Our old friend Isaac Newton wrote that the amount of acceleration of a body is a direct result of the force put to the ground. No matter what Newton wrote, experience teaches that force – strength gained in the weightroom – is the key that unlocks human speed. To get fast it takes strength training and lots of it. But the problem is in the details. What do you do? When do you do it? How much do you do?
Speed comes from the quantity of force applied by the foot at the correct angles in the shortest time. Running fast is the rate of force application on to the ground, not the amount of force. For a strength exercise to be effective it must replicate the action of sprinting, the quantity of force applied, the direction of force, the body angles utilized for speed, and the neurological demands. This is how any strength training activity must transfer to actual sprinting.
It is important to understand that all of the strength work done to run fast funnels into one place about the size of a credit card. The ball of the foot is pushed into the ground as the ankle joint, knee joint, and hip joint all extend at the same time (triple extension.) When this triple extension happens while sprinting, the ball of the foot is on the ground for less than 1/10 of a second. In one second at full speed, this foot-on-the-ground action will happen four to five times as that is the number of strides taken per second.
As you sprint, if the body is not placed in optimal angles (if the knees or the toes aren’t lifted to form a right angle) all the force you can muster will be wasted. If the foot stays on the ground too long (especially after the first six steps of a sprint) all of that strength will produce mediocre speed.
Speed development follows the law of specificity. To get faster in swimming you need to practice the motions of swimming so that the body will recognize and apply all the work to the motion of swimming. To get faster at tennis you need to practice the motions of tennis so that the body will recognize and apply that work. Strength work is imperative to swimming and to tennis, but a world apart from strength work for sprinting. To run faster you need to specifically train for running speed.
Strength training is a means to an end, not a measurement of speed. Clearly, this calls for strength training activities in the weightroom that transfer to the sprint. The bench press is a sacred cow of strength training and develops a great deal of strength, but none of that strength will transfer over to the sprint. You get nothing in return for all that time and grunting unless you decide to run on all four limbs.
You can easily get lost in the dozens of exercises and programs that claim to help you run faster. Similarly, you can get blinded by sticking with the two bodybuilder standby lifts, the bench and the back squat. Olympic lifting adds the component of faster motion and triple extension, but the angles of Olympic lifts, especially the angle of foot contact with the ground, makes for inefficiency.
Since the trendsetting Peter Weyand sprint study, training for speed has sadly missed the mark.1 Coaches became lost in the strength development side of the Weyand equation and have overlooked the strength application side. In an attempt to get people faster, coaches tend to put more weight on the back for squats, or weight on the floor for deadlifts. This is thought to develop massive force in the primary source of strength for speed – the backside chain. But when it comes to effectively applying this force to the ground, this concept falls apart.
The movement of the back squat is slow motion; it doesn’t produce anything even close to the motions of sprinting. Same for heavy two leg deadlifts even when using the hex bar. How on earth do we permit sprinters to lift weights with feet pointed out (splayed foot) or allow weight to be borne on the heels, the very definition of heavy lifting? Compare that to step-ups with dumbbells; the motion is a direct copy of the body at full speed. Similarly, the split squat with the rear foot raised (usually called Bulgarian squats) stretches the legs apart (amplitude) in a way quite similar to the action of sprinting.
The devil is in the details
Speed is about details. Details make the difference, not brute force. Details practiced over and over at high quality and high intensity produce elite speed. Look at a photo finish in elite sprinting with Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser winning by a hair in this race. All it would have taken for her to lose the race would have been one tiny detail to go wrong. But it didn’t go wrong because she took care of the details. This means details on performance day as well as preparation details in the weightroom and on the field.
Speed is the art of juggling many intricate details, not just how much you lift. You can see this in the sad misunderstanding of the lunge. I spend countless hours, drill after drill trying to teach the optimal body angles for optimal stride pattern. Then coaches have the athletes do front lunges. Basically, this is teaching that it is OK to plop the heel down to slow the descent into earth. Sport science literature is filled with studies on the imperative of foot contact for optimum speed, to teach the body to reduce ever-so-slightly the time each foot spends on the ground.
