By Carl Valle
Will jumping exercises and weight room movements make a difference in speed development, or does all specificity wash out when the rubber hits the road? Some current scientific studies have influenced the training decisions of coaches with little to show for it. In this article, we explore the reality that nearly all holistic, well-rounded training plans will get athletes faster, and that tailoring a program shows up on the stopwatch in only a few cases. I am being brutally honest; most efforts with transfer of exercises or modalities don’t perform as well in the real world as the research, so make sure you do your homework before implementing a horizontal intervention.
Applying Speed Training Research: What to Look For
When reading the research, I always look at the full study and do my homework to make sure that the information that’s hyped in social media is delivered in the study’s results. The title or authors’ conclusions often don’t help much, as several papers have hidden agendas and bias. Several studies are simply not worth the digital paper they are printed on. But some of the current literature is truly pioneering, and the researchers deserve more praise. We must be careful about drawing conclusions about a study’s impact or lack of impact. Without getting into deep statistical explanations or study design errors, there are a few easy questions coaches should memorize when seeking to improve athlete speed.
- Does the study isolate variables to such an extent that I could never replicate the intervention in my program?
- Are the subjects studied appropriate for the athletes I work with and are they relevant to my team or group?
- Does the study use a fair comparison as the control, or is the control simply an absence of an intervention?
- Are the results impressive and do they offer concrete benefits like truly running fast? Or do the study’s methods just improve slow athletes like other known variables?
More questions can be asked, of course. Perhaps this is the most straightforward question: Is the speed impressive? I’ve asked several sport scientists if the 10m sprint times they studied were slow or fast relative to similar populations, and I tend to get very awkward answers. Coaches, who should be more familiar with the “tale of the stopwatch,” seem to be less aware of what qualifies as truly fast. While heavy sled exercises dramatically increase horizontal force, so far we have not seen much changes in player speed at elite levels.
Beyond the athletes’ changes in speed, it’s fair to question whether the results of the study were impressive compared to the records of a coach’s own program. Don’t look for answers from research. Instead, accept that the information gives us clues about what might work. Spend more time studying your own program, which is the most important experiment.
Acceleration Development: A Call for Posterior Chain and Horizontal Jump Training?
For years, the muscles below the waist and behind the body have been worshiped and labeled as the posterior chain. This is fair because these muscles tend to be ignored, unlike the mirror muscles in the front of the body. Also, vertical jumps are far more popular to evaluate than horizontal jumps since landing techniques tend to have an influence when using a simple measuring tape. Horizontal bounds and locomotive hops are harder to program with less developed athletes other than track and field jumpers. I’m going on record, stating that supportive exercise to the posterior leg and horizontal jumps are fine options for many different athletes, but don’t expect dramatic results.Supportive exercises for the posterior leg and jumps are fine, but don’t expect dramatic results. Click To Tweet
The primary reason specific exercises sometimes fail is obvious: even though a specific exercise exists that closely replicates an actual sport task, sometimes doing the task itself is the better option–period. How many athletes who are great at sprinting have very simple programs that don’t seem strategic in the weight room or jumping area? How do some of the world leaders arrive at the top when they don’t do plyometrics and barely lift? The answers are complicated; how an athlete gets to the top is sometimes different than what they do once they’re there. We must reverse engineer how athletes improve with more investigation.
The training process is analogous to cooking. If we consider modalities and exercises as the ingredients, we can enhance or mute each element’s flavor based on the recipe’s other elements. Extending the analogy further, what are the unique tastes of those for whom we’re cooking? Do they have allergies (contraindications) or taste preferences (strengths and weaknesses) we need to consider?
Recent studies have shed light on the reasons specific athletes seem to succeed over others. There’s some interesting research regarding horizontal forces during acceleration runs. While the conclusions are fair and likely apply to some athletes, nothing in the research excites me enough to start implementing the findings in Monday’s training session. As I’ve mentioned, I find that most studies over-promise results and offer false hope because they’re constructed to find an artificial difference. Interventions only work when programs have big gaps, and then it’s likely the coach is already addressing a specific issue in another way. In sport, it’s never about what works, it’s about what works best.
Horizontal Plyometrics and Jump Exercises: Are They Worth the Time and Risk?
An important variable in horizontal jump interventions is whether the exercise is a single-leg or double-leg activity. Also, as the athlete becomes larger, there are details like the elastic quality and mechanical strain on the joint systems to consider, especially the knee and everything below it. We may have a triple jumper perform repeated hops–but we expect a tight end in football or a larger ruby player to do alternating bounds for horizontal force improvements? Even lighter athletes like soccer players with less strength development and shorter training histories might not be a good fit. Maybe the ability to jump for distance should not be limited to horizontal plyometric interventions as a cure-all. The right answer may be foot mechanics and strength prescription.
