’s muscles are loaded and stretched upon landing via the downward acceleration gained during their fall from the box (taller box = higher load), and then they “snap back” as the athlete jumps into the air.
At Warbird Academy, we also like to use dynamic resistance exercises like band and chain squats (or deadlifts) to improve RFD. In these types of exercises, implements like elastic bands and chains are used to load the bar and vary the resistance throughout the duration of the lift. For example, in a chain squat, chains hang from the barbell and accumulate on the ground as the athlete squats down. This lightens the load as the athlete descends which allows them to explode up quickly out of the bottom of the squat. Then, the resistance increases as they rise out of the bottom of the squat and the chains are picked back up off of the floor.
Chain Squat: chains off the ground = heavy (left), chains on the ground = light (right)
But, while increasing RFD is great, there’s a bit of a catch. You can only get so fast and increasing RFD is really only effective if you have enough force (or, strength) to apply in the first place. To understand this, let’s make an analogy. Who doesn’t love analogies?
Imagine you are trying to dig a hole. It has to be a big hole and you have to dig it as fast as you can. The problem? All you have is a spoon. Now, increasing your RFD will help you dig faster but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how fast you dig if you’re using a stupid spoon. Increasing strength, however, can make your spoon bigger and, eventually, can turn your spoon into a shovel. Then, after you have a shovel, you can learn to use it faster and faster (RFD) and – voila! – you’re a professional hole digger.
In my experience, most volleyball players do not possess the amount of strength necessary to warrant a high volume of plyometric work (i.e., too many spoons, not enough shovels). It’s generally accepted that, before an athlete should begin a plyometric-focused exercise protocol, they should be able to squat 1.5x their bodyweight. That is, if you weigh 130lbs, you should be able to squat 195lbs. While I am not touting that theory as law, its underlying principle is valid: strength is the primary foundation for all plyometric work.
Given that very few, if any, of the volleyball players we see can even put their bodyweight on a bar and squat it to depth when they first come to us, building strength needs to be priority number one for most, if not all, young volleyball players.
Also, consider this:
In a typical week, a high school club volleyball player spends about 9-12 hours at volleyball practice (minimum) and about 3-4 hours in the gym (maximum). What are they doing at practice? Jumping. Cutting. Sprinting. Diving. In other words, they’re essentially performing sport-specific plyometrics! So, when they come to work out, the return they’re going see on additional plyometric programming is going to be minimal (not to mention the unwanted joint stress and neurological stress it adds).
Instead, they should be building a foundation of strength, getting as strong as possible in the gym and learning to apply their newly gained strength on the court at volleyball practice.
At Warbird, it is very common for volleyball players coming to us for the first time to gain two inches on their verticals in the first month, not from any wizardry on our part, but because they learn to safely lift heavy and, in the process, tap into previously unrealized strength potential. Their bodies (and predominantly their brains) are forced to activate previously dormant strength reserves to adapt to these new, heavier loads. These players then head to the court to learn to use their newly activated muscles explosively.
“LUCAS, THIS IS GREAT, BUT SHUT UP AND TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”
OKAY! So, as I said earlier, the theory behind jump training isn’t too complicated – it’s the application that can get a little hairy. As you are looking into starting a strength program, or re-evaluating the one you are currently on, here is a list of things that I believe every effective strength program should provide.
1. Attention to – and care for – injuries, chronic pain, or preexisting conditions of any type.
A strength program should make you stronger and healthier, not put you in more pain. After getting cleared by your doctor or physical therapist to start a strength program, your next step should be to find someone who can write an individualized program for you – if one is needed. Do you have scoliosis? You probably shouldn’t load your spine with 185lbs of metal. Does your shoulder feel like it’s getting stabbed with hot scissors after practice? Let’s not do push press for four sets of ten the next day. A good strength coach should be able to build you up by addressing weak areas, not break you down by ignoring them or forcing you to work through pain.
2. Appropriate volume and intensity based on your volleyball schedule.
I have long postulated that high school club volleyball players have the most rigorous schedule of any athlete when you take into account demand (i.e., constant max effort jumping and swinging) and volume (i.e., utter lack of a true “off-season”). Yes, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and football are all demanding sports but those athletes get extended off-seasons to rest. Volleyball players do not.
To put this into perspective, our high school volleyball players typically start open gym workouts for school in early August. Competitive play starts in late August and, depending on their playoff run, can last into the second week of November. Then, workouts for club begin in mid-November with tournaments starting in January and continuing through mid-to-late June. If you’re following along, that leaves about 4-5 weeks a year for down time (oh, and by the way, I’m ignoring the fact that most players will continue with open gym workouts through July).
Because of this insane schedule, a strength coach has to be very strategic about when and how much to push their volleyball athletes. Do you have a big match this Friday? Is a college coach coming to watch you play? Then, you need to be in peak, rested condition. This means Thursday’s workout shouldn’t include back squat for four sets of ten at max effort. A good strength program fosters gains while, at the same time, avoids negatively affecting your play on the court.
3. Time spent learning to lift heavy things.
If you are healthy and able, you need to move heavy things around. Treadmills, circuits, stability balls, resistance bands – they all have their place but if you’re ever going to be an explosive athlete, you need to be able to safely handle heavy weight. This means squatting, deadlifting, heavy sled work, farmers carries, etc. As I said before, if you are a healthy athlete and you can’t, at the very least, put your bodyweight on a barbell and squat it to depth with a neutral spine and safe knee tracking (i.e., no valgus), you must get stronger. Any quality strength program will incorporate the lifts I listed above (or some variation) to some degree.
SIDE NOTE: “Lucas, all this talk of power and strength development yet you haven’t mentioned Olympic lifts once. What gives?”
Olympic lifts, but specifically the clean and its variations (e.g., power clean, hang clean, clean pulls, etc.) are great for developing power (I feel that snatches and jerks are less advisable for volleyball players given the overhead component). However, I believe an athlete must be able to demonstrate two things before learning to clean:
a. A prerequisite level of strength. For me, this is the ability to perform at least three perfect squat reps with their bodyweight on the bar.
b. The athleticism and coordination necessary to perform the lift with exquisite form. This is ambiguously subjective, I know, but cleans are tough to learn and perform correctly and, done incorrectly, cleans can lead to serious injury. Unless I have an athlete that “gets it” and can learn the lift quickly, I am going to choose other training modalities. I just don’t have the time to spend multiple training sessions teaching proper clean form, especially when I may only see a volleyball player twice in a week.
The only exception to these rules is if I have a high school senior on their way to college and I know their college strength coach expects them to be able to clean, in which case I will teach them the lift so they are comfortable with it before showing up to campus. Digression over.
4. Development of your body’s support and shock absorption systems.
As Spider-Man’s uncle once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” High power athletes are the most likely to injure themselves (or, as my business partner Dan likes to say, “slow people don’t tear their hamstrings”). The stronger and more powerful you become, the higher you jump and the harder you swing (yay!). But, the higher you jump, the more dangerous your landings become and the harder you swing, the more violent your impact with the volleyball gets (rats!). Yes, squats, deadlifts, hamstring curls, knee extensions – they’re all great – but a good strength program will also address your hips, rotator cuff, core, back, ankles, butt, etc. to help develop a beefier shock absorption system and protect your joints. A good strength coach’s primary motivation is always injury prevention. Strength/power development come second.
In summary, if you want to jump higher, you need to get stronger. This starts with finding someone you trust to teach you to lift heavy and tailor a program to fit your unique needs as a player.
Good luck and thanks for reading!