By the time you’ve reached my age, your jumping days are pretty much over. Kids jump (and always appear to have a good time doing it). We adults use step-stools and ladders on those rare occasions when we must leave the ground.
Admittedly, little daylight passed between the bottoms of my shoes and the floor even in my younger days, when I played a lot of pickup basketball in high school and college. I’ve been thick-legged and earth-bound since I can remember, conditions that have only grown worse as I’ve reached my mid-50s.
Nevertheless, in honor of the young men skywalking across my big screen in the NCAA Tournament these past few weeks, I decided to determine whether my vertical challenges are immutable or might be addressed by the right kind of training.
That’s sort of how I came to meet Brandon Todd. Todd had e-mailed me just a week or two earlier, trying to interest me in writing about his prowess in this area. At 5-foot-5, 205 pounds and 27 years old, Todd can still dunk easily, something he says he has been doing since he was an adolescent.
“That’s so yesterday,” I wrote back, or words to that effect. Five-foot-seven-inch Spud Webb won the NBA slam dunk contest way back in 1986, and 5-foot-9-inch Nate Robinson has won it three times. If Todd really wanted to prove his merit, I told him, he should show he can get a 55-year-old overweight man into the air.
At first he thought I was kidding. “I’m positive I can get you two, three inches,” he wrote. “At least four [or] five sheets of computer paper.” Once I persuaded him I was serious, he leapt at the chance. “I could def get you inches!!” he wrote back, and we were on.
Spoiler alert: My three-hour-long sessions with Todd were not enough to provide a fair test of his expertise, so we didn’t measure my vertical leap before and after. But they were enough to trash the lower half of my body and my lower back — in that good way you feel after a completely exhausting workout.
There is no magic trick that will turn you into Dr. Dunkenstein. It’s all about hard work and natural gifts. But jumping is a terrific, full-body exercise. “You use your arm swing. You use your core. You use your glutes. You use your hamstrings. You use your quads. You use the tendons around your ankles,” Todd said. “It’s almost like swimming.”
Almost. But in the pool you don’t jump 20 times holding an eight-pound medicine ball over your head, do single-leg step-ups, leg extensions and contractions, burpees, squat jumps, deep squats and reverse squats.
Todd is big on squats. His go-to training move is the reverse squat. I must have done a couple hundred of those over three workouts that reduced me to a panting, sweaty mess. If you’d like to try this, squat and put your finger tips on the floor between your feet. Keep them on the floor as you straighten your legs and lift your rear end as high as possible. Do that 20 times and you’ll feel a burn in your hamstrings that will remind you how little you use those muscles in everyday life.
Todd says he has been “obsessed” with jumping since he was a child. “Short man syndrome,” he told me during our first workout in the Dynamic Fitness gym in Frederick, Md., where he is a physical trainer. (He also works at another facility in Silver Spring, Md.) As a kid, Todd bought every junk science and snake-oil program that promised to improve his leaping ability, but he didn’t have his epiphany until, by chance, he happened to see video of an Eastern Bloc weightlifter jumping for joy after a successful lift.
The guy must have weighed 300 pounds, Todd recalls, and was probably 40 inches in the air. That’s when he realized what it was going to take to get way up. He began reading everything he could about jumping workouts and eventually cobbled together his own program.
Todd says he first dunked at 13, when he was 5-foot-2. He played high school ball and starred at Division III Muskingum College in Ohio. Then he became a physical trainer, with a specialty in jumping.
Todd told me that, with only a little variation, he would have put me through similar training if I had told him my goal was to become a better football player, baseball player or golfer.
“We create explosion, endurance and quickness,” he says, “which is deadly in any sport.”