Track Coach

Pole Vaulting with DJ’s Chart

By Noah Kaminsky, Apex Vaulting Club

Coach David “DJ” Johnston’s Six Stride and Corresponding Grip Chart is assessed.

DJ’s Six Stride and Corresponding Grip Chart is one of the best tools for coaching the pole vault. The chart indicates how high to grip on the pole, where to run from with that grip and an appropriate bar clearance for someone capable of that grip and step. In other words, it offers a reliable equivalency standard for any vaulter. With DJ’s Chart, you can compare an athlete’s grip and step to the standard and thus determine where he/she is proficient or deficient in the jump. You can also use the chart to set up beginners on the runway with the confidence that they will land safely on the mats. Coach David F. “DJ” Johnston developed his chart from quantitative observations of eight vaulters, including himself, in the early 1970’s when poles were made from steel. Since then, fiberglass poles have allowed for grip and push-off to increase, but the chart’s accuracy and application remain steadfast. In this two-part article, I will show you how to use DJ’s Chart as both a guide for setup and an assessment tool for push-off.

Part 1 – Where to start your run

DJ’s Chart shows you where to start on the runway for drills and full jumps. Beginners, intermediate vaulters, and advanced. Everybody. You can use it to set up athletes of any skill level. The chart correlates speed, stride length, and distance from takeoff. I have used it to set up my vaulters and check consistency in their approach—at a meet or in practice. I have even used the chart to coach long jump and triple jump.

Setting up any runway athlete begins with knowing his/her stride length. An athlete’s stride length determines where he should start his approach from. Stride length is the distance between each foot strike on the runway. A slower athlete has a shorter stride than a faster athlete. As you might expect, an athlete with a longer stride length needs more runway for the same number of steps as an athlete with a shorter stride length. This is one of the reasons that Usain Bolt ran the fastest ever 100m. Even if Bolt’s stride frequency was equal to his peers, at a height of 6 feet 5 inches, each stride moved him slightly farther than his competition due to longer legs. In the jumping events, the runway isn’t a fixed or limited distance, and time isn’t relevant, so stride length applies differently.

Ideally, the athlete’s approach, or the distance from takeoff, should be stride length multiplied by the number of strides taken. In practice, the approach is often slightly longer than this product because the stride length at submaximal speed elongates after the acceleration phase.

Approach distance ~ # steps x stride length

The calculation is a good place to start with new vaulters, especially if you can observe their stride length during the warmup. For example, an athlete with a 5-feet stride length, running from a 10-stride approach should start a little more than 50 feet away from where he takes off. In long or triple jump, this measurement is rather simple. All you need to do is pull the measuring tape 50 feet backwards from the takeoff board. That’s really it. Then, observe the athlete’s run for consistency and adjust accordingly. If you would like to learn more about adjusting the run, then I suggest reading my article about mid-marks published at

Planting the pole complicates the approach because it adds approximately two more stride lengths to the approach. The distance between takeoff and the back of the plant box (the zero point) varies from one run to another run.

At takeoff, the vaulter should be approximately two stride lengths away from the back of the box. The foot strike location at takeoff varies because the penultimate stride in the approach should elongate and the last stride should shorten. DJ’s Chart accounts for this in its 6-stride (3-step or 3L) mark and farther back, but its 2-stride (1-step or 1L) and 4-stride (2-step or 2L) marks are less reliable. I have found it’s better to estimate these distances without reliance on the chart.

DJ designed his chart with collegiate and post-collegiate vaulters. The shortest stride lengths (5 feet 4 inches or shorter) do not correlate well with their respective 6-stride marks. The best advice I can offer for determining a 2-stride mark is adding 4-6 feet to the chart’s listed takeoff marks. Then, you should arrive at a decent 2-stride mark. Again, the challenge derives from small variations in foot strike location at takeoff. Some coaches prefer their vaulters to take off “under.” Other coaches prefer a more “forward plant” and tall posture at takeoff. Until you know the athlete’s 2-stride (1-step or 1L) marks, it’s best to estimate their 1-step based on ability. Here are some ranges that work well:

