Nightwing Workout Part One – Explosive Leg Training

By on April 1, 2019

Nightwing – Dick Grayson – is Batman’s protégé who became a hero in his own right. But far from being a carbon copy of Bruce, Nightwing sets himself apart with a distinct set of abilities. In particular, Nightwing is a world-class gymnast and the only man alive in the DC universe to pull off the quadruple somersault.

Nightwing Training

Whereas Batman is portrayed as a brick wall, Nightwing is nimble, agile, and fast – a perfect skill set for a hero who spends their time running across rooftops. And a perfect inspiration for those of us who want to improve our own physicality, gymnastic strength, and agility.

To this end, I began attempting a number of flips and gymnastics moves to incorporate into my training. I had high hopes that – having once been able to do this stuff – I’d be able to land my first backflip in years with ease.

Turns out I was a little rusty.

Months of throwing myself on my butt later and I’m improving. But clearly I have been seriously out of practice (not sure my advanced years are helping either!). It’s been a fascinating learning curve that I’m really keen to share with you guys.

It’s not over either – I’ve a lot of improvement yet to go, and I’m hoping to share it with you as I develop over the course of this series.

Nightwing workout

Pulling off XMA tricks and parkour moves requires a number of different complimentary skills working in tandem.

For example, after a day of attempting backflips, I was extremely surprised to find just how much core involvement there was. My abs hurt for days after.

Likewise, flexibility is extremely important. Performing a back or front handspring is considerably easier if you can perform a bridge easily.

Performing a back or front handspring is considerably easier if you can perform a bridge easily.

Proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness go without saying, but of course you also need explosive jump height if you are going to get enough air to perform tricks.

I found it easier to flip and climb back in the day because I attended four different martial arts classes a week. This kept me light and flexible, while improving my explosive strength.

To this end, I decided to make this Nightwing training program into a series. And in this part one, I’m going to explore how to jump higher for flips, parkour, and martial arts. By the end of this video, you’ll have a detailed ‘leg day’ that focuses primarily on explosive leg strength for leaping about like a cat. Or, you know, like Nightwing.

Jump height Nightwing training

In the next parts, we’ll explore a core day to help us generate the torque necessary for those flips, push and pull days for gymnastic upper body strength and mounting, and supplementary training for martial arts, proprioception, and more.

How to Jump Higher, the Basics

If you want to jump higher, then there are two easy things you can improve. First: improve your squat. Second: get lighter.

Squatting is essentially utilizing most of the same muscles as a vertical jump (though with less calf involvement) and as such, learning to squat more will help you to jump higher, it’s that simple.

Squat vertical jump

Specifically though, you want to train squats at 90% of your 1RM. This is important as it is what will ensure you’re recruiting enough fast twitch muscle fiber to increase your explosiveness and starting strength. Less than that, and you’ll be developing max strength and endurance, but not necessarily explosiveness.

At the same time though, if you want to get better at bodyweight moves, then you need to get lighter. There is no negotiation here: the less weight you have to carry, the higher you’ll go. Of course, it’s up to you to decide on your training priorities and to find a balance. But if you can get stronger while keeping your weight lighter, that will provide the perfect sweet spot for jumping.

But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Firstly, we need to ‘fill in the gaps’ that are missing in our squats. For example: those calves! We want to add the involvement of calves, seeing as they will be responsible for the final thrust off of the ground.

Calf raises

Yes, these shoes are REALLY old

You’ve already heard one of my favourite ways to train the calves: with calf jumps. Simply stand flat on the floor and then jump up in the air while keeping your legs and waist entirely straight.

Calf raises, once again at 90% 1RM, will also improve this explosiveness.

You can supplement these exercises with anything that trains your posterior chain. That means things like kettlebell swings for instance, or deadlifts. These will help you to train your ability to drive force into the ground, thereby propelling yourself upward.

