Who says that big boys can’t be fast?
Don’t think those muffin-top D-liners in the NFL could chase you down?
Well I’m going to break your ego a little bit and tell you that they could, and it’s not a matter of blessed genes.
It’s because of speed. Sport-specific speed is a skill that they took the time to learn.
And anybody, no matter how big or “un-athletic”, can achieve more of it if they approach it in the same manner. Anybody can get faster and I’m here to show you how.
When talking about speed, the term “sport-specific” really refers to acceleration- especially linear acceleration. Those initial one to four seconds of getting our mass to move as fast as possible in a certain direction to make a play or catch a ball. Those seconds are specific to most sports where athletes are forced to accelerate and re-accelerate.
Except for sprinting in track and field, you rarely reach the point of running for a long enough time to achieve sprinting speed in sports. Therefore the ability to get into acceleration and the ability to perform well during acceleration, are important make-or-break qualities in athletes.
So, how do we use weight training to improve this short-lived but vital aspect of our on-field performance?
Posture during acceleration is extremely important if we want to be faster. We don’t want to be up tall like we are during sprinting or standing.
Instead, we want to have our mass out in front of us at an angle (“chasing the shoulders” is the cue by the great Lee Taft), so that we are more anteriorly-oriented. Any other postural position will slow our velocity by making it more difficult to get our mass moving in the desired direction.
In order to make it easier for us to get our mass moving forward, accelerative postures require that we load our ankles by displacing our tibia over our toes so the knees track forward (and get us onto the balls of the feet). We load the hips by getting our shoulders out in front of us so the hips can shoot back.
Many athletes pop up way too quickly when making a play and increase the amount of time it takes them to get to their destination (i.e. receiver looking to catch a football or an outfielder chasing a pop-fly). In sports, everything is measured in milliseconds. So when training to be faster, it is important to keep this in mind.
The aforementioned posture is necessary to facilitate the “piston-like” leg action of acceleration: driving our legs straight up and down (axially). This is because the anteriorly-oriented torso shortens the distance our foot has to travel to the floor, enabling longer ground contact times, and creating the necessary ground-reaction forces that drives us forward.
In this way we apply as much force as possible into the ground directly under us to propel us forward. Although the action is straight up and down, because of our forward posture, it changes the vector and the force is used to drive us horizontally in the direction that our mass is oriented.
Longer ground-contact times are one of the reasons many coaches don’t see the need for exercises which stress “quick feet” such as ladder drills. One, these drills are rarely performed in postures that improve agility and re-acceleration. Two, the ground-contact times are so short that there is basically zero force being produced into the ground.
We want to take advantage of the ground and its reaction forces to get strong push off of it with each step. In sprinting, we float. In acceleration, we drive. That concept of driving cannot be accomplished with ground contact times that are too short.
Lastly, we have arm action. In acceleration we have a short arm (bent roughly to 90) at the front, but at the back, we want a long arm that we throw. This is because everything is about reaction forces, and throwing the arm back will help to create an opposing force to drive our bodies forward.
Arm action in acceleration is huge because many athletes will cut the arm action short reaching to catch a ball or individual. Really, they’re cutting themselves short. Maintaining their arm action would have gotten them to the ball faster. Be cognizant of maintaining your arm action until the last moment when you have to reach for the ball or the person.
Sport-specific speed is about teaching the body to accelerate or re-accelerate quickly. Those initial first steps performed in the right posture and with the right mechanics are going to make a huge difference as to how quickly you can move on the field.
The final thing we need to work on is exercises that train force production with postures and mechanics required of good acceleration. At the end of the day, that means the focus needs to be on how much force can be applied into the ground quickly in a variety of load vectors
Remember, when talking about speed, single-leg training trumps bilateral training. Traditional squats and deadlifts are great for total body strength and nervous system development. But in general, forget about these when trying to make yourself or your athletes faster. Nobody runs on two legs at once. Acceleration and sprinting are, essentially, a series of single-leg bounds.
Side Note: Utilize Flexion Forces
Before getting to the exercises which help with speed, parameters are an important thing to discuss. Try and choose exercises where the load is held in front of the body. The reason for this is having the load in front as opposed to on top of the shoulders or below the hips results in a flexion force (pulling us forward) being applied on the body.
This has different athletic/accelerative implications than having the bar loaded above or below us which results in compression or shearing forces.
Flexion forces are great for improving speed because we have to work hard against them to maintain a stiff anterior core and neutral spine. Both of which are crucial for being able to drive each leg hard into the floor without entering into an anterior pelvic tilt. They are also great because they enforce a posture closer to that of acceleration.
Exercises: the Speed vs. Strength Continuum
The following exercises are organized according their place on the speed vs. strength continuum. They're mainly unilateral and can be performed in accelerative type postures where the ankles and hips are loaded.
Because they progress along the continuum, they can all be included in a given program as a “speed day,” and performing them in this fashion twice a week for a given cycle (3-6wks) is a great way to shock your sports coach at practice.
1. Bridge and Reach (1x10):
The bridge and reach is a good warm-up tool to learn to maintain a stiff core and active glutes even while rotating the upper body (during gait, the ipsilateral arm of the extending hip moves/rotates forward).
2. Slide-board Glute Bridge (1x10):
In weight training, we usually get the hips and knees acting in concert (both do flexion or both do extension) but rarely do we get to train them in opposing action. This exercise is awesome for including the full function of the hamstrings (knee flexion and simultaneous hip extension) and the glutes at the same time.
