Everyone knows speed is an important part of performance, but what is sport specific speed? As an athlete reaches higher levels of sport, the speed of the game increases. However, the type of speed can also become more specific.
It doesn’t take a pro coach or biomechanist to see that sport specific speed is more than running in a straight line.
Accelerating, stopping, quickness, agility and change of direction are important parts of game speed.
Depending on the sport and position, athletes will use different speed skills including; linear sprinting, agility and multi-directional speed. How often and how far they go each time varies a lot. Still there are some foundations of speed we can begin with.
Sprinting has two main components; acceleration and max velocity. Acceleration is speeding up rapidly, and maximum velocity is sprinting over ~75% of full speed. Since sprint distance varies from just a few yards to the length of field, athletes typically need both acceleration and max velocity skills. Science tells us that the biomechanics and technique for each are distinctly different.
Two clear differences you can see between acceleration mechanics and max velocity mechanics are; body angle and leg action.
Draw an imaginary line through the foot contact with the ground and the center of mass (a few inches behind your belly button), this is the Powerline. If the power line is efficient there will be a straight line that runs through the shoulders and head as well.
During acceleration the angle is smaller. Somewhere between 45°- 60° from the ground. Compared to max velocity sprinting where the powerline is nearly vertical or 90° from the ground.
It’s also easy for the untrained eye to see a clear difference in the action of the legs. In max velocity mechanics the athlete uses a cyclical action, with a “butt kick” and “step-over the knee”. In acceleration efficient mechanics are more of a “piston” action with the knee punching forward and then driving backward.
Muscles and Strength
The differences in the motion and the body positions affect which muscles contribute most. Although most of the body’s muscles are always used in sprinting, some contribute more to acceleration or max velocity running.
While sprinting speed is very important, most sport aren’t a track meet. Team sports aren’t linear and elite players have great agility as well. Agility can be looked at in two key components, Quickness and Change of Direction. Sprinting speed is great, but if you cant change direction, you’re going to get burned.
Lightning fast movements in 1-2 steps can make all the difference in reacting to an opponent or leaving one on the ground.
These are the body fakes and quick re-positioning movements that happen in attacking and defending through-out most sports. Picture and ankle breaking move in basketball or a fast juke by the running back in football.
Quickness requires the reactive strength to apply force to the ground quickly, and the body control/balance to make it efficient.
Change of Direction
On the field or court the game constantly changes direction. Athletes are already moving in one direction when the play changes, then they have to slam on the brakes, and get moving a different way. Players need to change direction in fewer steps and faster than the opposition to have an advantage.
When the opponent changes from going one way to another, the ball changes areas of play after the pass, or a rebound sends players scrambling after the ball. These are all cases where change of direction skill will make a difference.
To be efficient in change of direction you need great eccentric strength abilities to decelerate, power to reaccelerate and the movement mechanics to apply it at the right angles. Stability in the joints and core also ensure efficient transfer of energy, and prevention of injury.
Improving Your Sport Specific Speed
Now that you have a clearer picture of what it means to be fast, and a little of what each means, it’s important to know how to improve it. The Ulitmate Guide To Speed Training is a resource where you can learn all about speed training.
For all of our movements, we have the formula for speed. Proven by decades with elite athletes across 27 different sports. This is the biomechanics of speed, simplified.
The Big 4 are basically the “formula” for speed. No advanced degree in physics or neuroscience necessary.
This formula has all of the complexity underneath, but it‘s simple to apply and understand. It can also save you decades and help you achieve better results with your athletes. That’s why I use it.
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” ~ Albert Einstein
You have to apply force to the ground to go somewhere. The faster you want to go the more force you have to apply.
Observing the difference in muscular development between a sprinter and a marathoner should give you a clue.
This doesn’t mean you need to be just bigger or become a powerlifter, but biomechanics research tells us very large forces have to be applied by the athlete to move fast.
TheBig Force you need is developed by sprinting fast, using specific sprint and plyometric drills, and getting in the weight room. There are 6 different strength qualities we train, and focusing on Max strength, Strength-speed, and Speed-strength are keys here.
In sports, speed counts so applying that force in a small time, while in contact with the ground, is critical. You don’t often see the opponent saying, “sure, take all the time you need to generate that force, I’ll wait.”
Yes you need a Big Force, but you have to apply it to the ground in a (very) small time. This requires the right strength and motor control qualities. We develop those through technique drills that reinforce a small ground contact time and through plyometrics and strength training drills that develop Rate of Force Development and reactive strength, instead of Max strength or Power.
Force is a vector which means it has a direction as well as quantity. Efficient and effective movement requires not just the right amount of force, but applied in the right direction.
Proper direction is achieved through the right motor pattern (technique) and the stability of the body to apply it that way. When the structures of joints, muscles and tendons aren’t up to the task, we have what we call “energy leaks.”
The motor control to create Proper Direction is developed through technical drills which teach athletes to move optimally. The stability to transfer those Big Forces comes through specific training drills, while developing strength with resistance training and in our functional strength components.
Optimal Range of Motion
Goldilocks had it right, not too much, not too little, but just right. We need optimal range of motion in our joints, muscles and tendons. In some movements we need large range of motions, and in others we need smaller. The key is that the athlete can move without restriction or compensations.
