There seems to be a lot of confusion about which muscles have the most impact on vertical jump ability…
While the vertical jump is largely a whole body explosive movement, certain muscle groups do play a more important role in the overall force production.
The most important muscles for jumping are those responsible for triple extension: the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
There are however several other vitally important muscle groups that contribute significantly to overall vertical jump performance that are often overlooked…
This article looks at each of the primary muscles in order of importance to the vertical jump.
Note that some muscle groups are similarly relevant and could be ranked interchangeably (i.e. it’s difficult to say whether the quads or glutes play a larger role).
This will also vary quite a bit on a person-to-person basis as well as based on what type of jumping you’re doing.
Also note that I’ll be referring primarily to the two foot approach jump in this article, but I’ll also address the major differences our single leg jumping friends should be aware of.
How Is Force Generated When Jumping?
The most important concept you need to understand in order to answer this question is triple extension: ankle extension, knee extension, and hip extension.
This refers to the sequential extending of these joints during the jumping motion as depicted below.
Hip extension, knee extension, and ankle extension all work together to generate force when jumping.
Triple extension is shows up in virtually every form of jumping, whether that’s as simple as going up for a jump shot in basketball, or as nuanced as high jump attempt.
There is some debate as to whether hip extension or knee extension is more important, but it’s universally agreed that both the knee and hip extensors contribute significantly more to the jump than ankle extension does.
So no, calves are not the most important muscle when it comes to jumping, not even close!
While the bulk of our power output comes from our triple extensors (glutes, quads, calves), there are several other muscle groups such as the biceps, hip flexors, and tibialis anterior (shown in blue above) that also play an important secondary role.
I’m now going to run through each of these muscle groups and explain in much more detail exactly what their role in the vertical jump is.
The glutes are, in my opinion, the most important muscle group for the vertical jump… just.
Honestly, you could switch glutes for quadriceps and I’d be okay with that ranking order too.
But in my research, glute development has consistently come up as the slightly more important jumping muscle.
And it makes sense as your glutes are bigger and stronger than your quads.
The glutes are responsible for the final phase of triple extension: hip extension.
This is the movement you make when you stand up off a chair; it’s the straightening of your torso.
Your glutes and your erector spinae on your back work alongside each other to straighten your torso in the final part of the vertical jump.
Best Exercise – Hip Thrusts
This was a close one between hip thrusts and glute ham raises. But personally I prefer hip thrusts as I feel a stronger contraction in the glutes.
It also involves the hamstrings less, so it’s a great way to really isolate the glutes.
The quads are second on my list and are responsible for the all-important knee extension portion of the vertical jump.
Actually if I was to look at myself individually, quads would be ranked in first place because I’ve got pretty strong glutes but definitely lack quad development.
This will be common for a number of athletes and could be the case for you as well.
It’s a decent idea to assess whether you are quad or hip dominant so you can get an idea of whether quads should be ranked one or two in importance for you.
A simple way to do this is to perform a standing vertical jump but pay attention to where you took off from and where you land.
If you land behind the starting point, you’re likely quad dominant.
If you land in front of the starting point, your hips are likely the dominant muscle group.
Regardless of the ranking, you’ll be training your quads a lot in any vertical jump program.
They’re heavily involved in almost every plyometric exercise and the majority of compound resistance exercises.
The quads (namely the VMO) play a crucial role in the stabilization of the knee joint.
The more stable and rigid the connection between your ankle and knee is, the less power leakage you’ll have, and the more force you’ll be able to efficiently transfer – which means bigger bounce!
Best Exercise – Barbell Back Squat
The squat is a classical vertical jump training favorite.
There is a lot of debate about which variation is best, how deep you should go, what rep ranges to use, how fast you should do them, etc.
At the end of the day, this is a very complex issue but the most important thing is that you’re increasing the amount of force you can produce with your legs and any squat variation will be great for that.
The barbell back squat is my personal favorite squat variant for vertical jump training followed closely by the Bulgarian split squat.
In a strict sense, the hammies aren’t technically part of triple extension, but they’re still really important when it comes to the vertical jump.
What Do The Hamstrings Do When Jumping?
The hamstrings are responsible for performing knee flexion during the vertical jump.
