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How to Dunk a Basketball

Some are born with the athletic ability to dunk, while others have to work at it.
Some are born with the athletic ability to dunk, while others have to work at it. | Source

The Slam Dunk

There are few things in sports more impressive than a monster slam dunk. Sure, it’s only worth two points, the same as a layup, but it looks a heck of a lot cooler! Not only that, but a commanding dunk has the power to turn the momentum of a game, fire up the crowd and deflate you opponent’s ego.

Dunking a basketball is a skill some players take for granted. If you are 6-foot-6 and can jump through the roof of the gym you probably aren’t going to benefit much from this article.

On the other hand, if you are under 6-foot and have always wanted to throw one down there is no reason you can’t work toward this goal. Maybe you can grab the rim on a good day, or maybe you’re really close but not quite there. There are things you can do improve your ability to dunk, and your hard work will definitely have rewards.

In fact, that was me back in high school. At 5-foot-10 I worked and worked until I was able to get the ball over the rim. In this article I’ll share some of what I learned. As a bonus, the same drills you do to learn how to dunk a basketball will make you a better all-around athlete. That’s really the point here, right?

So let’s get to it!

Building Strength

For many athletes their physical strength is a major limiting factor in their performance. This is not just true for jumping ability, but also for speed, quickness and agility. It's pretty simple: The stronger you are the more efficiently you can move your own weight through space.

Some people are born with a higher percentage of lean muscle mass and are great natural athletes. If that’s you: Congratulations on winning the genetic lottery! The rest of us need to work hard to increase strength and muscle, and that means lifting weights.

When I was a young athlete I was one of those guys who would rather be running around in the sunshine on the court instead of spending time in a dank weight room. Then I read a book called Fitness for Athletes by legendary strength coach Dr. Terry Todd.

In one section of the book, Todd writes about a seven-week strength program he’d done with a college basketball team. At the end, on average each member of the team had increased his vertical leap by five inches. They lifted three times a week, for only twenty minutes per day!

So, as a basketball played will you benefit from a 5-inch increase in your vertical leap? Yes, you can. Will strength training help you be a better athlete? Yes, it will. I learned quickly that I need to lift weights, and the stronger I got the faster I could run and the higher I could jump.

It’s best to stick with basic, compound exercises like squats, bench presses, barbell rows and military presses. These exercises are great for gaining strength and muscle mass. Find a coach or trainer who can teach you how to perform these exercises correctly.

If you can find someone to help you learn Olympic-style lifting that’s even better. The explosiveness and power you get from Olympic lifting translates very directly to improved athletic performance.

Put in the hard work and you can dunk like the pros
Put in the hard work and you can dunk like the pros | Source

Drills to Increase Your Vertical Leap

Strength training is the number-one way to condition your body so you can be more powerful and jump higher. If you want to dunk a basketball but don’t quite have the ups for it, a good strength program may be all you need to put you over the top. But there are a few other things you can do to increase your vertical leap.

Skipping rope is a great all-around exercise for basketball players, and for most athletes. It helps you develop quick feet and agility, and of course is outstanding for cardiovascular conditioning. It also helps to increase your vertical leap.

Once you get good at it you can mix it up with double-skip jumps, one-legged jumps and other variations. The constant repetition of jumping will have your calves screaming, especially if you do your rope skipping after a hard strength-training workout.

Rope skipping is also a very basic form of a type of exercise called plyometrics. Plyometric exercises involve repetitive explosive movements, such as jumping up and down or catching and throwing a medicine ball. The idea is to execute the movement with as little downtime as possible between repetitions. This, in effect, trains muscles to be powerful and explosive, and utilize the kinetic energy inherent in athletic movements in the most efficient way.

In skipping rope this means repetitive short hops, but there are many far more advanced plyometric exercises. These include box hops, where the athlete jumps back and forth over a box or hurdle of a certain height, and depth jumps where an athlete starts off on an elevated platform and drops to the floor, then quickly leaps back onto the platform.

Like strength training, a plyometric program should only be undertaken after the guidance of a professional coach or trainer. Many strength coaches recommend an athlete be able to squat 1.5 times their own weight before engaging in such exercises due to the chance of injury.

Spudd Webb Wins '86 NBA Dunk Contest at 5'7

Practice Make Perfect

As you work on your strength and jumping ability you will likely find you are inching closer and closer to your goal each time you try for the basketball rim. But what are you going to do when you get there?

Dunking a basketball isn’t just about the ability to jump high enough. You also have to be able to handle the ball, and if you intend to dunk in a game you need to do it without traveling. This means you have to practice.

For smaller guys much of the problem, and one I struggled with, is managing the ball. Like most guys my size I can palm a basketball if a grab it carefully, but realistically it isn’t going to happen without a little concentrated effort. Some of those big guys can make a basketball look like a volleyball, and they have no trouble getting hold of it and shoving it over the rim.

If you can just about jump high enough to dunk but you’re struggling with the mechanics of it, the solution is to start small and work your way up. If you can dunk with two hands all the better, but you are probably going to have to learn to manage the ball with one hand, at least in the beginning.

Start off with one of those mini basketballs until you get the groove down. Then move on to a volleyball, then to a regulation women’s basketball, and finally to a regulation men’s ball. Keep your form under control as you move up to more challenging levels, and be patient. If you keep working hard you will get there.

A ferocious dunk can swing the momentum of a game.
A ferocious dunk can swing the momentum of a game. | Source

Tips and Cautions

Once you can get up and slam dunk a basketball you’re really going to feeling your oats, but there are few things to think about if you want to avoid injury and embarrassment:

  • Be careful where you dunk: Depending on where you play, the rim itself may be a mess. You can really tear your hand open on a rusted rim that’s poorly maintained.
  • Protect your ankles and knees: For us guys under 6-foot the way down is no small fall. Stay under control, especially if you are around other players. Busting up your ankle or knee will ruin your season in a hurry.
  • Don’t practice dunks on portable goals: Unless you want to end up in the hospital, and/or go viral on YouTube. Those things are prone to tipping over if you put weight on the rim, leading to injuries.
  • Don’t grab the rim without good reason: Hanging on the rim is legal in a game only if you are doing it to protect yourself or other players. Otherwise, you will get a technical foul for being an idiot. It's also dangerous if done incorrectly. You could lose your balance and end up flat on your back.

Unleashing Your Newfound Power

Dunking a basketball is a lot of fun, and for most of us that is really the only reason to do it. Especially when you are a shorter player, it is cool to see the looks on the big guys’ faces when you do something you really ought not to be able to do. But let’s be realistic here: If you want to be a good basketball player there are many, many skills that are more important to spend time on. For most of us, the ability to dunk is an insignificant part of our game.

In fact, if you are a very short player and can barely reach the net when you jump you should probably put the dream of dunking the ball out of your mind. Better to spend time working on your layups and ball-handling skills. You can still lift weights and do all the other things to increase your vertical leap, and you can still be a very effective player.

Should you try to dunk in a game? If you are confident in your ability, or if the game is way out of hand, go for it! However, if the game is close and you have the choice between making a layup or going for the dunk, you’d better be a team player and get the sure points.

So, good luck turning yourself into a backboard-shattering dunking machine, even if you are under 6-foot. Let me know how it goes in the comments!

The Power of the Dunk

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