Ashwin Purohit

Essays & Articles

How to slam dunk in 12 weeks

At the beginning of the 2011 summer, my friend bet me $50 I couldn’t dunk by the end of it. I won (with a net loss ‘cause my gym membership cost six times that) and will show you how to do likewise. You’re going to have to train twice a week for at least 12 weeks.

The reason most people fail is because they give up a month in. You have to keep training.

Your baseline

As a high-jump endeavor, dunking will come easier to tall, long-limbed, light, fast-twitch muscle fiber’d people. Look at what a high-jumper looks like: High jumper That said, you’ve got a good chance of success if you’re 5’10”+, or if you’re 5’8” and especially athletic.

When I started training, I was 6’1” and change (not-by-basketball-standards-tall), an athletic 185 pounds at about 10% body fat. I’ve been genotyped (disclaimer: I work there!), and I have one of two working copies of alpha-actinin-3 which helps my power performance, but I had no jump training and certainly not enough leg strength to propel me beyond merely touching the 10’ rim. By my measurements I needed to increase my vertical 8 inches to dunk. I played basketball casually and was mediocre-to-terrible. Oh yeah, and I was (and remain) Indian. If white boy can’t jump, well, shit.

Power and skill

Every single exercise you have to do requires high power. In the physics sense of the word: the rate of energy transfer. You can’t simply do a squat, you have to do an explosive squat. Not a calf raise, an explosive calf raise. All your slow weightlifting techniques are useless here. Train your muscles to react quickly and strongly to stimuli.

You also need to learn the skill of dunking. As in, how many steps to take, how many feet to plant with, where to leap from, and what configuration your hand will be in on its way up. It’s not sheer athleticism, but a skill. You need to practice on the highest rim you can dunk on (even if it’s 8’ to start with) so the act of dunking is engrained in muscle memory. When the time comes to dunk on a 10’ rim, you can’t be thinking about form and foot placement – it should come naturally.

The plan

The plan is to train twice a week, one day for plyometrics and the other for strength training. It’ll be an A/B cycle: Week A will have certain exercises, and week B will have others. I started June 17, 2011 and ended Sept. 11 (12 weeks and 2 days). I did plyo on Sundays and strength on Wednesdays, with martial arts 3 days a week in between for cardio. If you’re not as cool, you can go running.

I used a combination of exercises from lots of vertical increase sites on the web, as well as advice from my friend and former collegiate decathlete Mike MacPherson. If you need to buy a product to feel like you’re training correctly, use the Jump Manual as opposed to Air Alert, which is total bullshit. You’re not going to get anywhere by doing a thousand calf raises.

Week A

Plyo

Strength

Week B

Plyo

Strength

Same as week A, just shuffle ‘em around (do squats and deadlifts first, though)

Some things to note: do the tire/sled drags to prevent tendinitis. Practice dunking so you know how. If your exercises become too easy: if you’re using a ball, use a heavier one; if you’re lifting weights, lift heavier ones; if you’re jumping, wear a weighted vest. If you don’t have a vertimax, wear a weighted vest and jump from the ground.

† Explosive means the movement is a quick burst up. I recommend progressive deloading: do 3 sets of 8 at 80% of your max, then 1 set of 8 at 60%. Then (and do the following without rest): 1 set of 8 at 50%, no rest, 1 set of 8 at 40%, no rest, then a last set of 8 at 30%.

Recovery

Every 4 weeks of training, take a week off. You’ll need it. If you need to guarantee your dunk (for a bet, like I did), take another week off after 12 weeks.

You also have to ice your knees constantly. Jumping all the time will inflame them. I bought two Brown Medical Polar Ice knee wraps and iced my knees after every workout, and before I slept, and when I woke up (the day after a workout). Keep them on both legs for 20 minutes at a time, then throw them back in the freezer for a couple of hours. This won’t seem necessary until after a week or two, at which point you’ll quickly change your mind lest your legs be ablaze.

Flexibility

You don’t need to be too flexible to dunk.

Far more telling was the correlation between the various runners’ tight or loose hamstring muscles and their running economy, a measure of how much oxygen they used while striding. Economy is often cited as one of the factors that divide great runners from merely fast ones. […]

The inflexible men were more economical than the women, and for both men and women, those with the tightest hamstrings had the best running economy. They also typically had the fastest 10-kilometer race times. Probably, the researchers concluded, tighter muscles allow “for greater elastic energy storage and use” during each stride. Inflexibility, in other words, seems to make running easier.

Phys Ed: How Necessary is Stretching?

The same principle applies to dunking: you should be as flexible as you need to perform an explosion squat, but not more. If you need to stretch, I’d recommend jumping rope for 10 minutes before your workout, doing 15-20 front, side and back kicks per leg, and then about 10 minutes of relaxed quad, hamstring, and glute stretches immediately post-workout. Don’t do static stretches pre-workout: read Thomas Kurz’s Stretching Scientifically for an explanation (and a more detailed stretch routine).

Nutrition

As always, you should eat unprocessed foods: eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans. But since you’re trying to build muscle mass, on training days you should drink a blended shake when you wake up:

This shake is high calorie and the oats make it taste delicious. You can adjust the shake ingredients as you desire.

Immediately post-workout, drink 2 scoops of Optimum 100% Whey (double chocolate is the tastiest) mixed with water. Then, on non-workout days, drink 2 scoops of whey in the morning, and either 2 scoops of whey at night, or 2 scoops of the slower-release Optimum Casein. I never drank the Casein because I don’t like the taste, but it’s up to you. I don’t take supplements unless I’m trying to gain muscle mass, and I’ve always considered Optimum (and their chocolate flavors) to be the cleanest-tasting and least-toxic of the lot.

Perseverance, and what if I didn’t make it?

If you couldn’t do it in 12 weeks, extend the same program in 4 week chunks until you can. If you can honestly say you didn’t skip a single workout in 12 weeks, you’re 90% of the way there because the hardest part of all this is commitment and not getting discouraged. I can’t tell you how many times I would practice dunking on a 9’8” rim and get frustrated that I bricked a 9’10” or that the ball slipped out of my hand. You just have to keep going because you’ll get there eventually.

I created a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of my progress, and I recommend you mark it on a calendar of sorts, otherwise you won’t make it.

Will I be able to dunk forever?

If you want to keep it up, practice dunking once a week and you’ll retain it.

purohit@gmail.com

Software Engineer building back-end systems for ML tasks.

Previously: Stanford E.E., senior software engineer at 23andMe, lead software engineer at Recursion Pharma.

Want updates when I write?