“I don’t want my kid to get big and bulky, I just want him to get fast.”
I have heard this quote a few times since I started begun training athletes. Unfortunately, some people mistakenly believe that pushing heavy weights is only for tank top wearing, pump chasing meatheads. While lifting will lead to an increase in muscle mass, the strength and power gained will also play a crucial role in acceleration and top speed mechanics. When strength is a limiting factor for an athlete he will lack the power necessary to effectively gain ground and execute proper acceleration and top speed mechanics. Strength in the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves) and hip flexors are necessary to achieve maximum force, improve foot contact and maximize stride length.
You Need Strength
Strength is needed so that the athlete can produce maximum power through the triple extension of the hip, knee and ankle. At acceleration, triple extension is necessary so that an athlete can gain as much ground as possible before reaching top speed. The key to acceleration is not to have quick feet, but to powerfully push the ground behind you in order to produce as much force as possible. Many times I will see athletes accelerate without fully extending the back leg when pushing into the ground. The athlete thinks because he is turning over his steps quickly that they are running fast; however, while the athlete’s feet may be moving fast, the lacking power results in less ground covered and slower times. The most effective way to accelerate is to take big powerful steps, almost jumping out with every step, and gain as much ground as possible before reaching top speed.
At top speed, strength and triple extension are crucial for foot contact and stride length. Triple extension enables the athlete to achieve enough vertical displacement that will allow him to cycle his leg through and strike the ground under him with the ball of his foot. This is critical because when the ground is struck with the ball of the foot, the reactive strength of the calf will “spring” the athlete forward. When the foot strikes flat or heel first, then the athlete is effectively hitting the brakes as she must then pull herself over her front leg to continue running. It is comparable to a Nascar driver tapping the brakes every time he comes out of a turn. Not only is this much slower, but the act of pulling forward over the front leg puts much more stress on the hamstrings and leads to more injuries. The vertical displacement that results from increased strength and power also increases stride length, which will enable the athlete to cover more ground faster. The only way to achieve this vertical displacement is to triple extend the hip, knee and ankle joint – when the leg is left bent at contact, then the trail leg will not have enough time to cycle through and contact the ground under the athlete.
Only The Strong Will Survive
So yes, strength is not just for the swole, but also for the swift. Now, how to develop sufficient strength and power? First off, training like a bro will not help. Bench press, bicep curls and more bench press will not lead to speed gains. Strengthening must be focused on the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves) to improve hip extension and hip flexors to improve knee drive. Exercises such as the hip bridge, hex bar deadlift, calf raises, and Valslide hamstring curls pay huge dividends when it comes to developing sufficient strength in the posterior chain with a low injury risk. Goblet/front squats, RFESS and walking lunge with single leg balance and triple extension will strengthen the hip flexors and core. Additional core work such as body saws, plank series and anti-rotation holds will strengthen the core to develop proper spinal posture to stay healthy.
Speed By Strength
In conclusion, weights aren’t just for power lifters or meatheads. To maximize speed, an athlete first has to get strong. Strength is necessary not only just for overall force production, but for the proper execution of acceleration and top speed mechanics. Strength will lead to triple extension, which equals power. More power will mean more ground covered and faster times achieved. Get in the weight room and start throwing some weights around because on the field speed kills.