This article is guest blogged by Joel Smith, an Assistant Strength Coach of Olympic Sports at the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his website at www.just-fly-sports.com.
3 Reasons the squat is not the cornerstone of strength training for sprinters
The winner of a 100m dash puts the most force into the track the fastest, and in the proper direction. Speed and direction are typically improved via deliberate practice on the track, but maximizing force is an area where the weight room reigns supreme. Track and field is all about pure human movement, yet strength training programs following that precision are not always common. The point I am trying to make is this: many track coaches have their events coached to an exact mechanical model, but all that precision and attention to detail can go out the window the minute their athlete steps in the weight room.
What makes the winning difference for strength work in an aspiring sprinter is the emphasis of each “big exercise” and how that exercise is coached. (Strength training, although not as complex, should be approached with a similar precision to sprinting). Oftentimes, the positive effects of strength work can be negated through reducing mobility, the creation of muscular imbalances and an inappropriate shift of adaptation reserves. On the other hand, properly selected and coached lifting can lead to the benefits of increased muscle cross-sectional area, increased force production potential, more synchronized muscle firing patterns, hypertrophy of fast twitch fibers, and increased strength of the muscle-tendon complex.
There are many considerations to look at when designing resistance training programs. The focus of this article will be on the side-effects of over-squatting sprinters and the need for a hip dominant weight room environment. The fact that, in the past, I boosted many of my sprinters squats by a large number, without similar increases on the track led me to question my selection of exercises in the weight room. There are three good reasons that a coach should take care as to the amount of squatting their sprinter does.
- Squats are a knee dominant exercise, while top-end speed is determined by cross sectional area and strength in the psoas, hamstrings and glutes (hip dominant musculature).
- Too much squatting can create a muscle size, muscle tone, and postural imbalance for a sprinters frame.
- Excessive squatting can promote a lack of extension in hips and plantar flexors.
Let’s dissect each of these areas briefly.
Determinants of Top-End Speed: Knee Dominant vs. Hip Dominant
Squats are generally a quadriceps dominant exercise, and this is where the first problem of over-squatting arises. Sprinting relies heavily on the quads for the first few steps out of the blocks, but once an upright sprint posture is assumed, their importance to sprint success is diminished. Research by Dorn (2012) highlights top end speed sprinting as a function of hip flexor, hamstring and glute power. Because of this, the longer the upright phase of the given race, the greater emphasis is given to the posterior chain in the weight room (over the anterior chain). Quad dominant athletes can make great accelerators, as they push the ground away from themselves well, but when it comes to upright sprinting where they are forced to pull it underneath themselves, they struggle.
Improving the size and strength of the glutes, hamstring, hip flexor, and the ability of those muscles to transfer force through the torso, is going to provide the most direct source of improvement for sprint performance. Posterior chain power can be improved in the weight room via Olympic pulls, deadlift variations, “Good Mornings”, glute ham raises, Nordic hamstrings, and hip thrust variations. Properly coached squats will certainly develop the posterior chain, but don’t hold a candle to some of the alternatives for building glute and hamstring strength.
Squatting can be altered to engage the posterior chain to a greater degree, such as wide stance box squatting, but there are other, simpler, exercises that offer a more practical engagement of the posterior chain. Therefore, the athlete should gravitate towards those exercises rather than trying to turn the squat into something it is not really designed to do for sprinters.
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The second problem of over-squatting is the creation of an imbalance in the strength ratio between the hip flexors (psoas) and the quadriceps. Research by Hoshikawa (2006) has shown that sprinters who had a larger cross sectional area of the psoas musculature in relation to their quadriceps were faster sprinters than those with a small cross sectional area of the psoas compared to the quadriceps region. Squatting excessively can produce postural imbalances on sprinters due to their emphasis on the anterior chain, excessive shortening of the psoas and promotion of lordotic posture.
Athletes who visibly pack much larger muscle mass in the front of their leg compared to the back are going to be in big trouble when it comes to upright sprinting, and will rarely be able to get into the proper sprint position of tall knees and good hip extension, regardless of their coaches efforts to technically correct them. The engine of these athletes lies in their anterior chain, so their sprint form will always reflect that engine with a low knee action which pushes the ground away rather than pulls the ground underneath. These athletes reflect their quad dominance in squatting as well and for these athletes, squatting heavy creates a vicious cycle of quadricep dominance that can cripple technical efforts on the track.
The final muscular imbalance that excessive squat work creates is a tendency towards anterior pelvic tilt. Most sprinters carry with them some form of anterior tilt, yet manage to correct it during dynamic motion. Some, however, cannot correct, and a coach needs to be careful in regards to how the work in the weight room is affecting that athletes posture. Squatting less, and pulling more (with cues for neutral or posterior tilt at the top of the lift), while stretching the hip flexors regularly will help athletes learn to achieve a more powerful posture.
Building a lack of finish in the explosive toe-off power in sprinters is the third way that squat overload can hurt the competitive sprinter. Traditional squat work builds a neuromuscular pattern in a manner that involves a deceleration aspect towards the top of the lift. Fortunately, 1000’s of sprint strides each week will balance out a few dozen reps of squatting quite easily, but sprinters who love the weight room to the point of sacrificing volume on the track may notice a damage in their ability to extend at the hips and the ankles during high velocity sprinting. The solution to this is relatively simple, which is to always keep sprinting as the primary means of training and keep squat volume in check.
Part of the reason that Olympic lifts are popular for sprinters is due to the fact that they work the posterior chain a manner that teaches acceleration and finishing power. A properly performed Olympic pull will teach a strong and rapid stretch-shortening of the hamstrings and glutes, finishing with a strong toe-off and hip extension, things that carry over well to sprinters. Keeping a large volume of properly performed Olympic pulls in a sprinters workload is a valuable practice to minimize losses in extension power.
All this doesn’t mean that squatting for sprinters is a negative thing, in fact, taking squats completely out of a sprint program would more likely than not, be a bad idea. What coaches need to do is make sure that the priority exercises for sprinters is balanced between knee dominant (squats) and hip dominant (deadlifts, hip thrusts) lifts. I prefer two hip dominant lifts for every one knee dominant lift in the program. Remember all lifts are tools, and it is far better to have a small tool-set performed perfectly than a large one performed with mediocre skill, so stick with the exercises you know how to coach correctly. Match your on-track demands with the weight room, and you will be one step closer to athletic success.
About the Author
Joel Smith, MS, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength Coach of Olympic Sports at the University of California, Berkeley where he works with Track & Field and Tennis. He has prior experience as a college track coach, lecturer, researcher and personal trainer. Visit his website at www.just-fly-sports.com.
Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting, by Bryanton, Kennedy, Carey and Chiu, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Oct 2012
Influence of the psoas major and thigh muscularity on 100-m times in junior sprinters. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Dec;38(12):2138-43.
Advances in Functional Training. Training techniques for coaches, personal trainers and athlete. 2010, On-Target Publications. Mike Boyle.
“Advanced Glute Training”, Bret Contreras. T-Nation Online Article. October 2009.