By: JC Moreau, Founder and Director, Strength U
Perhaps the most common question I get from coaches and parents is “how do I get my son or daughter faster/quicker/jump higher?” and they are often surprised by my response, as well as what I am about to discuss in today’s article. My answer is typically “get them stronger” and that is usually met with a look of confusion so I elaborate. In my last article on the values of squatting through a larger range of motion than simply to 90 degrees I explain in greater detail how strength is undeniably effective at developing speed, quickness and vertical jump height in athletes, especially young ones. What I did not discuss was the next part of my answer to that question “you should be far more concerned about developing their ability to accelerate and decelerate, and this is largely accomplished with strength work in addition to drills that focus specifically on these skills, rather than top end speed.” The reason for this is quite simple, nearly every sport requires quick bursts of speed over 1 to 15 yards, the ability to stop on a dime and then change direction and accelerate again. In other words the world’s greatest 400m. sprinter will be quite average at soccer, football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse or any other running sport if he or she cannot stop quickly, change direction and quickly accelerate. If you are having a difficult time envisioning this, simply think of the great Running Backs in the NFL or Point Guards in the NBA. Many of them do not run a 4.4 40 yard dash (VERY few do), rather they can hit top speed in a few steps, stop, cut and hit top speed again very well. So how do you develop these things? By training acceleration and deceleration mechanics, and strengthening the movements and positions that maximize the athlete’s ability to perform these skills.
As we have discussed strength is a big part of this for a couple of reasons. First, our acceleration and top end speed are both a result of how much force we can produce through our foot as we strike the ground, and then how efficiently our bodies use that force. There are many factors that play into this but strength, posture and body position are the most critical ones that we can always improve on. What I want to focus on in this article are the acceleration drills we like to work on in order to maximize the force we do create, and ideally learn how to create more and/or waste less. Assuming two athletes are the same size and possess the same amounts of strength and muscle fiber type (ratio of fast to slow twitch) there are a few mechanical and structural factors that will impact their ability to accelerate and/or decelerate. Those we tend to focus on are body position/posture, Angles (adequate forward lean), knee drive, foot & shin positions and arm swing.
When elite level sprinters run to 100m. dash they are typically not upright until at least 35+ meters into the race. The reason is simple to accelerate the body has to be in position that allows the athlete to put their force into the ground down, but also slightly backwards. This is a simple concept because most athletes will quickly understand that if you push straight down you will go straight up. So one of the first things all athletes must be taught is the correct body position required for ideal acceleration. To do this there are several drills and training aides that can be used and the most simple and readily available is a wall. By simply leaning forward at somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees, and keeping the body tight (as if doing a plank) from head to heel the athlete is now in a great position. From this Position we have our athletes work on basic leg drive with their knee up and heel under the glute of the raised leg, all with a flexed foot. We want maximum knee and foot lift and tell our athletes to envision a rod coming out of the opposite knee. We want our foot to be above this rod while maintaining posture.
From here we do individual ground strikes and then progress to alternating strikes and eventually to multiples of 3, 5, 7, 9 etc…, or for times of 5-15 seconds. Remember we are not training for conditioning we are training to develop the ability to produce violent, powerful ground strikes while maintaining ideal postural integrity and a flexed foot, since the more force we put into the ground the more we will get back. So far so good, right? Hopefully, but I am regularly reminded just how hard it is for most young athletes to maintain this position for more than a few seconds without beginning to move their feet forward (thus changing the angle we established), sticking their butt back (breaking at the hips which leads to tremendous energy leaks), or tilting the head forward and looking down, which also tends to lead to several postural issues.
Since this position is critical it is important to A. Stress the correct form and ALWAYS correct these flaws and B. identify if the issues taking place are happening due to a lack of postural control (strength/stability) or is the athlete is plenty strong and just needs improved mental focus. In 99% of youth athletes the cause is both and the postural strength issues must be addressed since without correct body positioning and alignment their full acceleration potential will never be reached. Also, the inability to focus long enough to complete this mundane yet vital task may make speed the least of their concerns, but this is another topic altogether……
To develop the athlete’s ability to maintain perfect posture over extended periods of time we must focus on this area in all phases of training. We can develop the musculature required to hold many of these positions by performing simple glute bridges and planks (done properly with the core gently braced at all times), I have found too often that athletes plank incorrectly and just hold their bodies up, try to palpate the athlete’s entire core (low back, obliques, glutes, hip flexors etc…) to be sure all muscle groups are activated. In addition to these I have found that focusing on postural integrity during everything from warm up to cool down also makes a huge difference, so anytime the athlete is standing essentially is a good time to drive home the importance of standing tall, shoulders back, core braced, head in a neutral position etc…
Once the acceleration position has been worked on and the athlete understands the basic reasoning and concepts that necessitate it we move to starts. The tricky thing about having the body in the required position is that the only way to get it there is by leaning into or against something, such as a sled or thick resistance band, or by starting from positions that put you into a forward lean. The most common way we do this is with a traditional 3 point “40 yard dash” start, a falling start or a single leg falling start. The point of emphasis must always be to explode out and to stay low. In the 3 point stance start the back leg does very little other than cycle through and ideally do so quickly and be in a great position to take step 2. However, the front leg is the one that must explosively push the athlete out because it is ultimately a series of strong, powerful, efficient “Pushes” that lead to impressive acceleration. In his latest book Coach Mike Boyle describes a start drill he coaches that uses a large crash mat for his athletes to literally jump out and land on to teach the aggressive drive required to fully grasp this concept. The athletes simply get into a starting position and explode out of the position so aggressively that they will essentially dive onto the ground, this is where the mat comes in handy!
If you can get your athletes to correctly perform these drills while maintaining postural integrity, and slowly developing the habits of correct arm drive and foot position they will see a dramatic improvement in their 10 or 20 yard dash times. These times are what separate the 4.6 athlete from the 5.0 athlete, but more importantly they will have far greater carry over to ANY team sport than performing “top-end” speed drills, such as those taught by many “speed camps” and used by track athletes, such as B-Skips. Over the years I have found that developing proper arm swings and flexing the foot takes a tremendous amount of repetition in those who do not naturally do these well. For this reason I recommend incorporating some very short drills to work on these during warm ups as a way to get almost daily exposure to them in a college or in-season competitive club sports athletes.
Every quality that coaches and parents desire for their athletes is rooted in strength, either the ability to produce force or the ability to maintain postural integrity. So when a parent or coaches preaches “first-step quickness”, speed and agility remind them that each of these is largely dependent on getting stronger AND learning how to transfer that new found horsepower into more explosive, deliberate and efficient movements. How fast an athlete steps has little to do with the step and almost everything to do with the drive leg’s ability to produce force and do so quickly, that is what results in a fast an explosive start. The same principles hold true for developing the ability to pull away from a defender or close the gap on a player ahead of you. So whether you are a coach or parent, the next time you are looking for “speed development” remember that it is actually strength and movement development that you desire because perfect running form without these traits is like a beautiful race car with a golf cart engine. It may look sleek and fast, but will take three days to reach full speed.