By: John Evans MS
There seems to be a disconnect between basketball, dunking, and track and field. All three of these sports involve jumping insanely high, but by my observations, the way in which we approach training each of them is vastly different. In basketball, the best guys seem very disinterested with the weight room. They seem to go out, practice basketball, maybe do a few accessory exercises, but largely just don’t train hard outside of basketball. They don’t really seem to push the weights in any movement and appear to have really poor weight room technique, even when adjusted for their height. On the other hand, we have track and field athletes who appear to vary massively in what they do, but appear to train quite hard. They perform plyometrics, weightlifting movements, medicine ball training, sprinting, and are super meticulous with the their technical training. Lastly, dunking athletes seem to do a mix of both. They lift, sprint, and jump a lot to improve their leaping ability.
All of these athletes appear to need the same things, yet we see them approach training very differently? The best basketball players, high jumpers, and dunkers all appear to need to be able to produce a lot of force very quickly in the correct direction. So why does there seem to be such a discrepancy in how we should train each of these athletes? What is the best way to improve overall athleticism and jumping ability?
Well, as it pertains to basketball, the sport isn’t really about dunking. Basketball places a massive emphasis on skill. You can take the most explosive, powerful athlete on the planet, have him play Steph Curry, and I can promise you he is going to get absolutely dusted. In other words, being able to play basketball is much more important than being a freak athlete. Obviously the better athlete has a higher ceiling on what they are able to do in regards to skill, but at the end of the day, being able to dunk doesn’t mean you can play in the NBA; otherwise I think Jonathan would probably be playing for his favorite team right now. That said, athleticism can make up for what a lot of athletes lack in skill.
In regards to high jump and dunking, there really isn’t a big difference between the two. Being able to dunk well means you have to be tall, be able to jump really high, and have good technique. High jumping well also requires the athlete to be tall, be able to jump really high, and have good technique. So, at the end of the day, why is there a massive discrepancy between the way that high jumpers and dunker train? Should there be? How does this differ from basketball?
ANNUAL PLANNING AND THE COMPETITIVE SEASON
In short, annual planning is how we organize training throughout the year. Most sports are beholding to a 365 day cycle. The season starts and ends around the same time every year. This has resulted in training being catered to a certain time of year. For example, in track, there are few major competitions during the summer. The athlete knows that he or she must train a certain way three months, two months, and one month out from this major competition. This allows the athlete to ensure that he or she is able to maximize every area of training, resulting in the best performance at the right time.
In contrast, basketball players in the NBA compete in 82 competitions across 180 days, of which all are important. Similarly, in D1 NCAA basketball, athletes compete in 34-40 games across 146 days. Because of the long season, a basketball player can’t afford to maximize training for a few major competitions, especially because their sport isn’t only about being athletic. Further, a basketball player is practicing for basketball year round, and as a result is accumulating a great deal of contacts without additional training.
Lastly, we have the relatively young sport of dunking. The athletes in this sport don’t really have a defined season. There is no governing body, and there doesn’t appear to be a formalized championship. As a consequence, there is really no order or system to the sport or the training. Further, there really isn’t training groups, coaches, or practices for the sport. Most athletes in the sport look at a few world class dunkers and mimic what they are doing in their training, or cherry pick from a bunch of different athletes and figure out what works for them. This is a double edged sword; on one hand, we have new training methodologies being tested all the time. On the other hand, we have athletes dictating training without any formal education on the topic. Considering how young the sport is, there has to be a better way to train for it.
Now that we understand how the competitive season can impact an athletes training, we can really dive into the best ways to train for each sport. Basic periodization principles can be applied to jump training in all three sports. Of the three, track and field has the most systematic, sound, and intelligent training plans for jumping high. This is based on the fact that they have much fewer extraneous variables conflicting with their training. Further, the sport has been around for a long time, and as a result there is a ton of objective evidence that we can pull from to help guide training. In other words, your best dunk coach is going to be the world’s top track coaches. When a whole sport is defined by jumping high and been studied extensively for years, you can be certain that the training means and methods are light years ahead of other sports.
The issue with basketball players sticking to this type of training is explained above, and for this reason it is VERY difficult for basketball players to increase their physical capacity due to the long seasons. Most of their time would probably be better spent recovering and watching film. Further, a lot of basketball players don’t even have a formal off-season where they can properly train because they are still playing basketball 2-3 hours day. There is only so much adaptive reserve for the human body, and playing basketball that often is certainly going to impact adaptation. In other words, to get more athletic in basketball, there has to be a dedicated period to training. It isn’t best to play basketball and try to get more athletic; there just isn’t enough time. The real question is this: Can basketball players refrain from playing much basketball for 6-9 weeks of the year?