Many of our technical exercises and dynamic warm-up drills develop this range of motion.In addition we use mobility work such as self-myofascial (foam rollers, balls, etc..) in conjunction with stretching techniques or working with a tissue specialist.
Sport Specific Speed
To play your best game you need several kinds of speed. The exact mix depends on both your sport and position. However, every player needs to start with speed fundamentals before moving to sports specific speed.
By creating a foundation of speed and agility, athlete have more tools in their toolbox. As their training becomes more sport specific they have more to draw upon. Players all have strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t afford any glaring holes. As an elite player you need:
Change of Direction
You don’t’ have to leave this to chance. While you may need the right genetics to be the fastest in the world at these, through the right training you can improve. Improve both your physical attributes and your motor control and you’ll be faster.
Speed is a skill, and like any skill it can be taught.
Research from the world’s leading sports scientists proves that faster sprinters need strength for speed. They are able to apply more force to the ground than slower runners. Studies from institutions including Harvard University and SMU’s Locomotor Performance Laboratory have shown how these forces are the difference between faster and slower sprinters.
They’ve proven that if you want to maximize your speed, you need to apply big forces to the ground quickly. This is one aspect of strength that includes two different types of strength.
The Velocity Speed Formula has 4 main components and two of those are BIG FORCE and SMALL TIME. Now researchers have confirmed that these 2 components of the Speed Formula are a big difference between faster and slower sprinters.
Sprinting has been studied for decades. However, most of this was done using video to analyze how sprinters moved. Using video gives you a picture of the kinematics. This is how we measure and describe motion through body position, joint angles, and movement velocity.
This kinematic research has given us a lot of useful information. Still, there is another component to the biomechanics that hasn’t been looked at much, and that’s the kinetics.
These are the forces that are used to create that motion and body position. It’s a lot harder because you need a track full of force plates and moving cameras or a specialized research treadmill. Yet, it’s critical to understand the needs of strength for speed.
Kinetics of Speed – Force
To propel your body forward, and to keep you upright, your leg has to produce a lot of force into the ground on each step. That’s what builds your momentum during acceleration phases and keeps it going during your full speed sprinting.
You create that big force, by first getting your leg up into the right position on each stride. Picture a sprinter with their front thigh up high, about parallel with the ground. Then you use the explosive strength in your glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings to generate power and drive your foot down into the ground.
“The top sprinters have developed a wind-up and delivery mechanism to augment impact forces. Other runners do not do so.” Ken Clark, a researcher in the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory
Driving the leg down and back into the ground is going to create a big impact on each step. The peak force during that ground contact is going to be 4-5 times bodyweight when sprinting. Now imagine a 200lbs athlete, that’s 800-1000 lbs. on a single leg, each step.
Kinetics of Speed – Time
Your linear speed dictates why the big force you generated has to be applied in a small-time. The faster you sprint, the faster you need to apply that big force.
Think about it. As you sprint faster, your body is moving over the ground with greater velocity. You’re moving faster over that part of the ground under your foot. The faster you sprint; the less time your foot is in contact with the ground. That’s just simple physics.
When your foot hits the ground, it’s driving down with a lot of power. There are only 90-130 milliseconds of time to get all that force into the ground.
To realize how fast that is, take out your phone. Open the stopwatch. Try to hit “start”, then “stop” as fast as you can. What did you get?
Most people will get between 00.12 and 00.15. Some may beat that. This should give you some perspective; it is a small-time to apply that force of 4-5 times bodyweight.
Strength For Speed and Stiffness
Now let’s combine that big force with the small time. This is the hard part, and where some athletes fail. You need the explosive strength to get the leg attacking down at the ground as hard as possible.
And you need the reactive strength and kinetic chain “stiffness” to not collapse on contact. Only when you have the reactive strength to provide the stiffness can you fully benefit from those big forces of the leg swing. This is a key part of understanding strength for speed.
Your ankle, knee or hip all have to stay “stiff” enough to apply the force of 4-5 times bodyweight and not bend or absorb it. If they cushion it like a shock absorber, some of the force is wasted.
This doesn’t mean stiff as in lack of flexibility. It means that the muscles and tendons in your lower body can hit the ground and deliver all your power without stretching or relaxing.
The Bouncing Ball Analogy
An analogy to help visualize this is to picture 2 bouncing balls. One is a bouncy, superball made of “stiff” rubber. The other is a beach ball, soft and compliant. Throw them down with as much force as possible. Which one bounces higher off the ground?
The stiffer superball bounces higher. Why? Because it stores elastic energy and applies the force back into the ground. The beach ball absorbs some of the force and doesn’t have the elastic energy to rebound.
That superball is like reactive strength. Your muscles and tendons don’t relax and absorb the force. They store elastic energy and use it to help you go faster.
“We found that the fastest athletes all do the same thing to apply the greater forces needed to attain faster speeds. They cock the knee high before driving the foot into the ground, while maintaining a stiff ankle. These actions elevate ground forces by stopping the lower leg abruptly upon impact.” Peter Weyand, director of the Locomotor Performance Lab
The research on faster sprinters shows why you need strength for speed. And we are not just talking about the weight on a barbell.
To generate a big force with your lower leg you will need explosive strength. To apply it you need reactive strength for stiffness. The good news is that research has also shown that getting stronger generally correlates with getting faster.