Given the many details of teaching yourself to run faster, you would have to be crazy to perform motions that teach you to move slower. Get away from every weightroom machine or gizmo that takes you off your feet as there is nothing to be gained by OKC (open kinetic chain) motions other than imbalance.2 Stand on your feet and be an athlete. Mimic the motions of sprinting.
Practice doesn’t make perfect — Perfect practice makes perfect. This is true on the field and in the weightroom. Details tell us that top speed happens utilizing ATP-CP as fuel (the stored energy in muscles that lasts just 10 seconds.) The details of optimally using this energy source demand a lot of rest between exercises. Then people who are trying to run faster get caught in dead-end endurance strength training such as Cross-Fit which teaches the opposite of full rest. A key detail to get fast is that you’ll need to exercise intensely for a short burst and then rest several minutes before the next set.
Perhaps the most important detail of all is to remember that speed is always performed with one leg on the ground. Getting faster means selecting most of your work with the legs apart as in sprinting. Train that way!
For many years I have recommended single leg strength training because this produces more results in speed than back squats, dead lifts, or Olympic lifts. A major reason is because single leg exercises put less stress on the back than standard barbell work. Less weight can be lifted by one leg which results in less stress on the back, but the work is extremely intense. This detail of sprint training can significantly improve your speed.
The polar opposite is how Hollywood and Madison Avenue have taken over the image of what weight training is. You are told to “Just do it.” Just do what? When do you do it? Athletes get confused when they see YouTube videos of 1,000 pound freak squats, leg wraps, screaming in the squat rack, and weightlifting record numbers posted on the wall.
The 5 must-do lifts
1. Step Ups
Get a box high enough to make your thigh parallel to the ground (this ensures that the force of the lift will come from the backside chain.) It is important to understand that for the exercise to transfer to sprinting means that the exercise must mimic the sprint motion. This means to actively drive the knee up to the parallel position thus triggering the entire action used in sprinting.
For the first day, start with a set of very light dumbbells; step up with focus on complete body control. You’ll find it is a little difficult to balance with the emphasis on driving your knee up parallel to the ground. Soon you’ll work your way into sets of 4 or 5 at about 4 to 8 reps, the weight being decided by what you can barely manage on the last reps of your last set. It isn’t unusual to see athletes doing step ups with a set of 80 pound dumbbells. The raw weight is far less important than the quality of the motion.
There is no doubt that they are effective. Classic research from the 1980’s by USSR Olympic hammer throw champion Anatoly Bondarchuk found that step ups cause fewer injuries while delivering more gains in hip and thigh strength. His influential book, Transfer of Training became the bible of elite strength training for sport performance.3 He makes the point to do “high step ups” where the thigh is parallel to the ground. Because the body responds best to variety, vary the height of step ups. Sometimes work with the thigh lower than parallel with using more weight, sometimes higher than parallel with no weight.
Step ups put huge stress on the hamstrings and backside chain, but this is what you should be working for. A study published by Mauro Di Pasquale found step-ups to greatly aid in sprint stride length.4 The principle is easy to see and easy to experience. Get more force thrusting into the box and you’ll get more force thrusting into the ground.
2. Bulgarian Squats
Bulgarian squats are unmatched for developing the backside chain, the area of the body that provides the greatest amount of force for sprinting. Balance is the feature of these lifts as strength is equalized on both sides of the body. The built-in balancing factor is critical to maintaining body control at ultra high speed.
Bulgarian squats are similar to the sprint motion in many ways, but especially when done with dumbbells. With the barbell, the body adapts by making changes to the cervical spine posture, modifying the way the back maintains its natural posture during sprinting. A neutral spine position comes with holding dumbbells and is the opposite of ATG back squats.
