Strength Training for Sprinters
©Copywrite 2003 David Woodhouse
Exercise Selection: Power = Force x Velocity
Since the velocity (‘rate of force development’) component is developed through sprint training itself, priority in the gym is to develop maximum force. This is best achieved through the use of ‘limit’ strength exercises. A limit strength exercise is defined here as a compound exercise that safely permits the expression of maximum force. The exercises should be free weight, multi-joint and specific to muscles used in sprinting (e.g. hip, knee and ankle extensors). These types of exercise also stimulate an acute increase in the secretion of anabolic hormones (testosterone and growth hormone).
Please also see separate article: Squatting and the implications of technique on muscle function
The squat has been described as the King of Exercises - it should certainly be the principle exercise for the majority of sprinters. The primary muscles it activates are the ankle, knee, hip and spinal extensors. Sprinting actually involves little knee and hip flexion therefore intuitively partial squats would appear more specific. Flexibility permitting however, I advocate full Olympic style back squats over partial variations for the following reasons:
• Greater range of motion at hip hence greater activation (and time under tension) of hip extensors
• Greater range of movement around ankle hence greater activation of ankle extensors
• Hip inclination is greatest at parallel position; Greater loads are possible with partial variations therefore risk of lumbar injury is significantly increased
• Progression is more easily quantified. With partial squats (without box) tendency is to increase load at the expense of movement range, i.e. half squats become quarter squats!
• Improve confidence under heavy loads
• Quarter squats place greater strain on the muscle tendon unit at the front of the knee
• Although ground contact in top speed sprinting occurs near to full hip extension, during early acceleration hip (and knee) angles are significantly more acute. Additionally, the leg must be extended rapidly from a 90 degree+ angle during recovery.
The tendency during a back squat is to increase hip flexion at the sticking point in order to shorten the moment arm at the knee. Front squats however limit torso inclination and the quadriceps are therefore a more significant limiting factor. Since the torso stays more upright during the eccentric phase of a back squat you might consider them a mode of eccentric loading for the quadriceps.
The moment arm of the load at the hip is greater during the front squat and hence maximums are significantly less than for back squats. Front squats could therefore be used for variety and to reduce CNS stress. Front squats may be considered a safer exercise than the back version since the bar may be dropped forwards if too heavy.
Front squats do however require a greater degree of flexibility in the elbow joints and many athletes find it uncomfortable to have the bar on the front of the shoulders
Bench Press/ Military Press
The bench press is an exercise performed by practically all elite sprinters. The primary muscles activated are the pectorals, triceps and anterior deltoids. There are arguments that BP may add significant non-functional mass that may actually reduce an athlete’s power to weight ratio. The pectorals primarily act to horizontally adduct the arm and this is not a movement that occurs in sprinting. The BP is also the premier ‘ego’ lift and hence there is often a tendency to over emphasise its’ importance. This may reduce adaptation reserve available for other more specific training parameters.
Conversely, bench press has been suggested as a beneficial exercise for sprinters precisely because of its limited specificity. Neural adaptations from one movement range crossover to all other movement ranges. Bench pressing utilises approximately 35% of the body's motor units and can therefore be used to stimulate the CNS without causing muscular fatigue in more specific muscle groups. This is particularly useful when tapering for a major competition.
The standing military press may however be a safer (the neck is not between the bar and floor!) and more specific pressing movement. It strengthens the anterior and lateral (due to greater ROM) deltoids and triceps but not the pectorals therefore none functional mass can be avoided. The deltoids and triceps are activated during the arm drive to flex and extend the arms respectively. Unlike the BP, which is performed in a supine position, the military press also requires ‘core’ stabilisation. Finally, since maximum possible loads are less CNS stress is also reduced.
The deadlift activates many of the same muscle groups as the squat i.e. Knee and hip extensors in addition to grip and upper back muscles. The deadlift is however a less popular choice for sprinters. Reasons for this include:
• Smaller range of movement
• Difficulty in safely performing the eccentric portion of the lift with heavy loads which reduces time under tension and removes an important stimulus for increases in strength
• Heavy CNS fatigue of lifting close to maximum: the greatest of any exercise. Detracts from subsequent training sessions
Snatch DLs increase the range of movement due to lower starting position. This mechanical disadvantage also reduces maximum loads and hence CNS stress at any percentage of maximum.
Straight Leg Deadlifts
SLDLs specifically target the hamstring muscle group. They are not regarded as a true limit exercise since approaching maximum has a high risk of injury. Flexion of the lumbar spine under load causes the load to be transferred from the spinal erectors to the connective ligaments in the spinal column. If this exercise is used the range should be restricted to that in which the athlete can maintain a ‘neutral’ position in the lower back.
Olympic lifts (OLs) and their derivatives are not limit exercises because of the ‘Explosive Strength Deficit’, i.e. maximum force can only be produced at slow velocities. The power clean is however an extremely popular exercise for all athletes in power sports. Loads, for technically proficient lifters are sufficiently close to the maximum pull (read deadlift) to elicit improvements in maximum force. Loads in the snatch and power snatch however will have limited effect on maximum force in experience athletes. Snatch and its derivatives would be primarily used to develop rate of force development (a quality adequately and specifically achieved through sprinting itself).