You can develop these specific strength qualities by working in the weight room using traditional and Olympic lifts. You do it using plyometrics properly. Especially single leg plyometrics with an emphasis on reactive strength.
You create that stiffness building core and hip stability to transmit and control those forces. And most importantly, you develop it by sprinting with good mechanics.
We know you need strength for speed. The Velocity Speed Formula is built on science and proven in sport. The research is starting to catch up and show why it works and can help you get faster.
To social media training gurus, movement ninjas, and speed wizards, in youth training;
You’re doing yourself and so many young athletes a disservice. Hurting kids. Ruining athleticism. You’re embarrassing a profession. It needs to stop.
I can’t look at social media without seeing it. The cool looking video clip with a shredded, athletic 20 year old. They’re doing this combination of fast, athletic looking movements. It is impressive. It gets lots of likes.
Unfortunately, it’s also a total waste of time. It’s teaching the wrong movement patterns and actually puts that young athlete at a higher risk of injury.
…but hey, it looked really cool.
Then they start offering their “training” expertise to others and charging for it.
But, the problem is not him, or his tribe in the fantasy world of social media. It’s us in the profession and it’s the very parents being ripped off.
Sure, they can do some awesome combinations of movements, plyo drills, yoga moves, gymnastics and whatever. Looking good in little, to no clothing is a pre-requisite as well. They take great videos and selfies in the gym, at the field and places you want to be.
Maybe it’s inspirational. That’s ok. Sometimes its educational, and that’s good too.
But what about when people start listening to them and trusting them with their health or performance?
Does that person actually have an education? Are they qualified? Do they know when they aren’t qualified and to refer to a professional?
Have they put in some years of doing it, apprenticing under masters of the craft and making the mistakes we all do along the way?
All these social media training experts aren’t necessarily bad people. But we are letting too many unqualified, uneducated and inexperienced ones doing damage.
As professionals, too many of us let them get away with it. We shake our heads, or we just laugh at them behind their backs. We know that some might mean well, but they don’t see the danger.
The danger of misleading people to trust that they have real knowledge and understanding of health, fitness or performance. The time, money and effort people may waste under their direction. The violated trust of a coach to an athlete.
And worst of all, the real danger of injury caused by these gurus ignorance. That lack of understanding of biomechanics, injury, adolescent physiology.
And why do parents settle for it? Sure it’s inspiring to see the picture and videos of workouts and drills. It’s hard to know how to find a good coach. But why are you trusting your kids health to this person?
Next time you encounter a social media expert, speed guru, kettlebell rockstar, or former athlete, ask them to prove they are qualified to guide your and influence your child!
Do you just trust your kid to anyone who looks good on social media?
Would you choose your airline pilot by their awesome social media profile? “Hey, I’ve only flown a Microsoft flight simulator once before, but don’t I look good as a jumbo jet pilot? Come fly with me!”
And parents continue to feed the growing trend, by wasting their money without checking that these people know what they are talking about. More growth for the mythical social gurus and self-titled experts.
They’re all over out there. Social media experts expounding knowledge and answers. Yet they are still in school (if they even went) or in their first job. They didn’t apprentice or learn their craft. No formal training. Do they even know what to do in an emergency or CPR.
But hey, they did do that weekend certification that everybody passes…
When I see it, I pray. Pray they don’t do any significant damage. That they realize when they are in over their heads.
Next time you encounter a social media training guru, speed expert, kettlebell rockstar, or former athlete, ask them to prove they are qualified to guide your and influence your child!
Not by showing you what they can do, but showing what their clients can do. Did their clients improve?
How do they handle athletes that aren’t as talented? What about ones with injury? What do they know about building a winning mindset?
Let’s raise the bar. Make them prove they are qualified to train your child.
Olympic Lifting for Youth Athletes: Providing the Ultimate Performance Advantage
By Coach Tim Hanway CSCS. Sports Performance Director – Norwood
Every four years without exception, the world is treated to the Summer Olympic Games. The world’s best athletes assemble and compete for national honor, prestige and glory.
It’s Usain Bolt shattering preconceived notions of speed. Simon Biles combining all elements of strength, power, poise and grace in what can only be described as gymnastics masterclass. The level of athleticism at the Olympic Games is truly inspiring.
From a sports performance standpoint, coaches like myself view the Olympic Games through a different lens. Specifically, those displays of incredible athleticism stimulate our appetites and thirst for knowledge.
Olympic lifts are a common denominator
As coaches, we look at the performances of world-class athletes and ask ourselves; how can we reverse engineer the training process? What allowed these athletes to hit such peak form? How can we also improve own athletes’ performances?
I have found that there is a common denominator when looking at the training systems of all athletes. That is, the successful integration of Olympic Lifting into the athlete’s respective training programs. Over the years, I have spoke with countless coaches and athletes alike. Reviewed training logs of professional, collegiate and other national level athletes. The Olympic lifts are almost always there.
To be successful in the highest level of any sport, athletes need to reach their maximal levels of strength, power and speed. Olympic lifting for youth athletes is one strategy to achieve this.
Olympic Lifting For Young Athletes; Is It Good?
The beauty of Olympic lifts is that they are hands-down the single-best method for developing the many aspects of strength, power, speed and total-body athleticism.
However, Olympic lifts have a highly technical in nature. Sometimes they get a bad reputation from athletes, parents and even strength and conditioning coaches. They can have a perceived difficulty and/or danger.
