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.
He also wrote the controversial article 3 Reasons the Squat is NOT the Cornerstone of Strength Training for Sprinters (a recommended read) and 3 Great Warm-up Exercises for Strength Training.
He is also the author of the new book Vertical Foundations. Click here to learn more about the book.
To view all the articles by Joel Smith, click here.
3 Ways to Optimize Your Sprint Strength Program
There are a lot of lifts that we would consider staples in lifting for track and field athletes, particularly sprinters. Ask the question: “how do I train an athlete for speed in the gym?”, and the first things that come to mind are squats, deadlifts, lunges, leg curls and of course, the Olympic lifts. These exercises are all well and good, but what is good is never enough. We are always looking for what is optimal.
There are three exercises in particular that stick out to me where we as coaches can do better to help our athletes reach their best performance. On the surface, they all seem like good exercises for sprinting, but they can be done better. The three exercises I am talking about are as follows:
- Deep squat
- Weighted Lunge
Let’s talk about how these exercises are good, but not optimal, and talk about some alternatives that can help get athletes that blazing top-end speed they need to win.
First up, the deep squat.
Deep squats are a staple exercise for sprints, and virtually any athlete. I do use them in certain periods throughout the year for my sprinters. They have the great benefits of teaching full body connection, leg and hip strength, mobility, encourage growth hormone release, and can really fire up the nervous system. They are an extremely powerful training tool, and I’ll incorporate them in the training of my athletes whenever needed.
The issue with deep squats and sprinters, however, is that using them too much can provoke some undesirable changes in the athlete somatotype. Here’s why: The farther an athlete descends into a squat, the greater the activation of the quadriceps musculature on the lower thigh.
Olympic lifters (who spend lots of time in rock bottom squat positions) carry with them large lower quads and VMO muscles. (Thanks to Greg Potter for sharing this information with me) If you have been around the gym a while, this is a “duh” statement. Nobody who routinely does quarter squats has big legs! The problem is that sprinters tend to work better with more of their total leg mass around their upper thighs and glutes, and not their lower thighs. Excess mass on the lower thigh is going to not assist in pushing ground horizontally, probably doesn’t help much with vertical force production in the rigid leg positions sprinters work in. It also is going to make things more costly from a biomechanical standpoint as it can produce more distal weight on the leg, relative to the hip joint. It is commonly believed that deep squats work the hips posterior chain more (and they do), but it is the quads that become critically important in the bottom range of motion (5) and there comes a point where this can become a hindrance rather than a help in regards to the athlete somatotype that is being built.
Deep squats are also slow from a neurological point of view, teaching the body to hold onto force rather then releasing it quickly, while clearly sprinting is very fast, ballistic activity. This can be a good thing for a relatively slower standing vertical leap, but not quite as good for flying down the homestretch in the 200m dash. When you are only doing
So what is the best replacement for a deep squat? There are a couple options, but let me list my favorite:
Explosive 2/3 range squats.
In my own coaching, the “2/3 range” refers to a squat that is done below 90 degrees of knee bend, but higher than thigh-bone-parallel. The exact amount of knee bend isn’t critical, but I would favor around 4-6 inches above parallel, and use a box to keep things consistent. I have found that this general range is a good depth to build explosive hip power relative to block clearance, as well as assist with vertical GRF’s and limit lower leg muscle hypertrophy, all while still keeping a respectable depth. I refer to these squats as explosive, because with the higher depth, once can and should explode harder out of the hole and maintain a velocity that is closer to what is actually encountered during sprinting.
I’ll typically hook these 2/3 squats up to tendo units and shoot for maximal power. There is a very high correlation between max power in this exercise and sprint speed across the board for any sprinter. In periods of training utilizing these squats, I’ll always still do some full range work, such as deep goblet squat work just to maintain some full range mobility. Most of the deep squat work I’ll do in the offseason is of the low-bar back squat variety to really get the hamstrings involved.
The second familiar exercise that sprint coaches like is the lunge.
Nothing inherently wrong with lunges; I just don’t use them for sprint athletes much. Here is why:
- Foot position relative to center of mass
- Primary muscles worked (because of foot position relative to center of mass)
Lunges are a nice basic unilateral exercise. I like doing them dynamically with no weight, as they are a must for many aspects of lower body mobility and muscle length. When it comes to resisted lunges, however, there are some less than optimal side effects. First off, a forward weighted lunge (not the walking version) has little to do with sprinting. This is an exercise based on deceleration, its associated muscles and motor patterns. Why intensify something that doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of running forward? Walking lunges, or better yet, reverse lunges are a superior choice, but they also have a few drawbacks.
Lunges also deal with placing the feet far in front of the center of mass (hips). In sprinting, the feet will always fall underneath the hips, even in acceleration out of the blocks. Why then are we using heavy exercises that deal with the muscle adaptations that occur from having to transfer high forces through a foot planted a foot or two away from the body? Is this a neuromuscular pattern that transfers to the motor patterns of accelerating or sprinting? Probably not. With the feet placed far out in front of the center of mass, hip extensors, hamstrings, and particularly groin muscles (5) are going to be placed under a heavy stretch load. This stretch load has the capacity to induce heavy soreness and muscle fatigue, and this can seriously interfere with subsequent training sessions. Also, since large groin muscles aren’t as important to running fast then the neighboring glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors, why choose an exercise that works them hard and provokes significant soreness along the way?
Our alternative to lunges is the B-Stance deadlift. I used the B-stance deadlift to replace single leg barbell deadlifts which had been a staple of mine in the past in replacement of lunges for sprinters. The B-stance deadlift specifically trains the hip and hamstring with the foot underneath the center of mass, rather than out in front of it. This trains the glute and hamstring in a more specific position to what is encountered during sprinting, increasing the demand on the legs and reducing that on the spinal erectors. It can be catered towards acceleration or top end velocity by changing the rigidity of the lead leg. Trust me, you may never have felt your hamstring or glutes working during lifting the way you will during a heavy B-stance or single leg deadlift workout. Throw some light chains on the lift and you have a great all-in-one tool for multi-lateral sprint development and explosiveness.
B-Stance Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ys40fnVPtY
Finally, we’ll get to the RDL.
The RDL?! What could possibly be wrong with an RDL for sprinters? To be honest, nothing. It is a fine exercise, nice for strengthening the hamstrings with a hip bias in a stretch range, as well as teaching lumbo-pelvic rhythms and pelvic tilt, and it is for this reason my sprinters see a lot of it early in the year. It doesn’t stay in the program through the SPP though, and here is why. RDL’s are focused on the hamstring with a proximal, or hip bias. The key here is that they aren’t the only exercise that help work the hamstring in this way. Deadlifts, cleans and snatches also utilize the same hip hinge, high hamstring mechanism. Not to mention, if you are doing B-Stance deads, you really won’t need too much more exposure in this pattern then you already have. Simplicity is king in lifting programs for track or other sports requiring a high degree of specialization, and this means a reduction to the parts that are only completely necessary. The RDL isn’t bad, it is just out due to a high concentration of similar exercises. I do like light RDL’s as a weighted stretch as an auxiliary movement, however.
The hamstrings undergo high forces in the ground contact phase of sprinting, but they are worked even harder during the swing phase of sprinting. The means that the distal end of the hamstring is going to experience extremely high speeds. I’ll reference Bret Contreras (2), as based on the research (6) and the role of the two muscles, we can associate the phrase: “Glutes on the ground, hamstrings in the air” for the muscular forces that sprinters encounter. Since hamstring based hip extension is worked through other exercises, being efficient in the weightroom means choosing a knee biased hamstring exercise to help strengthen swing phase requirements. When it comes to improving this aspect of the sprint, no exercise is better than the Nordic hamstring.
The Nordic hamstring has been research proven to significantly prevent hamstring injuries (1). It has been theorized to be so effective because it improves the maximal strength of a hamstring to that of a longer muscle length. Basically, it allows the muscles to be stronger at a longer length then before, which suits them to the high demand of sprinting. Also, when considering the importance of hamstrings in swing phase, we can assume that a knee biased exercise would be important in this regard. Most strength coaches tend to disregard the leg curl machine in favor of back extensions and RDL’s, but the knee biased hamstring exercise can’t be thrown out. Finally, Nordic hamstrings actually have the potential to increase the length of the muscle fascicle due to their eccentric nature (3). Longer muscle fascicles = higher shortening velocity, and this results in greater speed.
In conclusion, these are 3 of the best specific strength exercises that I know of for improving sprint speed. Always remember that as an athlete passes through the phases of sport mastery, their needs in the weightroom and track will change. Once an athlete reaches an elite level, they may not need any of the above exercises and can just stick to general work; their work on the track often taking care of their specific strength for them.
Finally, I didn’t mention Olympic lifts much in this article. Olympic lifts are great, and I’ll take those as a given in nearly any program where a good coach is available to teach them. It isn’t an essential lift, but cleans and snatches quite useful, and can be a nice substitute to emphasize during specific periods where the sprint motor pathway isn’t being bombarded. The clean is always going to be a bread and butter strength exercise of many intermediate and advanced sprinters. Regardless, when it comes to a specialized program to help get sprinters to break through the intermediate level, you can’t go wrong with working hard on the above three lifts, the 2/3 squat, beta-deadlift, and Nordic hamstring.
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.
1.Why hamstring eccentrics are hamstring essentials. Thorborg, in British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012
3. Architectural, functional, and molecular responses to concentric and eccentric loading in human skeletal muscle, by Franchi, Atherton, Reeves, Flu?ck, Williams, Mitchell, Selby, Beltran-Valls and Narici, in Acta Physiologica, 2013
4. Bryanton MA, Kennedy MD, Carey JP, Chiu LZ. Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jul 12. [Epub ahead of print]
5. Mendiguchia J1, Garrues MA, Cronin JB, Contreras B, Los Arcos A, Malliaropoulos N, Maffulli N, Idoate F. Nonuniform changes in MRI measurements of the thigh muscles after two hamstring strengthening exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):574-81. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2f38.
6. Conceptual Framework for Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Hamstring Strains, by Guex and Millet, in Sports Medicine, 2013