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Thursday, January 10, 2013

How to get faster

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Why running coaches aren't all what they are chalked up to be

Quickness depends on essentially two things – how much force you can apply into the ground and how quickly you can produce that force. The key element that links these two things together is strength. The stronger you are, the quicker you can generate force, and the faster you will be. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you are a team sport athlete (basketball, baseball, football, soccer, racquetball, softball and so on), you are wasting your time working with a running coach. You can have perfect running mechanics, but if you can’t change direction quickly, you are going to have a long career of sitting the bench. If you are a track athlete, running coaches are great. However, if you want to change direction quicker, have a faster first step, and be able to sprint faster, then you must be able to produce more force into the ground. Where’s that come from? Strength. Don’t believe me? Look at the stats:

College Football: Starters were stronger and could generate more power then non-starters

College Basketball, Volleyball and Softball: Back squat strength correlated with greater power and a faster agility (t-test) time

5 facts about getting quicker:

1) Fact: getting stronger will increase your speed

Let’s look at muscle physiology for a brief second to prove that point. In order to generate more force/power, you need to be able to recruit more muscle fibers/units. Small motor units have low recruitment thresholds – meaning slow twitch muscle fibers will be recruited first. These muscle fibers don’t produce much force. For example, if you were testing your vertical and only activated you small motor units, you may be able to only jump 10 inches. However, once you recruit the larger motor units, you are able to produce much more force resulting in a much higher vertical. The cool thing is that with proper training, you can train your body to recruit not only the small motor units, but also the large, powerful motor units. In order to be an explosive athlete, you must be able to recruit these larger motor units. So what’s the secret? Heavy resistance training.

2) Fact: Our bodies were designed to inhibit some strength gains

Our goal in strength and conditioning is to train the body to recruit more motor units. Research has shown that the body doesn’t tap into all it’s potential to produce force. We have a reserve of power just waiting to be used, but our bodies go through certain processes to inhibit us from being too powerful. This inhibition is a good thing because it protects us from injury. One of those inhibitory responses comes from the Golgi tendon organ (GTO). These GTO’s are located in the tendons that attach muscle to bone and they monitor the amount of force being applied to the tendon. When muscles contract and shorten, they pull on the tendon to move the bone. Think of a bicep curl – the bicep contracts and creates that rounded look, and pulls on the tendon to bring the forearm towards the shoulder. If the force is too great, the GTO will inhibit the muscle from contracting in order to prevent damage and injury to the muscle, tendon or bone. There has been some preliminary research on how to inhibit the GTO’s from doing their job, but this is probably not the safest route to getting stronger considering the GTO’s keep us injury free. 

3) Fact: You can’t do 50 squat jumps in a row and get more explosive

You will likely end up looking like this poor runner. Bobby has talked about this in a previous post (click here), but there are several energy systems that we rely on to produce energy. When it comes to powerful actions, we rely on the ATP-Pcr system to produce energy rapidly. The problem is that the ATP-Pcr system runs out of energy very quickly. We deplete its stores in less then 10 seconds and it takes 1 minute to replenish the stores by 50%, and about 5-6 minutes to restore the system to full power. How does this relate to training?  Let’s say a coach has you performing 20 squat jumps, followed by a long sprint, and finishing with 15 burpies. The ATP-Pcr system is only able to stay active for the first 10 seconds of work – meaning maybe your first 8-10 squat jumps. After that, it is out of energy and you have to rely on your other systems. There is nothing wrong with relying on the other systems (anaerobic glycolysis and Kreb’s cycle), but these systems can’t meet the high demands of powerful actions. Instead of training to become a powerful athlete, you begin training to be an aerobically fit athlete. Being a former basketball player, I understand there are times when you need to train under fatigue. I would argue that a lot of this fatigue-type training can take place in actual practices and scrimmages, no matter what sport you play. However, your strength workouts should be about optimal production of power. To optimize power output, no more then 5 reps should be used in both resistance training and plyometric training. This will allow you to stay in that window of the ATP-Pcr system.  

4) Fact: You can become more explosive

If you are a youth athlete, your strength work is going to look a little different then elite level athletes. The premise is still the same though: if you get stronger, you will get quicker. If you are an elite athlete, there is no question about it – you must be doing some heavy resistance training. Lately, some elite level athletes have told me they don’t do any heavy resistance training. They lift lighter loads for 15-20 reps. If you haven’t learned anything from this article, please remember this: you can’t recruit larger motor units if you don’t lift heavy weights. That’s not debatable. A 200 lb. elite baseball pitcher will not recruit his powerful motor units if he squats 100 lbs. for 20 reps. Your body doesn’t work like that.

5) Fact: You need to train to maximize power output at many different loads

When resistance training, research says you should be training at an “optimal load”. There is plenty of debate on what is really the optimal load, but essentially it is the load that allows you to create the most force possible. However, during many activities in sport, you are sometimes in loaded conditions and sometimes in unloaded conditions. An example of an unloaded condition would be sprinting or jumping. A loaded condition would be something like changing direction (overcoming inertia from your bodyweight), wrestling, boxing out an opponent (see picture above), colliding in rugby or football and so on. Both scenarios happen frequently in sports and so must be trained. So how do you train for all of these? Let’s take for example the squat. If you were squatting 5 sets of 5 reps each, your first few sets would be done with a lighter load. This lighter load, as long as done explosively, could serve to develop power in a lightly loaded situation. Your heavier sets done with near maximal loads can serve to recruit large motor units and develop maximal strength. Combine this with a set of body weight jump squats (unloaded) and you have just developed power across a multitude of loads.

Proper training for quickness has gotten overshadowed by the popular tools like “speed” ladders, running coaches, or hurdle drills. If you’re serious about getting quicker, put away the fancy tools and get in the weight room. And remember, it’s about the quality of the reps, not the quantity. Train explosively to play explosively.  


Haff, G., Nimphius, S. (2012) Training principles for power. Strength and conditioning journal 34:6.

Kraemer, W., Looney, D. (2012) Underlying mechanisms and physiology for muscular power 34:6.

Read 2796 times Last modified on Tuesday, April 2, 2013

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