So you want to dunk a basketball… For some people it seems to come so easily. There always seems to be that guy shorter than you who can just get up and throw down. Meanwhile you’re 6’2″ and can barely touch the rim…
In this article I’m going to share some tips to help you not only jump higher but understand the mechanics of being physically able to dunk a basketball.
In order to jump higher to dunk a basketball, you’ll likely need to increase your overall lower body strength significantly, while simultaneously increasing your rate of force development (explosiveness).
Depending on where you’re at, this may be a relatively short process. But for others, it may well be a lifelong quest. However if you follow these principles, or invest in a quality vertical jump training program, you will get there as quickly as possible whatever your current predisposition.
Set Realistic Expectations
The first thing you need to understand about improving your vertical jump to eventually dunk a basketball is that it’s not going to be a quick process, in almost every case.
Don’t expect to gain 14″ on your vert in three months. Don’t expect to be dunking by the summer if you can only just touch the backboard.
Hell even going from being able to grab the rim to dunking a basketball with any degree of consistency will take a while.
If you’re a young or short guy who’s not particularly athletically gifted and dreams of dunking, the good news is you can almost certainly get there if you train properly for long enough, but it may take you longer than you’d like.
Being able to dunk is a glorious, powerful feeling. It is well worth pursuing, regardless of where you’re at. If you’re just willing to commit to that pursuit, regardless of how long it takes, one day you will be glad you didn’t give up!
Smart Goal Setting
Have patience. Don’t put a time limit on your vertical jump training. If you say you want a 35″ vertical by March, you may end up overtraining in order to get there. You’ll likely get burnt out or give up completely when it’s February and you’re still not even close.
Instead, say that you’re going to work as hard and smart as possible on your vertical jump goal until March and then you can reevaluate and go from there.
Set more realistic, granular goals, like ‘add 5 lbs to each of my lifts this week’ and go tunnel vision on that one thing.
Master The Mechanics Of Jumping
Most people have horrific inefficiencies in their actual jump technique. If you were to film yourself jumping as high as possible, I’m sure I could give you several things to change which would immediately increase your vertical jump.
It all starts with the approach. You need consistent acceleration that is smooth and relaxed as you’re running into your jump.
You then really need to push into the penultimate stride and punch your block foot down as you finish the plant sequence, all while maintaining an upright torso and a neutral head and neck.
It’s way easier for you to see what perfect technique looks like if you can see annotated pictures and breakdown videos. So check out my full article on the biomechanics of the two foot approach jump which has all of that!
Get Really, Really Strong
For most young guys and really for anyone at any level, this should be your primary concern. You need to get strong.
For a while the idea of being able to squat 1.5x your bodyweight has been seen as the baseline measurement of acceptable strength. That means if you’re 60kg, your back squat 1RM needs to be at least 90kg.
And that’s just a starting point. Realistically we want you up closer to the 2x bodyweight mark.
So if you’re nowhere near this degree of strength, you need to get in the gym and start working on it. You don’t necessarily have to do squats, but they will likely be the best way to develop your lower body, assuming you’re able to learn correct form.
Do Speed Strength Work
Speed strength exercises are your typical ‘power’ movements such as the olympic lifts, jump squats, and med ball tosses. Really they’re anything that involves moving a load as quickly as possible.
The reason this is so effective in jump training is because these power exercises condition our central nervous system to more efficiently engage the muscles when the load is removed.
An example would be doing squat jumps using a barbell or weight vest. This is a very similar movement to the vertical jump, only heavier. This training principle is known as post-activation potentiation.
Speed strength exercises are typically training the ‘rate of force development’ component of the vertical jump.
As you know, you need to 1. get strong (see above) and 2. convert that raw strength into the sport specific movement of the vertical jump (RFD).
My most recent article explains in detail how to implement this kind of training into your routine so if you’re interested, take a look at how to jump higher with post-activation potentiation.
You’ll Have To Get Higher Than The Rim
For many of you looking to dunk a basketball, you’re going to be pretty pleased when you can grab the rim comfortably. Unfortunately, you’ve got to get a lot higher than the rim to actually dunk a basketball. It took me probably three years to go from gramming the rim to dunking a ball!
How Many Inches Above The Rim To Dunk?
This will depend on how well you’re able to palm the ball but you’re probably going to need to be able to touch at least 10’6″ (so half a foot above the hoop) in order to actually dunk a regulation basketball.
If you have small hands you might need closer to 10″ of clearance til you’re actually able to do something more than a baby dunk.
Once you’re getting close to that point, start attempting to dunk with a tennis ball, then move up to a baseball, and then go for a size six basketball and work your way up as you start making some dunks.
Practice Palming The Ball
Believe it or not, this is something you can improve, to an extent. If you’re serious about learning to dunk, you should be practicing palming regularly. There’s plenty of great videos online you can look at for various exercises that’ll strengthen your fingers and palms and over time you should be able to palm a ball well enough to nail your first dunk, even without massive hands.
If you have really small hands, unfortunately you’re probably just going to have to become a much higher jumper and your focus will then be on the ‘crush grip’ dunk (where you hold the ball between your palm and forearm).
To dunk a ball this way requires a lot more vertical but chances are if you’re able to get up this high, you’ll be more than high enough to dunk already with a slightly cocked grip. This is where you’re essentially throwing the ball/guiding it into the hoop because your palm/grip is so weak. It’s in your palm but you don’t really have a hold of it; you’re just relying on momentum to keep the ball attached to your hand.