In regards to dunking, the majority of athletes are not beholding to a competitive season, meaning they can train as much as they want. They don’t have to back off of training for a big meet or competition. The bigger issue with dunkers is that they don’t know how to not dunk for a period of time. Track athletes have periods of the year where they don’t do their event at all. This could last upwards of 3 months for some athletes. But dunkers don’t have competitions; their competitions are outside every other day trying to hit a new dunk. Essentially, they are competing 3 times a week for the majority of the year or until they get hurt. Dunking is incredibly addicting, so guys just go out and jump 50 times a day without considering how that may impact their bodies. Every time they jump and land, there is a massive load placed on the body. In Russia during the 1960s, these landings were formally labelled, quantified, and implemented in something known as “shock training”. Russian scientists further solidified this training method by quantifying exactly how much volume the majority of their athletes could handle in a 3 week period.
Obviously planning training is important, so lets dive into a list of the major mistakes that athletes make when trying to jump higher.
7 PLANNING PITFALLS
Pitfall 1: Too little or too much variety
Alluded to above, commonly I will see athletes never repeat a training stimulus. Repetition is how the neurons in the human body are able to strengthen neural pathways. This repetition improves coordination and allows the athlete to continue to improve, as the majority of these stimuli are not maximally adapted to. After a given duration, certain stimuli may become stale and this when variation needs to be introduced to spur on further adaptation.
Pitfall 2: No logical progression
In scenarios related to dunking and basketball, rarely if ever is there a logical training progression. The majority of the time the athlete is attempting to max out every single day in one quality or another. The issue with this is that there is nothing to build off of. There is not previous adaptive reserve created for the subsequent training focus. In other words, how are you going to increase your max strength if you haven’t changed the ratio of cross sectional area in your muscle fibers? How are you going to be come more powerful if you don’t have the capacity to recruit more motor units? How are you going to jump higher without being more powerful?
Pitfall 3: Missing training pieces
Jumping is a blend of many qualities and missing certain qualities can result in missing out on the potential to jump higher than you ever have. It isn’t just strength. It isn’t just technique. It isn’t just power. If all of your training focuses on one quality without considering what that quality needs to build off of, it is going to be very difficult to improve. Every training stimulus has a purpose, and identifying why and when that training stimulus is applied is crucial to long term adaptations.
Pitfall 4: Jumping too often
The best way too get better at something is to do it a lot. The issue with this is that jumping is one of the most intense activities that you can perform, and as a result there has to be a great deal of preparation to ensure the athlete won’t be injured. Also, many athletes don’t understand that their tendons may be moving towards pathology even if they aren’t feeling pain during jumping. However, eventually, if endless jumping is sustained for long enough, their tendons and soft tissue will begin to break down. It doesn’t matter who you are, your tissue does have a limit.
Pitfall 5: No patience
Your vertical may fall for short periods of time. This is normal. Typically, athletes see the clusters of their performances get better and better and have a few great days in between. If the athlete expects to get infinitely better ever time they train, they are have a skewed perspective of reality. The majority of the time, athletes will get better just because of growth and development. These adaptations are much more permanent and their vertical won’t dip down to pre-pubescent levels. To increase the adaptive reserve like puberty did for some athletes, there has to be similar physiological changes to the nervous system, musculature, and soft tissue. These adaptations take time.
Pitfall 6: There is no plan
The worst training plan is having no training plan at all. Athletes that do not abide to a training plan find themselves constantly varying there training with no rhyme or reason. As a result, nothing gets accomplished, and the athlete doesn’t adapt to anything. This is incredibly common in dunking where athletes find themselves trying the new fad exercise that claims to give them a 50 inch vertical in a matter of days. This isn’t reality. Organized training allows the individual to take advantage of progressive overload, and varying training too often results in no real progression, as the training stimulus isn’t repeated often enough to induce stress that will result in adaptation to the nervous system, musculature, or tendons.
Similarly basketball players will use the excuse that their season is much too long, and therefore they can’t afford to be following any sort of plan. While this is true to a certain extent, the athlete must be aware of the training volume they have accumulated in practice and try to make decisions based on how they feel.
Pitfall 7: Your basketball coach
While this may sound counter-intuitive, your coach doesn’t really care about your athleticism if it doesn’t help you win games. Unfortunately, as the athlete, you don’t know what your coach has planned before practice. This is obviously variable depending on the coach, but typically the coach doesn’t have any formal education when it comes to sport science, physiology, or biomechanics. As a result, your training is at the mercy of your coaches decision. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much you can do as an athlete to impact this. If you dog it in practice to train later on, you might get pulled from the starting line up. But if you decide to go as hard as possible every practice, you might end up competing poorly because your body is depleted from your hard practices.