However, when Olympic lifting is one of the safest, most versatile and effective methods of training sport-specific athleticism. When they are taught and executed properly.
Like so many elements of training, it can be misunderstood. Which is why the purpose of this article is to shed light on Olympic lifting.
For young athletes there are many benefits. Incorporating them into your training program can help you achieve newfound levels of performance and enhanced athleticism. So we are providing a general overview of these lifts.
The Snatch and Clean & Jerk
The Olympic lifts are broken down into two main categories. These two categories are called the “Snatch” and the “Clean & Jerk”.
As portrayed in the following diagrams, the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk lifts are very similar in that in both instances, the movement ends when the bar is successfully lifted over the athlete’s head.
Sports science research shows both have very large power outputs. Much larger than classic compound strength exercises.
The Snatch, according to world renowned Performance Coach, Clive Brewer, is the “most powerful, whole-body human movement possible in sport”. It requires a tremendous explosive effort to move that bar from ground to overhead in one movement.
The Clean & Jerk
The Clean & Jerk on the other hand, is a two-part exercise where the Snatch ends when the bar is successfully lifted over the athlete’s head. Although nearly identical, the position of the bar and segmented nature of the Clean & Jerk allows athletes to lift even heavier weights than when performing the Snatch.
However, because of the heavier weight and greater distance of bar travel, the speed of execution for the Clean & Jerk is slower.
With that, the emphasis of power in training (i.e. speed vs. force) becomes the key element in executing the two lifts and more specifically, successfully training the body when performing the Clean & Jerk.
Big Force, Small-Time: The Basis of Athletic Power
Drilling a soccer ball 50yds from midfield. Soaring through the air to dunk a basketball. Making bone-shattering hits as an offensive lineman. Each of these illustrates the concept of power application.
However, as alluded to above when discussing the difference between the Snatch & Clean and the Jerk, each of the above three scenarios illustrates different types of power. To understand the difference between the three, we must first discuss what power exactly is:
In its simplest terms, power can be described in the following mathematical equation:
Power = Force x Velocity
“Force” in this equation can be broken down into equaling the product of Mass x Acceleration. Producing force is the application of “strength”.
“Velocity” on the other hand, can be described as equaling the distance an object travels divided by the time it takes to get there (Velocity = Distance/time). This is commonly called “speed”.
Jumping, sprinting, cutting and exploding from a three-point stance are all examples of sporting skills that each require a high degree of force generation, in the shortest time possible (Force x Velocity).
Hence, the mantra ‘Big Force, Small Time’ perfectly captures the essence of optimal sports performance training. Most sports movements require an optimal combination of force and velocity. to be successfully executed at the highest level.
Either Force or Velocity can be emphasized in the above equation to maximize power output. Depending upon the task at hand, you might want one more than the other.
This concept is best illustrated in the following image, which depicts what is commonly known as Sports Science circles as the “Force-Velocity Curve”.
In the diagram you can see the inverse relationship between maximal force and maximal velocity. In a nutshell, the laws of physics state that when resistance or force levels go up, speed of movement goes down and vice-versa.
Let me illustrate this concept into force and velocity components. I often ask my athletes; “Which would you rather: Be hit by a cement truck going 10 mph or be hit by a bullet going 1,700 mph?” The look I typically get in return tells me that neither option is considered ideal.
In each instance, both the cement truck and fired bullet are consideredextremely powerful from a physics standpoint. In the truck scenario, what makes the truck so powerful is the sheer weight and force of the truck of question. What it lacks in speed, it more than makes up for in mass. Getting hit by a truck is very unpleasant!
The bullet on the other-hand, is tiny. The mass of such a small object is practically inconsequential on its own, but when traveling at such incredible speeds, represents a powerful and equally dangerous scenario.
In conclusion, when it comes to developing athletic performance, not all power situations are created equal. This is part of the reason Olympic lifting for youth athletes is a great way to train power.
The Best Athletes “Surf the Curve” In Their Training:
I learned the phrase “surf the curve” was one when reading an interview by Nick Grantham and Neil Parsley. They are both highly acclaimed Strength and Conditioning Coaches from the United Kingdom.
Nick and Neil expressed that for a majority of athletes, in order to achieve optimal power training, there are times in their respective training plans where they have to train more like a “truck”, less like a “bullet” and vice-versa.
The reason for this is that for so many sports, both elements of power (i.e. Force and Velocity/Speed emphasis) are present when describing the skills and abilities necessary to attain peak performance.
Take our football player as an example: the football player making a tackle represents a skill with a high force component. Whereas, that same player exploding off the line of scrimmage to beat his man and chase the opposing quarterback, represents a skill with a high velocity component. Therefore, both elements of power (i.e. big force and big velocity) are necessary to compete at the highest level as a football lineman.
Strength and Conditioning Coaches describe this point of emphasis when it comes to training power as either a “Strength – Speed” or “Speed – Strength” emphasis.
For example, let’s look at two different strength types in the same basic movement pattern. A bench press executed with explosiveness, could be considered a “Strength-Speed” exercise. Whereas a light, fast medicine ball chest throw could be considered an example of a “Speed-Strength” exercise (greater speed or velocity emphasis).