But while you’re at it, make sure you’re actually activating that posterior chain. In particular, make sure that you are utilizing your glutes. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and the chief ‘anti gravity muscle’, and yet hip tightness from days spent sitting means that many of us aren’t properly utilizing it. This creates quad dominant athletes, who are squandering much of their potential.

How do you know if you’re quad dominant? Well if you do a bunch of weighted lunges and you feel that in your quads moreso than your glutes, you may be guilty.

We can train to fix this by squatting low to help loosen the hips, by using glute-targeting exercises like the barbell glute bridge and the weighted step up, and by stepping back and using less weight so that our bodies aren’t encouraged to ‘cheat’ by relying too much on quads to help out. Sometimes you need to take a step backwards to move forwards.

We can also think about Chong Xie’s ‘hyperarch’ position. Here, you train the arch of the foot with hops (keeping the heels off the floor) and the ‘hyperarch squat’ that involves tightening abs and glutes and ‘hardening’ the feet. I’ll be talking more about this soon.

Training the toes is also an interesting angle. I talked about this more in a recent post over at the Patreon. I’m sure I’ll get back to it here soon though, don’t worry!

Finally, build that mind-muscle connection by contracting the glutes as part of your ‘incidental training’.

And you know what else belongs in this routine? Squat jumps! And simply jumping. Practice the skill you want to train by jumping straight up into the air as high as possible. This plyometric training method will utilize all the right muscles in the explosive manner that you’re looking for.

jump squats tuck jumps

This will also let you measure your performance over time, by jumping onto raised platforms, or by making a mark on the wall to measure how much height you’re getting.

Springiness and Flexibility

Another aspect of your training that will have a direct impact on your jump height is flexibility. But we need to be extremely careful here – we want some areas to be more flexible than others.

For instance: increasing the flexibility of the tibialis anterior will help you to jump higher, more easily. This is a muscle that ends in a tendon, located on the front of your shin, which is responsible for pulling your toes upward dorsiflexion. When we jump, we drive our toes downward through the ground. Therefore, an inflexible tibialis anterior will actually introduce additional resistance and make it harder for you to extend those toes.

Jump height Nightwing

While increasing dorsi flexion flexibility may have its uses (more on this in a moment), we actually want to increase the thickness and reduce the pliability of the Achilles tendon (lower hysteresis). That’s because a more rigid Achilles tendon which actually be more efficient when returning stored energy from a depth jump, or when running (reference). We want thick, stiff Achilles tendons that are harder to stretch, but we also want pliable, stretchy tibialis anteriors.

In other words, to increase jump height it may be useful to stretch your toes downward but not upward!

One way to train this recoil reflex is with shock training – a powerful tool for increasing explosiveness. That means using things like depth jumps, where you are jumping down, absorbing the impact (shock), then launching straight back up in the air.

Absorbing impact in this way is itself a useful skill if you’re going to be jumping silently from rooftops. But what’s more, is that it also allows you to build up potential energy that you can then return into an even higher jump. The optimum methodology for this is to jump from a height of no more than 42 inches, spend less than 0.2 seconds on the ground, and then immediately return that energy. The shock generated from this move is equivalent to three or four times an athlete’s weight.

Nightwing flips

You need a lot of height to land a backflip – I need more!

This stimulates the myotatic reflex – a function of our reflexive strength causing any suddenly elongating muscle to tighten and shorten. And it allows us to return some of that energy stored in the tendons. AND it builds our superior ‘eccentric strength’ (muscle lengthening strength) in an explosive manner.

The best way to train this ability is through practice using depth jumps. One study of volleyball players found that they were able to gain an increase in 14% for their maximal jumping height using a depth jumping program (study).

This, combined with weighted stretching and moving heavy loads, can help to thicken the tendons in the right areas to build them into steel cables.

Technique

Wired made a fantastic documentary on jumping height that went into the technique of performing the best vertical jump. The thing to remember is that there is always an eccentric, lengthening motion in any jump – the part where you drop your body down into a squat.