On paper, horizontal plyometrics for specific changes in horizontal speed development may be overkill or may backfire. Several studies I’ve seen have short intervention periods lasting 8-12 weeks which don’t tell the whole story. When athletes become familiar with a somewhat demanding exercise like plyometrics in one session, I take note because reports of tendon and joint issues may surface months later.Prerequisite levels of strength are necessary to transfer velocity activities. Click To Tweet
Even a one-year study may not provide enough time to see scientific significance since prerequisite levels of strength are necessary to transfer velocity activities. For example, not having enough maximal strength is a problem for those wanting the glamorous benefits of potentiation but who haven’t done the required work with basic strength training. To capitalize on any training, we cannot skip any steps as the laws of biology can’t be bent. The athlete will likely break instead. I support a full arsenal of plyometrics and have written a half-dozen articles on the subject, but we must take realistic caution. I’m not fear mongering; we have the responsibility to respect the exercises.
The principles of progression ring true with horizontal plyometrics–you can’t jump (pardon the pun) into workouts right away. Obviously plyometrics involve more than intensity and volume. They also involve sequencing the exercises to address an athlete’s weak links, often the foot, to ready them for such demanding work.Workouts that prepare for acceleration are long-term investments, not quick fixes. Click To Tweet
Double-leg exercises seem to solve the immediate and long-term needs of elastic and power development by replicating the shorter time frames in the rate of force development and distributing the strain throughout the entire foot region. Doing single-leg hops and bounds involves much different foot mechanics than acceleration; most of the early steps in sprinting are forefoot in nature. Performing workouts that prepare for acceleration are long-term investments, not quick fixes.
Posterior Chain Strength: Does it Show Up on the Stopwatch?
Although the barbell hip thrust was evaluated as a superior alternative for acceleration for young athletes in rugby, we need to cool off our assumptions that faster, more developed athletes will improve their speed by adding one exercise. Adolescent athletes need posterior development, so working this zone should easily give gains. Conversely, the “squat is king” crowd should cool their jets because total leg development requires an array of decisions, including exercise selection. All necessary exercises and variations should be based on the athlete’s needs, not the coach’s emotional philosophy.
The study from Contreras used a front squat program and found the athletes ran slower from the training. This is not the common response in most studies on strength training and speed. I think the difference may be that the study’s subjects didn’t have the training background to handle stress and, therefore, had an issue with fatigue. The JB Morin paper looked at acceleration and EMG for the thigh and hip and concluded that hamstrings contributed to early speed, but the anterior muscles contributed significantly.
I have a hard time swallowing the conclusions that squatting makes you slower and that the hip thrust is superior. Recently an article showing a lack of a transfer of the hip thrust with athletes demonstrates that the exercise is not a cure-all or a guarantee for speed improvement. Instead, it’s fair to look at the entire leg and even the trunk and shoulders for answers, since the posterior chain tends to mean glutes and hamstrings while the calves and lower back are vital parts of the equation.
Other exercises like split squats and deadlifts have been studied, with no results demonstrating clear superiority of either, for good reason. Most research studies want to focus on the clarity of a variable, so only a few investigations look at entire training programs. Even the training programs that are studied cover short periods of training, not long-term development. With short programs, the studies don’t look at longitudinal patterns. This is why continually keeping detailed records seems to tell a better story.
There’s a full line of studies now in progress examining hamstring exercises for both performance and injury reduction. But what we need more is investigations into glute strength exercises that transfer with faster and older athletes, since injuries could theoretically decrease in both soft tissues and joints. I believe the Contreras study’s weakness of using underdeveloped athletes provides a good perspective, showing a fair rationale for his exercise intervention when a gap exists. Many athletes simply don’t have a strong set of hips, and specific training can theoretically accelerate development, but the real discussion point is about when ability levels off.
If specific sprint training doesn’t recruit posterior chain muscles, how does strengthening them make a dramatic change when the sporting action doesn’t require such development? I’m in no way suggesting that we let EMG and motion capture research dictate exactly how one should prepare a speed athlete. But at the higher levels, coaches need to think about absolute performance and where they’re getting improvements.
Acceleration and Power: How to Evaluate Strengths and Weaknesses
Athlete profiling is a popular starting point, and recent publications about the force-velocity profile of movements and muscles are trending. While we can glean a lot of valuable insight from profiling athletes, modeling performance is a complete solution to solving benchmarking and shaping strategy. Functional movement, a nebulous term to say the least, confiscates the elements that create the results or outcomes of interventions. The mantra of “train movements, not muscles” is great on twitter but doesn’t hold water when movements and muscles are hard to separate in the real world.
