I Decided To Spend A Year Learning To Dunk A Basketball. Here's What Happened.

Aim high.

Recently people have been asking what I learned trying to dunking a basketball. That's what happens when you write a book on the topic: People want to know what special secrets you can convey. It's like asking a hundred-year-old if she has distinct wisdom to impart about living such a long life.

First, before the practical nitty-gritty, I have some broad tips


Height helps.

OK, that might be obvious, but I actually mean it metaphorically. Trying to dunk, I had to make the most of my 6'2.5", stretching my tall frame as much as I might to achieve my goal. But maximizing height, or whatever it is that makes you distinctive, is crucial to discovering your talent: Run to, not from, the quality that makes you unique.

You can surprise yourself how much you can improve.

Even at age 34, far past my peak explosive ability, I was able to launch myself farther into the air than I ever thought possible. That holds true not only for all sorts of physical activity, but also for creative endeavors, like playing piano or picking up language.

Find people to lean on for support.

A gold-medal winning high jumper coached me up in my quest to dunk a basketball. Find a friend or relative who can lend you pointers as you try to reach your goal.

Trying to dunking a basketball at age 34, and for the very first time, was meant as a stand-in for all the things we wonder about ourselves: Given enough time, would we turn out to have a talent for playing violin, doing math, or dancing? What ability lurks in these bones of ours?

But if you're not interested in the metaphor – if you're purely interested in how to add inches to your vertical, here's a scaled-down version, adapted from my book, about how to jump higher.

First, measure your current abilities. This'll be crude, but doable: Put a bit of tape on your finger, doubled over into a loop. From a standstill, jump and slap a wall, making sure to stick the tape to the wall at your highest possible point. OK, this is the mark you want to beat.

Jumping, like comedy, comes in threes:

1. Stretching.

First, take a light jog, one just long enough that you begin to sweat. You're going to want to improve your explosive capabilities as quickly as you can, so feel free to mix in some high knees, some skipping, some jump rope, as you jog. Now that you're warmed up, you ought to take a solid 10 minutes to stretch. Make sure you get to your quads, your hip flexors, your groin, your calves, your butt, and your Achilles. Bonus points if you stretch your IT band. Think about getting as deep a stretch as you can. Where are you stiffest? Work on more nuanced stretches to ease up these regions of your body. As a reference, I recommend the book Staying Supple by the late John Jerome.

2. Lifting.

I actually want you to start with no weight at all. In fact, start working out on the very chair you're sitting in right this moment.

Trying standing up and sitting down. Do that a few times, rather quickly. Did you use your hands to help launch yourself up? Now try standing up and sitting down with no hands. Not even on your knees. Just keep them by your sides. Try springing up as soon as your bum touches the chair seat. Can you do that comfortably, 10 times in a row? OK, once you can do that, I want you to do that on one leg: Lower yourself down and pick yourself back up again on the same leg. The other foot shouldn't touch the ground. Hard as hell, right? Get back to me when you can do that 10 times in a row, in three sets. (A tip: Don't use a chair with wheels.)

Another exercise: squats. Stand up. Now drop your bum below the level of your hips. Make sure you keep your heels on the ground. And make sure your knees don’t stray ahead of your toes. Got it? (If that’s too hard for you, put a board or a folded towel beneath your heels to elevate them slightly.) Do this 10 times, up and down. Each time you go up, go up as fast as you can. Now try doing the same thing while holding a broom over your head, with your elbows more or less locked in place.

Finally, try doing squat jumps. When you explode upward from a squat, follow through and actually leave the ground. Land softly, with knees slightly bent. Lower yourself immediately back into a squat and explode upward again.

" Jumping, like comedy, comes in threes:"

Try following these and other leg exercises Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, try a track workout. Concentrate on short bursts of speed, starting out no longer than 25 meters and moving to greater distances, stopping at 200 meters. Take a 30-second break after each 25-meter sprint and a one-minute break after each 200-meter sprint. So a workout might look like four 25-meter sprints; three 50-meter sprints; two 100-meter sprints; and one 200-meter sprint. And then work your way back down the pyramid. Or you could do a set of six 200-meter sprints. If you don’t have a track available to you—if you live on the 19th story of a downtown high-rise—then take the stairs. Try going up two-by-two if you can. Or taking them one at a time as fast as possible, to improve your footwork. Don’t use the rail. For a heftier workout, go up two flights, down one flight, up two flights, down one, etc.

Each of these workouts, as well as the leg workouts, should include some abdominal work—sit-ups or planks or whatever works out your tummy.

There are tons of other leg workouts, including ones, like squatting, that involve weights. But for now, these will suffice.

3. Dieting.

Eat oatmeal for breakfast. Okay, that's basically your carbs for the day. Find something you like that's low-carb and low-fat and happily snack away at it for the day. For me, this was nonfat yogurt. And I chewed gum like a man desperately trying to quit smoking. I also ate lots of fruit and raw vegetables. Sure, fruit has sugars, but we all learned in elementary school that fruit and vegetables are good for you. No alcohol, I'm afraid. No cookies. No dessert — unless it's fruit. No fruit juices, though. And try to cut down on the dried fruit. Apart from the oatmeal, the yogurt, and the fruit, you ought to stick to protein and vegetables, preferably steamed. Have small helpings of turkey and white-meat chicken; the occasional burger, sans bun; tofu; fish. Try for lean cuts, prepared with little oil. And don't underestimate the incredible edible egg.

To learn more check out Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity.

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