Being able to jump really high is about developing power. As you know, strength X speed = power – so it’s fair to say that developing strength is a significant component of developing your vertical jump.
It’s no secret that when it comes to increasing the strength component of your vertical jump, the squat is regarded as the mother of all exercises.
But there’s plenty of ways to perform squats, so which is best if your goal is to jump higher?
In this article I’m going to rank the top 5 squat variations for a massive vertical jump and I’ll explain how certain variations differ and why some are better than others.
Why Squats Are The Best Vertical Jump Strength Exercise
It’s fairly safe to say that with the current research, squats are the single best exercise for developing vertical jump related strength.
Another study was able to increase a group of athletes’ vertical jumps by 12.4% over the course of 8 weeks simply by prescribing a steady regime of heavy squats.2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26439782/
The same study also found that squats were almost 4 times more effective than leg press when it comes to vertical jump improvement.
No, we don’t have data comparing squats to every single imaginable strength exercise out there, but I think it’s fairly clear to most elite athletes and coaches that it’s hard to go past squats when it comes to developing lower body strength.
With that out of the way, let’s look at my ordered list of the most valuable squat variations for vertical jump aspiring athletes.
1. Barbell Back Squat
The barbell back squat has long been considered the holy grail of exercises for developing vertical jump strength.
It’s the most common type of squat to do and it’s probably one of the easier movements to master.
Why Is The Back Squat So Good For Your Vertical Jump?
The main reason we love back squats when it comes to vertical jump training is the training concept of specificity.
This asks the question of how well will our training in the weight room carry over to actually jumping higher.
Mimics Triple Extension
The back squat is highly specific to the vertical jump because of how closely it mimics triple extension. Our glutes are responsible for hip extension and quads perform the knee extension.
It’s virtually impossible to train all three: hip, knee, and ankle extension without actually jumping, so there’s not a whole lot of ankle extension going on in the back squat, but that’s okay.
Add Calf Raise To Complete Triple Extension
Some coaches recommend completing the back squat movement with a calf raise at the top in order to train triple extension more completely. I’m personally not sold on it, but feel free to experiment with this!
Back Squats Generate Maximum Force Output
The back squat is also really effective at developing huge amounts of strength because we’re able to load up with more weight than we can with other squat variations.
Front squats and Bulgarian split squats have their place, but in terms of maximum force output, you’re not going to get close to what you can do with a back squat.
Low Bar Or High Bar Squats For Vertical Jump?
There is two ways you can perform a back squat: low bar and high bar.
A low bar back squat is where you rest the barbell on your lower traps and hinge more at the hips while only squatting to a depth of slightly below parallel.
A high bar back squat differs in that the bar placement is on the upper traps and the athlete is considerably more upright throughout the movement.
Athletes who prefer high bar back squats typically squat quite a bit deeper, sometimes going “ass to grass”.
The low bar squat requires more from the glutes and lower back, whereas the high bar squat demands more of the quads.
The Verdict? It’s Up To You!
So which one is better? The answer is whichever one feels most comfortable to you. Most athletes won’t feel strong doing both high and low bar squats and it’s quite common for people to have a preference in either direction.
There was one study which compared deep back squats to quarter squats as they relate to the vertical jump and found deep back squats to be more useful for jumping high.3https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2012/12000/Article.10.aspx
But that study compared quarter squats to high bar squats – we simply don’t know whether there’s much of a difference between low and high bar squats.
The common wisdom is that they’ll end up being more or less equally helpful so it’s more important to feel comfortable and strong in the range of motion you prefer.
How Heavy Should I Back Squat For Vertical Jump?
Generally speaking, heavy.
We’re training for strength here, not size or endurance. What that means is we probably want to keep the rep range within 3-8 reps for the most part. In terms of sets, 3-5 is probably fine depending on how many other exercises you’re doing in that workout.
In order to jump higher, we need to produce more force with our legs. To practice producing large amounts of force with our legs, we’re way better off using really heavy weights than we are moderate weights.
Quarter Squats & Half Squats For Vertical Jump?
They have their place and I think they’re worth experimenting with, but there sadly isn’t a ton of evidence saying these are super effective when it comes to vertical jump training. In fact we have evidence to suggest the opposite…
Barbell quarter squats resulted in significantly lower maximum rate of force development and maximum voluntary contraction values in contrast to deep back squats.
Quarter squat training elicited significant transfer losses into the isometric maximal and explosive strength behavior.
These findings therefore contest the concept of superior angle-specific transfer effects. Deep back squats guarantee performance-enhancing transfer effects to dynamic speed-strength capacity of hip and knee extensors compared with quarter squats.4https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2012/12000/Article.10.aspx
If this study is anything to go by, then going super heavy on the half or quarter squats might not be worth the injury risk.
Back Squat Tips For Vertical Jump
I’ve got a couple decent training tips for improving your back squat so that it makes you jump as high as possible.
- Think about your tempo and explode upward during the concentric – You should lower in a controlled fashion but as soon as the concentric portion of the movement begins, focus on recruiting as many muscle fibers as possible and driving powerfully out of the hole. The bar should shudder/bounce a little as you lock out at the top of the movement.
