Tomorrow night, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center will host the annual NBA Slam Dunk Contest as part of the league’s All-Star Weekend. Dunking a basketball is generally reserved for seasoned athletes with the incredible vertical leap required to rise high enough to stuff a ball through a ten-foot rim. But what about the aging average Joes who grew up watching high-flying stars like Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan? Could they ever soar high enough to achieve the dream of every schoolyard baller in the country?
To start the test, you need to stand with your right side against a wall. If you have access to a chalk board or a vertex (the measuring tool used by biokineticists), it makes this easier, however, you can use an outside wall. For the first marking, stand in your training shoes with your right hip against the wall. Reach up with your right hand to touch the wall at the highest point possible (while keeping your heels flat on the ground). Mark this point with chalk, as this is your “standing height.”
How do you know these will work? A little over a year ago, I was a 6′7″ HS junior, and I could almost touch rim. I decided that I wanted to dunk as soon as possible. I worked by butt off, doing these numbers or more every day (well, almost). 3 to 4 months later, I threw down my first dunk on a regulation goal (10 feet). Fast forward to today, I am a 6′8″ HS senior, and can dunk regularly (am close to doing a two handed standing dunk).
After four months of failing to pull off anything even resembling a real dunk, the planets aligned on Aug. 9: After at least 19 failed attempts that afternoon, I dunked a soccer ball on a middle school court whose rim measured 9' 11". (The original basketball, incidentally, was a soccer ball, property of Dr. Naismith’s employer, Springfield College.) Video from that afternoon shows me standing there, looking confused, in the moment afterward. Did that just happen? Failing had become so routine that even this small success felt foreign.
Like Todd and me, Nicholson was a two-foot jumper, and he echoed what Todd had told me was another flaw in my technique: “Your next-to-last step has to be a lot bigger. That big leap forward with your right foot—your penultimate step—that’s what allows you to explode off the ground.” To demonstrate, Nicholson sent me a video of Carter’s performance at the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest, which was a bit like showing a Monet to a finger painting kindergartner and saying, “No, like this.”
An important component of maximizing height in a vertical jump is attributed to the use of counter-movements of the legs and arm swings prior to take off, as both of these actions have been shown to significantly increase the body’s center of mass rise. The counter-movement of the legs, a quick bend of the knees which lowers the center of mass prior to springing upwards, has been shown to improve jump height by 12% compared to jumping without the counter-movement. This is attributed to the stretch shortening cycle of the leg muscles enabling the muscles to create more contractile energy. Furthermore, jump height can be increased another 10% by executing arm swings during the take off phase of the jump compared to if no arm swings are utilized. This involves lowering the arms distally and posteriorly during the leg counter-movements, and powerfully thrusting the arms up and over the head as the leg extension phase begins. As the arms complete the swinging movement they pull up on the lower body causing the lower musculature to contract more rapidly, hence aiding in greater jump height. Despite these increases due to technical adjustments, it appears as if optimizing both the force producing and elastic properties of the musculotendinous system in the lower limbs is largely determined by genetics and partially mutable through resistance exercise training.