By: David Larson, MS, CSCS,*D, Pn1
Enhancing sprint speed is a primary goal of many athletes. Typically, the ultimate goal for athletes performing strength training is to develop size, strength, and functional capacity. Subsequently, these adaptations can then lead to an increase in power generating capacity (Behrens & Simonson, 2011). Resistance training and resisted sprinting have been shown to be beneficial in improving sprint speed; however, the optimal exercise selection and loading protocol must be individualized to maximize sprint adaptation.
Train the Posterior Chain
The posterior chain musculature is particularly important for sprint athletes. In fact, it has been shown that as hip strength is increased, speed is enhanced (Behrens & Simonson, 2011). Moreover, elite sprinters have greater hip extension velocities than non-elite sprinters (Behrens & Simonson, 2011). Because of this, traditional weight training programs have focused on Olympic lifting, squats, deadlifts, back extension, and lunge variations (B. M. Contreras, Cronin, Schoenfeld, Nates, & Sonmez, 2013). It must be remembered that strength and size alone may not directly transfer to increased performance; thus, one must make the resistance training program as specific as possible to increase the likelihood of performance enhancement. For sprinting, it is likely best to select resistance training exercises that will mimic the hip torque curves involved during actual sprinting. Maximal velocity sprinting involves producing maximal gluteal force in a position of near end-range hip extension during the stance phase. Thus, exercises that place maximal external torque in a position of near-terminal extension or hyperextension would likely transfer well to increasing sprint speed.
Load-vectors should also be considered when incorporating exercises to improve sprint performance. Brughelli, Cronin, and Chaouachi (2011) evaluated the effects of running velocity on running kinetics and kinematics. The authors found a significant positive correlation between horizontal force and maximum running velocity. Additionally, vertical forces were found to plateau at approximately 70% of maximum velocity. Thus, vertical forces do not appear to be the limiting factor in increasing sprint speed. Based on these results, it seems likely that axially loaded exercises would not lead to tremendous increases in sprint speed. This hypothesis also appears to be supported by a review of literature evaluating the effects of maximal strength on running performance in which the majority of studies utilized 1RM squats as an assessment of strength (Cronin, Ogden, Lawton, & Brughelli, 2007). Conversely, anteroposterior loaded exercises may have a greater impact on sprint speed by aiding in horizontal force generating capacity (Contreras et al., 2013).
Combine Strength Training and Sprint Training
It has been shown that a combination of maximal velocity sprint training and heavy resistance training has a superior effect on sprint performance than either type of training alone (Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002). Therefore, the addition of a maximum velocity movement that is specific to the biomechanics of sprinting is necessary. The theoretical benefits of such resisted sprint training include enhancements in muscle fiber recruitment and neural activation (Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002). Additionally, it allows for a greater load to be applied to the hip extensors during training. This type of training, also known as postactivation potentiation (PAP) has been described as a novel way to increase power production by performing ballistic activities (jumping or sprinting) immediately after performing a heavy lift. It has been proposed that lifts that involve heavy loads performed prior to sprinting may augment sprint performance by facilitating central nervous system (CNS) stimulation. The greater CNS stimulation then results in greater motor unit recruitment and force, potentially for 5-30 minutes (Chiu et al., 2003).
The combination of strength movements and ballistic training has become a popular method of speed and strength training (Tsimahidis et al., 2010). The purported benefits associated with this combination of training are claimed to be associated with a mechanism referred to as postactivation potentiation (Tsimahidis et al., 2010). Postactivation potentiation refers to an enhancement in twitch torque, rate of force development, and ballistic performance following electrical or voluntary activation with maximal muscular contractions (Tsimahidis et al., 2010).
Tsimahidis et al. (2010) evaluated the effects of sprinting after each set of a heavy half-squat exercise on the running speed and jumping performance of youth basketball players. The authors used five sets of running and sprinting, each separated by 90 seconds of rest between exercises. The results indicated that the combined sprint and heavy resistance training protocol was effective at increasing strength, running speed, and jump height of youth basketball players. The authors concluded that the observed adaptations could be attributed to learning factors and greater transfer of the strength gains to sprint and jump performance (Tsimahidis et al., 2010).
It appears that postactivation potentiation may be a novel way to enhance transfer of strength to running performance. Furthermore, this method of training may be able to be used to enhance different aspects of running performance. For example, it is known that the 45 degree back extension most closely mimics the instantaneous external hip torques required for maximizing acceleration (B. M. Contreras et al., 2013). Thus, heavy 45 degree back extensions followed by short 10 to 20 meter sprints may be a beneficial strategy to enhancing acceleration. In contrast, the barbell hip thrust more closely mimics the hip torques involved in maximal velocity sprinting (B. Contreras, Cronin, & Schoenfeld, 2011; B. M. Contreras et al., 2013). Thus, it is possible that heavy barbell hip thrusts followed by a longer sprint of 30 to 50 meters may transfer positively to speed development.
It is well known that strength training is important to athletic development. Further, strength training is associated with gains in strength and muscle mass; however, strength gains made in the weight room may not always transfer to on-field performance. Kotzamanidis, Chatzopoulos, Michailidis, Papaiakovou, and Patikas (2005) compared the effects of a strength training protocol and a combined heavy resistance and running speed training program on strength, running speed, and vertical jump height. The results indicated that performing sprint training in the same session as resistance training resulted in superior post-training sprint performance. Essentially, the strength only group only improved in strength with no effect on sprint speed. The authors speculated that the improved running velocity was a result of immediate transfer of acquired strength during resistance training to speed performance.
Although the results of Kotzamanidis et al. (2005) are interesting, it is important to note that the primary measures of strength that were considered in the study were the back squat, step up, and hamstring curls. Both the back squat and step up are axial loaded exercises that would only address the vertical component of sprinting, and would be more transferable to vertical jump performance. Additionally, the hamstring curl would do little to address functional hip extension force generating capacity during sprinting. None of these exercises address the gluteal or hamstring muscles in a way that would likely transfer to sprint performance. Thus, it seems logical that strength training of this nature alone would have little effect on sprint performance.
The goal of strength training for athletes is to obtain hypertrophic adaptations and increase muscular strength and subsequent power generating capacity (Behrens & Simonson, 2011). Research suggests that hip musculature is more important for sprinting than the surrounding knee musculature (Behrens & Simonson, 2011). Traditional weight lifting programs tend to focus on squats, deadlift variations, good mornings, and step-ups to strengthen the lower body. Each of these exercises involves axial loading and movement in the vertical plane. The problem with these movements is that they do not mimic the hip torque curves involved in sprinting (Contreras et al., 2013). Maximal speed sprinting involves maximal gluteal force production in a position of terminal extension or near hyperextension (Contreras et al., 2013). It has also been found that elite sprinters had superior hip extension velocities compared with subelite sprinters. Furthermore, as hip strength improved, speed improved (Behrens & Simonson, 2005).
When attempting to maximize transfer, it is likely best to select exercises that will mimic the hip torque curve involved in the movement (Contreras et al., 2013). This would include anteroposterior hip dominant exercises such as a loaded 45 ̊ back extensions, barbell hip thrusts, reverse hypers, band resisted hip extensions, and glute bridges. This is not to say that squats, deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, and step ups should not be performed; however, the mechanisms of hypertrophic and strength adaptation must be considered. Furthermore, one must consider the length-tension relationship of the muscle and the potential transfer effect that can be achieved by performing certain exercises. For example, hip thrusts produce maximal external torque when the hips are maximally contracted and shortened, whereas the good morning and deadlift produce maximal external torque when the hip extensors are lengthened. This means that deadlifts and good mornings are superior at creating muscular damage and tension, while back extensions and barbell hip thrusts would be superior at creating metabolic fatigue via hypoxia and a build-up of lactate and H+ (Schoenfeld, 2013). Furthermore, barbell hip thrusts would likely transfer more to sprint speed, as it closely mimics the range in which the posterior chain must produce force. Each lift possesses different characteristics of external torque and length-tension relationships. Thus, strength and conditioning professionals must understand these relationships and their potential in facilitating transfer to athletic performance.
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Chiu, L. Z., Fry, A. C., Weiss, L. W., Schilling, B. K., Brown, L. E., & Smith, S. L. (2003). Postactivation potentiation response in athletic and recreationally trained individuals. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(4), 671-677.
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Tsimahidis, K., Galazoulas, C., Skoufas, D., Papaiakovou, G., Bassa, E., Patikas, D., & Kotzamanidis, C. (2010). The Effect of Sprinting After Each Set of Heavy Resistance Training on the Running Speed and Jumping Performance of Young Basketball Players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(8).