Understanding that strength impacts 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:
- Big Force
- Small Time
- Proper Direction
- 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 need is developed by:
- sprinting fast,
- 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.
What Type of Strength Do You Need?
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 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.