It’s easier to show that an athlete is getting stronger than to show they’re getting faster. And if the athletes are gaining weight for bulk, it’s difficult to get them faster. The concept of “bigger, faster, stronger” is a myth. It should be “bigger and stronger” or “faster and stronger in proportion to your body weight.”
So, why do we lift? What can we do in the weight room to improve speed? We can improve force, power for acceleration, and eccentric/isometric strength to improve reactivity.
At TFC4, I was lucky to see Stu McMillan’s presentation, “Strength Training for Speed.” In this article, I modify his topic and take it back a level. I want to explore why we lift if we’re trying to run faster. And what we can gain by going into the weight room instead of running.
History of Strength, Conditioning, and Running
Let’s start with a brief history as to why the drive to be more muscular exists. If you look at statues of the original Olympians, they all look like they spent time in the weight room, if there was such a thing in Ancient Greece. More contemporary athletes like Jim Thorpe—jacked. Jesse Owens—jacked. These images created an ideal that all great athletes must look jacked.
Then, in the early 1970s, NFL players started to lift weights to grow bigger and stronger to dominate their opponents. Steroids were easy to get and became the rage as players could look physically imposing with their added weight. Linemen started gaining weight with the added mass. When the trend hit the Pittsburgh Steelers and they started winning Super Bowls, it caught fire. To keep up with the Steelers, other teams followed suit. The same parallels can be drawn with the University of Nebraska.
Enter the dawn of the strength coach. Boyd Epley institutionalized the concept of the strength coach with the NSCA. Now coaches could be certified in strength training if they followed NSCA’s program. If a single coach is responsible for 100 athletes and needs to prove he should keep his job, what better way than to put every athlete on a similar program with exercises that are fairly easy to improve on. Especially when the athletes are introduced to the training table and have access to thousands of more calories than previously. Size comes easily with extra calories as do gains in the weight room.
When college coaches go to high schools and see kids they’re really not interested in, they tell the kids they need to get bigger or stronger as their excuse for not recruiting them. High school coaches then take it upon themselves to get their kids “bigger, stronger, and faster.” They follow a program that the colleges use so they can say they’re doing the same as University of X. And with the various strength journals, a coach can feel backed by research. Now a coach can fend off pesky parents and meddlesome athletic directors if they’re feeling pressure.
Where do the speed athletes come into the picture? They’re lumped into the mix of athletes who are in the weight room under the control of a strength coach and are told that lifting makes them faster. And most athletes believe their coach. And unless someone puts a clock on them, no one knows if the program is working. And they don’t put a clock on them. Most athletes run a few 40’s that matter in their career. Even to get ready for the NFL combine, many players find a speed coach.
To be fair to the strength coach, maybe we lift because it’s the best we can do with the logistics we’re given. We have no space to sprint, so we need to do something in hopes that it will make us more prepared to play. It’s like the concept of the overspeed treadmill created back when horse racing was a major sport in the US. Some owners couldn’t afford to send their horse down south in the winter. So they built a treadmill for the horses to sprint on to stay in shape for the next season. Was it effective? Possibly. It was better than doing nothing. I hope this is the scenario for most strength coaches. With the best intent, we are doing what we can with what we have.
If that’s the case, what can we do to make sure that we have some carryover to the track or field? What can we do to make our athletes more explosive and faster?
Acceleration and Force
Let’s start with acceleration. I believe a critical component of acceleration is the concept of force/kg of body mass. (Thanks to Mike Kennedy, Nequa Valley track coach and physics teacher, Einstein Fellow Emeritus, for the explanations here.) Force is the change in momentum/change in time. It is the ability to get moving as quickly as possible. It is the first two gears in a sports car. In some research, it’s 80% of the difference between elite and sub-elite athletes. It’s the ability to project the center of mass further forward so the foot strike is further behind the body and can keep more horizontal force.Force is the component that allows athletes to change momentum over time. Click To Tweet
There are few problems with getting bigger and stronger. As athletes get bigger and bulkier, it takes a proportionally larger force to produce the same acceleration. However, if you cannot produce a proportionally larger force, your ability to accelerate will decrease.
I know people will argue that the guys in the NFL are big. Yes, but they are the elite freaks. Their body sizes are very large but proportional. They don’t look like bodybuilders. The skill players are small boned and look big on TV because they have no body fat. Most have their mass in the center part of their body, not on their limbs. Big, heavy appendages create more momentum going in places other than forward which makes bad running form even worse.
The other problem is the lifting. All athletes need to accelerate. The great ones do it faster than the others. In fact, some of the skill players in the NFL who don’t have great running form turned in good 40 times because they got out of the hole faster. They had great projection.
Force is the component that gets us to change momentum over time. To create force we need to push our body faster. More specifically in sprinting, the key is to generate and transmit a lot of force, in the right direction, very rapidly. This is where strength becomes important. So for the squat proponents, this could be your ticket. Standing up with a large weight requires a high amount of force. Maybe.
I find putting a bar on a back not only changes posture but also takes up the slack in the system. These two factors make the squat a different exercise than an unweighted projection from the blocks. Also, the intention of the movement is not the same.
