The Back Squat for Vertical Jumps: Why Is it So Effective and How to Do it Properly?

When choosing an exercise to improve your vertical jump, most people will mention the back squat. This article will outline exactly why the squat is so effective in improving vertical jump potential and how to perform it correctly and safely.

Why is it so effective?

The back squat (or any squat variation) trains our jumping muscles. These muscles include the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Although the calves play a minor role in increasing vertical jump, these larger muscle groups are the most important and will provide the fastest results.

Of all the squatting variations, the back squat allows the lifter to move the most weight possible, this makes it a great choice as a strength exercise as we can expose these jumping muscles to extremely large loads safely.

This satisfies the force production part of our power equation

Power = Force x Velocity

Finally, the squat closely resembles the stance and movement pattern of a  two-footed jumping technique. This means the body will become more efficient at jumping without as much actual jumping practice.

How to do it:

Now that it’s been established the back squat is a great exercise for improving strength and thus vertical jump height. Let’s explain how to execute the movement

Setup:

There are really two major things regarding the setup that can be adjusted. These are the bar placement on the shoulders/back and the foot placement/angle on the floor.

Bar Position

When considering bar placement position, there are two sub-categories within a back-squat. These are either high bar or low bar. High bar meaning the bar is higher on the shoulders, low bar meaning the bar is placed lower down the back. Our body naturally likes to keep the bar over the centre of gravity, and because of this, the bar position determine how upright you’ll be during a squat.

As you can see, the high bar squat forces you to be more upright. This in turn shifts the emphasis on the trained muscles to the quadriceps and the back muscles (to hold you upright against the weight). It also encourages you to be able to squat deeper, forcing more range of motion to come from the ankle joint and not the hip.

The low bar squat forces the athlete to be more bent over. This in turn trains the posterior chain muscles harder (glutes and hamstrings). Additionally the depth of the squat generally is reduced in comparison to a high bar or front squat.

So what bar position the most effective?

Generally speaking there isn’t a massive difference between the two bar positions. However due to the fact that more load can be lifted, there’s increased glute and hamstring activation and less back involvement, low-bar will slightly edge out high bar position as the most effective squat technique. This is also because when we jump in game, you generally never squat below parallel, so the movement pattern of a low bar squat more closely mirrors the jump motion.

If you don’t feel comfortable low bar back squatting, that’s fine. The high bar back squat is still extremely effective and will provide you with solid strength gains.

Feet Positioning:

As most people have differing limb lengths, flexibility and mobility issues, determining a ‘best squat stance’ is impossible. The best feet positioning is the one that feels most comfortable, gives the best depth and allows you to move the most weight. Ideally this will be done through experimentation and potentially filming the execution of the squat. As a general rule, feet should be at around shoulder width apart, toes slightly turned out (15-25 degrees).

Taller athletes (or those with long femurs) generally require a wider stance, where as shorter athletes (or short legged athletes) will squat more comfortably with a narrow stance.

This video really outlines how our proportions will influence our squatting form and technique:

Execution:

Once a comfortable set up position has been established, the execution of the squat is quite straightforward. To ensure the spine is kept safe, tense the abdominals and breathe deeply into your core. Imagine sitting backwards and downwards, descending with control until you feel you cannot go any deeper while maintaining a neutral spine or you’ve reached at least a parallel position (parallel is when the hip joint is below the knee joint level). After a slight pause, ascend with force, pushing through the mid foot or heel region and exhaling aggressively. Finish the lift by powerfully driving the hips forward and squeezing the glute muscles until back at the starting position.

Cues to maintain a good squat position include:

“Chest Up”, “core tight”, “knees out”, “push through your heels”

Common Faults:

Knees Caving Inwards:

It’s important to ensure the knees don’t cave inwards during a squat. This is known as a valgus position and can lead to injury and less benefit from the exercise. The optimal position is widely debated however it’s safe say that the knees should at least stay in line with (or over) the feet.

Back Rounding aka Buttwink:

As many people get deeper in their squat position, their spine will begin to go from a neutral position into a slightly flexed position. It will look as though their butt is ‘tucking’ in. This is known as buttwink and if significant it can place a lot of force on the lumbar spine discs. This can have multiple causes, including poor coordination, tight hip musculature, restrictive hip sockets or lack of core engagement. Some minimal buttwink is expected and tolerable when deeply squatting.

Coming up on toes of feet:

Many people will find as they get deeper into the squat position they’ll have the tendency to shift their weight forward or even come up onto their toes. Alternatively, they may feel as though they’re falling backwards. This is commonly a result of tight calf muscles or achilles tendons and can be resolved by consistently performing our calf stretches

Implementing in Training:

The back squat can be considered a ‘primary’ movement, these are exercises that allow large loads to be utilised which in turn encourages maximal motor unit recruitment. Primary movements are generally the first lift in an exercise routine for that given day. If two primary movements are done on the same day, generally the lift that involves the most weight should be performed first (eg deadlifts may go before squats if they’re both performed on the same day). As the back squat does allow large loads to be used, lower rep ranges are normally performed (1-5) to ensure maximal strength gains occur. However in different training phases the rep ranges may be higher to encourage muscle endurance or hypertrophy. Combining the back squat with other vertical jump exercises such as power and speed training will greatly improve overall results and your vertical jump height.

There are many variations of the squat which will be covered in later posts, but the back squat is the most praised and popular variation and should be included, if possible, into every good strength and conditioning program for vertical jump power or general athletic performance.

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