Why improving your Vertical Jump Doesn’t improve your Dunk


There are tons of misconceptions in the athletic world but one of the one’s that really bugs me is all the hype around improving your standing vertical jump and how you will then be able to throw down all sorts of dunks on your opponent. A long time friend of mine has been searching for this very thing. In a recent conversation with him on the phone he said, “I just want to be able to dunk on people all day long.” Who wouldn’t want that? The glory of all of your teammates jaws dropping as you trot back to defense with a big smile on your face. My friend went on to tell me that he is on his 4th dunk/vertical jump program that is designed to improve your vert by 10 inches in 8 weeks and have you dunking in no time, or something of that nature. He has failed time and time again with these various programs and I am sure there are plenty of suckers out there who fall for these gimmicks as well. I want to explain to you why they fail and also how I would set up a program if the sole purpose was for me to train myself or someone else to dunk a basketball. When we look at the vast majority of people out there who are attempting to dunk a basketball, chances are they are trying to do so with a running start. It is for this reason that when I refer to the dunk I will refer to it from a running start. If you are a far cry away from being able to dunk a basketball just standing there, then chances are it will take a lot of time to train you in order to be able to do so, or it just won’t happen unless you work on a running start.

The first and most important difference between a vertical jump vs. running up and dunking a basketball is that they are entirely different skills. One involves a static start and mainly vertical movement, while the other skill involves horizontal and vertical planes of motion and is very dynamic in nature. The standing vertical jump is done with two legs while the dunk is usually done off of one leg. If we also looked at ground contact times of both skills we would see that they are much different as well.
When I asked my friend if the current “dunking program” he was on had them do any actual dunking, he said no. This had me baffled! If we were to take a person and have them do the bench press all day long and expect that this would be the best way to train them for the shot put, this would probably not be the case. We would probably want to practice the shot put some and eventually do full throws since that would be the actual skill with which we want to improve. The same has to be said for the dunk. In order to improve on dunking, we need to do some actual dunking!
As I mentioned earlier, dunking a basketball involves some form of running or step pattern prior to the jump above the rim(hopefully). There is both a horizontal(running) and vertical(jumping) component to this skill. These two parts rely on each other in order to achieve maximum height. Much like the high jump in track and field, the primary goal of both skills is to jump as high as possible while still keeping control of your body(and ball in the case of the dunk). That being said, the primary goal is to transfer as much horizontal velocity into vertical velocity. We essentially want to build up as much momentum as we can and stop all of it and shoot it upwards. The pole vault is a great example of this. Simply having a great vertical leap will not allow this to be possible. Having great leg stiffness, eccentric strength, speed, and elasticity will however allow this to be possible. If we look at one of the greatest high jumpers ever,
Stefan Holms we can see a prime example as to how this is possible. Stefan Holms stood a whopping 5’11” and had a vertical leap of 23 inches. Oh and he also high jumped 7’10.5”…wait what?! How could this be possible? Stefan Holms had great approach speed(run up to the bar), strength, and elasticity. He could transfer every ounce of his horizontal momentum to vertical. He also probably practiced his event too! But enough about that.
So now that we realize both movements are completely different skills you can see how silly it would be for a company to boast how improving ones vertical jump will make you the best dunker your friends have ever seen. If they changed their claim around and said something like “Improve your potential to dunk moderately through an array of different training methods (including dunk attempts) in a 3 month or greater period” they would probably get less business but I am guessing that it would work a lot better. I can’t blame them for trying to make a buck and confuse the general population but one thing that does bother me is most of the programs training plan.
One thing that these programs always seem to do is cause injury. They don’t take into account training age, chronological age, ability, and how injury prone a person is. Remember that friend I told you about that had tried every program you can think of? Well he got a stress fracture doing one of the workout plans and didn’t even make it through it. And this guy was a three sport athlete in high school and still keeps in good shape. There is a reason why people usually get hurt when doing these types of programs. One reason is that they can’t handle the volume of work or they are starting the program and have a sedentary lifestyle. The other reason why people usually get hurt is because these programs tend to have gobs of endless jump circuit work. They claim to call them “plyometrics” but there is no emphasis on quality and it becomes all about the quantity. It is for that reason that a lot of the training ends up not having much true plyometric work in it.
There is a huge different between doing circuit training with predominately jump exercises and doing high quality(usually low volume) plyometrics. They work different energy systems(aerobic vs anaerobic) and one works the stretch shortening cycle a lot more than the other(plyos) which is essential for improving jumping ability. So if you find yourself in one of these programs and you are huffing and puffing just trying to get through the workout and you don’t give a damn about your form, then chances are that you aren’t doing much to improve your dunk. Beware of programs that have exclusively high rep work and short rest periods!
Another thing about these programs that doesn’t make sense is that most of them claim that you can do all of the training in the comfort of your own home. If that is the case, then I hope your home has a weight room, open area to do sprints/plyos, and a basketball court to attempt dunks on. If there isn’t all of these options, then the program is short sighted. I get that people who attempt these programs may not want to spend the money to get a gym membership but if you are serious about it and have the money then I would recommend hitting the weights (intelligently). After all you did have the money to waste on one of these programs.