The hamstrings are the antagonists of the quads and are therefore used more for stability during the jump approach and aren’t actually contributing much to force generation.
That said, I’ve ranked the hammies higher up than the calves (which do directly produce force when jumping) and the reason for that is because they’re not only significantly larger but they also play a more important role biomechanically in the jump.
Primarily that role is to position the athlete in such a way that allows the knee extensors (quads) to perform as efficiently as possible.
Look at your hammies as a highway for vertical jump force transferral: on the way down, they facilitate the transferral of force from the quads into the lower legs and, on the way up, they send that force back up from the lower legs through to the hips.
Weak hammies will cause a leakage of power which we definitely don’t want!
Best Exercise – Nordic Hamstring Curl
First I should mention that I honestly couldn’t decide for this one…
I was tossing up between GHRs, RDLs, and Nordics.
Let’s just say all three of these exercises are absolutely brilliant for hitting the hamstrings and you should experiment with all of them to see which works best for you.
The Nordic is pretty difficult though and most people will struggle to perform this movement and will have to do some sort of regression.
The GHR is a great alternative that is much easier to perform and there’s also some great research that shows its effectiveness for the vertical jump…
Two groups of athletes, a control group (who did GHRs) and a test group were given a training program and had their approach (running) vertical jump and standing vertical jump tested.
The control improved a mean of 1.8 cm in the approach VJ and a mean of 1.6 cm in the standing vertical jump. The experimental group improved to a greater extent (larger effect size). The average increase in the experimental group for the approach VJ was 2.66 cm and for the standing VJ 2.7 cm.2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28658084
Whether you choose to work on Nordics or simply do GHRs, the hamstrings are a big part of the vertical jump and shouldn’t be neglected.
The calves are very important when it comes to jumping…
They’re responsible for ankle extension and toe-off. This is the crucial ‘final point of contact’ with the ground.
All the force we’ve generated through hip and knee extension is added to by the calves and then funneled into the lower legs before exiting through the feet and toes into the ground.
Many of the early vertical jump training programs put way too much emphasis on the calves.
While they do contribute some, they simply aren’t quite as important in comparison to the bigger muscle groups.
Some coaches also choose not to have their athletes train calves in the weightroom at all because they believe that any normal amount of jumping and plyometric work gives more than enough stimulus for the calves to get stronger.
The calves are also largely comprised of slow-twitch muscle fibers which means regardless of how much you train them, they’re only going to grow a small amount.
This is why you often hear people complain that no matter what they try, they can’t get their damn calves to grow!
Slow-twitch fibers simply don’t grow much to begin with.
Best Exercise – Standing Calf Raise
There’s plenty of different calf raise variations you can do but I think standing calf raises better simulate the vertical jump than seated calf raises do, for obvious reasons.
It’s a decent idea to mix in seated calf raises occasionally as they hit the calves in a slightly different way, so it’ll just give you a different vector to attack that muscle from.
Core: Hip Flexors, Abdominals, Obliques, & Lower Back
Your core is responsible for stabilization in all movements, including the vertical jump. If your core is weak, you will leak power.
It’s common to include hip flexors within the core umbrella, but it’s important to note that the hip flexors also include muscles in the thighs (rectus femoris and sartorius), so the term ‘core’ refers to a wide group of muscles.
If you extend the definition of the core, you also get the erector spinae muscles of the lower back which also help greatly with hip extension.
All of the above muscles play pretty significant roles in hip flexion and extension to a lesser degree.
I like to think of the core as a stabilizing mechanism when jumping.
The vertical jump involves our entire body and the core is the central unit that’s holding everything together and is a key part of efficient force transfer.
Be sure to take a look at my article discussing the importance of training your core for the vertical jump!
Best Exercise – Med Ball Side Toss
This exercise is probably more of a ballistic speed strength exercise but I’ve selected it as my favorite core exercise because of its very obvious carryover to the explosive activation of your core seen in the vertical jump.
In a sense it mimics the arm swing and explosion out of the hole you get when jumping. But at the same time, it’s not really using your legs, so is more of a core isolation ballistic movement.
