I recently had a rude awakening: I (now) jump like a white man.
I hope no one takes offense at that, but hey, Hollywood made a movie about it! Maybe I shouldn’t take this so hard. After all, I am a white man. But, I’ve always taken a certain pride in breaking that mold and being able to get off the ground. Growing up playing basketball and volleyball will do that for even the “whitest” of guys. In fact, almost all the guys I played volleyball with in high school and college had verticals of between 30 and 40 inches.
Up until I stopped playing competitive volleyball 13 years ago, my vertical jump was in the low 30’s. At 5’10”, I wanted a 40-inch vertical so that I could hit over blockers, but being in the low 30’s helped me hit sharp angles around most blocks. When I stopped playing competitively when our first son was born, I knew that giving up volleyball and basketball in exchange for running would have a negative effect on my fast-twitch muscles, and consequently, on my vertical jump. So, although running was going to keep me fit, it wasn’t going to keep my legs in jumping shape. But I suppose I was in denial about how much my vertical would actually degrade. Age certainly has something to do with it, but the main culprit was, well, not doing much jumping for an extended period of time.
This past summer, while I was in our local high school gym helping with the varsity girls’ volleyball team, I noticed a vertical jump measurement chart on the wall. When no one was looking, I measured a couple jumps. I was shocked to find out that my vertical was down 8-10 inches from what it used to be. Yikes!
This new realization led to the pursuit of a new challenge: gaining back those vertical inches that I had lost. Heck, at this point, I’d be happy with just getting back to a 30-inch vertical! It was time to get serious. But would this even be possible at my age? And if so, what kinds of exercises do I need to do to reach that goal?
When I was in my early teens, in my quest to become stronger and more athletic, I did a fair amount of weight lifting in our basement at home. And since I had seen boxers on TV jumping rope, I did a bunch of that too. Without realizing it at the time, I was laying the foundation for a good vertical. Beyond those early years of training, I mostly just played sports without focusing on weights or building muscle.
Now that I am, in effect, starting over in building my vertical, I’m learning all I can about what contributes to a good vertical. I’m learning about plyometrics. I’m learning about all the muscles of the legs and which ones contribute most to jumping (quads). And rather than simply using my local gym for running, cycling, and swimming, I’m focusing on weight training. The leg press is my new best friend! And now that I know that jumping rope is a form of plyometrics, I’m adding that to my weekly workouts.
As I mentioned last month, one of the big issues I’ve been having since last May is tendinitis in both Achilles tendons. It’s not clear yet if this is affecting my vertical, or if it’s just setting me back at times due to the pain. It’s definitely keeping me from doing plyometrics, but at least I can still weight train and work my legs on an exercise bike. In trying to speed the healing of Achilles tendinitis, which is known to be a slow process, I’ve purchased four different compression wraps and The Stick, which is a tool targeted at runners for massaging muscles to promote quicker recovery after hard workouts. As I learned from an ultra-runner that I met recently at my gym, this self-massage can really help with Achilles tendinitis. At this point, I’ll try anything and everything to get rid of this nagging injury.
Will it be possible to get back to a 30-inch vertical? I think so. In fact, to play at the level I want to, I need to have a 30-inch vertical. Without it, I’m not much of a force at the net, on offense or defense.
Years ago, when my doubles partner and I would play against “older” guys, we’d get frustrated when they placed the ball rather than hitting it. We were young leapers and could get by with simply crushing the ball. And we hated to lose to guys that could no longer jump and that relied on savvy placement to hit our open spots rather than hitting away against our block. So then when one of us would make one of these placement shots, the other would jokingly say “You’re a smart hitter!” Translation: “You had to rely on your smarts because you couldn’t put the ball away with pure power!”
I’m not ready to be a “smart” player yet. That day will eventually come, but for now, I’m going to do everything I can to get my vertical back to a respectable number.
Originally published in March/April 2012