Olympic Lifts: Giving Athletes the Best of Both Worlds
Now that power has been clearly defined, and the relationship between force and velocity clearly understood, one can start to fully appreciate the ‘complete package’ of Olympic lifts.
Olympic lifts aren’t the only way to increase power
Let’s be clear, medicine balls, plyometrics, and speed work are also essential to overall athletic success. Anyone that has sat through my podcast of maximal speed training has heard how much I value focused, precise and biomechanically sound speed work.
The truth is that each of the above three classifications of exercises represent focused training strategies that are scientifically proven to maximize peak power output, especially from a speed-strength standpoint.
Conversely, I also love the regular incorporation of heavy, key compound lifts, including overhead and horizontal pressing movements like the military press and bench press, upper-body pulling movements and classic lower-body strength exercises.
What each of these broad categorizations of lifting movements have in common, is the high degrees of coordinated, muscular-strength efforts necessary to complete each of these lifts successfully.
However, Olympic lifts provide athletes with the best of both worlds. To illustrate, in revisiting both the Snatch & Clean and the Jerk, one can appreciate the degrees of power necessary to navigate the bar overhead from a stationary floor position.
What is not captured in the static images for either the Snatch & Clean and the Jerk however, is the requisite strength, explosive power, precision, and total-body coordination necessary to successfully navigate such impressive weights from the ground to an overhead position.
It is only through such highly precise, coordinated muscular efforts where high levels of athletic power can be achieved to successfully attempt either of the two types of Olympic lifts.
Olympic lifts provide one type of sports specificity
Arguably, from a ‘sports specificity’ standpoint, the Olympic lifts successfully capture the rapid triple-extension qualities of the ankles, knees and hips so often encountered in sports (see below images):
Each Demonstrations of the rapid ‘Triple-Extension’ of the hips, ankles and knees as they relate to sport
Virtually all sporting actions require a forceful triple-extension of the hip, knee and ankle. Whether sprinting, cutting, making a tackle, or attempting to jump for a serve, triple-extension is there.
Plyometrics, speed work and heavy compound lifts, are tools that represent invaluable components of my own coaching ‘arsenal’. Utilizing a combination of these tools throughout a training plan can lead to substantial gains in performance. There is no question that even in the absence of Olympic lifting, athletes can still achieve increases in athletic power.
Athletes and coaches have limited time and effort to spend in the weight room. The question I usually ask myself as a coach when creating a program is; what types of lifts and activities are going to give my athletes the most ‘bang for their buck’. What will give them the greatest return from their training investment in the weight room?
The answer is Olympic lifts. Programming olympic lifting for youth athletes combines high levels of strength, speed, power and total-body coordination.
Let’s return to the key distinction between the two lifts as well as our ‘Force-Velocity’ Curve. By nature the Snatch is considered by many coaches to be more of a ‘Speed-Strength’ exercise. Whereas the Clean & Jerk is considered more of a ‘Strength-Speed’ exercise. This due to a combination of factors which includes the bar speeds and degrees of resistance encountered in both lifts.
Overall, both versions of the Olympic lifts in a training program allows athletes to effectively ‘surf the curve’ in their training. These lifts rely on the successful application of high force and high speeds. It is impossible to attempt either the Snatch or Clean & Jerk slowly.
Unlike plyometrics or medicine ball work, Olympics lifts can have a very wide range of resistance. Instead of relying on either body weight or small, weighted implements, Olympic lifts us adjustable barbells and weight. A coach can adjust the plates in order to achieve optimal resistance levels.
There are numerous benefits that strength and power training has on sports performance. Speed training, plyometrics and classic strength training exercises can all provide athletes with exceptional gains in performance and athleticism.
Olympic lifting for youth athletes provides athletes with the ultimate “X-Factor” when it comes to training.
These lifts closely mimic the force and velocity demands of sport. As a result, they allow athletes to make monumental both strength and power gains in the weight room. They are efficient. One exercise gives multiple strength benefits.
Still the argument persists that these movements too technical for some athletes. The truth is that once mastered, Olympic lifts provide young athletes what’s needed. An array of exercises and drills that transfer to on-field performance.
Youth athletes that can learn Olympic lifts at a young age benefit from a superior training stimulus. Their successful incorporation also adds the confidence to execute one of the most common lifting skills in the sports world.
Understanding strength training for speed is important for coaches and athletes. Previously I’ve covered why the Big 4 is such an effective “formula” for speed (read it here). It’s how we analyze movement, teach and come up with drills and programs. No advanced degree in physics or neuroscience necessary. The formula is:
Optimal Range of Motion
Let’s delve deeper and take a look at the first element; Big Force. It has driven why and how we incorporate certain drills and resistance exercises. It is basic Newtonian physics; you push the ground one way and it pushes you the opposite direction.
How Much Strength Do You Need?
It’s a good question. How much strength do you really need?
Observing the difference in muscular development between a sprinter and a marathoner should give you a clue. Sprinter’s have way more muscle mass. This doesn’t mean you need to just be bigger or become a powerlifter. But biomechanics research does tell us very large forces have to be applied by the athlete to move fast.
You need to produce a Big Force.The strength you needis developed by:
using specific sprint and plyometric drills,
and getting in the weight room.
What Is Strength?
For an athlete, strength means a lot more than just how much weight you can lift. There are 6 different strength qualities we train. Focusing on specific strength qualities is how we improve speed.
