By Graham Eaton
As a high school coach, I am responsible for the development of a sizeable group of athletes each and every season. I have written before about my belief that athletes need to first become better movers in general.
I love keeping it simple in the weight room. Nothing makes me happier than a good-looking squat or deadlift, but chasing numbers in the weight room is not something that I care to do. I know that an athlete adding strength slowly with an emphasis on technique is the best choice. Strength is a skill that needs to be developed.I tell my athletes that running fast should look effortless because there is nothing beyond top speed except coordination erosion, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Coaches often give cues such as “project your hips” or “stay tall.” These are good cues, to be sure, but they assume that athletes understand the movements and the feel behind what we are trying to say. There are plenty of simple options with large groups that allow athletes to develop general motor skills and feel full ranges of motion while under control. I don’t always have the time to write a specific program for each kid, so on circuit days or in warm-ups I choose items that will allow me to enhance the main workout, depending on the need. Most of our athletes have a low training age, so I believe improving general qualities will absolutely enhance the specific tasks.
Classifying the Routines and Movement Patterns
Sprinting is a complex activity that is dependent on many other things. To improve the act of sprinting, I believe you can attack it through certain exercises that break sprinting into its components: posture, hip/trunk control, and ankle stiffness. Working on the individual parts in conjunction with quality sprint training can strengthen the whole, especially with developmental athletes.
“When posture is correct, movement of the limbs is often correct.” –Mike Young
This fact drives most of our training. An athlete who displays correct posture will appear to be more fluid. Correct posture in speed work, as I view it, starts with the head.
I look for a relaxed head and neck with no tension. I want my athletes’ eyes looking out ahead. Trust me, trying to convince them not to turn their head and check out the competition in the middle of the race is often a challenge by itself. I have athletes who bobble their heads left and right, and up and down. I need to devote time in practice to working on this so that I get more quality reps in practice. To get better at calculus, a math student needs to do calculus, but hopefully they have also taken a few algebra classes along the way and know their math facts.
Sprinters should display a stacked vertical posture: neutral neck and head, hips up and forward with a slight posterior pelvic tilt. Doing this will allow for better front-side mechanics. It will become easier to run fast. I tell my athletes that running fast should look effortless because there is nothing beyond top speed except coordination erosion.Better force application through better posture is the best way to lengthen stride, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Sometimes wickets are used as a means to artificially increase stride length. I think communicating in this way leads to overstriding and an increase in braking forces. Better force application through better posture is the best way to lengthen stride. Because of better force application on the ground, which allows more time to properly position limbs for ground contact, there is less braking force. It all starts with correct posture. No matter what the athletes are doing in practice, they should understand this.
Hips are commonly cued or referred to in certain drills. As mentioned earlier, a common cue during the wicket drills or block starts is for the athletes to project their hips. My athletes have poor hip control, as do lots of high school athletes. The important thing to know is that even though we want stable posture, there is still rotation present. This is normal, but I never want to see over rotation that lacks fluidity.
One of the best examples of this is Usain Bolt. He is able to control the rotation of his hips and use it to explode powerfully forward. This is an advanced athlete who has years of experience and movement on his side. My athletes need time to explore and acquire these skills in simple fashions.
I need my athletes to be able to do these three starting skills:
- Move between anterior and posterior pelvic tilt with control.
- Disassociate their pelvis from their trunk (or vice versa).
- Disassociate their hips with good posture (one side in flexion, one in extension).
The definition of disassociation is “the disconnection or separation of something from something else.” Hip disassociation means being able to move the hip in its socket without compensating elsewhere—hip mobility.
It sounds like a huge undertaking, but I try to keep it as basic as possible to avoid it becoming time-consuming. As I have written previously, sharpening the tools that I already have is the best bet. The athletes will get better at the exercises and I will get better at pointing out certain things because I see them and use them so often.
When posture is correct, lower limb stiffness will increase naturally because there is more time to be properly positioned to absorb the force. I have always considered that although posture improves ankle stiffness, directly working on ankle stiffness can also improve ankle stiffness.
In sprinting, lower limb stiffness is a good thing. Dynamic Achilles and calf work increase elasticity and allow for better force absorption and production. This results in less ground contact time and higher vertical displacement, which leads to better foot strike positions closer to center of mass. This goes hand in hand with the aforementioned importance of posture.Although posture improves ankle stiffness, directly working on ankle stiffness can also improve ankle stiffness, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
These exercises also highlight the importance of dorsiflexion and proper strike with the ball of the foot. The athlete can be made to actively feel the sensation of good foot strike and stiffness. Feeling this can enhance more specific work like block starts, fly work, and wicket runs.
