If you’ve gotten really strong using a solid strength progression program, but haven’t noticed great improvements in your speed, the lesser known exercises shown in this article will transform your strong legs into springs that will propel you forward faster than you ever knew possible.
Getting athletes faster has always fascinated me, and I know I’m not alone. TV announcers enthusiastically celebrate fast athletes. Coaches and trainers have written hundreds of articles on the subject. Athletes constantly discuss what they feel works and doesn’t work. Parents, coaches, agents and athletes spend hard-earned money to get faster because they know it can mean the difference between making a play or getting beat, earning a scholarship or being overlooked, winning and losing, even enjoying sports or quitting.
The sports world truly has an obsession with speed. Speed has taken over just about every sport, at every level, and there is simply no way around the fact that fast athletes have an advantage. So, the question everyone asks is “How do I get faster?”
The follow-up question always seems to be something like “Does training actually work?”
I can answer the second question with an unequivocal YES. We can definitely get athletes faster through training.
The first question, however, is a little harder to answer.
I’m fortunate to have spent the better part of the past 20 years working with athletes on improving their speed, and I’ve learned a lot from these experiences. I’ve had plenty of success getting athletes faster, and the “speed formula” still isn’t perfectly clear to me (anyone who says it’s perfectly clear is lying). I’ve had multiple guys break 4.4 on the 40 for NFL scouts. I’ve have multiple 300+ pounders break 5.0 in the 40. I’ve helped hundreds of athletes drop .2 – .3 seconds off their time and thousands of kids go from being “slow” to “not as slow.”
Like I’ve said, I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and I still don’t think there is a clear answer. There are too many variables. Yet, through years of coaching, reading research and talking to other professionals, I believe we’re getting closer to developing a formula for increasing speed.
Research can be pretty boring, though. I often feel like reading research is a waste of time and it frustrates me that many of the conclusions are so obvious. Through the years, however, I’ve realized that all of the research on one topic is like a castle, and each study is just one brick. Looking at one brick may be boring, but when you stack a whole bunch of them up in the right way, things start to come together.
It has become pretty obvious that you have to practice running fast if you want to get faster. Your mechanics must be solid so you can apply force into the ground as efficiently as possible. I’ve learned that acceleration and top-end mechanics are two totally different movement skills that you need to practice and refine if you want to be as fast as possible.
You also need strength and power to drive the train. This is done in the weight room through basic methods, but basic lifting isn’t all that’s necessary. If just lifting got you really fast, there would be a lot of really fast, big dudes at powerlifting meets. The trick is to be able to apply that strength and power into the ground, in the right direction, in an incredibly short period of time and have the muscular stiffness to “rebound” forward every time your foot hits the ground. That’s what propels you forward like you’re being shot out of a cannon.
Power Exercises/Olympic Lifts
Do not throw any of these out! These are tried and true methods that work, and should be a part of any serious performance enhancement program. As we put together the pieces of the research puzzle, though, it seems that there are a few simple things we could be doing to fill in some of the holes.
Two of the most important, and least addressed, aspects of speed are:
1. Hip extension force
2. Ankle/foot/knee stiffness or rigidity
Check out this video demonstrating the exercises below.
Developing Hip Extension Strength
When the foot hits the ground during a sprint, the powerful hip extensors are responsible for “pushing” the leg backward. The greater the force and, more importantly, rate in which that force is developed, the greater the propulsive effect will be. With this in mind, it seems obvious that the glutes and hamstrings need to be a major focus in your training. Stronger hip extensors will be capable of producing more force.
Taking this a step further, the principle of specificity tells us that these hip extensors need to be trained in the same range of motion (or as close as possible) as in sprinting. That means these muscles need to fire hard when the thigh is slightly in front of the hips and into extension. Unfortunately, in most squatting variations, the glutes are actually used much more at the bottom of the exercise (when the hip is in flexion) than at the top when the legs are nearly straight. As you rise to the top of a squat or RDL, the tension on the hips actually decreases. That is not what happens during a sprinting motion. This doesn’t mean that those exercises shouldn’t be used, just that there is more to the equation.
If you’ve followed any of the work of Bret Contreras, you’re probably familiar with the hip thrust or glute bridge. This exercise has been shown to maximally stimulate the glutes in the range of motion used in sprinting. I like to combine Bret’s work with Mike Boyle’s theories on unilateral exercises, so I prefer to do the one-leg glute bridge for speed development. I feel like the one-leg version is much easier to implement with athletes, requires much less set-up time and is more specific to sprinting.
Another option I’ve used for years is hip extension on a multi-hip machine. It strengthens the hip extensors in the same range of motion as the glute bridge but in an upright posture that is very similar to sprinting. This forces you to engage your core in an upright posture in an effort to stabilize the spine and pelvis. Very few exercises require upright spinal stabilization while firing the hip extensors (which is what happens during sprinting), so it’s a logical choice and a very useful exercise.
Not everyone has access to a good multi-hip machine that is both adjustable and has enough weight to be effective. That’s why I’ve included two options for hip extension.
Because I use these exercises with athletes looking to improve speed, I typically have them use a fast concentric contraction followed by a controlled negative. Research indicates that a faster concentric contraction may have slightly better carry-over to sport, so I try to incorporate this kind of contraction into my routines.
Knee & Ankle Rigidity
When the hip forcefully extends, the foot hits the ground with great force. To take full advantage of the hip extension force, fast athletes are able to keep their knees and ankles rigid so that all of that force can be delivered into the ground and “rebound” them forward. If the knee or ankle “gives in” to that force or “deforms” at all, some of the force will dissipate and be wasted, and the rebound effect will not be nearly as great.