Yes, knee flexion may not replicate the visual kinematics of running, but replicating sporting action is not the same as preparing a high-risk area of the body for forces encountered during these motions. When modeling, focus on the changes or transfer of the intervention’s outcomes, rather than the replication of exercises or workouts. It’s easy to mimic movements in sport; it’s far harder to improve absolute athletic abilities.When modeling, focus on changes or transfer of the intervention’s outcomes, not copying exercises. Click To Tweet
Testing acceleration by using 10m splits, or even every meter, is easy with Freelap and Ergotest equipment. Using Dartfish app splits are a possibility where every step can be measured, but simple splits are enough to get started. Gross deficits and strengths are easy to see at first glance, but as training raises an athlete’s abilities, specific weaknesses may be masked by the development of core speed and power.
Below is a simple checklist of what to look for when evaluating weak links to help get athletes better.
- Velocity Profiling and Body Structure–Taller athletes, less muscular athletes, and different types of acceleration curves determine how coaches should modify training. Before jumping to conclusions about athletes and horizontal force exercises, the first priority is to gauge the true need for change. Is it necessary? When possible, always consider what the intervention is worth in terms of time. Improving a 0.01 with youth athletes in a 10m split after weeks of dialing in one variable is hardly a good return on investment. Biological, training, and actual chronological age are things to consider as well. Overall, a smart approach is to look at the overall set of variables and the athlete’s speed qualities.
- Explosive Jump Modeling–To maximize athlete speed, model all types of jumps, including vertical variations. Countless world-class athletes have produced amazing and world record speeds without doing any plyometrics. Standing broad jumps and bounding for distance are excellent measures of hip and ankle power. Since the ability to unfold at the hip involves more than just legs, another way to measure ability is medicine ball throws for distance or height. While convenient, lumping together horizontal and vertical jumps to form a ratio or simple comparison of norms isn’t the best option. It’s wiser to look at the single- and double-leg versions of the exercises and the technical proficiency required for success, as horizontal jumps are also more demanding.
- Specific Strength Benchmarking–Benchmark all key lower body lifts for their strength levels, specifically the posterior muscles of the torso, hips, and legs down to the ankle joints. Multi-joint exercises are prime developers of leg strength but reverse leg presses, and other exercises that are considered ancillary, should be respected with a goal-loading parameter. In my experience, I’ve only seen an opportunity to progress both exercise development and speed when an area has been neglected.
Of course, there is more that matters. My outline on high-resolution programming for acceleration already addresses a lot of the specifics with resisted sprinting and acceleration in general. The key is to create a checklist that works for you and your athletes.
Combining Specific Elements Into a Program: A Smarter Approach
Putting together the weight room, jumping surface, and field and court work can be hard to juggle, but classic training principles will solve the problem. Most of the time, errors come from knowing what the athlete needs but not having the patience to progress them so they can capitalize on the supportive exercises. Anything new or different comes with a learning curve, even if the coach and athlete are talented and skilled. Maximal effort and lack of skill is a potentially hazardous combination, so slow cook the process and be patient.
While countless progressions and methods of instruction can introduce new exercises or reintroduce familiar ones, here are my favorite options for exercise placement.
- I have a rule-of-two, or what I call double tap, meaning I never add only one intervention thinking it’s a silver bullet, even if it looks good on paper or research shows it’s effective. I recommend at least two ways to address a real deficit per workout for it to show up fully and rapidly.
- Place low-level strength exercises at the end of a workout. Sometimes athletes are a little drained mentally, but a fresh exercise can spark their focus, so don’t’ worry. Strength from higher repetition ranges is effective early, and learning requires more time with a movement.
- Hybrid exercises that combine familiar movements are excellent transition options because they continually load while also allowing time to introduce new movements. A short period of hybrid work before the full exercise provides the resistance or stimulus and enables instant learning.
- Athletes heavier than 100 kilos are not great horizontal jumpers but don’t stop seeing what these athletes can do. Werner Gunthor is a prime example of a nearly 300-pound athlete doing great jumping work after long development–lighter athletes should take note.
- Horizontal plyometrics are not hard to progress up to technically since every track drill is usually locomotive (horizontal) and rhythmic. As athletes build elastic power in the weight room, they’ll be able to exploit their technical abilities later from other alternative exercises such as skips.
It’s not overkill to periodize the progression of posterior chain strength and plyometric exercises. In fact, planning throughout the season as well as the career keeps the “goal the goal” and doesn’t allow programs to lose sight of benchmarks and accountability. Even if the plans are extremely simple, having basic expectations and timelines will aid in the development process.
You’re the Judge: Is it Time to Change Your Program?
My goal is to encourage self-reflection when considering the value of any intervention. Think about how a suggestion often looks great on paper but may fall short when applied in real world settings. A healthy perspective is to evaluate an athlete’s strength, power, and speed abilities to see if there’s an opportunity to move the needle forward. When choosing the right exercises to fill gaps, use a judicious approach based on sound modeling of absolute performances in testing and competition analysis. Using all exercise forms, not just specific plane or direction exercises, is a safe bet for getting athletes better and keeping them healthy.