This article is authored by Joel Smith. Opinions expressed may not be that of SMARTER Team Training, STT sponsors or constituents. Joel Smith is an assistant strength coach of Olympic sports at the University of California, Berkeley working with track and men’s tennis. Joel has experience as a track and field coach, lecturer, personal trainer, and was a collegiate high jumper with a personal best of 7 feet. He has Bachelors and Master’s degrees in exercise physiology and has published research with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Ask the average Joe on the street a question about what makes a good leaper and something about the calves is sure to be included in the response. For those of us who have coached athletes, we realize that squatting and deadlifting often paves the fastest road to a better vertical leap. Training for the lower leg is not typically included in most programs, but why?
To learn how the calves are important, try this simple test: Stand completely straight legged and try and jump as high as you can, only using the power of your calves. You may have reached 2-3 inches off the ground, or perhaps 6-8 if you have been working on your Jedi levitation skills. Now try another test: point your toes up towards your face so you are standing completely on your heels. Jump as high as you can while keeping your toes pointed upwards, taking your calves completely out of the jump. Again, not a high jump, maybe a couple inches higher… but still terrible!
So you jumped around 3 inches using only your calves, and about 6 using no calves, adding up to a whopping 9” jump! This is less than half of your normal leap, so what gives? The calves and hips work together to create a great vertical leap, the calves being much like the tail end of a whip that cracks faster than the speed of sound. The feet and lower leg will amplify the force that is sent to them, but cannot create much power on their own. It is also important to know that since the calves are responsible for amplifying the force of the legs into movement, it is the integrity of the fascia and tendons that are a vital part of this kinetic chain, not just the main two muscles we learn about in our anatomy textbooks. This is why just doing calf raises will not work the total system in terms of the structural strength of the lower leg.
Because the calves and forefeet are more so amplifiers than generators, it is more important to work on the skill in how the feet use the force sent to them by the legs, rather than working so hard on the raw strength in the muscle bellies of the soleus and gastrocnemius. How is skill in the lower legs trained? The best answer is jump training work with specific goals and cues in mind. Think deliberate practice for the lower leg. Strength is nice, but a greater need is a neuromuscular program to use that strength.
Programming for the lower leg will involve teaching the skill of reaching the forefoot quickly during the jumping action. Many times we see athletes who like to walk around dominantly on the balls of their feet. These athletes often have great spring, but it is not necessarily because they have big calves. Rather it is due to the fact that they will put their weight on the ball of the foot faster than their more gravity-bound counterparts. Getting the weight on the ball of the foot early will help turn the lower legs into miniature “pogo sticks”, by allowing the athlete to stretch and release the powerful Achilles tendon more efficiently.
Watch any good two leg leaper vs. someone who just cannot get up, and you will see that the good jumping gets to the ball of the foot early and rarely jumps completely flat footed. They also do this with a smoothness coveted by those of us left in the lower stratosphere. You can even go to the level of looking at the animal kingdom and realizing that our mammalian friends are constantly high on their forefeet. The basis of training the forefoot for vertical leaping therefore is to focus on keeping off of the heel during basic jumping movements. Start with single response jumps for your athletes teaching them to get to the forefoot quickly and progress to more advanced versions. Athletes can only progress when they can demonstrate smooth jumping without a heel crash. Teaching athletes to take advantage of their Achilles tendon is another aspect of training that we don’t often think about, and one that can produce excellent results.
Joel says, “Athletes have a limited window to fulfill our fullest potential.” It is his goal for the athletes he works with to look back on their time with Coach Smith and have no regrets regarding the effort they put in and how far they were able to push themselves towards success. He believes in using the weightroom, not only to develop the body, but as a vehicle to teach the power of effort, dicipline, teamwork and positive thinking. To learn more from Joel, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.