Think of your legs as pogo sticks. If you jump on a pogo stick with a super strong spring, the harder you jump the higher you’ll go. But, if you jump on a pogo stick with a weak spring, a big jump will just mush it down to the bottom of the stick. The harder you jump, the more it mushes and the more the force is lost. To be fast, you need strong springs.
This is actually a big reason why the strongest guys aren’t usually the fastest. They can deliver a lot of force into the ground, but they often don’t have the “stiffness” to successfully rebound after an enormous force is applied. Instead, their knees and ankles buckle, or deform, under the extreme demands so the force is never able to be used optimally. They have mushy springs.
In a recent interview, renowned speed researcher J.B. Morin told Bret Contreras that creating ample stiffness in the ankles and knees was of paramount importance to speed development. Through several studies, he found that the fastest athletes don’t produce the most force. Instead, they are able to produce great force quicker than slower athletes. This suggests that the amount of force is only one part of the equation, and that creating muscle stiffness (that allows for the rebound effect when the force is delivered into the ground) may be the missing element in many training programs.
Researchers are now catching up to what’s being done in the field, which means we should soon understand more about how to develop optimal programming. The disconnect, however, is that most researchers still don’t understand exactly how to develop or coach speed; they just know how to examine, measure and quantify it. It’s up to us to figure out how to use this information.
Years of experience have helped me figure out that using the following, lesser-known, exercises helps develop the rigidity Morin was talking about.
TKE (Terminal Knee Extension)
What I love about the TKE is that it involves both the quads and hip extensors in the ROM used in sprinting. The only problem is that it is often done with a band, which means it’s difficult to overload without becoming awkward. I like to start with the band, then move to a multi-hip machine where we perform the exact same exercise with greater resistance. Like the hip extension exercise, you need a good multi-hip machine with adequate weight to make this effective, but it’s a great option if you have one. If not, you can increase the thickness of your bands, add multiple bands or move farther away from the attachment point. I recommend holding on to something in order to stabilize your body. If you don’t do this, you many have difficulty using enough resistance to make the TKE effective.
Because the TKE works the knee joint in the ROM needed during sprinting (the last 10° of extension), and resists hip extension, it just makes logical sense to employ it. While exercises like the squat and deadlift develop the quads and glutes as well, they do so in a ROM that is nowhere near what we use when sprinting. When you approach the lock-out position of the squat or deadlift, the quads and hips have their strongest leverage, but are resisted the least. That’s why we can use so much more weight in a lockout than in a full ROM exercise.
Dozens of studies have shown that you will always gain the most strength in the ROM utilized during training. If you train with the knee bent at 90°, it will be strongest at 90°. If you train with the knee bent at 10°, it will be strongest at 10°. This is precisely why we need to train in the same ROM as in sprinting. This certainly should not be all you do, but it should be incorporated into some of your routines.
One-Leg Short Box Hops
Plyometrics are used in just about every speed program I’ve seen, but quick, one-leg hops onto a low box are an under-rated exercise for developing ankle/foot rigidity and knee stiffness. You need to attempt to “lock” your ankle into the correct position and spend as little time on the ground as possible. The ankle should be slightly dorsi-flexed and should remain stiff, or rigid, on each hop instead of going through plantar flexion and dorsi-flexion. The knee should also stay rigid instead of flexing/extending (deforming) a lot. You want to feel like a pogo stick with a strong spring inside.
Attempt to spend as little time on the ground as possible just like in sprinting. Start with just 5-10 reps on each leg and gradually move up to 20 or more. Focus on quality, not quantity.
I first came up with Foot Poppers several years ago when I was trying to get some athletes to understand how to strike the ground with rigid ankles. All of the research on plyometrics has shown that the quick reversal of eccentric to concentric contractions teaches the body to fully utilize elastic energy. Most of the plyo exercises I had seen focused more on the hips than the lower leg. The ones I had seen for the lower leg involved relatively weak contractions such as rope jumping. While jumping rope is a great way to start developing ankle rigidity and endurance, I wanted something that was more intense.
Foot poppers should be used sparingly and mainly as a teaching exercise for most athletes because they can produce such great force through the ankle. The video shows it best, but the idea is to put the ankle in a slightly dorsi-flexed position (like used when sprinting), and “pop” it into the ground. As the downward force goes through the rigid ankle and knee, it will create a rebound effect that will send you upward.
The support leg should be slightly flexed so the drive leg can actually hit the ground rather than just meet it. Using an improper foot placement or ankle position can result in injury or ineffective training, so be sure to use this one under the guidance of a skillful coach. I recommend starting conservatively and not driving too hard into the ground. Begin with just 5-10 reps on each foot and only perform this 1-2 times per week. You will gradually build up the stiffness and conditioning to do more reps, and you’ll find yourself “popping” upward higher and higher as you learn to use the elastic energy.
You can also do Foot Poppers while leaning into a wall. This creates a forward lean so the foot is driven backwards, similar to happens during acceleration. Don’t ever perform this when you have great soreness in the calves, ankles or feet.
Like I said before, these exercises will add excellent special strength or stiffness to your lower body, but they are not all you should be doing. Continue to train the basic exercises, run sprints, work on your mechanics and stay in shape. Use these exercises as a supplement to your program so you can start to fully utilize all of the hard work you’ve put in to the weight room and gain the speed that will make a difference on the field.