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jump squats for performance enhancement

How To Use Weighted Jumps To Build Power & Explosiveness

by Alec Enkiri | 9/10/19

Introduction

In my last article we went quite in depth on the vast utility and benefits of the snatch grip high pull for power development. This time, continuing down that same path I want to cover another exercise that's fantastic in this regard, the performance enhancing cousin to the Olympic lifts, and that is the jump squat, aka the weighted jump. While the Olympic lifts and their variations play a crucial and specific role in improving power production, they are not a complete solution by themselves and by their very nature simply cannot satisfy all of the requirements necessary for maximizing power development.

The Force-Velocity Curve

If we look at the force-velocity curve we can see that there are several key strength qualities that need to be honed in on in order to maximize power development. It's important to note that in order to maximize power all the points along the curve must be trained and cultivated at some point or another. The Olympic lifts and their variations generally hang out somewhere between power & strength-speed, depending on the load being used. You can't really work speed-strength with these exercises because eventually the bar just becomes too light to be meaningful. When you power clean or snatch a weight that is simply not at all challenging for you it's like trying to throw a wiffle ball as hard as possible. Nothing really happens. A certain amount of weight is required to elicit the training effect and that certain amount of weight necessarily pushes these exercises farther up the continuum. A jump squat on the other hand is a ballistic exercise, and your body is the projectile. Because of the ballistic nature we are able to use very light loads and generate more speed against the resistance, which in this case is still primarily composed of our own body weight, without losing the training effect but rather simply altering it. This higher speed of movement against a lesser total resistance puts the exercise closer to the speed-strength side of the continuum, making it a perfect complement to the Olympic lift variations I discussed in my previous article.

Velocity of movement is depicted on the X axis and force is depicted on the Y axis. Along the curve exists all the different physical qualities that must be developed in order to improve power performance. The graph itself shows us that each different physical quality that must be trained requires its own unique blend of both speed and strength in order for that characteristic to be displayed and improved most optimally.

Now as a bonus, unlike with the Olympic lifts, you can actually tinker with where this exercise falls on the continuum by experimenting with the load, with heavier jumps leaning closer to strength-speed and lighter jumps leaning closer to speed-strength. This fact, combined with its basically non-existent learning curve, actually make the jump squat a bit more versatile than the Olympic lifts overall in regards to power development. You could even make the argument that if someone didn't want to bother with learning the Olympic lifts or if someone was trying to improve power output for a specific endeavor like powerlifting, that it would actually be practical to ignore the Olympic lifts altogether and focus solely on jump squats of varying loads to satisfy the multiple strength requirements across the entire strength-speed continuum.

This would be a valid argument and could certainly be made to be a very effective approach in practice as well. The triple extension of the hips, knees, and ankles that is present during a jump squat is similar to the triple extension that is present during the 2nd pull of an Olympic lift so if the load is matched to make the former equivalent to the latter a similar, but not identical, training effect can be achieved. There are pros and cons to both methods so the route you choose should consider all the factors related to the particular situation, however, in my experience, in terms of total power development for overall performance enhancement the absolute best results are achieved when an Olympic lift variation is used to satisfy the strength-speed requirement and a lighter jump squat is used to satisfy the speed-strength requirement.

Thus, the majority of the time I recommend performing very light jump squats, rather than trying to go "heavy" here. Another reason for this is because it's difficult to hold yourself accountable with this exercise to begin with, especially if you train by yourself. If you go too heavy on a power clean you just miss the lift, but on the jump squat there is no "missing" the lift (unless you somehow put so much weight on the bar that you couldn't even get off the ground at all, but that would require a next level amount of delusion) because all you're trying to do is jump anyway. We've all seen videos of people "jump squatting" 315lbs or even 405lbs, but the people who do this are only getting a few inches off the ground and are in reality probably just causing undue joint stress from leaving the ground at all with that kind of weight on their back and would actually likely get the exact same training effect by just doing speed squats against bands only without the unnecessary joint stress. So without that level of accountability it can be easy to trick yourself into thinking you're putting in quality reps with a certain weight when in reality you're only getting off the ground by a few inches and aren't actually training the physical quality that you thought you were training or that you were supposed to be training. So it's generally safer to err on the side of lighter with these rather than heavier.

Loading Recommendations

How light you go is going to depend on the athlete, but as a general rule of thumb I like to start people off using a load that is equal to just around 10% of their max high bar squat. That means if you squat 300lbs you would perform your weighted jumps using just an additional 30lbs. Using myself as an example, my best squat is 530lbs and I do most of my weighted jumps using anywhere from 50lbs on the low end up to 80lbs on the high end and everything in between. That means I use weights that are between 10-15% of my max squat pretty much exclusively, but going up to 20% or even 30% can also be acceptable depending on the goals and circumstances. The most important thing, however, is just to let jump height be your guide. If you find that you can jump basically the same height with 15% of your squat as you can with 20% of your squat then it would behoove you to increase the weight a little bit.

