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.