From ‘Bench Warmer to Star Performer’ – Installment Six: The Three Big Lifts Guaranteed to Improve First-Step Speed and Quickness!

From ‘Bench Warmer to Star Performer’ – Installment Six: The Three Big Lifts Guaranteed to Improve First-Step Speed and Quickness! – Coach Tim Hanway

In my past three installments on speed, I have written extensively about all the benefits that speed and by extension, speed training have upon sports performance. Described in no uncertain terms as the number one determining factor of athletic success, speed truly is the ‘One Thing’ every athlete needs to focus on in order to take their game to the next level. Given that fast kids always get more playing time than their slower peers, and that 40yd sprint times continue to have such an impact upon draft status and overall NFL contract values, it makes perfect sense then that dedicating specific time to un-locking speed potential reaps so many benefits towards enhancing sports performance for athletes of all ages and competitive backgrounds.

In re-capping the main message from my most recent installments of my “Bench Warmer to Star Performer” series, speed enhancement was painted entirely as one’s ability to demonstrate and maximize “the formula”: The four-part equation we hold near and dear at Velocity Sports Performance, which consists of the following:

  • Big Force
  • Short-Time
  • Proper Direction
  • Optimal Range-of-Motion

In keeping with the above theme, “Big Force” is always listed as the first element within “the Formula” and for good reason: As described in Installment 3, the application of “Big Force” is what allows maximum speed application to occur in the first place.

Namely, in returning to high school physics and Newton’s Laws of Motion, we remember that for every physical action to occur, there needs to be an “equal and opposite reaction”. As described in detail in Installment 4 and 5 of this series, the combination of a double-leg drive and aggressive, contra-lateral arm action, is what allows an athlete to push off the ground effectively in the first place while accelerating, which leads to the force potential necessary to overcome the laws of inertia and initiate movement from a classic 2-point stance.

However, as described in my previous articles, power (or more specifically rate-of-force development), is directly related to maximal strength levels. So just as a V8 engine can generate more horsepower than a V4 engine, stronger athletes (by their very definition) are able to produce greater ground reaction forces than their weaker counter-parts, leading to enhanced speed in the process!

Strength Training for Speed: An Overview of What to Look For-

So now that we have re-visited how important strength and power are for speed, a common question I often get asked by parents and athletes at all levels is “What are the best exercises for speed enhancement?” My initial answer to this is almost entirely the same: “The ones you are not doing!”

The truth of the matter is that there is no perfect program or perfect exercise. Rather, in echoing the sentiments of some of the industry leaders that have directly influenced my own career and development, including Charles Poliquin, Eric Cressey, Robert Coach Dos Remedios, Al Vermil and Ron McKeefrey (just to name a few), there are so many different methods of enhancing sprint performance through resistance training. However, in adopting a “principles-based approach” to training (a concept that Former NFL and DI Strength Coach Ron McKeefrey first relayed to me in one of his “Iron Board Chalk Talk” podcasts) there are a few ‘non-negotiables’ when it comes to maximizing speed through strength training.

First, compound movements in the weight room are what ultimately provide the most “bang for your buck”. In echoing this shared sentiment from world renown strength coach Robert “Coach Dos” Remedios, compound movements allow an athlete to train and recruit the most muscle mass at any given time. Such examples include classic exercises as squats, deadlifts, the bench press and chin-ups (just to name a few). These examples recruit the upper and lower extremities including the arms and legs, as well as the core. With respect to the “core” I often like to tell my athletes to think of the core as being more akin to an “apple core”. In other words, I am not just talking about the classic superficial abs or “6-pack”; rather when I talk about training the core with my athletes, I am referencing all the deep muscles of the neck, back and abdominal cavity that effectively tie the extremities together to perform coordinated, whole-body movements. After all, sprinting has already been described as a total-body activity that incorporates a double-leg drive, coupled with an aggressive, contra-lateral arm action. The core is what effectively ties these movements together, so naturally it makes sense to heavily incorporate weight room exercises and training activities that tie these muscles together!

Secondly, in addition to relying upon predominantly compound exercises to maximize sprint performance in the weight room, I am a huge fan of movements that are ground-based. Head Performance Coach Al Vermil, the only strength coach in the world to boast championship teams in the NFL and NBA is fond of asking the same probing question when debating the merit of an exercise within an athlete’s program: “Is he or she putting force into the ground?” Just as our “formula” states, speed is all about putting a “Big Force” into the ground. If an exercise does not provide a direct stimulus towards enhancing this aspect of “the formula” Coach Vermil has often gone on record as questioning whether it really is the best choice to help improve an athlete’s sprint performance?

In sharing his sentiments, when picking the best exercises in the weight room to enhance speed, I too believe that ground-based, compound movements will always trump their single-joint, non-ground based counterpoints. However, the latter does have a place in a well-rounded strength and conditioning program, which I do reference in one of my “Director’s Cut” podcast looking at “Compound and Isolation Lifts for Competitive Female Athletes”.

Third, the main “go to” strength training exercises for speed enhancment should always have lie within different positions upon the “Force-Velocity Curve”: One of the main tenants of strength and power training and a concept that baseball strength & conditioning “guru” Eric Cressey references frequently in many of his online presentations.

In a nutshell, the ‘force-velocity curve’ describes the mathematical relationship between maximal force and maximal velocity in relation to sporting movements. One of the biggest misconceptions in the realm of strength and conditioning is that all forms of speed, strength and power are created equal. This is simply not true however! Just as you have different breeds of cats and dogs, there are in fact different types of strength and power.

For example, in discussing the concept of power and its various types, the distinction often lies within whether there is a ‘speed’ or a ‘force’ emphasis. To illustrate, I once heard a coach ask a group of college athletes “Which would you rather: Get hit by a semi-truck traveling 10 mph or instead get shot with a bullet in the leg at close range?” As you can imagine, the coach in this instance was greeted with looks of abject shock, horror and confusion from his athletes. Nevertheless, this rhetorical question does in fact illustrate a key difference in power: Namely that in the instance of the truck and bullet, both objects represent extremely high instances of power output! To help understand this concept, we need to re-familiarize ourselves briefly with the mathematical formula that describes power:

Power = Force x Distance/time

In applying this formula to the coach’s rhetorical question, in the case of the truck, the truck itself is not traveling particularly fast. However, it’s sheer weight or mass (even when traveling at a relatively slow speed) makes it quite powerful by extension. The bullet on the other hand, which is extremely small and light, more than makes up for its small mass by traveling at incredibly high speeds, making it too an equally power (and equally dangerous) proposition! Hence, in both instances of power, either the force (truck) or velocity (bullet) component of the equation is emphasized to maximize power output.

Figure 1: An illustration of the “Force-Velocity Curve” where the ‘Y’ Axis represents maximum force and the “X” axis represents maximal velocity.

To this end, the best strength training for speed programs incorporate exercises that effectively “surf the curve”, meaning they target strength and power attributes at both ends of the curve. As such, some exercises in a successful strength training for speed program focus more upon force production, while other exercises instead focus more upon the speed of muscle contraction. A successful athlete therefore trains more like a “truck” during some instances of their program, and more like a “bullet” during other of their program to fully realize power potential!

The Top 3 Strength Training Exercises for Speed.

Now that a basic overview of ‘what to look for’ in a strength training for speed program has been identified, please let me share with you my “Top 3” exercises for speed enhancement:

  1. Power Snatch: The Snatch is an exercise regarded by famed British Strength & Conditioning Coach Clive Brewer, as the “single-most powerful” exercise an athlete can perform in the weight room. For this reason, it is my number one resistance training exercise for speed enhancement. In addition to ticking all the boxes in my above points (i.e. being a ground-based, compound movement that is often classified as a “speed-strength” exercise on the force-velocity curve), the Power Snatch is regarded as one of the main staples of Olympic lifting: A classification of weight room exercises that I have written extensively about in previous blog posts.

The biggest benefit from a speed standpoint is the Power Snatch incorporates the rapid ‘triple-extension’ of the ankle, knee and hip complex, which is the same observed phenomenon in acceleration mechanics (see below)!

Figure 2: An illustration of the “triple-extension” phenomenon which occurs in both sprint/acceleration mechanics, as well as in the execution of the Snatch (the two images on the right)

In addition to its triple-extension qualities, the Snatch also requires a significant amount of core strength and stiffness, as well as shoulder mobility and stability. This combination of high degrees of coordination and balance, coupled with the speed and power of its successful execution, most closely mimics the rapid force-production observed when sprinting. Hence, for these reasons alone, the Power Snatch continues to be my number one exercise for improving sprint performance!

  1. Front Squat– Let’s get something clear. I LOVE SQUATS! Squats, when performed correctly and with a full range-of-motion (I am talking butt to grass depth), activate a lot of muscle. In citing such renown Sports Science researchers as Dr. Mike Stone and Dr. Gregory Haff, there have been numerous studies directly correlating squat ability with maximal sprint speed. As Dr. Haff once remarked during a National Strength & Conditioning Conference I was fortunate enough to attend, the best piece of advice you can give an athlete looking to improve on-field performance is to “squat often, and squat frequently.”

I admit, squatting is not necessarily for everyone, especially those with shallow hip sockets and other anatomical anomalies (a topic my friend and colleague Tony Gentilcore has written about extensively within his many blog posts). However, when performed safely and effectively, there really is no better way to activate the prime-movers of the legs, as well as core musculature. The effects of squats on glute activation (a phenomenon that is only fully observed when the hip axis travels below the knee access when squatting at depth) is truly unrivaled.

In terms of variations, the Front Squat gets my nod when compared to other squat forms, as unlike other squat variations, it recruits the most anterior core and leg musculature. Some coaches like world renown Strength Coach Charles Poliquin, have even used the Front Squat as a key predictor of athletic success within certain Olympic Sports. For example, I remember learning how Charles worked with the Canadian men’s national Bobsleigh team and surmised that any athlete who was not able to front squat in excess of 400lbs, would severely limit the success of the team, as he would not be able to effectively overcome the inertia of the sled during the commencement of a race!

Figure 3: An athlete performing the Front Squat. Notice how the hips are below the knees to maximize depth and glute recruitment.

What I like in particular about Charles’ description of the Front Squat is that it is in his opinion a one of the most “honest” lifts you can perform. In other words, given that the bar is in a rack position (i.e. the front of the shoulders, or anterior deltoids for my fellow strength coaches – see the above image) it is nearly impossible to cheat with when attempting to perform the lift. Basically, if the weight is too heavy or a young athlete performs the technique incorrectly, he or she will invariably drop the bar! This built-in safety feature makes the Front Squat a great choice for youth athletes (like our athlete depicted in the title image), as it also serves as foundational movement for more advanced squat types, such as the Back and Overhead Squat alluded to briefly. Given that the Front Squat is yet another compound, ground-based movement that in this case, focuses more upon either sub-max or max-strength qualities within the force-velocity curve (see Figure 1), the Front Squat gets the nod as one of my ‘go to’ strength training exercises for enhancing speed development.

  1. Sled Push– The final exercise in my “top 3” is the sled push. Sleds are a great tool, especially with respect to their training versatility. In again referencing Coach Poliquin, sleds apparently can be traced loosely back to the Scandinavian forest industry, where successful Scandinavian powerlifters claimed that their professional background in dragging trees (apparently, many of them were in fact lumberjacks and loggers!) provided them with a solid base of posterior chain development that translated into numerous titles over the years. As a result, powerlifters here in the U.S. looking to emulate the success of their Swedish and Norwegian competitors (including world renown coach and powerlifting guru, Louie Simmons), took notice of the effects of sled work and readily adopted its use within the Westside Barbell gym; arguably the most successful powerlifting gym in the world. Given the fact that myself and Head Velocity Sports Performance Coach, Chris Rice, have repeatedly gone on record as describing the importance of posterior-chain musculature, it makes sense then that such an effective training tool that targets the glutes and hamstrings would feature so prominently in a strength training program aimed at improving speed.

 

Figure 3: An athlete performing a sled push/march. Notice how the athlete is able to adopt a body position similar to the classic 45’ body lean associated with optimal sprint and acceleration mechanics. In the second image, a creative coach has become a ‘sled’ by simply squatting down into val-slides. Although this is considered more of a sled drag, both athletes can achieve the piston-like action of the hips, maximizing posterior-chain recruitment of the lower-limb muscles including the glutes and hamstrings.

Specifically, what I personally like about sleds the most is that they are not only a ground-based, compound movement training tool, but unlike the Power Snatch and Front Squat, they are a tool that is as easy to modify they are to implement. Basically, all you have to do is get low and push! As such, there is little to no risk posed to the athlete, as even the youngest, most inexperienced athlete can successfully incorporate sled work into their programs. You really cannot mess it up!

There are in fact variations of sled pushing which I do prefer, such as variations of “Sled Marches”, where an athlete effectively adopts the class 45° angular body lean most often associated with acceleration mechanics. The beauty of such an exercise is that not only does it adhere to the ground-based, compound movement principles alluded to in this article, but also most closely mimics the joint angles, and biomechanics associated with acceleration mechanics. To this end, having an athlete get into a 45° body lean and drive with the hips and knees while pushing the sled, allows the athlete to most effectively mimic the piston-like action of acceleration mechanics, which I referenced extensively in my article about the double-leg drive.

Summary:

In summary, strength training for speed is all about picking exercises and weight training movements that are both ground-based and compound in nature. By focusing upon various points within the ‘force-velocity curve’, an athlete can successfully train the various speed and strength qualities seen to have the greatest degree of carry-over to maximum sprint performance. The Power Snatch is an Olympic lift that requires great degrees of strength, power and coordination. Specifically, the ‘triple-extension’ qualities of the Power Snatch directly translate to the double-leg drive associated with optimal acceleration mechanics. The Front Squat and Sled-Push, when combined within a program, target all the prime-movers of the legs as well as the core. Such enhanced muscle recruitment allows an athlete to directly improve the strength and force-producing qualities of the muscles most responsible for speed. The sled takes this even one step further, by allowing athletes to even more closely mimic the body angles associated with acceleration mechanics.

In the end, there really is no substitute for strength training. Any young athlete that regularly incorporates these three exercises will simply be amazed at how fast they ultimately become!