• 9’0” to 10’6” for young athletes, ages 9-11

• 10’0” to 12’0” for beginners, ages 12-15

• 11’0 to 13’0” for older beginners, or athletes with shorter stride length

• 12’6 to 15’0” for intermediate athletes with average stride length

• 15’0”+ for intermediate or advanced athletes with longer stride length

With any beginner at their 2-stride mark, I recommend using a typical grip height of standing grip plus an elbow and a fist. Sometimes, two very different athletes might have the same 2-stride mark, like in the case of a tall beginner who is slow, and a short intermediate vaulter who is quick. The tall athlete likely has a higher grip. Once the athlete is set up, I would observe a couple  of attempts and adjust accordingly. If you’re confident in the grip and step, and the athlete’s swing speed matches his pole speed, then he can move farther back on the runway for more drills or full jumps.

Imagine you have a high school freshman on your team who wants to learn how to pole vault. His 200 meters is 35 seconds. His stride length is 4 feet 6 inches, which means from one left foot strike to the next left foot strike is 9 feet. Any time you want him to move back on the runway for a longer approach, he should move back 9 feet, and go up a grip on the pole. With a little more nuance, I recommend going up 2 grips when he moves back from his 4-stride to 6-stride mark.

For all jumping events, I suggest moving back in 2-stride increments from the athlete’s 2-stride mark. All athletes are different and will require you to observe them for minor adjustments until they are running and taking off consistently. As the athlete accelerates down the runway, the stride should naturally elongate. It won’t elongate much, but perhaps as much as three inches, maybe six. As he warms up, the same thing happens. These are commonalities you should expect among different athletes. The amount that the stride elongates and his consistency are more specific to the individual. If this is not observed, then it could be that you’ve given your athlete too much runway and they’re slowing down instead of speeding up. DJ’s Chart is not wrong. It’s acting exactly as it should—a guide for your coaching. You should only back up your athlete on the runway when you’re confident that he can accelerate or maintain speed through the takeoff.

Beginners can be tough to work with because they don’t have the knowledge or training, as experienced vaulters do. Beginners can’t just pick up a pole and get on the runway. DJ’s Chart guides you on how to set them up for a successful session. Even advanced vaulters can benefit from going back to basics for a fundamental “drills only” practice, and the chart will, of course, help you set them up. If you use it correctly, DJ’s Chart will save a lot of time by avoiding those challenging moments when your athlete can’t get their steps right.

Figure 1: DJ’s Chart. See his website One Approach Run for pdf downloads and other coaching documents.

Part 2 – How to assess your push-off

Push-off measures the difference between bar height and grip on the pole. In other words, push-off tells you how much you can pull your hips up above your grip. The chart doesn’t list push-off, but you can calculate it from ”Bar Height” and “Hand Grip.”

Push-off = Hand Grip – 8 inches – Bar Height

Sample scenarios:

A. If you can grip 8’10” and you clear 6’6”, then your push-off is -20”.

B. If you can grip 11’9” and you clear 11’6”, then your push-off is +5”.

C. If you can grip 12’3” and you clear 10’6”, then your push-off is -11”.

According to the chart, athletes may achieve zero push-off between the grips 11 feet 9 inches or 12-feet. That means if you’re fast enough to grip 11 feet 9 inches, then you should be able to clear an 11 feet 1 inch bar. A little higher and your push-off could even become positive, as shown in Scenario B. With a 12-foot grip or higher, the chart predicts the vaulter has enough speed and technical ability to produce a positive push-off. The chart is not going to be 100% accurate, but it’s an excellent baseline for your assessment.

If push-off numbers are greater than what the chart shows, then the vaulter is probably doing a lot of things correctly. Another possibility for a really solid push-off is that the grip could be higher. If a vaulter can clear a high bar with low grip, then it could be that they’re very strong but not very fast. Or, they’re not converting runway speed into their takeoff efficiently. If push-off numbers are negative with 12-foot grip or higher, then that vaulter needs to work on pulling the hips up more. There may be other factors at play which can explain why they’re not jumping above their grip, but it’s still worth devoting time to figuring out why.