Here are some exercises that I use to address the aforementioned movement patterns. Some are fun, some are specific, and some are a little strange. I am always playing around with different variations of exercises to add a different dimension or new challenge to the movements. I want my athletes to become more athletic and to move more fluidly while never straying too far from the basics.
Jumping Jack Variation (Front Jacks) – Posture Focus
I like this basic exercise because it is a fun and easy way to get the day started by working on a posture-specific exercise. Front jacks are done like traditional jumping jacks, but the arms abduct/adduct opposite to the legs in the sagittal plane rather than the frontal. This adds a bit of chaos to the timing and rhythm of their movement. Timing and rhythm benefit all sprinters and athletes.
I ask my athletes to keep a relaxed head/neck and start with hips up and forward. I love drills like “prime times,” but the athletes I work with tend to want to lean back too far and display incorrect posture with too much posterior tilt and feet cast out from their center of mass.
This sagittal jumping jack variation serves as a great reference point for rhythm and appropriate positioning with more specific items. Once they have had some repetitions of this drill, I often add a rotational component to the exercise. Can the athletes still rotate with good timing, symmetry, and rhythm? I prefer for them to return the arms to the thigh as a cue to not push their hips too far forward and disturb their neutral pelvic position.
Video 1. What may be a great warm-up for some athletes is a great coordination drill for others. Jumping jack variations are timeless and very safe on the joints.
Jumping Jack Variation (Scissor Jacks) – Hip Disassociation
This is another simple variation of the traditional jumping jack. I can easily demonstrate these with a group of 30-40 athletes and they can be done anywhere. They keep things light and fun as well. In addition to correct posture, scissor jacks also give meaning to vague cues such as “isolate the hip.”
This exercise calls upon athletes to move in the sagittal plane between hip flexion and extension, keeping the hips hiked while not disturbing the neutral pelvic position. The arms retain the frontal plane movement of the traditional jumping jack with a clap overhead as a cue to “stay tall.” Again, throughout the whole movement I want the athletes to exhibit control and rhythm. I have also done rotational scissor jacks with my athletes to provide an additional challenge.
Video 2. The scissor variation provides another option for coaches who want change but still challenge coordination. Focus on sharp stiffness and not on time or volume when implementing this drill.
Figure 4 Glute Bridge – Hip Flexion and Extension
There are a ton of great drills out there to teach this. We have used hip thrusts in the weight room, and I think there is a great benefit to doing these with sprinters. We have to get to that point first. This allows me to teach movement patterns commonly seen in the weight room and on the track to large groups of athletes at different levels.
This basic movement is great to teach hip extension unilaterally. One leg in the sprint cycle will be in hip extension at toe off and at max vertical displacement. Squats and deadlifts also require extension of the hips. As Tobey and Mike explain in “Single-Leg Glute Bridge”: “Strength and stability in the core of the body…provides an optimal platform through which distal limbs can function… As such, muscle strength and power of the hips and pelvis are critical components of the overall impact of both resistance training and athletic performance in a multitude of sports.” The glute bridge puts this all together.
I look for the athlete to start lying down with one knee up, with their other leg crossed over in an externally rotated hip flexor stretch. I usually like the heel to rest right above the knee. The leg on the ground should have the heel driven into the ground with the toes up, and the arms should be anchored to the floor, palms down. With the glute, they should extend their hips with control until their pelvis is neutral. After a short pause, they should return to the floor and repeat for the desired number of reps.
Once exposed to this movement, athletes could progress to a single leg hip thrust with shoulder blades on a bench with the chin tucked and then, finally, barbell hip thrusts.
Video 3. A simple glute bridge is a great way to bring awareness to an athlete. You can add this exercise to warm-ups or recovery days.
Cat/Camel – Lumbopelvic Dissociation
This is a great exercise to help reduce stiffness in the body, strengthen the core, and free up the limbs for good movement. As someone who has had a slew of nagging back issues, I myself have gotten great benefits from doing this simple exercise.
The goal of cat/camel is to move seamlessly with control between anterior and posterior pelvic tilt, as well as display good spinal flexion and extension to improve thoracic mobility. This is also used as a point of reference when cueing good posture. “Remember the cat and camel drill that we did? Yeah. Stay tall, right between those positions.”
Do your athletes understand how to move their pelvis independently of their femurs and back? Coupled with the t-spine mobility in the movement, these are things that also help with squat mobility and reducing compensation patterns such as the “butt-wink.”
