Are you wondering how big of a disadvantage you’re at with your short, stubby legs? Maybe you’re the opposite: long and lanky and feel like you’re also not configured for jumping well.
Today I’m going to explain in detail what impact leg length has on vertical jump height, as well as how you can get the most out of your vertical with what you were given at birth.
Having longer legs does offer a biomechanical advantage for movements such as jumping high due to the leverage advantage which allows for higher force production.
But not all hope is lost for my short legged friends! In this article I’ll discuss how you can lean into your own biomechanical advantages to get your vertical as high as genetically possible.
The Biomechanical Advantages Of Longer Legs
The most important concept here is leverage.
Imagine being a baseball player in the big leagues but you had to play with a foot long baseball bat. I don’t think there’s a player on earth who could hit a home run with a tiny bat like that.
Most baseball bats are 2-3 times longer than that and this creates leverage which allows batters to produce more power.
Power is literally force times velocity. When you swing a 34″ bat, the sweet spot is going to be moving at a much higher speed than it will be with a tiny bat, plus the batter will be able to transfer a lot more force into the longer bat.
Jumping high is all about power.
Let’s look at another example. Take a look at this man.
This is Deontay Wilder, a professional heavyweight boxer thought to have the most powerful and devastating knockout punch the sport has ever seen. At the time of writing, he’s had 42 wins, only a single loss, and 41 of his wins were via knockout.
What’s interesting about Deontay is that he’s 6’7″ (201 cm) and only 211 lbs (96 kg). He’s a long, lanky athlete. But it’s because of his long leverages that he’s able to punch harder than anyone else right now. When he has an opportunity to really wind up, the force he can send through his fist is incredible. He’s powerful.
His arms function the same as a 34″ bat.
Ever noticed how Usain Bolt never seems to start a 100m sprint off particularly well? He’s never at the front of the pack initially. That’s because the shorter, stronger athletes have better agility over short distances. It’s only towards the end of the race that Bolt is able to get the most out of his long levers, once he’s at full speed.
Imagine someone tossing you a baseball from a distance of two feet away. In this example, the foot-long bat would actually work better and would allow you to hit the ball further.
You simply can’t generate enough speed quick enough with a 34″ bat when the pitcher is only two feet away.
Any activity that involves explosive movements such as striking, sprinting, and jumping all lend towards the longer levered athlete because they can generate more output at the peak of the movement.
On the other side, activities that involve shorter ranges of motion but require larger total strength, such as powerlifting and gymnastics, tend to favor the shorter-limbed athlete.
Longer Legs = Higher Unilateral Vertical Jump
Hopefully this should be pretty obvious if I did a good job of explaining the biomechanics of leverage in the above section.
In a running vertical jump, you approach takeoff with lots of horizontal momentum which will lead to a higher jump if the athlete is able to transfer that momentum effectively (rate of force development).
Unilateral jumps (off one leg) require a quicker ground contact time and a faster stretch shortening cycle. For instance, ground contact times in the long and high jump (unilateral jumps) are between 0.1-0.18 seconds, whereas in most two legged jumps it’s closer to 0.35-0.4 seconds.
Big, strong, short-limbed athletes will very often jump similar heights in the standing vertical jump as they do in running vertical jumps. This is because they largely rely on pure musculature strength to ‘muscle’ their way into the air but often struggle at expressing that strength in movements that involve speed and quickness.
They tend have high ground contract times and favor the slower stretch shortening cycle. They have a big explosive strength deficit, which we’ll discuss more later.
Athletes with longer legs are typically much better at expressing the strength they do have in sports specific movements like the vertical jump. This is why you often see quite tall, long legged high jumpers.
So How Can Shorter Athletes Compensate?
If you don’t have particularly long legs and you’re heart’s set on playing a sport which involves jumping high, do not fear! Because there is still plenty you can do to optimize your training which will have you jumping higher than most taller athletes who aren’t training highly efficiently!
For The Short, Small, & Weak Athlete
If you’re short but small and weak, you should simply focus on getting stronger, filling out your frame, and jumping – in just the same way a skinny, tall athlete should.