- Consider including a calf raise at the top of the movement – After the typical concentric phase has ended, you can continue driving up and onto your toes to practice ankle extension. It looks kind of goofy but some decent strength coaches have been known to recommend it. If you find you can’t control the weight throughout that extra range of motion or lose your balance, forget about it.
2. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat comes in at number two on the vertical jump squat hot list for several reasons. I wrote an entire article discussing in greater depth why Bulgarian split squats are so great for jumping, but briefly these are the reasons…
- Painless alternative to back squat – Quite often people will struggle to perform back squats. Knee pain, lower back pain, tight hips – there’s a seemingly endless list of reasons why people won’t do back squats. The BSS has tons of easy progressions so there will always be an effective variation you can do with minimal discomfort.
- Unilateral movement corrects weaknesses and imbalances – It’s always a good idea to include some sort of single leg movement in your leg routine. When you’re only doing bilateral movements like the back squat, quite often, without even knowing it, one leg will overcompensate for a weakness in the other which results in imbalances and weaknesses. Every time you do a unilateral leg exercise, you’re working towards correcting this and restoring balance.
- Great for long/high jumpers and track athletes – We talk all the time about specificity. If you’re primarily jumping off one leg, you’ll benefit slightly more from doing single leg training exercises like the BSS.
- Simple beginner-friendly progressions – This movement looks kind of awkward and tricky, but it’s actually really beginner-friendly. Start with no weight on a regular bench, progress by adding a weight vest or dumbbells and finally a barbell. Or switch to the smith machine and load up the weight.
- Explosive Bulgarian split squat jumps – This is more of a plyometric movement than anything, but it’s still a variation of the BSS and is a great power-focused progression you can throw into your routine. Consider super setting these split squat jumps with regular Bulgarian split squats to create a powerful training adaptation with post-activation potentiation.
There’s even more great reasons why the Bulgarian split squat is so powerful as a tool for jumping higher. Be sure to check out the full article if you’d like some more ideas.
3. Barbell Squat Jumps
Yeah it’s not technically a strength exercise or squat for that matter, but I simply had to include it in this list because it’s so damn effective.
The barbell squat jump is a power movement which lies at the crossroads between a strength and plyometric movement.
I wrote a full article explaining the long list of benefits of jump squats as they relate to the vertical jump, so be sure to check that out.
The Ultimate Vertical Jump Power Movement?
I keep going on about the training principle of specificity. Well there’s nothing more specific to jumping than actually jumping.
The squat jump is essentially just an overloaded vertical jump which makes it biomechanically very in-line with our goal of jumping higher.
In another recent article I discuss a study which compared jump squats to more advanced Olympic lifts for developing power and explosiveness and they found jump squats very much held their own.
To Barbell Or Not To Barbell?
Some coaches complain that this exercise is potentially dangerous and not worth the risk. I wholeheartedly disagree and firmly believe that have no idea what they’re talking about.
What are the risks? You’re jumping a very small distance into the air, straight up and down. There’s no rotation of the spine. It’s evidently no more dangerous than a clean and jerk or snatch.
I’ve done many hundreds of sets of barbell jump squats and to conclude they’re not safe likely means you’ve just never done them.
Use A Weight Vest Or Dumbbells
A real simple workaround for this, which is particularly good for younger and less experienced athletes, is to go for a weighted vest.
If you’re training athletes who might struggle with a 20kg barbell on their back, either use a smaller barbell or slap on a weight vest which will make the movement considerably easier, but still very effective.
The next logical progression is to do dumbbell jump squats. With the weight close to the ground, it’s a lot safer if you have to drop the weight. Even advanced athletes can load up on the dumbbells to get some really effective jump squats in.
4. Spanish Squat
If you’re a serious athlete who maybe plays a lot of basketball or volleyball or something similar, chances are you’ve run into some knee pain or tendonitis at some point.
Spanish squats are considered the ultimate knee rehab exercise. Not only are they great for working around knee injuries, but they’re a really great way to isolate the quads to improve your knee flexion.
Why Jumpers Love Spanish Squats
Anyone doing a ton of jumping will likely experience some patella tendonitis or jumper’s knee at some point. This issue is very tough to avoid, especially for younger less developed athletes who are crazy about their sport.
Spanish squats are the best medication for this inflammation of the patella tendon. They work by alleviating strain on the knee joint which forces your quads to take the brunt of the load.
They’re function very similarly to wall sits.
Need Quads? Do Spanish Squats
This exercise entirely focuses on developing the quads. For a lot of younger athletes, underdeveloped quads can be quite problematic. Weak VMOs can lead to all sorts of issues with your knees whereas strong quads can lead to really cool things like a high vertical jump.
I always recommend anyone with weak or skinny legs to incorporate Spanish squats into their routine to not only bulletproof the all-important knee joint and steer off tendonitis, but also to grow bigger quads so they can jump higher.
Parting Thoughts Regarding Squat Variations For Vertical Jump
While you don’t have to do all of these exercises every week, I would recommend including at least two of these squat variations into your routine each week if you’re serious about making vertical jump gains.
If you’re not regularly doing the number 1 exercise, the back squat, you’d better have a good reason! This exercise is simply too effective to shy away from and it should be foundation for the bulk of your strength training for the vertical jump.
Don’t forget when it comes time to mix in some more explosive power movements, be sure to incorporate jump squats into your routine because they carryover so incredibly well and are so simple to perform.