There are three aspects to improving speed – running technique, muscle elasticity and strength! However, many coaches and athletes aren’t optimizing their speed strength training with the right program design to reap the greatest benefits in speed and force production.
Increasing speed with strength training can be accomplished through some of the most standard exercises. We will review five of these – deadlifts, squats, sled drags, step ups and pull ups.
For youth athletes, an overhand grip is recommended in order to develop grip strength as well as protect the shoulders. Some competitive powerlifters may choose an over/under grip to pull a heavier load, however this is not necessary for the purposes of developing strength for speed. If an over/under grip is more comfortable, we recommend that athletes alternate in order to avoid developing asymmetries. Additionally, straps are not recommended for youth athletes.
In executing the lift, your shins should be touching the bar and drop into the lifter’s wedge position (The lifter’s wedge is fully explained in our Strength for Speed Membership.) The motion comes from pressing through the floor and hinging at the hip. Remember to keep a neutral neck and spine while gripping the floor with your feet. Sip in some air against a tight core before the lift, hold this breath until the bar returns to the ground.
A properly executed deadlift is the basis for teaching an athlete how to properly recruit strength, specifically lower back, glutes and hamstrings, and can be the catalyst for tremendous strength increases.
There are many progressions for the squat depending on an athlete’s beginning knowledge and ability. The shortstop squat, divers squat and goblet squat are all great regressions from the standard barbell back squat.
With any type of squatting, the focus always remains on proper form. Foot placement is recommended at shoulder width or slightly wider. Every athlete will be slightly different depending on the athlete’s hip mobility and goals of the squat.
Hip anatomy will also play a roll in squat depth. As with the deadlift, there should be a heavy focus on proper execution of the lift not only for maximal muscle recruitment, but for athlete safety as well. A neutral spine, tight core and proper breathing technique are all very important.
Note: The importance of breathing technique is also fully explained in the Strength for Speed Membership.
Maximize the form for every rep of every set to enhance the speed-specific strength muscles.
Most athletes and coaches are familiar with sprinting while pulling a sled. To really strengthen the spee- specific muscles (hamstring and glutes) to a greater extent, we recommend using a heavier weight on the sled and dragging it in a walking motion, taking long powerful strides.
Sleds can be used in both walking and running movements. This specific strength exercise addresses the acceleration aspect of sprinting. When you accelerate, you need technique and strength to get the body moving to overcome inertia. Sled dragging mimics acceleration technique very nicely.
Step ups are another great movement for the glutes and hamstring muscles. This is a great hip extensor exercise to help athletes improve their top speeds.
This can be done on a box or bench, which should be about 2-3 inches below the. Weight can be placed on the back utilizing a bar or holding dumbbells in each hand.
The key to this movement is to utilize the force from the leg on the box to propel the body up. The most common mistake is that an athlete tends to push off the foot that is on the ground. To avoid this, keep the toe up off the ground, with the knee locked and straight at all times while having the foot on the ground. Do not bend the knee at all with this leg and do not push off at the ankle. This will make the leg up on the box perform all the work to lift the body up.
Speed strength training is not solely focused on lower body strength. Arm action plays an important role when running. Your legs will only move as fast as your arms. A powerful backward arm strike is directly related to how powerful the leg strike is put into the ground.
The pull-up focuses on strengthening the backward arm strike, a key to transferring force to the opposite leg on every stride. This is an undervalued exercise for improving speed, agility, and quickness.
Not all athletes will be able to do a pull up with their body weight, so we recommend assisted pull ups with a band. We want the athlete to pull the shoulder blades down and back during this exercise – not letting the shoulder blades shrug to the ears. Be sure there is no arching in the lower back.
Increased Strength, Improved Speed, Optimal Sports Performance
With athletes of every level, executing a lift with proper form should always be prioritized. You want to see an increase over time in the load an athlete can lift while still maintaining good form. The technique an athlete learns first is the technique they will use all along. If it is learned incorrectly, even with light weight, an athlete might not get injured that day, but later down the line this can become a serious risk.
Additionally, lifting with good technique ensures that the muscles are being recruited and firing as intended which will result in the strength gains an athlete needs to increase force production, power, speed and overall performance in their sport.
For more great information on speed strength training, join our Strength for Speed Membership.