On Sunday, the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt ended his season with a safety and three sacks. This was, incredibly, a typical performance for the MVP candidate. Every week, Watt does something we've never seen before. The best illustration of his outrageous athletic ability may be a nine-second video from the summer of 2013. The clip features the freakishly built defensive end planting his feet, raising his hands above his head, whipping them down past his hips, bending his knees, and jumping like a mutant frog onto a 59½-inch platform. After sticking the landing, he hops down, flexes, and grunts, then walks toward the camera and whispers, “Watch out.”
For those who don’t belong to a CrossFit gym or scour the Web for feats of strength, this is called a box jump. When an amazing athlete like Watt performs the plyometric exercise, the results can be eye-popping. Yet for every stunning box jump there are dozens of poorly executed attempts. In early December, a CrossFitter sent Deadspin a video of his friend catching his toes on the side of a wooden block, then falling forward and landing directly on his crotch.
It’s easy to see why the box jump has become the Internet’s favorite athletic feat. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment, and yet the act itself is preposterous—Watt vaults himself higher than a Volkswagen Golf and lands on two feet. And on the other extreme, when a mere mortal tries and fails to leap atop a platform, it’s a whole lot more amusing to look at than, say, a guy who can’t lock out a bench press.
Though a great box jump is impressive to behold, is the drill actually useful? For finely tuned athletes, the answer is yes, but only when done with great care. And for amateurs? Jump at your own risk.
Let’s start with the benefits. “It’s an explosive movement that’s easily measurable by the coach and the athlete,” says Travelle Gaines, who runs a training center for pro athletes. In a video recently posted on NFL.com, Gaines guides Green Bay Packer Datone Jones through a box-jumping workout. Despite the fact that he’s holding a 10-pound ball for resistance and leaping onto what looks to be a 3-foot-high platform, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive end doesn’t appear to be laboring at all. It’s staggering to watch. “This helps me a lot with getting off the ball,” he says during the clip, “you know, that initial burst.”
Box-jump training allows a football player like Jones to work out his glutes, quads, and calves while also improving his balance. After all, a messy landing could lead to a nasty fall. The exercise appeals to pro athletes because it presents a tangible, lofty goal. “It gives the person an object, instead of just saying, ‘Jump high,’ ” explains David Donatucci, owner and director of the Florida Institute of Performance.
In a tutorial on his website, Donatucci says a good box jump features “triple extension”—that is, “the extension of the ankle, knee, and hip joints occurring simultaneously.” Gaines says he coaches technique rather than pushing his clients to go for the most impressive height. Good technique requires starting with your feet directly beneath your hips, your toes pointing straight ahead, and your weight shifted slightly back. “I want the athlete to have the most body control he can,” Gaines says, “so he can jump as high as he can and land softly.”
Jumping 4 feet in the air is impressive; landing softly while keeping your balance is superhuman. Gaines says he’s seen suspended Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson repeatedly execute 42-inch box jumps while holding a 60-pound dumbbell in each hand. A year ago, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout posted an Instagram video in which he lands a 5-foot box jump. The unofficial world record: 64.4 inches, set in 2012 by Army veteran and CrossFitter Kevin Bania.
The charm of a good box jump is pretty simple to explain: It looks cool. But while clearing a waist-high platform makes our jaws drop, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking at the world’s greatest athlete. (Although if you’re watching J.J. Watt, you very well might be.)
The sole goal of many box jumpers is to clear a specific height. To leap as high as you can, you’ll likely have to ignore form and bring your knees up to your chest. This will allow you to reach your goal, but from a training standpoint, it compromises the exercise.
As they pull off their extraordinary box jumps, even Watt and Trout can’t avoid bringing their knees up to their chests. While these kinds of examples may light up YouTube, Donatucci says the vast majority of athletes are better off working at lower heights and focusing on technique. This approach won’t make you a viral video star, but it’s safer than the alternative. “If Watt catches his toe and he falls forward and shatters his tibia on the edge of the box, what’s the point?” says Paul Geisler, director of the department of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College.
Here’s where I must point out that, for us mere mortals, copying the training methods of future Hall of Famers is probably unwise. Even at a reasonable height, box jumping is potentially hazardous. “I’ve seen more people come out of box jumps with bloody shins than you could ever imagine,” says Brent Callaway, a speed and strength coach at Exos, a company known for its work with professional athletes. “The risk/reward situation there does not weigh out in your favor.”
Callaway says he rarely endorses the exercise. “If someone is going to try it,” he says, “I would definitely recommend that they start out at a very manageable height and progress slowly.” This is especially true for teenagers, to whom caution can be a foreign concept.
Does mastering the art of the box jump make you a great athlete? Not really, says Callaway, who goes so far as putting box jumping “in the party tricks category.”
A 40-inch box jump is not the same as a 40-inch vertical leap, the latter of which is measured by marking how high an athlete can reach with his arms at maximum extension. A box jump may look incredible, but when done improperly it measures nothing more than your ability to lift your legs up to your chest. When Kevin Durant rises up for a two-handed jam, his arms and legs are fully extended. He’s not bringing his knees up to his chest while trying to clear a predetermined height. He’s trying to go as high as he possibly can.
If the worst you can say about the box jump is that it’s an amazing party trick, then, well, what’s wrong with amazing party tricks? The only question left for J.J. Watt is what he can possibly do to top this. May I suggest jumping out of a swimming pool?