You can improve your speed with one small change in your weight training routine. Much of what you do now can be improved by just changing the position of your feet. Even if you start your lift with feet shoulder width apart then end it with one foot in front of the other, you win. It all has to do with training for the way you perform.
The bad news is that single leg lifts are difficult. Since only one leg is doing the heavy lifting, then it follows that the weight of the lift should be half of what can be lifted with both feet firmly underneath you in the bilateral position. But with only one foot to balance you, there is much more wiggling to keep balance and control. This is proprioception, or the many small muscles that surround a joint firing to stabilize it. There is a reason why these single leg lifts aren’t popular in LA Fitness – it takes athletic skill to master them. How much easier it is to step into a leg curl machine or a hip sled and let the machine do the balancing work for you.
The reality is that standard bilateral lifting is easier to manage and measure. Strength training is dominated by Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and let’s face it, bodybuilding. Since there are many variables in single leg lifting, the resulting numbers aren’t as easily replicable. Some people get more knee pain when they single leg lift, typically in one knee that doesn’t behave well under the spotlight of single leg lifting.
Start with the most basic and most useful single leg lift there is. Put one foot well behind your front foot, this is the split position. Now dip down to barely touch the back knee to the ground, all while keeping the back upright. Progress up to putting the back foot on a curb-high box, then on a knee-high box. These are the famed Bulgarian Squats, often called Pitcher’s Squats. Several days should be spent just doing these squats before adding light dumbbells. With that adjustment, week by week start adding dumbbell weight until only four reps per leg can be done without failure. Keep rest between sets up to four or five minutes, you don’t need more than four sets or the law of diminishing return sets in.
When done with the lifting, contrast the weighted Bulgarian Squats with Low Walks. These are the same leg split position with the effort on walking with huge steps while keeping the back up and the walking motion under control. The objective is to transfer the strength gains into mechanical gains of stronger but much longer strides. 6 to 10 steps, relax, then repeat.
Give yourself a few weeks to adapt to the Bulgarian squats continuum. Then copy the motions with plyometric jumps. Keep the numbers down and the quality up. Start with simple jumps from the split squat position. Follow these with the same jump up but switch the leg position mid-air. It helps to do these over a mini-hurdle. The very last part of this program is “Eagle” hopping. This is where the back foot is placed on a knee-high box and repeat hops are performed on the front foot.
Single leg squats are essential. Here is strength, body control, and knee stability in one ancient exercise. Begin by standing on one leg with the other extended in front. It helps to have a pole or squat rack to grab on to for balance as you learn. Go all the way down with the foot flat, then come back up without losing body control. It will take some time to master, but this should be the corner piece of the single leg training puzzle. Within several weeks you’ll advance to dumbbells extended like counterweight in front of you. It tends to help by doing these with a weight vest.
Another key exercise is the Rumanian Deadlift. This is with one leg. The back leg is raised up and extended straight back while the front leg stays straight down. Deadlift up dumbbells or kettlebells 4 reps, keep sets to 4 or 5. For balance, athletes often start holding a heavy dumbbell with both hands, and touch it down on the little toe side of the foot.
You have now worked on controlling your motion sufficiently that you’re ready for step ups. These aren’t those silly exercises fat ladies do with pink dumbbells. Use a big enough box or bench, 18-20 inches. Use your arms; don’t just step up with dumbbells handing at the side. If nothing else, lift them from both below the hips to the chest as you step up. But don’t just step up. To develop speed, you need to swing the ground leg up into its lift position, keeping the toes pointed up and the heel close to the butt. The foot on the box drives the toes into the box and continues to drive the toes into the box. Box Step Ups are designed to be done last after the heavy lifting. They are a blend of technique and strength, and an unmatched way of teaching you to apply your strength into a speed-like motion.
Like all things relating to speed, the KISS principle wins. You have no business doing another new drill unless you can manage with the basics. This means two feet on the ground doing split squats. Teach yourself how to control the motion with light dumbbells, focusing on keeping your feet and knees in perfect position. Keep the front foot perfectly flat and the back toes on the ground. Perfect execution and control of the squat, head and shoulders perfectly erect. Don’t allow the feet to lose their alignment, no pronating.
In your strength program, single leg lifts should reign supreme. But as in all things relating to improved speed, the quality of the exercise is much more important than the quantity. The way you do the drills has more effect on how you adapt to the than the fact that you broke a sweat to do them.
It may seem too basic, but remember, this is the position you’ll be in as you sprint. If you can’t be perfect in developing your power output, how do you expect to perfectly put that power into the ground and propel yourself?