If I put a ton of weight on an athlete’s back, their goal isn’t to project their body forward but to stand up with the weight. Watch how little an athlete’s hips move when they squat. And the stance in a squat is neutral. It’s a completely balanced and stable movement. In contrast, the most important aspect of a start when running is being balanced in an awkward position. Coming out of the blocks is a purely concentric activity. Squats have eccentric and isometric moments.Coming out of the blocks is a purely concentric action. Click To Tweet
If we’re trying to overload the system to learn how to create more force, we may need to lift or push something heavy. So some weight room alternatives could be a trap bar deadlift or a pin squat. I think both are good for pure force production but still have the problem with slack and balance. So maybe staggered legs. I do use the pin squat as well. Shoving a heavy sled for 2 to 4 steps might be a good alternative, as suggested to me by Ken Clark.
Personally, I use a Shuttle MVP. With the athlete facing down on one knee, we load the sled to body weight, and they shove back on the plate. We measure the distance or speed with the GymAware. The best equipment for this I’ve found so far is the kBox. In a single leg squat, we load the kBox with 2 or 3 plates and do just the concentric portion of the lift. We are creating momentum from a stop, like a pin squat or deadlift, but without the limiting factor of poor posture under heavy weight and hand strength in a deadlift. The force created by the disc also remains constant throughout the movement with no compensatory acceleration.
If you want to train without muscle slack, which is created when a bar goes on your back, any single leg jump without a horizontal or vertical counter movement is great. Block jumps without a counter movement are good as well. This is where one foot goes on a 12-inch block, and the other is on the ground, and the athlete jumps from this position. The goal is to increase momentum, and jumping does that.
Maybe in the weight room, we can create power. The equation for power is power= force x speed. Power is gears 3 and 4 in a race car. There is already a change in momentum, but power takes you to top speed the fastest. In the weight room, we again try to replicate this with more strength.
More advanced coaches will try to add a speed component to their lifts. This is where micro muscle labs, tendon units, and GymAware come into play. You can measure bar speed or power output. In fact, some of my most powerful athletes were the fastest at moving the bars in the weight room. To make sure you hit all parts of the force-velocity curve, follow the Triphasic programs with overspeed movements. These not only eliminate slack but also teach the body to cocontract more efficiently.
While this is a good addition to the weight room, again the issue arises that the change in momentum happens with a bar and not the center of mass. Sled pulls become a good alternative. Pulling a heavy sled forces an athlete to create more momentum in an overload situation in a scenario where the athlete needs balance, lean, and proper posture. Keeping one of the variables constant can be a measuring tool. Track how far an athlete can pull a sled in 3 to 4 seconds. Keep the sled’s weight constant. Once the athlete stops improving, add weight to see if they can cover the same distance.Sled pulls create momentum with overload and require balance, lean, and proper posture. Click To Tweet
If you don’t have room for a sled or a prowler or can’t use them because they might wreck the floor, try an EXER-GENIE. Want something nicer with no floor wear, try a Run-Rocket. Want the best, buy a 1080 Sprint. Not only does it record all of the runs and captures data, but it also adds an element that no other equipment does—eccentric strength.
In addition to the power needed to pull the line out to spin the drum, it has an element of eccentric strength. While most sleds continue to slide after a stroke is completed, the 1080 continues to pull back. The athlete is slightly pulled backward while in the air, and the contact creates an eccentric overload on the hamstring, forcing a more powerful contraction. My athletes have sore hamstrings after a 1080 workout. No other form of training can replicate what the 1080 provides.
Eccentric strength is another worthwhile aspect of training in the weight room. I put eccentric and isometric into the same category. When we’re lowered into a heavy isometric scenario, the weight pulls us down. In a fast eccentric, the intention is to be isometric, but the drop will force us further down. A slow eccentric means holding a weight for a set amount of time. With my athletes, we like a split squat. A fast eccentric is a drop of some kind. Again, I like landing in a lunge.Unconventional and contrary to research, my athletes do best with 30-second slow eccentric holds. Click To Tweet
My fastest athletes are the best at these exercises. I know it’s unconventional and contrary to the research, but my athletes do the best with 30-second holds. We drop the time when they can’t hold the weight, and this develops some grit. These two components make up two-thirds of the Triphasic training.
Supramaximal training is incredible to take workouts to the next level. Cal Dietz started using it with his athletes who made incredible gains in strength and power. However, in a truly eccentric overload scenario, an athlete cannot come out of the eccentric. I discussed this last summer with Henk Kraaijenhoff, who was around for the design of a flywheel with Carmelo Bosco, and he explained the reason to use flywheel training is to have a safer environment.
The coach can help athletes increase the wheel’s speed by pushing the wheel and create a larger overload than the athletes could create by themselves. They have to stop the leg curl with the extra speed. Using this technique brought my work with the kBox to a whole new level. We’ll do 1 to 2 reps unassisted in a squat, 1 rep with heavy assistance (the coach pulls the cable up hard with a handle) with the athlete going down on one leg and stopping the wheel, hopefully. If done correctly, they won’t stand up from the squat.
I stole the topic of this article from Stu McMillan who spoke at TFC4 about “Strength Training for Speed.” His exercises were different than the ones I present here, and I’ve focused on other things as well. Stu has much better facilities so he can run year round and wear a winter coat when it is 50 degrees. Chicago weather is not so kind to allow us to run, so I need good equipment. Nothing, however, is as good as running to develop sprinting speed.
Stu rarely speaks at clinics, which is unfortunate because he’s an excellent speaker who challenges a coach to think. Both of his presentations are available for download.
You can check him out at Track Football Consortium.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF