From ‘Bench Warmer to Star Performer’ – Installment Five: Why Your Arm Action May be Ruining Not Only Your Acceleration Efforts, but Your Chance of Making the Team! – Coach Tim Hanway
In my most recent articles series about speed and sports performance, speed was described as the single-most important determining factor of athletic performance. In particular, speed was described as an athletic attribute that contains both physical as well as skill components: A fact best encapsulated in what we here at Velocity Sports Performance term “the formula”. To re-cap, the following four features of “the formula” are proven to un-lock the true speed potential of every young athlete!
- Big Force
- Proper Direction
- Optimal Range-of-Motion
Figure 1: An illustration of ‘the formula’ which describes speed as being a combination of the ‘Big 4’: Big Force, Small Time, Proper-Direction and Optimal Range-of-Motion.
In my my most recent article on speed, the issue of the ‘Double-Leg Take-Off’ was introduced, which states rather simply that the fastest athletes are those that can push-off both feet when attempting to accelerate; especially when performing an acceleration effort from a two-point stance like the athlete being depicted in the image below.
Figure 2: An athlete is a two-point stance. Notice the crouched, low body position and narrow base-of-support under the hips to maximize the three ‘A’s of ‘Alignment, Activation and Alignment’
Just as the above image describes, it is specifically in the ability of an athlete to simultaneously push forwards and backwards with the lead leg and trail leg respectively that the first 3 parts of our 4 point ‘formula’ can be realized (i.e. “Big Force, Short-Time, Proper Direction”). After all, as stated in the preceding article centered upon the double-leg take-off, given that an athlete can always jump higher off two legs compared to one, the same logic (and laws of physics for that matter) apply to sprint performance: Namely, those athletes that can push-off two legs will always go further than those that only use one.
However, in continuing to focus upon sprint performance and technique, even the best double-leg take-off can easily be undermined with poor arm mechanics! Specifically arm-action, when combined with proper leg action while sprinting, is the proverbial “one-two knock-out punch” that allows athletes to fully realize their sprint potential. It is for this reason alone that some of the most accomplished track and field coaches in the world, including Margo Wells (wife and coach of Allan Wells, Olympic Gold-medalist in the 100m sprint at the 1980 Moscow Games) teach arm mechanics first when working with athletes looking to unlock their speed potential. Coach Wells even goes so far as to have her athletes borrow from the boxing world by having them utilize a speed bag in training to improve not only the rapidness, but accuracy of their arm action as well. Arms really are that important when it comes to speed!
When it comes to analyzing the sprint performance of young athletes however, one of the most apparent areas of opportunity lie arm mechanics, as it is evident to myself and numerous other coaches in the sports performance field that many young athletes simply do not know how to use their arms when sprinting!
Arm-Action 101: Combining Proper Arm-Action with the ‘Double Leg Drive’:
After initiating our double-leg drive (i.e. pushing off the ground simultaneously with both legs), it is important to get an understanding of what happens next? To answer this question, we can look to the most recent video on speed development published by Velocity Head Performance Coach Chris Rice, which documents one of my favorite drills “Wall Reverse Pistons”. As you will see in the video, Coach Rice starts off in a crouched, staggered-stance position identical to our athlete in Figure 2, although in this case, Coach Rice purposely adopts a more exaggerated 2-point stance by creating more space between his front and back leg (while also leaning against the wall).
In the video Coach Rice initiates movement by aggressively driving his trail-leg forwards towards the wall by leading/punching with the right knee, which results in him ending with the original trail leg now forwards, with his right knee and hip bent as well as with the toes of his right foot pointed up in a position known as ‘dorsi-flexion’ (Frame 3 in the below image).
Figure 3: Still images of Coach Chris Rice Performing the “Wall Reverse Piston”. Notice the ‘power-line’ in Frame 1 where you could draw a line from Coach Rice’s right ear down to his right ankle, where his right leg is effectively his trail leg. Upon cueing he then aggressively ‘punches’ his trail leg forwards towards the wall, ending with his right leg now forwards in the “blocked” position, where his right hip, knee and ankle are now flexed or ‘bent’, with the left leg being fully extended/straight.
What the above drill simulates is how our athlete in Figure 2 (if brought to life) would effectively push-off both legs to initiate his acceleration effort, as well as the next step in the process, which is how the athlete’s trail-leg would effectively punch forwards so that he ends up in a position similar to Coach Rice in Frame 3 which we term the “blocked position”.
The reason we like to describe acceleration as a “piston-like” action, is for all the reasons mentioned in the original Wall Drill Acceleration video by Coach Rice, where he takes the same above “Wall Reverse-Piston” drill a step further by having the athlete instead aggressively transition from one leg being in the “blocked” position (i.e. right leg in Frame 3) to this same leg aggressively extending/“pushing” into the ground (“extended position”).
