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 to jump particularly high…
Being taller (i.e. having longer levers) does offer a slight biomechanical advantage for movements such as the vertical jump, due to the leverage advantage which allows for higher force production.
Today I’m going to explain in detail what impact height and 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.
The Biomechanical Advantages Of Longer Legs
The most important concept here is leverage.
To explain this in simple terms, I want you to imagine being a baseball player in the big leagues, except you have to play with a baseball bat no longer than 8 inches in length…
Most people can intuitively feel as though hitting a home run would be significantly more difficult with this constraint.
Most baseball bats are 3-4 times longer than that and this creates leverage which allows batters to produce more power.
Power is literally just 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, and since it’s much larger it also generates more force.
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 43 wins, and only 2 losses, and 42 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 fairly long, lanky athlete.
But it’s because of these 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 super powerful.
His arms function the same as the 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…
Going back to the baseball bat analogy… Imagine someone tossing you a baseball from a distance of 3 feet away.
In this example, the 8 inch 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 3 feet away – you don’t have a chance to really wind up.
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 jumping (off one leg) requires 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 a similar height in both the standing vertical jump as well as the running vertical jump.
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!
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 as 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 1 rep max, I believe strength training should be the primary 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
According to Kelly Baggett, who wrote the Vertical Jump Bible, research has shown that the best athletes are really only able to utilize 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 explosive strength deficit.
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 far 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 40-70% of their 1RM, but look to complete the exercises with a focus on speed, particularly in the concentric phase.
By 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 somewhat deflated to find out that you are at a slight genetic disadvantage when it comes to jumping, I really wouldn’t be too worried about it at all…
There are plenty of examples of shorter 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.
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 as 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.
At just 5’11”, Stefan Holm was able to win an Olympic gold in the high jump, despite being 4″ shorter than his competitors on average.
Focus on what you can control.
If you train smart and lean into your advantages as an athlete, you’ll still be jumping out of the gym, regardless of how long your legs are!