Strength is how much you can lift, right?
How much you can lift is a great expression of some strength or power qualities. As an Olympic weightlifting coach, I’ve helped athletes go from starting the sport to be on the US National team. I love the strength and power (Strength x Speed) expressed through weightlifting.
Then there’s powerlifting. Squat, deadlift, bench. Many of the coaches on our staff have been competitive powerlifters as well as my friends. These feats of strength are really impressive and it’s a great expression of Max Strength.
Neither is the definition of strength though. They are just great examples of 2 of our 6 specific qualities. Going in-depth is beyond the scope of this writing but here are our 6 types of strength:
Maximum Strength: think powerlifting and even sub max weights. It’s about force and speed is not important.
Eccentric Strength: Think shock absorbers and brakes. When you land, stop, cut, etc… your muscles contract while lengthening. This is an eccentric strength action.
Power (Strength-Speed): Moving fast against a larger load. Think weightlifting or football lineman pushing each other.
Power (Speed- Strength): Moving fast against a light load. Throwing a baseball, jumping, throwing a punch. Moving it fast matters.
Rate of Force Development: How fast you can turn on the muscles. Think of a drag racer analogy. It’s how fast they can go from 0 to speed that matters.
Reactive Strength: Combine a fast & short eccentric stretch, immediately followed by RFD and you have reactive. This is the springy quick step you see in fast footwork.
If there are different types of strength, which help you apply a BIG FORCE into the ground? Which will help you get faster?
The answer lies in part on what you are trying to improve. The answer may be different if we are talking about acceleration compared to maximum velocity sprinting. And those may be different than a change of direction.
This is the phase where you are starting and gaining speed. During this phase, the mechanics lead to slightly longer ground contact times. This added time in contact with the ground lets you build up force to push harder. You still have only between 200 – 400 milliseconds, so Max Strength will help, but Speed-Strength is key.
This phase is also characterized by large horizontal and vertical forces. This means that when training strength, you need strength exercises for both pushing backward and down. A good dose of weight room basics like lunges, power cleans help. Combined with vertical and horizontal plyometrics, along with sled work, the results get better.
Maximum Velocity Mechanics
During this phase, you are upright and moving fast. Your foot needs to hit the ground with high forces but it’s not there for long. Elite sprinters are in contact less than 100 milliseconds. You need Max Strength enough to handle the high loads 1.5 – 2.5 times body weight on each leg. You also need to be able to absorb the impact and reapply force quickly. That’s Reactive Strength.
Since you’ve already accelerated, in this phase the forces are mostly vertical. They keep you from falling into the ground. Therefore, weight and plyometric exercises like squats, reactive hurdle jumps, and even jump rope double-unders all contribute.
Change of Direction
When changing direction, the type of strength can depend on how sharp of a cut you make. One situation is a major change of direction where you slow down and re-accelerate. This requires a lot of Eccentric Strength and Strength-Speed. On the other hand, if it’s a quick cut without slowing down or a big range of motion, then it’s more about Reactive Strength and Speed-Strength.
Both these are going to benefit from a mix of weight room and plyometrics. The weight room will include strength exercises and Olympic lifts for power. The plyometrics are going to need to focus on developing horizontal and lateral forces.
Technical Sprint Drills for Strength Development
There is a big misunderstanding of technical speed drills. Most people see a technical drill and naturally believe it’s to develop technique. It makes sense after all, but there is so much more.
Many “technique” drills in speed training are just as important to developing Big Force as the weight room. By refining an athlete’s technique, they become more efficient with the strength they have. They learn to apply it better.
Often many speed drills are really a plyometric exercise themselves. They require putting a lot of force into the ground, in the proper direction. They are in fact the most speed specific form of strength training there is.
Strength Training for Speed
Having good technique and good power output is key to being fast. It’s not an either/or situation, it’s an AND sitution. You need technique AND strength. In every athlete’s development, they go through stages. Sometimes their technique gets ahead of their strength, and vice versa. Make sure you stay on track by developing both and working with a knowledgeable coach who can determine if you need one or the other more.
When you speak about strength or being strong, what do you imagine? An athlete hoisting a barbell loaded with heavy weight in a Squat or Bench Press? How about an Olympic weightlifter explosively moving 400 pounds from the floor to over his head in a single movement?
These types of things are often considered “strong,” but what about other sporting actions? How about sprinting at full speed, jumping high, or throwing and kicking? Most people become unsure whether or how strength is part of these movements.
What is strength in general and specifically for athletes? Strength is all about physics, and we are talking about Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion: in a nutshell, Force is equal to Mass multiplied by Acceleration.
Strength is a way of talking about the application of force. An athlete can apply force to the ground, to an opponent, to a ball or other piece of sports equipment, or even internally to his or her own body.
Mass & Magnitude
The mass in this equation is what’s being moved. As an athlete that could be things like:
a ball or stick in your hands, to
your own body weight (jumping, sprinting and cutting)
a 300-pound linemen
500 pounds on a barbell
Acceleration and Time
One thing most people recognize is that in sports, doing things quicker is usually an advantage. Athletes don’t have unlimited time to apply force.
Acceleration is how fast something increases its speed. The faster the acceleration, and thus the speed, the shorter the time.