For simplicity, I like to have athletes start on all fours in a quadruped position.
- The athlete keeps their hands under their shoulders and their knees under their hips. They should have a partner place a hand on their lower back and watch their femurs.
- Without changing the position of their femurs, they should arch their lower back into their partner’s hand (spinal flexion). Be sure they move slowly through the movement, including the lumbar and thoracic spine, and maintain a good breathing rate.
- Pause and hold here and then extend the pelvis towards the floor and allow the femurs to still retain their original position.
Video 4. While many coaches are familiar with the cat and camel yoga asana, it’s perfect for sprinters and jumpers to learn motor control. The spine and hips are important to speed athletes, and this exercise does more than mobilize the spine.
Pelvic/Trunk Dissociation Drills
These are used to control motion of rotation and strengthen core muscles with better lumbar-pelvic rhythm. Sprinting has some rotation. Trunk stability doesn’t mean rigidity. I need athletes to be able to separate their hips from their trunk to better learn to control movement at max velocity.I need athletes to be able to separate their hips from their trunk to better learn to control movement at max velocity, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Slower runners can often appear stiff and tight when sprinting, which makes them unable to “load to explode.” I see this most often when I do lower-intensity hurdle top/board accelerations/runs with my athletes. The hurdle top is held across their back and it is visibly obvious to the coach when over rotation is occurring because of faulty backside mechanics and lack of trunk control/strength.
I believe most of my athletes can benefit from working on pelvic and trunk control.
The first exercise is more of a diagnostic tool, although it could certainly be done for reps.
They hold a PVC or a light bar across their shoulders with their arms folded over in slight hip hinge position. Without moving the bar from its parallel position to their body, I want to see if they can isolate their hips from the belt and swivel about, left to right, in a controlled manner. If they can’t do it without turning their shoulders, I may have a partner hold their shoulders stable. If they can do it now, this lets me see whether it is a stability issue (trunk strength) or a mobility issue.
When it comes to sports like basketball, football, and soccer, I think this is an important skill. To exhibit optimal trunk rotation in sprinting, I think athletes need to explore and improve their own movement with control. I never cue this, but I try to put them in positions to do it naturally. Sometimes telling them too much causes overthinking.
Video 5. Twisting is about rotation while keeping the pelvis under you, so adding this drill is great for teaching an athlete how to control their upper and lower torso. Because of its low stress demand to the body, you can place this drill anywhere in a program.
From here, I prescribe a similar exercise, except they can plant the bar into the ground and use it to go through controlled ranges of motion with their hip swivel again. They should breathe properly and focus on moving with control. These are great for not only control, but trunk strength as well. They should feel a deep burn while doing this.
Video 6. Teaching relaxation of the spine is important for athletes, including sprinters and jumpers. The bar adds a relaxation element to the movement equation.
The last drill is the pelvic dissociation dance. I have athletes stand on a line to make sure that the only movement that occurs is from the hips and below. They can rapidly swivel and switch between the left and right side while keeping the trunk stabilized and not rotating.
Video 7. Dance is an activity that promotes control and fluid movement. Adding motions outside an athlete’s comfort zone expands their horizons with coordination.
Ankle Rocker Squat – Ankle Stiffness
Ankle rockers are great in warm-up routines, as are ankle rocker jumps. I recently used the ankle rocker squat. Ankle rocker is the position of the foot/ankle when going from stance to toe off. Chris Korfist says, “That movement is the ability of the ankle or body to get the center of mass through the midstance phase and create forward movement.”
Ankle rocker squats are done the same way as ankle rocker jumps. I have athletes use a body bar with the opposite-side arm for balance since the exercise is so challenging. I have them move the knee over the foot first without changing their hip position (in between big toe and second toe), then get the hips into position by hinging. I look for the torso to be at about the same angle as the shin. From here, they drive through their big toe into a calf raise with control while extending their hip. This is similar to the propulsive action of toe off during sprinting. This attacks not just their ankle mobility, but also their strength at this range of motion.
Video 8. Single leg ankle rocker squats are excellent for maintaining ankle mobility and for teaching a solid co-contraction of the hips and knee. Use the bar to help add balance so the athlete can focus on pushing down and up.
Wall Drill Foot Pop – Ankle Stiffness
The wall drill foot pop is more a tool for teaching footstrike, a rigid ankle, and to not cast out to apply better force (squash the bug). This is a motor skill with a sprint-specific focus. It has almost the same setup as regular fence/wall drill, but they start flat-footed and with a more vertical posture. Athletes should drive the ankle down, striking with the ball of the foot, and they should feel themselves pop upwards. This is an elastic response similar to the stretch shortening cycle of sprinting that results in vertical force and good vertical displacement. This allows an athlete to see that striking the ground in proper position close to their center of mass is a beneficial thing for them.