To pull this off you probably only need to be 2-3 inches higher than the minimum for dunking while palming.
Practice Jumping Off The Lob
Jumping with a basketball is really hard.
If you’re a two foot jumper, holding a basketball completely neutralizes your arm swing which means you’re sacrificing about 20% of your vertical jump. It’s pretty hard to do jumping off one foot as well.
By tossing yourself a lob, you can catch the ball in the air off the bounce, allowing you to get maximum height from your vertical jump without a ball weighing you down or stopping your arm swing.
It takes a ton of practice to get the timing right, but once you get the hang of it, eventually the moons will align where you’ll jump just high enough and catch the ball just right, leading to your first dunk.
Do This When You’re Close To Dunking…
This goes back to the talk of post-activation potentiation. There’s a specific kind of warm up you can do that’s scientifically proven to temporarily increase your performance in explosive movements like the vertical jump.
It involves completing a dynamic warm up and following it with a couple of sets of loaded jump-related exercises which causes a temporary increase in CNS excitability which in turn enables you to jump higher.
So if you have access to dumbbells, a barbell, or even a weight vest when you’re getting close to nailing that first dunk, give this a shot and it may get you over the edge.
Read more about how to warm up for vertical jump testing here.
Importance Of A Powerful Upper Body
There’s a big difference between being able to sometimes eke out a baby dunk, and actually being able to throwdown. Or being able to do a windmill.
Once you’re jumping high enough to dunk, you’ll realise dunking isn’t just about getting strong legs so you can jump higher. Being able to do eastbays and windmills takes a lot of upper body explosiveness, coordination, and strength.
For most of you reading this, you’ve probably got a way to go before even thinking about doing a windmill, but it’s definitely a good idea to keep your upper body in check.
When you do hit upper body in the gym, remember to include plenty of med ball tosses, med ball slams, and basically anything that’s going to improve your arm swing and ability to manipulate the ball in the air.
Do All The Little Things Right
If you’re aspiring to dunk a basketball, it can be a painstakingly long process if you’re making it tougher than it needs to be. I was doing this growing up without even knowing it.
If you can do the following four things really well, your chances of dunking in a reasonable timeframe are going to be exceptionally high. If you neglect any one of these, you’re going to be making things way tougher than they need to be.
#1 Nail Your Diet & Sleep
This should be pretty obvious. But it amazes me how many young athletes are eating horrible diets and not getting anywhere near enough sleep.
You should have seen what I was eating in high school. On top of that I was sleeping 2-3 hours a night at some points throughout the year.
Now I’m a lot smarter and realise the importance of nutrition and sleep, especially when you’re working out everyday. You can’t expect to make the gains you want to see if you’re slacking on either of these things.
I’ll make it real simple. Do this.
- Sleep for 8 hours a night, no less.
- Eat clean.
- Eat a lot of protein. And then eat some more.
Clean, whole foods with tons of protein, and a good night’s sleep. This is half the battle when it comes to reaching your athletic potential.
I do have some sweet vertical jump specific diet tips you can check out here if you want to construct the ideal vertical jump diet.
#2 Avoid Injury & Overtraining
If you’re playing basketball three times a week, lifting four times a week, and doing plyometrics, you are massively overdoing it. It might not feel like you are, but you are 100% shooting yourself in the foot by doing this.
In order to see optimal vertical jump gains, you should really be doing no more than 11-12 hours of jump-related training a week, which includes basketball games, weight lifting, and jumping.
Fatigue masks progress. When you’re jumping a ton, your muscles and joints are going to be beat down. You’re not going to lift as much as you could and you’re not going to jump as high as you can.
I wrote an article recently discussing six reasons why your vertical jump might have decreased. In that article I explain in detail how much fatigue is too much when it comes to vertical jump training and how overdoing it is really common.
This leads me to my next point…
#3 Take Deload Weeks
Take a deload week! If you’ve been busting your ass in the gym for the past six weeks, steadily improving your lifts, it’s time to take a deload week.
Drastically reduce your training volume to about 30% of what it was for about a week. Give your body a chance to fully recuperate. Wash away that layer of fatigue that has started to set in over the past couple weeks.
I know it sucks having to take a step back. You’re making great progress and just want to keep pushing it and working hard. But when it comes to improving your vertical, less is often more.
What I like to do during deload weeks is to just completely focus on stability and mobility. I do tons of ankle, feet, and shin stability work as well as do lots of isometric exercises, I foam roll every day, get plenty of massages, and make sure my hips and knees are in good shape so I can start hammering them again the following week.
#4 Think You’re Strong? Get Stronger!
Unless you’re squatting 2x your bodyweight, you could be improving this aspect of your training.
Athletes belonging to which sport jump higher than the rest? Weightlifters. Why? Because they’re extremely strong. But also because they can utilize that strength explosively.
Weightlifters have insanely high raw strength. They can lift over 3x their bodyweight. But their rate of force development is crazy fast as well.
Channel your inner weightlifter.
Dunking is one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s a worthwhile pursuit for anyone who yearns for that feeling of power.
But it’s not easy to get there for most. Chances are you’ll have to put a ton of time and effort into getting stronger and more explosive to increase your vertical jump significantly.
After that, you’ll have to learn the mechanics of palming a ball and jumping with a ball. It’s not simple. But it’s well worth the sacrifice to get there.
Make sure you’re training smart and taking extra good care of your body and your road to dunking a basketball will be shorter than you think!