Track Coach

Training To Jump Higher

By John Shepherd

Huge forces need to be overcome in milliseconds to launch the high jumper skyward and over 2m for elite females and 2.30m for their male equivalents. John Shepherd looks at the type of training needed. This article is adapted from Athletics Weekly, August 15/20/2019.

There are a number of ways in which a high jump athlete can develop takeoff power—these include weights, pfyometrics, complex training (combining weights and plyos into a workout) and ballistic training.

Ballistic training

In New Studies in Athletics, Jurgen Schiffer from the German Sports Laboratory in Cologne says: “When plyometric drills are combined with a traditional resistance training program, vertical jump performance appears to be enhanced to a significantly greater extent than if performing either resistance training or plyometric training alone.”

Ballistic training involves performing jumping exercises with added weight. Simply put, the athlete jumps whilst carrying weights or wearing a weighted vest. To be at its most effective the added resistance needs to be around 30% 1 rep max. A typical exercise could be a succession of double foot vertical jumps performed on the spot. More on ballistic training for the high jump later.

What of the other options available to the high jumper? Heavy weight training is traditionally used to develop power. However, due to the force and velocity components this may not actually be that effective, particularly for the relatively trained mature athlete.

One of the reasons for this is the time it takes to move a weight—this will be much slower than when compared to, for example, the time needed to apply force to the takeoff in the high jump (milliseconds compared to half a second or so for the performance of most standard weights exercises). Additionally, and perhaps more so than any other event, power to weight ratio is crucial for the high jumper, and weights, when not monitored, can increase muscle mass and therefore add body weight. More weight that needs to be lifted over the bar.

Gains will be large when starting any relevant high jump conditioning program for the first time and this does include weights. And in all likelihood vertical jump and sprint speed may improve because of this.

However, these gains will begin to reduce over time and it’s even possible that rate of force production may decrease should weights be continued without thought being given to the speed at which force is needed to be generated and by the use of more specific training means and a harmonized training program.

Schiffer points out: “This is supported by a number of studies that showed improvements in vertical jump performance in novice or recreationally-trained individuals after heavy resistance training programs but limited improvements in individuals or athletes with substantial resistance training experience.”

He then notes—and to further substantiate the merits of ballistic training—that research on this methods indicates, for example, that it can improve power production even in trained athletes.

The high jump is one of the jump events where ballistic training is particularly recommended. The approach speeds (see box] are much slower than those required for the long and triple jump, thus potentially the athlete has more time to impart vertical force on ground contact.

Also, the direction of this force requires a powerful vertical velocity (in the long and triple jump the dominant velocity component is horizontal). Thus, leaping upward with resistance would appear highly relevant to the high jump.


As noted, when an athlete becomes highly trained, then pursuing further weight training gained strength is tikety to have fewer and fewer returns. Schiffer argues that it is “during this period that the inclusion of ptyometric training may have its most profound effect”.

So, what could constitute the best plyometrics for the high jump? Considering the need for a near straight takeoff leg then perhaps drills which use a 160-170° angle. Schiffer describes a suitable drill.

This can be accomplished with boxes no higher than 15cm to 20cm with the jumper standing on the edge of box No 1 on the toes with both feet together. A little forward momentum and as the jumper leaves the box, the legs are prestretched and the jumper lands on the toes, knees held tightly at about 170 or 160°. The jumper pops (or explodes) up onto box No. 2 as quickly as possible, landing on the toes; forward lean, drops down on to the floor and pops back up on to box No.3, repeating for box No.4 and No.5.”

The expert stresses that the key is to jump and rebound as quickly as possible without significant bending at the knee.

It is also advocated that the scissor technique can, in the context of this article, be considered as a highly relevant ptyometric drill, as it creates the takeoff characteristics needed by the flop-style jumper—that’s to say, not leaning into the bar, a near straight teg plant and a fast swing up of the free leg, for example.

The role of the Achilles tendon

Tendons as well as muscles (and other soft tissue, such as ligaments and fascia) also play a role in being able to jump—high or long. Tendons are literally springs which connect to muscles—the most well-known example being the Achilles Tendon. And the Achilles is crucial for all jumps (and running) in terms of power production.

Shorter, stiffer Achilles tendons have been shown to be able to generate more force, more quickly than less stiff longer ones. Olympic gold medallist Stefan Holm of Sweden featured in a research documentary which had his jump physiology studied, where the power of his short Achilles was seen to be fundamental to his ability to jump so high (2.40m PB). In fact, it was discovered that it took a force of 1.8 tons to stretch Holm’s left Achilles 1cm.

Sports scientists have found that even within jumpers the Achilles tendon of the jump leg is stiffer than that of the non-jump leg. Research with collegiate long and high jumpers indicated that the jump leg had 24% greater Achilles stiffness than the non-jump leg.

Further research has identified that the triceps surae (muscles that run into the Achilles in the lower leg) also develop in conjunction (or vice-versa) with increases in Achilles tendon stiffness. Thus, the soft tissue of the lower leg becomes stiffer and is able to generate and return force in a superior way when subject to relevant training, such as the ptyometric drills and ballistic training indicated previously. This would also apply to the stiffness of the knee and hip.

Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor still holds the high jump world record. His 2.45 (8’1/2”) WR was set in Salamanca, Spain, in 1993. 

Eccentric activity

As indicated, taking off on a near straight leg in the high jump means that the soft tissue of the leg is prestretched/pretensed. This affects the eccentric (lengthening muscular action) portion of the plyometric stretch/reflex and the resultant rate of force development.

Much research indicates that plyometric training enhances the stretch reflex and leg stiffness and the eccentric capacity of the jumper. Research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning indicated “that a significant increase in concentric vertical jump performance is associated with increased levels of pre-activity and eccentric phase muscle activity.” And, this is an additional benefit of ballistic and plyometric training, teaching the neuromuscular system to be able to automatically “set” it itself to fire the stretch-reflex optimally.

There are obviously a number of ways in which to condition the optimum high jump takeoff and this will depend on the maturity of the athlete and whether he is a speed or a power flopper. However, it would seem that ballistic training and plyometrics when combined and working, particular with very shallow knee angles (while developing leg stiffness and improving the neuromuscular qualities of the stretch-reflex and Achilles tendon stiffness) will prove beneficial, whilst being mindful of the potential limitations of weight training, particularly for those who have weight trained relevantly for a number of years.