In sprinting or agility, your foot is in contact with the ground for a limited time. In jumping, there is limited time, and doing it faster than your opponent can be key. When throwing or kicking a ball or swinging a racket, bat or stick, you want it moving as fast as possible.
Speed of movement matters.
In physics, force is what we call a “vector.” This means it has a magnitude (how much?) and a direction (which way?). Direction matters because forces can be applied in different directions for different effects.
One thing to consider about direction is whether the muscle is lengthening or shortening during the contraction. When it’s contracting and getting shorter (e.g., bringing the bar up in a Bicep Curl), it’s called a “concentric” action.
If you’re applying force while the muscle lengthens (e.g., while slowly lowering the bar in the 2nd half of the Bicep Curl), it’s called an “eccentric” action.
Types of muscle contractions:
CONCENTRIC = Shortening
ECCENTRIC = Lengthening
Eccentric and concentric strength are not the same. The same muscles may be used, the same structures and contractile proteins, and the same lints moved. Yet, the brain uses different motor control strategies. For the same action concentrically or eccentrically the motor control is different.
Physiology & Motor Control
Another important thing to understand about strength for athletes is where it comes from. Often people equate strength with bigger muscles. This is for good reason, because they are related, although not perfectly and not for all types.
Generating force with your body is a combination of the structure of your muscles (size and biological content) and your neuromuscular control. The muscle is your engine to develop horsepower, but your brain is the driver that decides how hard you push the pedal.
When we analyze an athlete in his or her sport, we observe various forms of movement. Speed, agility, jumping, throwing, kicking, hitting, twisting, landing and so on are movement caused by how an athlete generates force.
It follows that all types of athletic movement are based on how you generate and apply strength.
Still, how can everything be about strength? Is what your muscles do squatting a full barbell different from what they do when you throw a baseball that only weighs ounces?
The answer to understanding strength is actually composed of different combinations of Newton’s 2nd Law. Force = Mass multiplied by Acceleration
Playing with the Equation
In different movements we manipulate the 3 parts of the equation—Force, Mass and Acceleration (Speed & Time). The we consider the direction of contraction (eccentric or concentric). Now we have a way to analyze sports movements and strength types.
We use this movement-based approach to simplify complex biomechanics into 6 specific types of strength.
6 Types of Strength
This is the basic capability of the muscle to produce a forceful contraction. In application it also involves coordinating multiple muscle groups across multiple joints. The amount of force that can be generated regardless of the time it takes to develop and apply it is called max strength. This is what we call this type of strength even when he or she is under sub-maximal loads.
Using a car analogy, imagine a big industrial dump truck. It may not move fast, but it can move big loads.
As mentioned before, motor control is different if the action is concentric or eccentric. The capacity to develop high levels of eccentric force is key in sports. Actions such as landing from a jump, stopping, changing direction, winding up to throw a ball and swinging a bat are all eccentric in nature.
When we come to cars, think brakes. Eccentric strength is like having great brakes on a car to handle those high speeds. An F1 racer has to have great brakes so he or she can go into turns as fast as possible before braking.
Most sports applications of force involves doing it quickly. Faster is usually better. This is where power comes in. Power is equal to the velocity times the force. Increasing either force or the speed its applied will lead to more power.
When an athlete applies force rapidly to a larger load (e.g., blocking another lineman or pushing a bobsled), it’s what we term Strength-Speed Power. “Strength” is first in the name because it’s the bigger component in generating the power. This is like a NASCAR racer who can apply a lot of torque (force), moving the car even at high speeds.
Here it’s the “speed” of movement (or short time of force application) that is the larger factor in generating the power. Think of an athlete swinging a bat, throwing a ball, or applying force to the ground during high velocity sprinting.
The racing analogy is more akin to motorcycle racing—still applying force at high speeds (like NASCAR), but against much lighter loads.
Rate of Force Development
This is the drag racer. In a drag race, the goal is to go from 0 mph to full speed in as little time as possible. This is the same quality that creates quickness in an athlete. Rapid movement of the limbs, a quick release of the ball throwing or a shot in hockey, fast feet for soccer. Being able to rapidly generate force, regardless of whether the force level is high is known as Rate of Force Development.
A drag racer coming off the line and getting up to speed as fast as possible is a good car analogy.
This one’s a combo. It’s a fast eccentric action coupled with a high RFD force. Think of rapid footwork, or a quick step to change direction and juke an opponent. Or the second quick jump when a basketball player comes down and goes back up quickly to get a rebound.
We use a motocross bike as the analogy. Because it has high Rate of Force Development with eccentric-type landings of bumps that gives it that “springy” quality.
Developing Strength that’s Functional
At the end of the day, athletes want the type of strength that will help them perform at the highest level and gives them the resilience to stay healthy.
Every athlete needs a base across all six types of strength. While it seems to make sense to go straight to the specific type of strength for your sport, it’s not the best strategy.
Doing that actually limits development and long term potential. During early stages of strength training, a broad base of strength is important. Even at the elite levels of sport, athletes mix strength types during different parts of the year.
As you progress in your development and level of competition, you begin to focus on the specific qualities. The strength types more important to your sport, your position and even your individual genetics and style of play.
Strength is much more than how much you can lift on the barbell.
The term “muscle pliability” has been in the news around the NFL quite a bit. Tom Brady and his trainer, Alex Guerrero, claim that making muscles pliable is the best way to sustain health and performance. How true is that claim? While it’s a great descriptive term, we are going to shed some light on what it really means and how to create muscle pliability.