To put it rather simply, in the first 5 to 8 steps of an acceleration effort, the legs basically transition rapidly between the “block” and “extended” positions, as this aggressive change-over between the legs is how an athlete best realizes “the formula”, by putting maximal force into the ground in the shortest amount of time possible.
Arms as a Counter-Balance:
Now that a very basic overview of the lower-limb mechanics relating to acceleration have been presented, the role of the arms can now be fully introduced and appreciated. The arms effectively serve to counter-balance the legs, by effectively acting as a counter-weight to the aggressive leg actions described above ! In describing acceleration as a uniform, total-body movement that includes the upper and lower-body, coaches refer to the concept of a “contra-lateral” arm and leg action, where the opposite arm is always positioned forwards compared to whichever leg is momentarily in the “blocked” position.
To illustrate, depicted below is Olympic athlete and world record holder, Usain Bolt, who can be seen exhibiting this type of contra-lateral arm and leg action, as his left arm is forwards to off-set his right leg being forwards in the “blocked” position. This contra-lateral arm and leg action allows an athlete to achieve the classic 45’ angular body lean also expressed by Bolt in the image below, as it is this body position that is so often associated with optimal acceleration mechanics. Effectively an aggressive arm-action, which complements an aggressive leg action, is seen to help prevent our young athletes from stumbling off the line, or worse yet, experiencing a not-so glamorous face-plant when accelerating over the first 5-8 steps!
Figure 4: World-record holder Usain Bolt exhibiting perfect acceleration mechanics. Note the classic 45’ body lean and contra-lateral arm and leg action, where his left arm is forwards compared to his right leg, which in this case is in the “blocked” position. If this still image was to be brought to life, we would see Bolt transition in his next step so that the other sides of his body would aggressively and effectively switch place (i.e. right arm aggressively swings forwards as the left leg punches forwards into the “block” position). Such a rapid change-over results in the ‘piston action’ of acceleration that Coach Rice references in his two videos.
Arm Action While Accelerating:
The actions of the arms serve to balance, stabilize, and coordinate movements of the upper body in conjunction with the lower body. More specifically, the quality of arm movement determines the direction of force, spine and hip stabilization, as well as proper synchronization of the trunk and legs in general. This again is captured perfectly in the “Big 4” of our “formula”!
In initiating movement from a 2-point stance, the athlete simultaneously throws the front arm back aggressively towards the ceiling, while the trail arm ‘rips’ forwards. Note however that all arm movement should be initiated with a driving action in a backward direction. Specifically, by emphasizing a quick backward drive of the front elbow, the muscles of the shoulder along with the biceps can respond elastically with added force in a forward direction. Furthermore, arm position should approximately be a 90-degree angle at the elbow with the forward arm, with the fingers relaxed, palms facing in, and thumbs pointing up, while the trail arm should be closer to 110’ in full extension – a fact captured rather nicely with Bolt’s right shoulder and elbow in the above image.
To illustrate this aggressive arm in real-time, here is a video of NFL and Velocity athlete David Fluellen performing a “Sled March”, as well as David performing a full-on acceleration effort. Note the aggressive contra-lateral arm and leg action in both videos, where the arm being ripped backwards is always opposite to the leg “punching” forwards. The result is again this “piston-like” action of the arms and legs, which allows the athlete to realize each of the “Big 4” elements referenced in “the formula”.
Videos 1 & 2: NFL and Velocity athlete David Fluellen performing a “Sled March” and 20yd acceleration effort. Note the aggressive, contra-lateral arm and leg action, which is “piston-like” in nature!
In summary, acceleration and sprinting is all about an athlete’s ability to realize ‘the formula’ by being able to synchronize both their arm and leg actions. The ability to drive off both legs in a “double-leg” action allows an athlete to express as much horizontal force into the ground as possible – the first element of the “Big 4”! However, it is the ability to sync and marry up such an aggressive leg action with an effective, contra-lateral arm action that allows an athlete to realize the rest of the “Big 4” described in the “formula”, as well as attain the classic 45’ angular lean most associated with optimal acceleration mechanics.
Arm-action, when accelerating, effectively creates balance, stability and overall coordination that again allows an athlete to maximize force potential in the shortest possible time. As a result, the absence of correct arm mechanics prevent the proper “piston-like” action of acceleration mechanics from occurring, which severely limits acceleration ability in the process. A fast athlete knows that their arm actions are crucial when it comes to exploding out of the blocks. Unfortunately, many coaches do not focus on this, which is why here at Velocity we make it a point to teach our athletes how to use their arm and legs effectively. Their place on the team may count on it!