You can do this one kneeling or standing up. The idea is to rotate your hips, slamming the ball into the wall as hard as possible, catch it on the rebound, and repeat for 4-10 reps.
There’s a million core exercises you can do and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you choose.
If you’re doing heavy compound lifts and lots of jumping each week, chances are your core is going to be reasonably well developed anyway. But it’ll probably be a good idea to add in literally any core exercise you like.
In my opinion this is one of the most underrated and important muscles in the vertical jump.
It’s the muscle on the front of your shin, opposite your calves. It plays a huge role in both knee and ankle flexion and a well developed TA will allow you to get your knees and quads into the optimal position to send as much force into the ground as possible.
We tend to focus so much on developing our calves but forget to train its antagonizing muscle, the tibialis anterior.
I believe the importance of the TA is grossly understated.
It’s an absolute powerhouse when it comes to facilitating massive rates of force development by locking down the ankle and knee joints during initial ground contact in the eccentric phase.
Training the TA has incredible benefits as far as injury prevention goes as well and I discuss that in massive detail in the article I linked at the top of this section.
Best Exercise – Standing Tib Raise
I’ve written about plenty of tibialis exercises for the vertical jump but this one is so simple and effective and requires no equipment.
Simply lean up against a wall and flex at the ankles until you’re on your heels, and release back down slowly.
After 20-30 reps you should have an incredible burn in your shins!
Advanced Exercise – Weighted Tib Raise
By far the single best thing you can do to bulletproof your shins is to pick up a tib bar which is a contraption that allows you to perform essentially the same movement as the standing wall tibialis raise, but sitting down with heavier loads.
There’s a few really excellent tib bars on the market and I’ve been given exclusive discounts for all of them, so be sure to check out my tib bar buyers guide!
Shoulders, Lats, & Upper Back
When we start looking at upper body muscle groups involved in the vertical jump, we’re mainly diving into the realm of the arm swing.
Arm swing generates energy in the shoulder and elbow joints which in turn creates additional power output during hip extension. It’s hard to say exactly how much these particular upper body muscle groups add to vertical jump height, but some research suggests it’s only around 10-15% combined.
The best jumpers in the world typically have massive, aggressive arm swings.
Take Jordan Kilganon for example.
You can see how far back the arms are cocked as he comes into his jump approach…
Granted, this is much more accentuated than what we tend to see in most athletes.
What this tells us is that while upper body strength definitely plays a role, I would say that upper body mobility – simply having the ability to get your arms into this position – is going to be just as important as upper body strength here.
This movement will often be restricted in many athletes by tightness through the chest and upper back as well as rear deltoids.
Best Exercise – Med Ball Toss
This is one of my all time favorite vertical jump exercises.
Simply swing down with a med ball and launch the ball upward (or upwards and backwards) creating massive hip extension.
This exercise really turns on the anterior deltoids and the upper back as well as your entire posterior chain.
Realistically, you can’t go wrong doing any old shoulder and upper back movements, though I like to seek out exercises which have a high conversion to the jump specifically.
Biceps & Brachioradialis
The other way we generate force through our arm swing is at the elbow joint through bicep flexion.
It’s really tough to say how much power is generated through the biceps and forearms with respect to the arm swing, but it’s certainly not to be overlooked.
My old volleyball coach gave us a lecture one day about how we should think about accentuating this elbow flexion during the arm swing.
His idea was that if the arms are left completely straight throughout the entire arm swing movement, we’re essentially transferring a lot of force forwards as opposed to upwards.
By flexing our elbows at about a 90 degree angle part way through the arm swing, we’ll be generating more upward force. It’s hard to say how much water this theory holds, but something to think about!
Best Exercise – Hammer Curls
This activates both the biceps and the brachioradialis (forearm) and also mimics the hand/arm position of a vertical jump arm swing quite nicely.
Achilles, Ankles, Feet, & Toes
Although not all of these are exactly muscles, a large part of my training philosophy emphasizes giving extra attention to these areas.
Achilles tendon length is largely genetic, but tendon stiffness can be altered with the right training stimulus.
Your ankles are the joints that absorb the most force in the body when you land from a jump. It’s absolutely vital that the ankles are as strong as we can get them and that the connective tissue surrounding them is kept in good shape.