If we go back and look at the qualities that Stefan Holms had which enabled him to be able to jump so high we can see that he was very strong and elastic, had great approach speed, and was highly skilled in his event. In order to improve on strength we can all agree that working on lower body and core strength in the weight room would have a positive effect. The reason for this is because as our muscles get stronger, we can apply more force to something i.e. the gym floor. If a person were to improve upon their strength in say the squat, this would not immediately make them an improved dunker but it would help over time if the athlete employed other training methods concurrently in order for the newfound strength to be actualized in a dunk. In order for this strength to be actualized, the athlete would need to perform speed and plyometric work that is specific to the dunk. As I mentioned earlier, appropriate rest and technique would need to be implemented in order to optimize results and stress proper energy systems.
With regards to sprints training, there are several reasons why this could help the dunk. If a person increases their speed, then sub maximal velocities (i.e. the speed with which you would dunk a basketball at) have the potential to feel slower(and easier) than they did before since they are at a lower % of your max. This will make you feel more controlled or be able to bring more speed into the last two steps before dunking. Another reason why sprints training can help your dunk is because it allows your body to get use to hitting the right positions for those last two critical steps before you dunk the ball. If an athlete is able to run fast with good front side mechanics(most of the leg action of the stride happening on the front half of your body) then they will already have the legs in the proper position to lower and then immediately jump upwards. If you think this isn’t important, try going out in the yard and doing butt kicks followed by jumping has high as you can and you can see how the legs need to be shifted in front of the body in order to jump effectively. The final reason that I’d like to address with regards to sprinting is that sprinting is essentially one of the best forms of plyometrics, and we know that is going to help out our dunk.
This brings me to my next critical part of training. Plyometrics! Not to be confused with jump circuits, plyometrics help improve your explosive power. These types of exercises would be crucial to setting up a training plan that was geared towards getting you to dunk. While most of the programs out there do have their share of jump exercises in the program, I often question the type, volume, intensity, and rest periods associated with them. A good looking program should have various types of plyometrics and maybe even some jump circuits in there. The jump circuits are a great progression to prepare the body for the rigors of doing actual plyometrics since they are similar in movement but done at a lower intensity with slightly higher volume. The plyometrics should include stationary plyos and plyos with movement. They should include single and double leg work as well. When moving towards specific plyometric drills, the exercises should have similar ground contact times that are seen in the last two steps of the dunk. Volume should not be high when you move towards these exercises since it is more on quality of movement rather than quantity. In order for the quality to be there, the athlete must be fresh and recovered from the previous plyometric set or session, or else it will turn into another jump circuit. These exercises are also very intense as well which explains why volume shouldn’t be terribly high and rest should be adequate.
If I had an athlete come to me and ask to set up a training program for him/her to be able to dunk a basketball here is what I would do. First I would assess their size(height,weight, body type), fitness level, chronological age, training age, current dunking capabilities(to see if it would even be realistic), facilities access, and find out how injury prone they may be. It would also be important to find out how much time the person could devote to this training. From there I would build a program that would ease into what I thought would be the appropriate amount volume and intensity of work based on the information from above. The training would be very individual to the athlete so I don’t want to put some cookie cutter program for you to follow because as I have explained already, one size and way doesn’t fit all. I can tell you that an ideal program would contain this: Jump Circuits, in place single and double leg plyos, plyos with movement i.e. hurdle hops, alternating bounds, power skips(a mix of single and double leg work), actual time spent trying to dunk or attempting to run and jump up to something, sprint training which would include acceleration and eventually even some top speed work, medball throws to develop explosive power and triple extension, weight room work which would include Olympic lifts(if appropriate), squat jumps and other power type exercises, true strength work such as squat, deadlift and various types of lunges, some core work both in the form of circuits and also in the weight room with more of a strength emphasis, mobility work including static and dynamic stretches, also possible general coordination work in the form of sprint drills or hurdle drills in order to improve body awareness and coordination. As you can see there would be a lot of very effective tools to help improve your dunk but a lot of it would come down to being properly implemented and also on the athlete themselves and their ability to stay motivated to put in the work and also stay healthy.
Ok, so maybe this article is a little over the top for someone who has a simple goal of trying to dunk a basketball for the first time; or in the case of my friend, dunk on people all day long. But I do feel strongly about the fact that there are a lot of sub-par programs out there and people should be aware of them. I am not saying that all of these programs are ineffective but I urge people who are considering this kind of training to check it out before spending the money on them. One thing that should be noted is that if you are serious about training to try and dunk and you are overweight or not exactly at an ideal weight, then consider losing some weight before starting a program. Doing plyometrics and other training modalities that I mentioned can be tough enough for the average sized person, but when you are overweight it puts you at an even higher risk of getting injured so keep that in mind. Lastly, remember that if you are on some sort of training plan, remember that it is going to take time for you to achieve the results. Most of the time, these things don’t happen overnight and if someone claims that you could improve massively in a short amount of time, then I would be highly skeptical about that program.
Best of luck to you and your journey to dunk!
Eric Broadbent

Eric Broadbent

Eric Broadbent is a certified USA Track and Field Level 1 and 2 Coach, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), holds a USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, and a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach. Eric has been training under Mike Young for the Decathlon for the past 3 years and has a thorough understanding of his training methodologies. As an athlete, he won the USATF 2012 Indoor Heptathlon Championship and was an Olympic Trials Qualifier. As a national level competitor he also had top 6 finishes at the 2009 and 2010 USA Indoor Combined Events Championship and finished 10th at the 2011 National Championships.