It is this co-contraction of the full hams and glutes which will aid in the acceleration and deceleration of gait, and also in the prevention of the joint-stress transfers that can lead to knee or hamstring injuries (ACL tears, etc.)
3. Wall Drill (5x1’s; 4x2’s; 3x3’s):
This is a drill to teach the posture of acceleration. Because we are not moving, it isn’t actual acceleration, but it is good for training the posture and leg drive mechanics.
Maintain a flat back and bring the knees up just below hip height (they are actually parallel with the hips, but because we are angled forward they appear to be lower). Focus on driving the leg down and back up as fast as possible.
Perform them in sets where you drive one leg down at a time, then two legs in sequence, then three legs in sequence, as demonstrated.
There is a difference between speed that is reactionary and speed that you have pre-existing knowledge for. Sport-specific speed is often better trained when you have to accelerate unexpectedly. So set your watch on a countdown so that you will not be entirely sure when it’s going to beep, and when it does, use that as your cue to fly!
1. ½ kneel Two-Cone Drill (2-3x5 per leg):
Make sure your first step reaches or clears the first cone. Begin in a ½ kneel position to increase the amount of force you must apply to initiate the first step and still clear or reach the first cone.
2. ½ kneel Three-Cone Drill (2-3x3-5 per leg):
Same focus as the previous drill, but with the added parameter of maintaining an angled torso for a longer distance and resisting the urge to pop up before the third cone is reached.
Power is probably the most important quality to develop acceleration. Being that power is the combination of speed and strength (how fast can you apply your strength), power is ultimately what determines the winner of any race- whether running a marathon or running to make a catch. Whoever can generate the most power with each step wins.
1. High to Low Box Jumps (2-3x5 per leg):
Using the box disallows the use of a big eccentric pre-stretch or a plyometric boost in order to jump forward, since you are starting from a seated position. It develops single-leg power in an accelerative posture. Ankle is loaded, hips are loaded, arms are thrown. Great for training the initial step in acceleration- especially when recovering from a low or grounded position.
2. Unilateral High Box Long Jumps (2-3x5 per leg):
The same as the previous drill but with a load vector that is slightly different, with a focus more on producing power during the latter steps of acceleration as opposed to the initial step.
3. Single-leg Clean/Snatch to Box (2-3x5-6):
Explosive hip extension and leg drive into the floor.
4. Kettlebell Leg Drive (2-3x5-6):
Explosive leg drive into the floor with arm action. The driving up of the arms creates an opposing, downward force, increasing the speed and force of the leg drive.
Strength (Lower Body)
1. Zercher/Goblet Toe Lunge (with a slide board option) (3-4x6-8):
The Toe Slideboard Lunge is a phenomenal tool to train gait because of the force application angle.
Unlike regular lunges where you push down and back in order to move forward, the slideboard adds a “pulling” or “clawing” element where you have to push not only down and back, but must also pull forward (very similar to sprinting)- increasing the co-contraction of the glute and both attachments of the biceps femoris.
The “toe” position loads the ankles by allowing the tibia to travel forward, and keeps us on the balls of our feet in a posture akin to that of acceleration. Again, the position of the load acts as a flexion force.
2. Rear Foot/Both Feet Elevated Split Squat (3-4x6-8):
Grab a bench and set it up behind you. Put your opposite foot (rear foot) behind you on the bench. Squat down for the prescribed amount of reps, keeping your torso up right and your ankle in line with your knee. Once completed, switch legs and perform the same amount of reps with the opposite leg forward.
Strength (upper body)
1. Decline Bosu/Single-Arm Push-up (3x8):
Torso is angled similarly to acceleration, and maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt will re-enforce a stiff anterior core to avoid anterior pelvic tilt and hyper-lordosis during gait.
2. Stagger Stance Cable Push-Pull (3x8):
Imitates the arm action of gait, and prepares the body to accept the rotational forces we generate by throwing the arms forward and backward in opposition while maintaining neutral spine.
Putting It All Together
Including the warm-up, you’ve got thirteen exercises to program into your speed day to improve your ability to accelerate. That may sound like a lot, however, they’re not all strength training exercises, and the strength-training part of the workout is very short.
This program hits different areas on the speed vs. strength continuum, so even though there are thirteen exercises, you are not overloading your muscle fibers or nervous system.
Also, the volume is low to moderate for each exercise, and you can pair the upper body and lower body strength exercises to save time. I chose to group them together in the template above for the sake of clarity.
|1. Bridge and Reach||1||10|
|2. Slide-board Glute Bridge||1||10|
|3. Wall Drills||12||1-3|
|4. 1/2 kneel Two-Cone Drill||2-3||5 per leg|
|5. 1/2 kneel Three-Cone Drill*||2-3||3-5 per leg|
|6. High to Low Box Jumps||2-3||5 per leg|
|7. Unilateral High Box Long Jumps||2-3||5 per leg|
|8. Single-leg Clean/Snatch to Box||2-3||6|
|9. Kettlebell Leg Drive||2-3||6|
|10. Zercher/Goblet Toe Lunge||3-4||6-8|
|11. Rear foot/Both Feet Elevated Split Squat||3-4||6-8|
|12. Decline Bosu/Single-Arm Pushup||3||8|
|13. Stagger Stance Cable Push-Pull||3||8|
*Same as the Two-Cone Drill except for additional distance to reach third cone.
Try these out for speed improvement that will carry over to your performance and have you flying!