Before you dunk, you have to jump

Times Staff Writer

The first time Sergio Siderman dunked a basketball, it was like winning the lottery and climbing Mt. Everest all rolled into one miraculous, testosterone-fueled experience.

"It was, like, seven weeks into the training and it was awesome. It was awesome," Siderman says, grinning as he speaks. "I was hugging my trainer, and he was freaking out."

But the celebrated dunk didn't happen in high school or even college. It happened when Siderman had just turned 30 years old, had a 6-month-old son and was working as an attorney. Until that magical moment, one thing he hadn't done yet was dunk a basketball.

The ability to hurl an orange ball down through a hoop is surprisingly important to many. With no TV basketball recap complete without the acrobatics of magnificent dunkers such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, dunking has become a longed-for, but elusive, goal of high school athletes and weekend warriors alike. Hard-core basketball devotees know that being able to rise up 10 feet (regulation hoop height) and dunk the ball allows membership into an exclusive club, one that comes with bragging rights and macho credibility.

That's where Gil Thomas comes in. The 43-year-old trainer is an enabler of dreams. The official term for what Thomas teaches is plyometrics, or using explosive movement to generate force quickly. The unofficial term for what he does is vertical jump training, specifically for basketball.

Thomas promises clients that they will dunk, sometimes within a matter of weeks. To do that, he puts them through a grueling regimen that includes various jumping exercises -- some off a platform, others knee-to-chest. In return, they pay him $50 to $150 an hour.

As a consultant with Jump USA, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based sports equipment company featuring many products just for improving vertical jumps, Thomas has a simple philosophy: Genetics has nothing to do with it. "Anybody can dunk a ball," Thomas says, "if you train correctly for it."

He should know. He had hoop dreams of his own as a teenager growing up in Louisville, Ky., but at 5-foot-8 figured he didn't have much of a chance at making a team. Though he excelled in track in high school, he never gave up his obsession with being able to dunk, the hunger for information leading him to read Russian training manuals and quiz neighborhood athletes.

Using the plyometric methods he learned, he was dunking in six weeks -- and became something of an expert on the subject.

Working on and off as a personal trainer for the last 15 years (with stints at Bally Total Fitness), he decided about eight years ago to develop vertical jumping as a specialty. Now he has a roster of about 100 clients, some of whom he coaches via phone and Internet, some he travels to see.

"Your mind-set has to be like an Olympic athlete," Thomas says. "You have to eat and sleep your goals. You've got to see yourself dunking before you dunk."

On a recent Saturday morning, he's at Siderman's Malibu home, watching him warm up with two fairly new clients: Frank Jara, a 29-year-old San Clemente mortgage broker, and J.C. Amigo, a 16-year-old student at La Salle High School in Pasadena. After a 20-minute combination of sprints, drills on an agility ladder, depth-jumps off a platform and knee-to-chest jumps, they head into the garage for a spin on the Super Cat.

The Super Cat is a weight machine designed for plyometrics that allows users to do squats, rapid squats, jump squats, calf raises and other exercises, with or without weight, up to hundreds of pounds. The training hits fast-twitch muscle fibers, designed for rapid movement, as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, which are fatigue-resistant and employed in endurance exercises such as walking. Thomas likes using weighted gear for the extra resistance it offers, overloading the muscles during movement.

Each client takes a turn on the Super Cat while the others watch as Thomas yells instructions over the din of the machine: "Jump higher!" he tells Amigo. "You're spending too much time on the ground," he says to Jara during a series of jump squats. Sweat pours down Jara's face as he grimaces and picks up the pace for the last few squats. Finally, escaping from the machine, he pants: "That feels awesome."

The grueling workout is a fraction of what Thomas insists is necessary to jump higher, and properly. He guides his clients through arduous combinations of warmups, weight workouts, agility drills, core-strengthening exercises, jumps with and without added resistance, and sprints. They're expected to follow his program to a T, but also rest when he says to rest. The goal is to improve neuromuscular coordination and build muscle strength gradually, without injury, eventually vaulting an extra 10, 15 or 20 inches effortlessly.

Like others determined to dunk a ball, Jara takes the regimen in stride. "If you're going to run a marathon," he says, "what keeps you going is the feeling of crossing the finish line. When I was in pain, I'd just think about the dunk and say, 'I've got to do this.' "

Jara was diagnosed a year ago with testicular cancer and while in the hospital vowed that if given a second chance, he'd go for that goal of dunking a ball. Two months ago, he took action, around the same time that he joined a local recreational league. He was dunking seven weeks later.

"Everyone was kind of shocked," Jara recalls. "They were giving me high-fives, saying, 'I can't believe you just did that. I give you props, it was pretty ... amazing.' "

Siderman's resolve to learn to dunk came near his 30th birthday. "I don't think it's uncommon," he says. "I think a lot of grown men have this hidden fantasy of dunking." He was in decent gym-going shape, a former high school and college water polo player and swimmer, but even at 6-foot-3 couldn't touch the rim. The desire to dunk has long loomed large: Siderman never made his high school basketball team, but his best friend did -- and went on to play pro ball. "He made the team easily," he says, "and I had to find something else to do."

His first dunk came almost two months after he started training with Thomas. "He makes you exponentially quicker," Siderman says, "and it improves every aspect of any athletic thing you want to do."

But where the improvement really counts is on the court. When Siderman first joined a basketball league, about seven years ago, he averaged zero to six points a game. Now, after training with Thomas off and on for three years, it's six to 20 points a game.

"Let me put it to you this way," Siderman says. "When the captains pick their teams, I was usually one of the last, if not the last guy picked. Now I'm usually the first or second person."

Some athletic experts bemoan the fact that basketball players -- and fans -- put so much emphasis on jumping.

"It's still only two points," James Radcliffe, head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Oregon, says of the dunk itself. "There's so much more of the game that requires other athletic abilities, such as good defensive techniques, passing or shooting from the outside."

But he's not naive. Also the author of "High-Powered Plyometrics," Radcliffe realizes the obsession with jumping shows no signs of waning. "Whether it's necessary or not, as long as someone says [the training can help] you, and there are people who feel a need for this, I think it will continue."

But is having a jump trainer as much about bragging rights as it is dunking ability? Even Jara admits that despite his newly acquired skills, "a big part of it is the mental edge. Here I am in a city league, and I'm sure none of them are training with a vertical specialist, so I'm thinking, 'You're going to be sorry trying to guard me right now.' "



Plyometrics helps jumps -- and more

Plyometrics is just one part of an overall training program in most collegiate and professional sports, but vertical jumping specifically has been pressed into the spotlight in recent years.

Meanwhile, exercise scientists and physiologists publish paper after paper detailing what methods work best to increase vertical jumps.

One study (published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2005) of 19 female volleyball players found that aquatic plyometric training -- including power skips, spike approaches, single- and double-leg bounding and squats done in a pool -- improved vertical jumps by about four inches more than a control group that did flexibility exercises and traditional volleyball training.

Another study (published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2004) found that plyometrics may be able to reduce the risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in women. The regimen was found to reduce peak vertical impact forces by an average of 26% in the training group that did low-intensity jumping and landing exercises, while the control group that had no interventions saw no changes (28 women were studied).

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