OLs permit compensatory acceleration, i.e. the load can accelerate though the outer range. This is not safely possible with most limit strength exercises because it may cause the joints to hyperextend and control of the load to be lost. In the squat for example, the load may ‘jump’ from the shoulders. OLs are whole body exercises and therefore a very efficient use of training time. They may provide sufficient stimulus for the upper body to preclude pressing and pulling movements (see Bench Press)
The Olympic lifts require a high level of technical proficiency before strength can be safely expressed. For this reason some coaches may feel that the time required to master OL technique may be better spent on developing strength in more basic compound exercises.
These are exercises for postural muscles that allow efficient transmission of force from the lower to the upper body:
• Spinal Erectors: Hyper –extension, Glute-Ham raise, Front Support
• Abdominal (Spinal Flexors): Crunch, Cable Crunch, Sit-up, Incline Sit-up, ‘Woodchopper’, Pillar, Leg raise, Pikes etc
• Obliques: Side bends, Side Supports, Side Hyper-extensions
Many of the core exercises discussed previously (e.g. squats and pulls) require high activation of the so-called ‘core’ muscles in order to stabilize the spine. It has been argued therefore that additional specific exercises (particularly for the spinal erectors) may be unnecessary.
Core exercises with Swiss balls have become popular in recent years. Lack of stabilisation however, reduces maximum activation in the prime movers therefore, until research suggests otherwise, I will continue to advocate more traditional exercises.
Other exercise modes
Plyometrics are used to reduce Golgi Tendon inhibition, maximise the Myostatic reflex and increase RFD. I contend that plyometrics for sprinters is unnecessary for the following reasons:
• Sprinting itself is plyometric (and develops RFD)
• Ground contact in sprinting is less than 0.1s for elite performers at top speed. Ground contact for most jumps/hops are significantly longer.
• High injury risk especially at muscle tendon juncture
• Olympic lifts have a plyometric component (the double knee bend)
• Without use of (expensive) technical equipment such as jump mats progression is difficult to quantify
If performed foot contacts should not exceed 40 per session.
Explosive Medicine ball (overhead) throws
Explosive medicine ball throws increase ‘Rate of Force Development’ (RFD) and intermuscular coordination. They have the advantage of being quantifiable, i.e. distance thrown. Finally, they are comparatively mild on the CNS and therefore may be used during the competitive period (when strength workouts frequency is reduced) They may also be used in low volume prior to track sessions to ‘prime’ nervous system
Please see separate article: Optimum Repetition selection
Predominantly <3 reps for core exercises. Reasons:
• Reduces deterioration in technique and hence risk of injury
• Maximises transition of type IIa to type IIb fibres (fast to faster)
• Minimises non-functional hypertrophy and maximises power to weight ratio
• Maximises improvements in motor control hence reducing Golgi Tendon Organ and antagonist inhibition
• Reduces variations in rest between reps hence permitting more accurate analysis of progression
• Narrow repetition range removes ‘conditioning’ risk (muscle soreness) of moving from high to low repetitions or visa-versa
Please see separate articles:
• Buffering – A Method of Selecting Training Intensity
• High Intensity Overtraining
Macrocycles are 4 or 6 weeks long to reduce staleness and ensure the athlete is never too far from any training stimulus. If cycles are longer for example, benefits of early higher volumes may be lost.
1. Unloading (introductory) week: Low intensity to allow recovery and supercompensation from preceding impact week
2. (&3) Core weeks: Moderate intensity & volume
4. Impact week: High intensity lower volume. Repetitions maximums tested (improvements require percentages to be adjusted)
Typically intensity should be less than for pure strength exercises (e.g. weightlifters, throwers) since adaptation energy is limited and priority must be given to track performance.
I do not advocate the traditional preparatory period of high reps because this effectively causes adaptation in a non specific quality: strength endurance, and detraining in the specific qualities: max strength and power. When the second phase of training begins the athlete must adapt to a very different training stimulus and is exposed to a second conditioning risk. Time must then be spent reattaining the level of performance present before the 'preparatory' phase! Constant training and detraining stretches the (limited) adaptation capacity of the athlete and may limit progress in other training components (e.g. track work). Finally any improvement in strength endurance or muscle gain will be quickly lost unless higher repetition work is continued (in which case optimum strength improvements will probably not be possible).
Issues / Discussion points
General Vs Specific programmes
• I define a strength exercise as one that permits a maximal expression of strength
• ‘Specific’ exercises (e.g. single leg squats) reduce stability hence inhibiting the expression of strength
E.g. Bands & Chains
• Increases resistance in outer range where muscle length-tension relationship and mechanical advantage make movement easier
• Increases eccentric stress (bands)
• Provides greater stress to ‘core’
• Reduces tendency to just ‘do enough’ once through the sticking point and encourages athlete to (attempt) to accelerate bar through entire range
• However, sprinting requires an increase in acceleration as joints extend therefore isokinetic exercise may not be specific.
Optimal Strength: When is an athlete too strong?
• When increases in strength fail to yield improvements on the track
• When strength increases are only achieved through an increase in body weight and hence do not increase power to weight ratio
• When training frequency required to yield a strength increase reduces recovery from track sessions
• If an athlete is too strong it might be a rare situation that warrants increased specificity in exercise selection, e.g. lunges/step ups rather than squats
Exercise Variety: ‘If an exercise is worth doing, it is worth doing all the time’
• Introducing new exercises exposes athlete to a conditioning risk
• Any training benefit gained will be quickly lost if not maintained
• Small changes in performance, (e.g. incline rather than flat bench) provide variation without associated conditioning/detraining risks