These split leg squats have a pronounced eccentric (the effort to halt gravity’s pull) stress that can really help the initial acceleration stage of a sprint. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that all athletes probably should to do more single leg exercises.5 In the study, Bulgarian dumbbell squats were tested for triggering testosterone release. Even though twice as much weight was lifted with back squats, the Bulgarian squats triggered the same hormonal release.
They are difficult. They are much more athletic than back squats and can make you pretty sore. What seems easy on the first set will be murder to control on the fourth set. Make sure that the front toes are lined up directly under the knee. The foot on the ground needs to apply force at the ball of the foot, not the heel of the foot as on many barbell exercises.6
It is easy to see the similarity of angles between Bulgarian squats and sprinting. This is part of the transfer of training inherent in this exercise. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of studies to back up the claim of transfer of training for speed, either from Bulgarian squats nor standard back squats. In the business of developing elite athletes, theoretical debates will get you nowhere. This is why we blend what we find in the scientific literature with what has worked with athletes for many years. Bulgarian squats fit this definition.
3. Reverse Lunges
Lunges are a great exercise for sprinting, but make sure they are done correctly. Lunge backwards. Here is a very simple way to land on the back foot in an angle and force pattern that matches the way you sprint. The back (reverse) lunge offers a unique eccentric landing of the rear foot. This brings excellent effects to the calf region, replacing the standard toe raise exercise used by sprinters in the past. Reverse lunges act as a dynamic stabilizer from the foot to the hip that is so essential to fast sprinting.
Reverse lunges have been shown to vastly improve balance and stabilization, even better than squats and deadlifts.7 With better balance you’ll find that your agility on the field is magically improved. Reverse lunges mimic the natural stride pattern, which means that they reinforce proper mechanics of pushing the ground as you sprint. Although they are great for developing strength for speed, reverse lunges allow you to improve your sprint coordination. By avoiding front lunges, less stress is placed on the knee as the stress is eccentrically sent to the back leg as it lands.
A key reason to do the reverse lunge is to avoid or overcome the common problem of sprinters known as “runner’s knee.” This is the debilitating patella-femoral pain associated with high intensity strength and plyometric training that is at the heart of speed development. The front lunge is at the top of the list of exercises that exacerbate this pain.
Researchers recently discovered that the front lunge can be replaced by the split squat to reduce the pain and at the same time repair the muscular imbalance inherent in front lunges.8 The reverse lunge takes away the eccentric front foot landing which stops forward motion and replaces it with the back foot placed in its natural drive position, thus knee stability is assured.
Do them with dumbbells or kettlebells. Be careful about the footing as you need to step backwards where you can’t see, all the while holding a heavy set of weights.
4. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings are highly athletic and have visually obvious transfer to the motion of sprinting. At the same time they effectively replace Olympic lifts. These swinging lifts are easier on the joints and easier to learn while delivering results in a fraction of the time as Oly lifts. KB swings provide a large range of motion done within a training pattern of tension/relaxation principles critical to speed development.
The key difference with a barbell is that it can’t mimic the same movements or centrifugal forces of the swinging kettlebell. Kettlebells are compact; most female athletes work with 30 to 50 pounds while the guys work from 40 to 80 pounds. They can be loaded on to a wagon and taken to the field or easily put in the trunk of a car.
With KB swings, you work with the law of diminishing returns. A 100 lb kettlebell won’t bring the sweet spot of increasing force production. It’ll increase strength, but after you reach that tipping point, no further power for sprinting will be delivered. The exact weight where that sweet spot is for an athlete is difficult to tell because you are blending the two ingredients: speed of motion and the weight of the object.
I have found that kettlebell swings at about 1/3 of bodyweight work best at teaching of proper hip movement (rocking forward and up). Our athletes start out a little lighter in the beginning and heavier as they peak. Because they don’t lend themselves to standard thinking of weight and nice looking charts, many coaches opt to keep squatting and power cleaning.
It is common to misunderstand why KB swings are so essential for athletes seeking to improve their speed. The lifting motion comes from driving the toes into the ground and the hips swing forward and up – the exact thing you are taught in sprint training.