Thus, the more quickly and the deeper you drop, the more power and energy you will be able to return into a powerful upward motion. You shouldn’t attempt to force yourself downward, but rather to let yourself ‘drop’ until you natural feel the bounce and begin moving back upward again. That’s where the myotatic reflex, greater explosive eccentric strength, and lower tendon hysteresis, come into play.

Swinging the arms can also help you to generate more upward momentum at the key moment.

Jump height

Another tip for increasing your jump height from a standing position is to start out with your toes pointing just slightly upward in dorsiflexion. This gives you slightly further to travel as you transition to plantar flexion, thereby helping you to exert more force into the ground. This is a ‘triple extension’ – you are extending at the ankles, knees, and hips simultaneously. Bending slightly forward can also help increase your range of motion and therefore force.

Note that greater dorsiflexion (ankle flexibility) allows you to do this more easily, and has actually been shown this way to improve technique – reducing the need to bend the body forward. This can improve your accuracy in such moves as the precision jump or hop.

One thing to note, is that in real life, most of us do not use vertical jumps from a standing position all that often. Instead, we jump from a running start – and that’s what Nightwing or any traceur would be doing the majority of the time – whether performing cat leaps, flying kicks, or wall runs.

Most of us do not use vertical jumps from a standing position all that often. Instead, we jump from a running start

This is slightly different. For one, it means that you need to launch from one foot rather than two in most cases. Thus, you need to build stability and balance in each leg, which you can do with specific single-leg training.

I made a whole video on that, but moves like pistol squats, pistol squat jumps, side squats, weighted lunges, and more, can all help you get the job done. You’ll train your legs, but also the balance and stability necessary to use them unilaterally. Not only that, but the ‘bilateral deficit’ tells us that a single leg is capable of generating more than half of the force we can generate with both legs together.

Jump height

Running speed also becomes important here: where you need to find and learn your MAV or ‘Maximum Approach Velocity’.

Adding sprints to your training can be an effective tool then, as it will help you to develop explosive leg strength, fast twitch leg fiber, and ultimately the kind of foot speed necessary to clear the largest gaps. I made a whole video on this too, but some simple things we can take from that are to incorporate drills like high knees.

You can also benefit from swinging or throwing your free leg upwards.

And if we want to be able to jump over things (tip: we do), then we also need to be able to contort our bodies while in the air. We’ll get to some of this during the core day training, but for now we want to be able to fold our body upward at the waist.

Flying kick

Practice this with tuck jumps by bringing your knees forcefully up to your chest in the air keeping your body upright, with dynamic stretches swinging the legs directly in front of you past head height, and with l-sits and v-sits. The objective: to be able to launch into the air then tuck up small to clear low obstacles. Another really great one is to practice jumping over a stick while holding it in your hands. This focuses not only on your jump height, but also that tucking ability that will become crucial.

In fact, in that aforementioned Wired video, it was pointed out that pulling the feet up to the hips was almost as important as the jump itself: what with the hips not actually travelling that high in the air!

The Program So Far

Nightwing Workout

So with all that said, the following Nightwing workout ‘leg day’ should be very effective at developing truly explosive leg strength, while also improving mobility:

  • Foam rolling – 5 minutes
  • Dynamic stretch – Upward and sideways kicks for hurdles
  • High knees – 2 minutes warm up
  • Air squats/Hindu Squats ATG 1 x 10
  • Barbell glute bridges 2 x 10 at 30-40% 1RM
  • Squat / Leg Press 3 x 3 at 90% 1RM
  • Pistol squats 2 x 10 (or failure)
  • Weighted step-ups/lunges 2 x 8
  • Squat tuck jumps 3 x 10 (max height)
  • Sprints
  • Kettlebell Swings 2 x 30
  • Downward dog
  • Plantarflexion stretch

But this is only one piece of the puzzle! Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Nightwing workout when I’ll be tackling either upper-body gymnastic strength, or the core strength and torque power needed for balance and flips.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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