The Astonishing Altitudes Achieved by World's Top Jumpers

Not many individuals would dare challenge Evan Ungar in a jumping competition. However, on a recent Tuesday, I found myself in a CrossFit gym in the heart of San Francisco, standing alongside a vertical measuring tape, about to do just that.

I harbored no illusions of surpassing Ungar, the record holder for the 2016 standing box jump at an astonishing 63.5 inches. My aspirations were of a different nature: merely avoiding complete embarrassment. As we received the countdown from three, we both leaped into the air. I ascended briefly, reaching the peak of my jump. Ungar, on the other hand, continued to rise, ascending to an altitude approximately twice as high as my own by the time I began my descent. The memory of him soaring past me while I peaked remains indelibly etched in my mind, akin to the afterimage of a human rocket launch. Here, for your amusement, is a snippet of the spectacle.

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Athletes with exceptional hang time like Ungar have long intrigued less agile jumpers such as myself. The likes of Ray Ewry, a track and field prodigy who claimed gold medals in the standing high jump at the 1900, 1904, 1906, and 1908 Olympic Games, once cleared a bar set at 65 inches. Over the years, the vertical jump has been a key component of the strength and agility assessments endured by NFL draft prospects at the combine. More recently, YouTube has propelled athletes like Ungar to stardom in CrossFit circles and online forums.

The fascination with Ungar’s abilities is well justified. During a box jump, he faces his target, subtly propels himself forward, and, crucially, draws his knees toward his armpits. This mid-air maneuver raises his feet nearly to the level of his hips, and, if executed correctly, they land on the target just as he reaches the zenith of his ascent. In a well-executed box jump, Ungar’s feet make contact as his upward and downward velocities cancel out, resulting in a surprisingly gentle landing.

Yet, Ungar’s acrobatic feats underscore a fundamental distinction between the box jump and the vertical leap undertaken by NFL aspirants. In the former, the aim is to get the soles of your feet as high as possible, whereas in the latter, it’s about raising your center of mass as much as you can in a single bound.

Your center of mass is not something you can modify mid-flight, which explains why the highest standing vertical leap ever recorded at an NFL combine was 46 inches, a record set by former Dallas Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh. That is 17.5 inches less than Ungar’s record-setting box jump, but a full foot higher than the 34 inches I witnessed during my jump with him a few weeks ago. Whether someone like Sensabaugh can transform a world-class vertical leap into a world-class box jump given the necessary hip and knee flexibility remains uncertain, but Ungar believes that an individual with extraordinary jumping prowess and exceptionally flexible limbs could achieve a box jump exceeding 70 inches.

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Leaving aside in-flight flexibility, what box jumpers and vertical leapers have in common is their pre-takeoff body manipulation. A pivotal element is what biomechanists refer to as a countermovement: instead of initiating their jump from a squatting position, athletes begin from a fully upright stance, initiate a downward movement by relaxing their muscles and flexing their knees and hips, rapidly re-engage their muscles to arrest their descent, and then generate upward momentum by extending their legs and exerting force into the ground.

Many athletes instinctively follow this pre-flight protocol, and most can leap several inches higher in a countermovement jump compared to a squat jump. The exact mechanism is not entirely understood, but one reason for the performance boost is that a countermovement readies the muscles by involving them in halting the initial downward motion. As Jesus Dapena, an expert in jumping mechanics and professor emeritus of kinesiology at Indiana University-Bloomington, explains, starting the upward phase of your jump with your leg muscles fully engaged maximizes the work they can perform throughout your entire vertical range of motion, allowing you to exert more force at the outset and achieve greater liftoff.

The extent of this boost depends on factors such as training and technique, but genetics also plays a crucial role. Dapena suggests that, even with dedicated training and a regimen designed to enhance bouncing ability, most individuals will likely never approach Ungar’s leaping prowess. Until the day when gene therapy for supercharged leg muscles becomes a reality, us ordinary mortals must content ourselves with watching others defy gravity.

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