Its best to start KB swings like a center hiking a football with high hips and the kettlebell out in front. Keep the spine neutral keeping the back flat. Allow the kettlebell to swing backwards between the legs, then contract the tummy and hamstrings, forcing the weight to jolt forward. The jolt forward and up is responsible for your backside chain development and stimulation.
Research by Lake and Lauder used 70 pounds kettlebells to demonstrate that KB swings trigger a greater impulse than squats or jump squats.9 Otto, et al (2012) research found that KB swings improved in power measurements compared to traditional heavy resistance training, although the heavy resistance improved strength measurements. This leads to the belief that KB training is more effective on explosive motion such as sprinting.10 Dobbs, et al (2015) found that horizontal exercise such as KB swings produce a much greater impact on speed than vertical resistance activities, thus the blend of KB swings plus sled pulling and bounding tends to be very potent mixture for speed.11
5. RDLs (Romanian Dead Lifts)
RDL’s are essential to speed development. The single leg, single arm RDL involves hinging forward from the hips until your upper body is approximately parallel to the floor. As you lean forward, your non-weight bearing leg is extended behind you. These large ranges of movement require and develop good hip mobility and hamstring flexibility. The improved hip mobility, the development to the backside chain, the dynamic flexibility, and the athleticism inherent in this exercise make it a must-do.
Typically, RDL’s are used as a supplemental exercise in a lower body workout. However, the benefits of the RDL for speed development far exceed a last minute add-on. RDLs are equally important as each of the other Must-Do lifts presented here.
Let your hamstrings and glutes stretch and then pull you back. This benefits the hams and glutes thus preparing you to run fast. Instead of doing glute ham raises that take you off your feet to isolate a motion, RDLs give the added benefit of balance and body control.
The classic RDL is done with the right arm reaching to the ground for the left foot. This exercise puts huge emphasis on neuromotor control. You wiggle and jiggle fighting for balance, aiding in improved agility in the process. RDL’s are great for hip mobility, and it is hip mobility that permits the thigh to freely swing up and down. These put great stress on the hamstrings as the body mimics the motion of a sprint.12
A study conducted at the University of Memphis found that the single leg deadlift is more effective than the leg curl machine for hamstring development. “The exercise activated the most muscle in the lowering phase,” stated lead researcher Brian Schilling.13
Strength training machines and exercises using two legs at the same time do not do as much to develop your balance as an exercise that requires you to balance with one leg. The classic single leg RDL thus challenges and improves your balance much more quickly and efficiently.
- Weyand, Peter, et al. Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements. Journal of Applied Physiology, November 2000.
- Greenstein, JS, et al, Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, March-April 2011.
- Bondarchuk, Anatoly. Transfer of Training in Sports, Ultimate Athlete Concepts Press, 2007.
- Di Pasquale, Mauro. Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets Explained. Bodybuilder.com, accessed September 1, 2015.
- Jones, Margaret, et al. Effects of unilateral and bilateral lower-body heavy resistance exercise on muscle activity and testosterone response. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, January 2012.
- Beardsley, Chris. Split Squats, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.com, accessed August 28, 2015.
- Di Jensen, Elle. Leg extensions vs. dumbbell lunges. The Houston Chronicle.com, accessed September 1, 2015.
- Irish, S., et al. The effect of closed-kinetic chain exercises and open-kinetic chain exercise on the muscle activity of vastus medialis oblique and vastus lateralis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, May 2010.
- Lake JP, Lauder MA. Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, August 2012.
- Otto WH, III, et al. Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength and body composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, May 2012.
- Dobbs, CW, et al. Relationship between vertical and horizontal jump variables and muscular performance in athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, March 2015.
- Hartman H., et al. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, December 2012.
- Schilling, Brian, et al. Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. Exercise Neuromechanics Laboratory, The University of Memphis, 2014.
Copyright Randy Smythe, 2015