Increasing your total strength as well as your rate of force development should both be on the menu for you. If you’re short and stocky, you’ll probably find you respond better to strength work and will improve your lifts much quicker than your jumps.
Until you can squat at least 1.5x your bodyweight for a one rep max, I believe strength training should be the focus for any athlete who is concerned with long term vertical jump gains.
You should of course keep jumping, working on your mechanics, and include some plyometric work while focusing on improving in the weight room.
Understanding Explosive Strength Deficit
Understanding the explosive strength deficit and being able to reduce it is an important part of being able to improve your vertical jump, particularly if you’re a well developed shorter-limbed athlete.
The explosive strength deficit can be defined as the gap between how much pure strength you can produce and how much of that strength you can actually utilize in a sport specific movement.
A simple way to quantify your ESD for jumpers is to compare the vertical jump (strength you can use) to a similar movement but which is a better expression of pure strength (squat).
If your squat goes up but your vertical jump stays the same (or decreases), the difference between your squat and vertical jump increases thus, your explosive strength deficit increases. If your squat stays the same but your vertical jump goes UP, your explosive strength deficit decreases.1Kelly Baggett, Vertical Jump Bible 2
Research has shown that the best athletes are really only able to utilizing about 50% of their total strength in any sport-specific movement.
You can actually measure this by comparing the total force output into a force plate during the vertical jump takeoff with the force output during a one rep max back squat. In the best jumpers, we’d expect the jump force to be about half that of the squat force.
Athletes characterized by shorter, stockier builds will often not get close to this 50% number and they are said to have a high ESD.
If you’re interested in jumping higher, you absolutely must avoid long term increases in ESD.
Over the short term, such as during a heavy strength training phase, your squat may go up but your VJ might stay the same. This is fine because it’s a function of our local training priority.
But if you’re seeing ESD stay the same or increase over a period of several months or longer, then you know you’re doing something wrong.
Reduce Your ESD By Improving Rate Of Force Development
If you’re already bigger and stronger than your tall, skinny friends and can squat at least 1.5-2x your bodyweight, your focus should be on improving your rate of force development. You might already be able to jump decently well, but this jumping ability will largely be derived from strength and not from explosiveness.
You’re probably pretty agile as well, if you’re not carrying too much body fat. If your body fat is on the high end, you should focus on getting that down to 10-13% or even lower as being a little lighter will put less strain on your joints while you’re working on improving your explosive jumping ability.
If you’re in the short, big, and strong camp, your vertical jump will benefit far less from improving your strength, and more from improving your rate of force development: how you express the strength you already have.
Quite often these athletes lack technical efficiency and coordination when it comes to jumping, so they need to spend time improving jump technique and becoming more graceful jumpers.
They also need to keep their bodyfat low, as they already have a high bodyweight and any nonfunctional weight will limit them in their attempts to improve RFD.
Explosive movements such as plyometrics and ballistics should be their main focus, with strength training taking a backseat. When they do train for strength, they should use 75-90% of their 1RM, but look to complete the exercises with a focus on speed, particularly in the concentric phase.
Through configuring their jump training in this manner, these well developed shorter athletes will be able to reduce their ESD, allowing them to jump higher.
There Is Hope For You Yet!
If you’re a shorter guy who was kind of deflated to find out that you are at a genetic disadvantage when it comes to jumping, I really wouldn’t be too worried about it at all.
There are plenty of examples of short guys who can jump higher than most tall high level jumpers.
In fact, lever length is probably the single least important genetic factor when it comes to determining how far you’ll go as a jumper. For example, how your central nervous system is wired is going to have a far more significant impact on jumping ability than lever length ever will.
Rate coding or how quickly you can fire neurons is a far bigger genetic contributor to overall vertical jump performance.
At the end of the day, fixating on your genetic predisposition is a waste of time. It’s simply out of your control.
Even with the worst imaginable genetics for jumping, with the right training you can still achieve a very impressive vertical.
Focus on what you can do. If you train smart and lean into your advantages as an athlete, you’ll still be jumping out the gym, regardless of how long your legs are!