DJ’s Chart indicates that lower grips yield a negative push-off. Vaulters with low grip are usually beginners, and have to grip higher than the bar they’re attempting to clear. Most beginners know how to run and jump, but aren’t able to pull their hips above their grip. DJ predicts negative push-off for athletes gripping 11 feet 6 inches or lower.

In Figure 2, you can observe that there’s nothing unexpected about this. Clearing a bar at or above your grip requires more than just speed and a good jump-up at takeoff. When you introduce pulling the hips up as a skill, then you’re challenging the beginner to do something new. Or, perhaps, you’re challenging a non-beginner who never learned this skill at all. Runway speed can mask an athlete’s strength and/or technical ability so it’s worth considering how your push-off compares to the chart.

Older beginners might clear 10 feet 6 inches with 12-foot grip because they’re faster and stronger than the average high school freshman, and that’s fine. At age 20, 25 or even 30, athletes enter the sport with a higher baseline of speed and strength, but their progress in push-off will follow the same pathway as anyone else.

If an athlete’s grip continues to increase while bar clearance remains the same or increases slightly, then this means the athlete has made minimal technical progress for their push-off. Perhaps they’re moving the pole faster because they’re running faster, or jumping up more. That doesn’t mean improvement in their ability to clear a bar above their grip. A technically proficient jump transfers runway speed into swing speed with a push-off comparable to what the chart reports for their bar clearance.

Figure 2. Grip height and push-off data extrapolated from DJ’s Chart. The area above the line represents good technique. The area below the line represents poor technique.

In Scenario C, the vaulter grips 12 feet 3 inches and clears 10 feet 6 inches, which produces -11 inches push-off. DJ’s chart predicts a 12 foot bar clearance with 12 feet 3 inches grip and 5 inches of push-off. The vaulter in Scenario C is most likely fast enough to move the pole well, but push-off technique needs improvement. If another vaulter grips 10 feet 9 inches and clears the same bar from Scenario C, then he is technically better because his push-off is +5 inches. The second vaulter pulls the hips above the grip by at least 5 inches. The first vaulter might grip higher than the second, but the first vaulter’s hips never get above his hands. DJ’s Chart predicts that they can have better push-off.

At Apex Vaulting Club, we use drills that focus on pulling our hips up above the grip. The muscles must be used in sequence to achieve this. This sequence begins with upper back and lat muscles, then shoulders and triceps, and finally the biceps. We use the Rope Drill, Rollovers, Takeoff Drill, Swing -Up or Swing to Sit, Swing to Chin, Jump The River, and full jumps from a 2- or 3- step to improve athletes’ push-off numbers. There’s not one drill that works better than another. Each one supports some different aspect of developing the jump.

Nobody can grip up indefinitely. To assume that’s possible is simply unproductive and unsafe. I’m not advocating for anyone’s grip to go down, and I’m not claiming that it should stay the same, but increasing it until the vaulter can barely move the pole to vertical is a recipe for injury. Grip height should increase gradually over time as athletes get faster and stronger. DJ’s Chart shows that push-off should increase with it. Push-off should certainly not decrease or stay the same over time.

Closing thoughts

Track the push-off for your vaulters. Track their starting marks and their mid-marks. Collect the data at every meet and every practice. You can even keep a push-off record board for the top three male and female vaulters on your team. This is just one of many ways to incentivize skill development.

In such a highly technical event, DJ’s Chart makes coaching the pole vault easier because it pulls the guesswork out of setup. Like many field events, pole vault is sequential. Each component of the jump builds on the previous component. A good pole carry sets up a good run, which sets up a smooth plant and a powerful takeoff. If the vaulter executes one component in this sequence poorly, then it has a cascading effect on the subsequent components. DJ’s Chart may not instruct how to carry the pole, but it offers excellent guidance for where to start on the runway.

I learned how to use DJ’s Chart for coaching the pole vault, but Coach Johston has charts available for the long jump and triple jump on his website, One Approach Run. Each chart widely applies to athletes of all fitness levels and training ages. I recommend learning how it works and using it whenever applicable. Thank you, DJ!