From ‘Bench Warmer to Star Performer’ – Installment Four: The Double-Leg Take-Off & How to Always Out-Sprint Your Opponent.

From ‘Bench Warmer to Star Performer’ – Installment Four: The Double-Leg Take-Off & How to Always Out-Sprint Your Opponent.

Coach Tim Hanway

In my most recent article about speed, I stated that sport speed was in fact that single-most important determining factor of athletic success at all levels of competition. Whether an NFL prospect performing at the Combine, or a freshman Junior Varsity athlete looking to make the starting team, fast athletes play more and are afforded more playing opportunities than slower athletes…PERIOD! Specifically, speed was described in my latest article as both a skill and a physical quality best developed through the proper combination of technical instruction and weight room activity.

Specifically, it is in combining strength and power training with technical sprint work that allows athletes to best achieve what we here at Velocity Sports Performance refer to as “the formula”: Our world-renowned model of speed training, which states that maximum speed is the end-product of producing “big force in the shortest possible time, in the proper direction, with optimal range-of-motion.” To this end, in achieving these four things an athlete, much like a V8 car engine with incredible horse-power, has no choice but to be run fast and perform at the highest level!

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.

However, although my most recent article provides a gross overview of not only the importance of speed, but how it is best be achieved, this article is all about providing practical tips and tools that will help any young athlete explode off the mark, so that they too can beat their opponents to the loose ball or puck, as well as ensure that their name is one of the first on the team sheet when their head coach is faced with selection decisions. After all, fast athletes play more and maximizing “the formula” is the best way to ensure no speed is lost or left on the table!

The Double-Leg Take-Off: Fast Athletes Know How to ‘Rev’ their Engines! 

In keeping with the car analogies from my previous article, fast athletes are said to have not only bigger ‘engines’ than slower athletes, but also utilize and achieve top speed much quicker than their opponents. Given that speed is both a physical quality as well as a motor skill, the truth remains that neither of these two factors are mutually exclusive and that even the strongest, most powerful athletes cannot out-run poor technique!

When it comes to acceleration (i.e. the ability to explode off the mark), technique is often one of the biggest areas of opportunity for many young athletes. Specifically, in spending years analyzing and breaking down the technique of hundreds of young athletes, I have identified a handful of common errors that are so often the main culprit when it comes to poor acceleration capability. For example, even when an athlete can utilize “the formula” (i.e. produce ‘big force in a short-time, with proper range-of-motion in the proper direction), each of these variables can easily be un-done if acceleration technique is not spot-on. The biggest mistake I often see as a coach however is that all too often, so many young athletes attempt to push off just one-leg when accelerating. As a result, like a jet-engine or rocket that only utilizes one of its thrusters, the inability to push-off of two legs invariably handicaps an athlete by severely limiting their ability and all but negating “the formula” in the process!

In a recent video blog post by my colleague and Velocity Coach, Chris Rice, Chris describes in detail some of the main issues encountered in Acceleration: Namely that athletes often tend to ‘pop up’ when accelerating, leaving lots of speed potential on the proverbial table in the process.

In addition to the excellent points Chris mentions in the video, in dissecting both errors further (i.e. pushing off of just one leg and ‘popping up’ after the first step), optimal acceleration mechanics come down to having the following three areas in place:

  1. Alignment
  2. Activation
  3. Arrangement

When these three ‘A’s are present in an athlete’s mechanics, he/she is best able to maximize ‘the formula’ by utilizing technique that is not only the most effective, but also the most efficient in the process. For example, poor technique not only limits acceleration speed, but also burns a lot of extra ‘gas from the tank’, which in turn brings upon fatigue levels at a much quicker rate! To this end, the three ‘A’s allow an athlete to not only maximize the initial driving action of acceleration, but also conserve the fuel and energy necessary to go as hard in the second half as they do in the first half.

The double-leg drive, as the name implies, is all about the ability of an athlete to push off both legs, as opposed to simply one-leg when accelerating. The problem though, is that all too-often, whether performing a three-point stance (like Coach Danny illustrates in Coach Chris Rice’s Video) or more commonly, a two-point stance, young athletes tend to favor the front leg by pushing nearly exclusively off it while simply bringing the trail leg along for the ride!

Need a demonstration as to the effectiveness of pushing off one leg versus two? Well simply try getting up from your seat and standing up before jumping as high as you can off both of one leg then two. Now ask yourself “in which instance were you able to jump higher?” I guarantee you were able to jump higher off two legs, as opposed to one, for the simple reason that two legs allow you to recruit more muscle and generate more force compared to one-leg.

Nevertheless, despite such a basic experiment in physics, too often athletes get into the habit of pushing almost exclusively off the front leg, as opposed to both legs, again limiting the effectiveness of ‘the formula’ in the process.