Our performance coaches, sports medicine specialists, and tissue therapists all find it to be a useful term. Pliable expresses some of the important qualities of muscle. According to Miriam-Webster Dictionary here’s what pliable means:
a: supple enough to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking
b: yielding readily to others
c: adjustable to varying conditions
That’s a pretty good description for many of the qualities we want in the tissue of an athlete (or any human for that matter). The problem is that it’s being mixed up with a lot of inaccurate and confusing statements.
Our Sports Medicine Specialist, Misao Tanioka, says that “the word pliability, in my opinion, depicts the ideal muscle tissue quality. It is similar to suppleness, elasticity, or resilience. Unfortunately, I believe some of the explanations offered by Mr. Brady and Mr. Guerrero have created some misunderstanding of what ‘muscle pliability’ really is.”
Let’s try and separate some of the myths from what is true.
Myth 1: Muscles that are “soft” are better than dense
That depends on what qualifies as “soft” muscle. Tissue Specialist Cindy Vick has worked on hundreds of elite athletes, including NFL players and Olympians across many sports. “Soft isn’t a word I would use for an athlete. When I’m working on an elderly client, I often feel muscles that could be called soft; they’re not dense. That’s not what I feel when working on elite athletes. Athletes who are healthy and performing well have muscles that have density without being overly tense and move freely. The tissue is still smooth and supple.”
This muscle quality is affected by many factors, ranging from stress, competition, nutrition, training, and recovery. At Velocity, maintaining optimal tissue quality is a constant endeavor. Proper self-myofascial release, various stretching techniques, and manual therapy are all part of the equation.
Relating these terms in this way grossly over-simplifies reality and is in some ways completely wrong.
You have to start with the operative word: “dense.” Tanioka says, “Dense tissue can be elastic; elastic tissue is resilient to injury. What we have to look for is inelastic tissue.” Cindy Vick adds that “if you mean ‘dense’ to refer to a muscle with adhesions, or that doesn’t move evenly and smoothly, then yes, that’s a problem.”
Scientifically, stiffness refers to how much a muscle resists stretch under tension. It’s like thinking about the elastic qualities of a rubber band. The harder it is to pull, the stiffer it is. If a muscle can’t give and stretch when it needs to, that’s bad.
Imagine a rubber band that protects your joint. When a muscle exerts a force against the impact of an opponent or gravity, stiffness can help resist the joint and ligaments from being overloaded and consequently injured.
“I agree with Mr. Brady’s statement about the importance of a muscle’s ability to lengthen, relax and disperse high-velocity, heavy incoming force to avoid injury,” says Tanioka. “However, I think that athletes also must be able to exert maximum power whether actively generating force or passively resisting incoming stress, which requires the ability to shorten and be taut and firm as well as lengthen. The ability of the tissue to be durable and contractile is just as important as to elongate and soften when it comes to performance and injury prevention.”
In the view of our experts, it’s not about dense, soft, stiff, or other qualitative words. Instead, they emphasize developing function through different types of strength qualities athletes need. Athletes must prepare for the intense stress and strain their muscles will face in their sport. They need to blend the right strength training with mobility and flexibility.
Myth 3: Strength training makes muscles short
“It’s an old wives’ tale that took hold when bodybuilding techniques had a big influence on strength and conditioning. A muscle can be incredibly strong without sacrificing any range of motion” according to international expert and President of Velocity Sports Performance, Ken Vick, who has worked with athletes in 10 Olympic Games and helped lead the Chinese Olympic Committee’s preparation efforts for 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“I’ll give you two great examples: Gymnasts are, pound-for-pound, very strong and incredibly explosive, yet they are known to be some of the most flexible athletes. Olympic weightlifters are clearly some of the strongest athletes in the world and are also generally very flexible. They spend practically every day doing strength training and their muscles aren’t ‘short’.”
In fact, proper lifting technique demands excellent flexibility and mobility. For example, poor hip flexor flexibility or limited ankle mobility results in an athlete who probably cannot reach the lowest point of a back squat. Our proven methods combine strength training with dynamic mobility, movement training, and state of the art recovery technology to help our athletes gain and maintain the flexibility and mobility required for strength training and optimal performance on the field of competition.
Myth 4: Plyometrics and band training are better for pliability
We hear these types of claims time and again from coaches, trainers, and others who are quoting something they’ve read without much knowledge of the actual training science. Our muscles and brain don’t care if the resistance is provided by bodyweight, bands, weights, cables, or medicine balls. They can all be effective or detrimental, depending on how they are used.
Sports science has shown that manipulating different variables influences both the physiological and neurological effects of strength training. Rate of motion, movement patterns, environment, and type of resistance all influence the results.
Truth: Muscle Pliability is a good thing
Like so many ideas, muscle pliability is a very good concept. The challenge lies in discerning and then conveying what is true and what is not. An experienced therapist can, within just a few moments of touching a person, tell whether that tissue is healthy. A good coach can tell whether an athlete has flexibility or mobility problems, or both, simply by watching them move.
In either case, it takes years of experience and understanding of the human body and training science, like that which is possessed by the performance and sports medicine staff at Velocity, to correctly apply a concept like muscle pliability to an athlete’s training program.