However, it's very important to be honest with yourself and hold yourself accountable. It doesn't take very much additional weight to turn this exercise from snappy and powerful into cumbersome and slow, and it's very easy to trick yourself into thinking you haven't lost jump height when in reality you may only be jumping half as high as you just were. Because of this I recommend tracking all of your jump squats by filming yourself. Place markers every 2-3 inches on the wall next to you, then set the camera up a little below hip height and jump as high as you can. This isn't a perfect method, but if you use the same measuring conditions each time then it's going to provide you with the data you need to make your decisions regarding the weight. If over time you are able to add some weight and the video shows that you are maintaining the same jump height as you were with a lighter weight weeks before, then congratulations! You are now more powerful than you used to be.

Wall markers can be used to get a rough idea of jump height. Keep your legs straight when you reach the peak of your jump and measure from the heels.

General Guidelines For Performance

As for actually performing the exercise, I recommend using an adjustable weight vest if you have access to one. This is the preferred method as it allows you to maintain the most natural vertical jump. However, most people, myself included, don't have access to an adjustable weighted vest so in this case it's best to use a pair of dumbbells held locked in at the sides. I find that using a barbell alters the torso angle that you achieve during the descent of the weighted jump vs. a regular vertical jump and in my opinion this is not optimal. The dumbbells don't have this problem so it makes them a better choice. You can perform jump squats anywhere from 1 to 3 times a week. I find that 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps with 2-4 minutes rest between sets works well for most situations. The exercise is not very stressful when done with the weights I recommend and so doing a quick maintenance session each week for most of the year is a good way to ensure that you always possess at least a baseline level of power.

Weighted Jump Demonstration. Pretty straightforward.

When you want to increase that baseline you can increase the frequency and thus the volume and tinker with the loading protocols a little bit more as well. Most people are overly eager to increase the weight, but unlike maximal strength, power is not a readily adaptable physical quality. It takes time and patience to develop. I find that using the same weight for weeks at a time (4-6 weeks) can actually be very beneficial and this is how I do most of my own training cycles with this exercise. For example, looking at my training log, the last time I focused on the jump squat I was performing the exercise just once a week for 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps per session. I started off with 50 pounds (25lbs per hand) and I used this weight for 6 weeks. In the 7th week I increased the weight to 60lbs, which I stuck with for 7 more weeks. At this point I increased the weight to 70lbs and I used 70lbs for a few more sessions before taking a break from the exercise.

With the slow increase my body had plenty of time to adapt to the stimulus and increase my power production capability and by the end of the cycle I was able to jump nearly as high with 70lbs in my hands as I was jumping with 50lbs at the beginning of the cycle when I first started. This may sound trivial, but it's actually quite significant. if you gained 20 pounds of pure body fat overnight your vertical jump decrease quite significantly, so to "gain 20 pounds" and maintain the same jump height is a pretty big deal. This should be your goal as it means you are now producing more power than you were previously.

Another option if you are a bit shorter on time and need to peak your power quickly is to do a wave loading protocol. In this case you would want to train the exercise 2 or even 3 times per week, keeping the training weight constant during the week. There are many ways to set it up, but my one of my favorite ways goes something like this:

  • Week 1: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 10% squat 1RM
  • Week 2: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 10% squat 1RM
  • Week 3: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 15% squat 1RM
  • Week 4: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 15% squat 1RM
  • Week 5: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 20% squat 1RM
  • Week 6: 4-6 x 4-6 @ 20% squat 1RM

You would then repeat the same loading wave one more time for weeks 7-12.

The first method is better for creating long term, stable gains in power, whereas the second method is probably better for creating a quick peak when needed. I prefer the first method, but it requires more patience and more time, and sometimes people have deadlines or temperaments that won't allow for it. In either case, remember to let jump height be your ultimate guide. If adding 10 pounds to the movement decreases your jumps by 8 inches, then that is a disproportionate decrease and it's not one that is gong to pay off. You would be better off sticking with the lighter weight in this example even if the progression schedule says you should increase the load. My general rule of thumb is to maintain a minimum of 60-70% of your unloaded standing vertical jump height when you do your weighted jumps. That means if you have a 30 inch standing vertical jump, you should make sure your starting weight for your weighted jumps doesn't decrease your jump height below 21 inches (70% of 30 inches). As I mentioned earlier, for most people this weight will fall between 10-20% of their max squat, but it could potentially be even lower for some people. And then as the training cycle progresses and you add more weight to your jumps you should make sure that your jump height never drops below 18 inches (60% of 30 inches).

Conclusion

I have found these guidelines to be both simple and effective. The most important parts are to pick the right starting load, be smart about your weight increases, and always give every jump 100% effort. Obviously, this exercise just forms one part of a comprehensive plan for maximizing power development or vertical jumping ability, but it's an important part and I think these guidelines merited being discussed as this isn't really an exercise that I see talked about very often, and when I do see it being done it's usually being botched in some way or another.

So I hope you enjoyed the information and I hope you're able to make use of it in some way in your own training or just put it in your back pocket for use at some point down the road. If you're interested in a comprehensive power development and vertical jump training program feel free to check out my 20 Week Vertical Jump Specialization Program & Manual. The program includes jump squats, a little bit of Olympic lifting, as well as a few plyometrics, and the manual portion explains some of the science behind developing power. It's a fun and effective program that's full of great information on the subject that I'm most passionate about. See you guys next time!

Legs built by jump squats!

...just kidding

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