This post is part two in the series on Training to Improve Speed (see part one Improving Speed), and will introduce a number of exercises that will strengthen the muscles specific to sprinting.
Sprinting (and many other athletic skills such as jumping, throwing, and kicking) is all about power. However, strength is a pre-requisite to power. Power is defined as the ability to produce force quickly. In order to produce a great deal of force an athlete must be strong. Once a foundation of strength is developed, an athlete can then train to use maximal force quickly.
In my time working with high school, college and professional athletes, I have seen many athletes drastically improve their speed and power before ever doing any speed work! This is most often the case with young or inexperienced lifters. Strength gains are inversely related to baseline strength levels meaning that athletes with the lowest starting strength levels make the largest gains in strength with training. These athletes just need to get stronger, and their power and speed will increase as well.
However, strength training is also important for sprinting performance for individuals who already have a lot of strength and lifting experience. These athletes need to continue to lift in order to maintain strength necessary for powerful sprinting.
The glutes and hamstrings are the major muscle groups used during sprinting. Both of these muscle groups are responsible for extending the leg and thus propelling the body forward during sprinting. However, the hamstrings have a second role during sprinting, which is an eccentric breaking motion, slowing the forward swing of the trailing leg in order to protect the knee joint and surrounding muscles from injury.
With this being said, the lower body, especially the glutes and hamstrings should be trained in the following ways in order to improve strength and sprinting speed in athletes:
Front Squat and Deadlift (Don’t be afraid to do the big movements)
These lifts are major strength builders of the entire lower body but with a specific emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. The trap bar deadlift may be substituted for the traditional deadlift when athletes are just beginning to lift, or when hip mobility is limited. The key here is to make sure that you squat to depth, maximizing the involvement of the glutes.
Do some single leg work (Unilateral Training)
Sprinting is a single leg activity which requires both strength and stability. In order to train for improved speed, make sure you include some dynamic single leg work. Some of my favorites are the Walking Lunge and the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Isolate the Glutes and Hamstrings
For isolating the glutes, my favorite exercises are the Slideboard Leg Curl or Barbell/Dumbbell Hip Thrust. You will likely need some sort of padding either a towel around the bar or a pad between the bar and hips for the thrust. Make sure at the top of the movement that you hold the position for a couple of seconds while contracting the glutes.
For hamstrings, there are two basic types of movements, the deadlift variation, which trains hip extension, and the curl variation that trains knee flexion. I suggest the Romanian Deadlift to train hip extension of both the glutes and hamstrings. For the eccentric curl variation I would recommend the Glute/Hamstring Curl. This exercise can be done with a partner (see video below), or by yourself using a glute ham machine. The important thing on the eccentric hamstring curls is to lower in a slow and controlled manner, ultimately working up to a 6-8 count lowering on each rep.
These exercises performed in a periodized program will help athletes of all types develop the strength necessary to maximize speed.
The next article in this series will address how to approach the next step in training for speed development: Strength-Speed (Part 3)