I sometimes have them purposely do the same exercise with the foot out from them (cast out) to see if they get the same “pop” (they don’t). I want them to avoid this habit of casting out and, more than that, understand the negative effects that this action has. The next time we do wickets and they try to artificially lengthen their stride rather than “projecting over with the hips, and driving down with their foot,” the wall pop becomes another great reference point.
Video 9. Ankle pops won’t transform an average athlete into a power dunker, but they’re great for working plantar flexion and posture. Again, this exercise isn’t a plyometric activity, but it’s a good preparatory movement.
Single Leg Stair Drop
This is another thing stolen from Chris Korfist. The single leg stair drop is a great way to teach absorbing force with the correct part of the foot. I usually don’t have athletes start too high up on the stairs, for obvious reasons. They start by grabbing the railing with their inside hand and hop with the opposite leg. I find hopping backwards keeps the hip loaded more, rather than the knee loaded when hopping forward. It also allows them to land dorsiflexed.
I have never done forward drops because there would be too much reaching/plantar flexing causing braking forces. I want to avoid this. Once again, the hips are cued to be up and forward. When they drop, athletes should make an effort to minimize collapse and stay stacked in their posture. My more-seasoned athletes can string together most of the stairs without much of a pause. Newer athletes usually have a pause between. The truth is, I don’t think it matters. It is a great drill that drives home an important concept.
Video 10. Landing is a skill that you should learn first before rushing to higher heights. Just low amplitude works well for youth athletes, and the training effect is enough to make a difference in performance.
Programming the Drills
Correct posture, hip control, and lower limb stiffness are key pieces in becoming a better sprinter. Sprinting is comprised of all of these things at once in a delicate balance. The challenge then becomes sorting out where we insert these items without overtraining.Correct posture, hip control, and lower limb stiffness are key pieces in becoming a better #sprinter, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I use an x-factor circuit one time a week to program many of these items. The stations are centered around feet/ankles, hips/pelvis, core/trunk, and a lower-intensity plyometric such as a landing drill. I don’t want this day to be another thing to recover from. It serves as a low-intensity remediation day to reinforce key concepts that I will not always be able to get to.
An x-factor day might look like this in the early part of the season:
- 3×5 ankle rocker squats each leg or 3×5 stair drops each leg (ankle stiffness)
- 3×8 cat/camel (lumbopelvic disassociation) or pelvic disassociation dance 3×10 each side
- Jumping jack variations (posture and hip disassociation)
- 3×5 each leg figure 4 glute/bridge with 2-second pause (core/hips/glutes)
- 3×5 landing drill snapdown from a 10” stair/step (low-level plyometric)
The athletes rotate through the stations. This is pretty much the layout for the season. On a deload week, the x-factor day may just be playing a game such as “medball volleyball.”
The low reps and focus on movement enable me to set up the rest of the season. If the movements are stale or “mastered,” I may swap them out for something along the same lines and purpose, but with a bit more of a challenge. This doesn’t mean I do away with them completely. Often, they are just moved to the warm-up.
On days when we sprint or accelerate, some form of hamstring, glute, hips, and trunk exercises are included. It depends on what I want to see out of my athletes. Some drills, like the wall drill foot pop, I do early in the season right before doing wicket drills. It makes sense to put it there for me, but it might not for you.
The truth is, I don’t know which of these pieces I will keep from season to season. I experiment with the simplest movements that reach the most athletes at once. Consideration of the following questions always help me program exercises:
- Can I do it myself and describe it effectively to the athletes so they can see and feel it?
- Do I have space, time, equipment, etc. to do this?
- Is there value in this drill/exercise to support sprinting?
- Is it safe and something that benefits athletes in the long term?
I want everything I do to be easily achievable and understood by the athletes, and to support the segmented pieces of sprinting. I try to be innovative when possible and ask questions about how to improve a certain movement and where to put it to make the most sense.
- Can I add a band to this? Do I need to?
- Is higher better or harmful for this athlete?
- What does adding weight accomplish?
- Is this a maximum velocity or acceleration tool?
- Well, this is getting stale. How do I make it seem new without compromising quality? What new dimension can I add?
These inner dialogues have made me rethink and solidify my stance on certain things. Think about what works for your athletes, as well as what skills they need in the weight room and on the track. Most importantly, make sensible progressions and never over-complicate things.