As such, now that the problem of pushing off one leg (compared to two) has been identified when accelerating, the question beckons as to how does an athlete self-diagnosis, as well as fix this problem in the first place? The answer comes back to our three ‘A’s, which we here at Velocity describe in detail within our Velocity Methodology Manual:

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’

The Fix

In using our three A’s, an athlete is best able to physically position them self so that they are set-up in the optimal position to realize ‘the formula’ of producing maximal force in the shortest possible time, in the proper direction using optimal ranges of motion. Although the 3-point stance described in Coach Chris Rice’s video are relevant for general speed testing, and specifically in sports like football (i.e. lineman) and track & field athletes, many acceleration and maximal speed efforts instead are performed from a two-point stance. As such, understanding how to accelerate from a two-point stance is paramount to sporting success, which is why the following bullet-points are all about how to set-up in a proper two-point stance in order to achieve maximal results – like our athlete depicted above in Figure 2.

  • Alignment: Put simply, body alignment is determined by optimal positions of the core and limbs in order to apply force in the proper direction and begin acceleration mechanics. Characteristics of our two-point stance include placing the body-weight on the balls of the feet, creating positive shin angles, and setting the arms for proper synchronization (see Figure 2). A key factor in body alignment for any staggered start however is deciding which foot will be placed forward. A simple method of determining the quick leg, or back leg, for individual athletes, is to ask them to cross their arms across their body. The arm closest to the body will be the same side as their quick leg. This easy exercise determines which side of the body neurologically moves first. Thus, if an athlete places their right arm against their body when crossing arms, the right foot should be placed back and the left foot placed forward in a start position!
  • Activation: As stated acceleration should be initiated by a “double-leg drive” method from all starts.
An athlete that executes an explosive push off with both legs will produce a greater force than an athlete that uses only a single-leg push off. During a double-leg drive, the rear leg should produce a greater initial force, while the front leg produces force over a longer amount of time. An easy way to think of this is that when accelerating, the front foot should “push forwards”, while the rear or trail-leg simultaneously “pushes backwards”.

In producing ‘big force in the shortest possible time,’ it is again imperative that this force is directed in the proper direction. Borrowing again from Newton’s ‘Second Law of Motion’, in order to travel forwards, force must be directed in the opposite direction (i.e. back and down into the ground) which is best achieved by adopting the classic 45’ body-lean (Figure 3 below). Specifically, by positioning the foot behind the hips during each ground-contact, the body can be propelled forwards! Because of such optimal alignment, the big powerful muscles of the lower-body, including the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings, are best able to be recruited, resulting in optimal activation of these large, powerful muscle groups.

Figure 3: In the above image, the athlete is leaning slightly forwards close to 45 degrees: Providing optimal body alignment to produce max forces in the proper direction.

  • Arrangement: Finally, to achieve the above two points, optimal arrangement of muscle actions and sequences needs to be present when accelerating. This is again the whole premise behind optimal sprint mechanics, both during the first initial steps of acceleration, as well as each subsequent step whilst sprinting. If the actions or sequencing is wrong, mechanics are thrown off and speed ability goes way down! The initial step from a start should involve the rear leg driving, or “punching” forward with the accompanying ankle point up towards the sky (i.e. dorsi-flexion). The front leg will support and continue producing force while the ankle, knee, and hip are fully extended (triple extension). As a result, Proper arm action (opposite arm forward, same-side arm backward) is utilized, which provides additional balance as well as added force production with each step during acceleration.

Summary:

In summary, maximal acceleration and speed ability are best achieved through the optimal combination of both technique and physical strength and power qualities. As a result, the fastest athletes are those that are best able to utilize and maximize ‘the formula’. However, to do so, the three ‘A’s of ‘alignment, activation and arrangement’ must be achieved in order to maximize both force production and technical acceleration ability.

One of the easiest ways to ensure that the three A’s are being achieved is by setting up correctly in a two-point start position. To do this, first you must figure out which side of your body you neurologically favor, which can be achieved by the simple act of hugging yourself! Second, after placing your preferred foot forwards, the two-point stance is initiated by crouching down and bringing your opposite arm forwards (as illustrated by the athlete in Figure 2). Then when ready, push forwards with the lead leg and simultaneously backwards with the trail-leg, while simultaneously throwing your front arm backwards and up towards the ceiling as aggressively as you can!

In utilizing such an efficient and effective technique, you’ll be amazed at how much quicker and faster you are off the mark!

Stay tuned for even more hacks and tips as to how you can maximize your sprint ability, so that you too can move from a bench warmer to a star performer by unlocking the speed you never knew you had!