By: John Evans MS
It is extremely common for me to read content that makes assumptions either biased in experience, or sometimes even science, without looking at a variety of confounding factors. A good example of this is when individuals discuss the stretch-shortening cycle in the context of jump training. Many times scientists or coaches assume that they understand it perfectly because they have read a published article on the internet or in a published journal. Understand this: the stretch-shortening cycle is complex. It isn’t as easy as, “Here is a rubber band and this is what happens in the muscles and why you need to move fast.” This sort of misinformation is not helpful, and does not serve to build up the coaching community because it is a gross oversimplification of what is ACTUALLY happening during any athletic movement.
The stretch-shortening cycle is a physiological process that occurs when an individual goes through a lengthening and subsequent shortening of a musculotendinous unit(10). In other words, the tendon and muscle are stretched while lowering, and shortened on the way up, typically resulting in more force than would have been generated without the former(11). For example, an athlete performing a standing jump will jump higher if they perform a quick downward action. Commonly coaches will use this as an assessment of an athlete’s ability to utilize the stretch-shortening cycle, or to assess whether they have some sort of strength deficit that needs to be addressed. That said, this is not limited to jumping. The stretch-shortening cycle happens in most any athletic movement, and can explain some of the variation between sub-elite athletes and the truly elite(7).
Summary: The stretch-shortening cycle is when a muscle and tendon are stretched and shortened quickly, resulting in an increase in performance through the stretch reflex, muscle contraction, and tendons.
THE STRETCH REFLEX
The stretch reflex is a reflex that occurs in muscles when tiny sensory organs called Myotatic spindles are stretched very quickly resulting in an increase in muscle activation(15). That said, it is extremely important to also consider that an aggressive stretch stimulates another sensory organ, the Golgi tendon organ(21). This sensory organ functions to inhibit the muscle from contracting when it senses high tension. These two reflexes can combat each other, but in highly trained individuals the Golgi tendon organ can actually function to inhibit the antagonist through reciprocal inhibition(21). In other words, instead of relaxing the muscles you want to be active, it relaxes the muscles that need to be passive, which improves your force output(1,18–20).
Summary: The stretch reflex is one component of the stretch-shortening cycle and increases the force a muscle produces following a quick stretch. The muscle may have a lower output due to the influence of the Golgi tendon organ in untrained individuals.
Although stretching a muscle quickly can result in a greater muscular contraction, volitionally trying to contract the muscle is important to maximize the force output(1,4,8,14). If the athlete doesn’t attempt to contract their muscles forcefully, the movement will not be optimized, as the neurons controlling muscular contraction will not be stimulated. Connecting the dots in a movement takes time, but being able to contract muscles at the time is major contributor to athletic success(6). As it pertains to the stretch-shortening cycle, the athlete must practice the skill they want to improve. There must be an active and volitional choice to apply effort at the correct time, ultimately yielding increased output during any stretch-shortening cycle(7). This is explained by the increased the release of excitatory neurotransmitters, the release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, and the rate of cross-bridging between myosin and actin(14). Ultimately this process is mediated by the neurons, which are controlled by the peripheral and central nervous system(15).
Summary: Optimizing the stretch-shortening cycle involves the voluntary choice to contract muscles at the correct time.
ENERGY STORAGE AND RELEASE
Lastly, the stretch-shortening cycle is characterized by the storage and release of energy from the tendon(3,9,12,16). This process can yield a great deal of kinetic energy that serves to increase the net impulse the athlete is able to generate. Tendons are viscoelastic, meaning it can change stiffness depending on the tension within the muscle(13). They are a stiffer spring when there is more tension within the muscle, and a softer spring at rest.
Because of this property, the tendon’s elastic return is highly variable(13,17). It is the result of distance the tendon is stretched at a given stiffness(17). The more the tendon is stretched at a greater stiffness, the more energy will be returned(13,17). This is relatively complex, but as the muscle contracts, it stiffens the tendon. When an athlete’s foot is contacting the ground, this contact results in the muscle producing force(2). Because the muscle is attached the tendon, the tendon stiffens in conjunction with the amount of force produced in the muscle. In sprinting, as the athlete reaches the amortization period during contact, the forces are typically very high inside of the muscle(5). During this portion of the leg cycle, it is possible for the muscle to stay the same length, and the tendon to lengthen and consequently shorten(16). In other words, the muscle is staying the same length while the tendon is able to release energy in proportion to the stiffness and length of the tendon. This process likely is not isolated to the amortization phase, but does help illustrate the importance of the tendons in athletic movements.
Summary: The tendon is able to store and release energy in proportion to the stiffness and length of stretch.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 1
“The stretch-shortening cycle only occurs in the legs during a counter movement jump or depth drop.”
The stretch-shortening cycle occurs all throughout the body. Any time an athlete stretches a muscle very quickly, followed by an aggressive shortening of the muscle, a stretch-shortening cycle occurs.
