Box jumps seem to be all the rage today. I’ve seen them promoted as a strength building exercise, a power development tool and even a cardio exercise. Go to a big box gym and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone deadlifting or squatting, but I’m guessing you’ll see a handful of devotees jumping onto higher and higher boxes. And it’s not difficult to feel like you’re watching a car race – thinking that sooner or later someone will crash. And there are plenty of ways to hurt yourself when attempting to jump onto a box when you’re fatigued.
However, it’s an exercise and there are certainly some benefits, right? So, it begs the question, are box jumps worth it?
What’s a box jump?
For the uninitiated, a box jump is an exercise that requires you to jump with one or both feet onto an elevated surface. That’s it. Pretty simple.
But as a consequence of its simplicity, there are many, many ways to interpret it’s execution. There are those that think you should jump down as well. Or, to perform your box jumps for time or to meet a particular rep goal as part of your workout.
When I was Olympic lifting, my coach at the time had me do “10 or so” jumps prior to training. And I admit that they were pretty fun. I loved jumping higher and higher and adding more rubber mats to the box to incrementally increase the height. Fortunately, I never fell or had any near misses, for that matter.
But iff my former coach had me doing box jumps, then there must be some benefit somewhere, right?
First off, it’s a full body exercise. And if you’re not swinging your arms to aid in lift-off you’ll be selling yourself short because connecting your upper body to your lower body in a movement like a box jump is going to be key to an efficient jump.
Also, a box jump is going to encourage you to improve your body’s coordination. You have to swing your arms at just the right moment, lift-0ff with both feet at the same time and then land with both feet at the same time.
Your hip mobility will also play a large role. Both the start and finish position of the jump will require you to get into a deep squat posture.
The bad (and the ugly)
A big concern for a lot of the more cautious strength coaches out there is that when you have an athlete jump up onto a box near their maximum jump height all you can do is just stand back and watch. Because after all, there is no spot for a box jump. You’re on your own. And if you miss your jump, at best you’ll scrap up your shins on the box and at worst, you’ll blow out an ACL on a botched landing.
If you want to get good at box jumps, then do box jumps. But if you want to build strong legs for ski season or train your explosive capacity during the non-cycling months, then there are better alternatives out there.
Let me be clear and say that it’s not as though box jumps are inherently bad, but it depends. It depends on your goals and it depends on your balance of risk/reward.
Let’s talk about the practical applicability of a box jump for a moment. Say you came across an obstruction that was 2, 3 or 4 feet high – about the height most people are setting their box jump height at. Maybe you were hiking or running – or running from a black bear chasing you! – whatever the case may be, you need to get over that obstruction and you need to do it fast!
Are you going to approach it slowly, take a deep breath and then jump with both feet? I doubt it. Instead, you’ll probably be tempted to do as the parkour folks do and place one hand down and swing your legs up and over it while maintaining your body’s forward momentum. So, a box jump for height really isn’t a very natural movement for us humans.
But how about a broad jump? Without the change in elevation, this is a much more primal movement. You also have the added benefit of needing to worry about the landing. And if you’re an athlete (or aspiring to be one) you definitely need to learn how to land on your two feet.
A broad jump is safer too. There’s less of a risk of you falling poorly and putting your knee in a bad place.
However, a jump is still a jump. It’s still a plyometric exericse that is going to load your joints and muscles by several G’s (your body’s perceived force of gravity will increase). So make sure your body is healthy enough to be jumping for recreation in the first place.
So, what do you think?
I may not be an advocate for box jumps, but there are many people out there who swear by them for quad development. However, the people saying this are usually performing O-lifts as well, which are proven strength exercises for the lower body. So, it’s tough to say.
At the end of the day, box jumps are cool looking and it can be easy to find yourself adding another 45 lb plate on top of the box to see just how high you can jump, but does the reward outweigh the risk for you?
If you do decide to incorporate box jumps into your routine, please save your knees the trouble and step down carefully as opposed to jumping down. Now I’m not saying that jumping down from something isn’t a skill that most of us should be training for, or at least working towards. Knowing how to land is very important, but I don’t think the majority of fitness geeks need to worry about landing from a box 3 or 4 feet high. Instead, find a short box of 18″ – 24″ and don’t go any higher than that.
Box jumps are in style these days. But don’t jump on the bandwagon just for the sake of doing so. Make sure you understand the risks associated with plyometric movements that don’t closely resemble a natural human pattern. Instead, focus on your goals and aggressively pursue them using effective and safe methods.
See ya out there.
By Ryan Wagner
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