There are muscles under the arches of your feet and I think it’s well worth considering how we can develop foot strength to improve how effectively we transfer force into the ground when jumping.
And let’s not forget about the toes…
The vertical jump is all about transferring force efficiently from your hips and knees down into the ground – and the big toe is the last point of contact we have with the ground.
There is research that found a positive correlation with toe flexor strength and vertical jump performance, so this is definitely something to consider.3https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323573799_Developmental_biodynamics_the_development_of_coordination/download
Sled Training For Foot & Ankle Mobility & Achilles Tendon Development
One of the most popular recent training methodologies involves using a training sled, namely doing backward sled drags.
Dragging a sled is super effective because it hits the knee joint in the complete opposite way to what we’re used to.
Typically the load is above the knee (think back squat). With the sled drag, the load is below the knee. This stimulates the joint in a super effective manner.
By pushing the sled forward, you’re getting unparalleled Achilles tendon activation which is almost impossible to replicate in any other exercise. This same movement trains the balls of the feet highly effectively as well.
Both the sled drag and push hit the tibialis as well. So by doing sled training, you’re hitting the foot, ankle, Achilles, and knee/VMO for a hyper effective lower leg workout.
Single Leg Approach Vs Two Foot Approach Differences
Let’s briefly have a look at some of the key muscle group differences you should be aware of if you’re a single leg jumper.
Firstly, what are the biomechanical differences between the two jumping styles?
During initial ground contact at takeoff, single leg jumpers usually plant their foot facing forwards in front of their knee, whereas two foot jumpers use a sideways ‘block’ step before takeoff to help them convert horizontal momentum into upward force.
Single leg jumpers tend to use longer approaches and attack the jump with much greater speed.
Single leg jumpers often remain very upright and don’t bend a ton at the hips or knees compared to the two foot jumpers.
So what does this mean?
Well since single leg jumpers are approaching with greater speed and a straight foot, the tibialis anterior as well as the calves are going to be far more involved during the planting of the jump foot due to the increased momentum in this style of jumping.
I found a cool study which looks at the differences in approach speed in the single leg vertical jump.
Peak Ground reaction force, eccentric loading rate (ELR), gastrocnemius (GA) of pre-activation phase, and tibialis anterior (TA) of push-off phase were found significantly larger in the fast approach speed of the running single leg jump.4https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/10/1/309
This is essentially confirming that speed is a bigger factor in the single leg jump and that ankle extension is the primary contributor to this style of jumping.
This indicates that the running single leg jump is a fast stretch shortening cycle movement that activates muscles to develop the maximum forces in a short time. The result reflects the work efficiency of lower limb muscles that executed RSJs with fast SSCs.
The knee flexor and hip extensor are important in supporting the body in the impact phase… Higher activation of the tibialis anterior and gastrocnemius during the running single leg jump may have the benefit of decreasing risk of injury in jump training.5https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/10/1/309
This highlights the importance of the hamstrings (knee flexor) and glutes (hip extensor) in the single leg jump approach.
We can conclude from this that the single leg jump is a very posterior chain dominated movement. There is significantly less quadricep involvement and overall less knee flexion going on here compared to the bilateral jump.
A Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link
Hopefully you now have a solid understanding of the relative importance of various muscle groups involved in the vertical jump. This doesn’t mean you should go out and just start hammering your glutes and quads either.
Understand that these larger muscle groups should be the centerpiece of your vertical jump strength training program, but that you should be training all of the smaller muscle groups too.
Vertical jump training isn’t about doubling down on your strengths. It’s far more about going after your weaknesses.
I guarantee you 90% of athletes could immediately improve their vertical jump just by doing some tibialis anterior specific movements, because they’re so often neglected.
You should strive to design a vertical jump training program that hits each of these muscle groups with adequate weighting.
According to Kelly Baggett who wrote the Vertical Jump Bible, the relative weighting of importance of each muscle group is approximately as follows.
- Glutes & Hips: ~35%
- Quads: ~35%
- Calves & Tibs: ~15-20%
- Arm Swing: 10-15%
With that, you should have a fairly decent understanding of what muscles make you jump higher and how you can start designing a vertical jump training program that makes sense.