Here are a few examples:
1. The oblique, abdomen, and shoulder when striking a golf ball
2. The calf when contacting the ground in a sprint
3. The rotator cuff while throwing a baseball
4. The abdomen during a tuck in a backflip
5. The lateral hip when cutting in football
Specifically to jumping, it occurs sequentially as stated below:
1. In the hip flexor and shoulder flexors during the push from the penultimate step into plant
2. In the plant leg hamstring as it is repositioned in front of the body
3. In the knee extensors, plantar flexors, hip extensors, and truck extensors as the athlete begins to jump upwards
This is not an exhaustive list, but does help to illustrate the importance of musculature that oftentimes ignored. Because the stretch-shortening cycle is occurring to some degree at almost every phase of the jump, a strong argument can be made for incorporating specificity into the training plan, as well as developing general coordination throughout the entire body.
Summary: The stretch-shortening cycle occurs throughout the entire body during an athletic movement.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 2:
“The stretch reflex is the stretch-shortening cycle.”
The stretch reflex is a piece of the stretch-shortening cycle, but it is not explain the entire cycle. The stretch reflex is a reflex that can assist in the improvement of performance. It is highly sensitive to fatigue, and not limited to a given time frame. There are different latencies periods for a stretch-shortening cycle. In other words, the reflex may be stimulated by a muscular stretch, but there is a delay between the stretch and subsequent increase in contractile force. This is likely related to the electromechanical delay. There are short, medium, and long latency stretch reflexes. An athlete will improve their stretch-shortening cycle if they are able to utilize the stretch reflex that occurs within the time domain of that movement. Jumping involves around between 500-150ms, a massive time range, meaning there is potentially a lot of time to illicit a strong stretch reflex.
Summary: The stretch reflex is one component of the stretch-shortening cycle.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 3:
“The stretch-shortening cycle is a muscular process.”
The stretch-shortening cycle is not isolated to just the muscles. It involves the nervous system because of the stretch reflex, the tendon storing and releasing energy, and the muscles volitionally contracting to maximize force. The stretch-shortening cycle explains the culmination of a series of events that occurring throughout the body during an athletic movement. Great leapers have a perfect storm: high motor unit recruitment, low neural inhibition and stiff tendons.
Summary: The stretch-shortening cycle is multi-factorial.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 4:
“The stretch-shortening cycle only occurs when tissue is passively stretched aggressive or vice versa.”
The stretch-shortening cycle isn’t simple. Because there are a variety of factors that influence the stretch reflex, tendon stiffness, and contractile velocity, the stretch-shortening cycle can occur across a continuum. For faster, larger, aggressive stretches where muscle tissue is not fatigued, there appears to be a greater increase in the resulting force of that tissue. Stretch-shortening cycles can occur during passive and active stretches to a greater or lesser degree. Many times jumpers are able to utilize the stretch-shortening cycle on every step leading up to a jump even though they may not be applying maximum effort.
Summary: The stretch-shortening cycle occurs across a continuum.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 5:“A shorter, faster stretch is always better at eliciting a greater impulse.”
While it is tempting to assume that a shorter, faster stretch is better, and in isolated situations this may be the case, one must consider the impact that impulse has on an athlete’s performance. If an athlete such as a pitcher or golfer were to shorten their movement into the shortest most aggressive movement, it would look like throwing a dart or an aggressive putt. Obviously these athletes are benefiting from a large range of motion, as it allows them to generate force in line with the force-velocity curve. That said, these athletes do perform a stretch-shortening cycle very fast, but within the context of the movement they are performing. Specific to the examples above, a golfer achieves the greatest amount of stretch in the torso at the end of the swing, and a pitcher when the shoulder is in the greatest amount of external rotation. Jumpers benefit from a deeper squat and a long push into the plant for this exact reason. The triple extensors are able to generate for over a long time if the athlete is able to get into and out of a deep knee position quickly.
Summary: A long and fast stretch may be most beneficial for performance when the event is not constrained by time.
MISCONCEPTION NUMBER 6:“The stretch-shortening cycle happens all at once”
Similar to the idea that the stretch-shortening cycle is only relevant at the knee and ankle, one must be careful not to assume that the stretch-shortening cycle occurs at one instant. Movement is dynamic. It isn’t as a bow firing an arrow. The body is constantly changing position as different segments move into position at different times. For example, as the athlete plants the foot, the jumper experiences a stretch-shortening cycle in the hip extensors, then the knee extensors, followed by the plantar flexors. Some stretch-shortening cycles are longer and others are shorter, but the result is typically a well-timed summation of forces. As a rule of thumb, many stretch-shortening cycles begin at the most proximal joint, and finish with the most distal; however there is a lot of synchronization that occurs between the limbs.
Summary: The stretch-shortening cycle in athletic movements typically involves segmentation and synchronization of proximal to distal limbs.
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