There are three aspects of improving speed – running technique, muscle elasticity, and strength! The problem is many coaches and athletes aren’t optimizing their speed strength training with the right program design to reap the greatest benefits in speed and force production.
Research indicates a strong correlation between maximal strength relative to body mass in full body and lower body strength training movements and sprint times. This means it is likely that the stronger an athlete is for their body weight, the faster their times in short sprints will be.
Increasing speed with strength training can be accomplished through some of the most standard exercises. We will review five of these: deadlifts, squats, sled drags, step-ups, and pull-ups.
1. The Deadlift
The deadlift is one of the best exercises (in most cases) for improving total body strength, speed, and athleticism. A properly executed deadlift is the basis for teaching an athlete how to properly recruit strength, specifically lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, and can be the catalyst for tremendous strength increases.
The purpose of this exercise is to improve the strength in your extensor (power) muscles, which is proven by science to improve acceleration and power generation. When coached properly, the deadlift is a safe movement and delivers the most bang for your buck.
2. The Squat
The squat will assist in developing strength in an athlete’s quads, hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings. Along with the development of leg strength, the squat and deadlift are both great exercises to build core strength.
A strong core allows for better transfer of kinetic energy through the hips, torso, and shoulder – a requirement for any overhead athlete like baseball/softball players, quarterbacks, hockey players, lacrosse players, etc. It also helps in the role of breathing by facilitating air movement and air pressures from the diaphragm.
When you build up the core, you build up strength in the rest of your body, and you can transfer power more effectively from your lower to upper body. Stuart McGill has said that when it comes to the body, “proximal stiffness enhances distal athleticism.” When your core musculature is strong all-around and properly bracing your spine, it’ll allow your limbs to move more rapidly and forcefully, such as during a sprint.
3. Sled Drags
Most athletes and coaches are familiar with sprinting while pulling a sled. To really strengthen the speed-specific muscles (hamstring and glutes) to a greater extent, we recommend using a heavier weight on the sled and dragging it in a walking motion, taking long powerful strides.
Sleds can be used in both walking and running movements. This specific strength exercise addresses the acceleration aspect of sprinting. When you accelerate, you need technique and strength to get the body moving to overcome inertia. Sled dragging mimics acceleration technique very nicely.
Step-ups are another great movement for the glutes and hamstring muscles. This is a great hip extensor exercise to help athletes improve their top speeds.
This can be done on a box or bench, which should be about 2-3 inches below the knee. Weight can be placed on the back utilizing a bar or holding dumbbells in each hand.
The key to this movement is to utilize the force from the leg on the box to propel the body up. The most common mistake is that an athlete tends to push off the foot that is on the ground. To avoid this, keep the toe up off the ground, with the knee locked and straight at all times while having the foot on the ground. Do not bend the knee at all with this leg and do not push off at the ankle. This will make the leg up on the box perform all the work to lift the body up.
Speed strength training is not focused solely on lower body strength. Arm action plays an important role when running. Your legs will only move as fast as your arms. A powerful backward arm strike is directly related to how powerful the leg strike is put into the ground.
The pull-up focuses on strengthening the backward arm strike, a key to transferring force to the opposite leg on every stride. This is an undervalued exercise for improving speed, agility, and quickness.
Not all athletes will be able to do a pull-up with their body weight, so we recommend assisted pull-ups with a band. We want the athlete to pull the shoulder blades down and back during this exercise – not letting the shoulder blades shrug to the ears. Be sure there is no arching in the lower back.
Increased Strength, Improved Speed, Optimal Sports Performance
With athletes of every level, executing a lift with proper form should always be prioritized. You want to see an increase over time in the load an athlete can lift while still maintaining good form. The technique an athlete learns first is the technique they will use all along. If it is learned incorrectly, even with light weight, an athlete might not get injured that day, but later down the line this can become a serious risk.
Additionally, lifting with good technique ensures that the muscles are being recruited and firing as intended which will result in the strength gains an athlete needs to increase force production, power, speed, and overall performance in their sport.
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