Speed development remains the most requested and sought after goal for athletes of all ages. But can we really develop speed in athletes, or is Usain Bolt just blessed and the rest of us doomed?
World class speed is arguably limited by genetic potential, but that doesn’t mean athletes should give up on their dreams of developing rubber-burning wheels.
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Speed is a quality that can certainly be improved with proper training, and it can be a huge separating factor in athletic performance.
One simple way to improve speed and power in the weight room is to use banded resistance. Here, we discuss the potential benefits of band training, and how to implement bands into your strength program to supercharge your speed.
Resistance Bands for Accommodating Resistance
Resistance bands have hundreds of uses, but outside of high-level sports performance training facilities, I rarely see them used to develop speed.
The great thing about banded resistance, when coupled with the right exercise selection, is that bands provide what is termed accommodating resistance, which simply means that tension on the band increases as the band is stretched. If a band has 50 poundss of tension in the short stretch position, it could have 100 pounds of tension when lengthened 18 inches. This can be a huge benefit when paired with the right exercises, in which band tension matches the strength curve of the movement.
To select an exercise with the right strength curve, think of movements in which the most difficult part matches where the band tension is at its lowest. For example, in a Squat, the lifter has the least mechanical advantage at the bottom of the movement. If bands were attached to the bar and to the bottom of the rack, they would be at the shortest point of stretch (lowest tension) when the lifter is at the weakest point of the movement. As the lifter rises, a greater mechanical advantage develops and the lifter is able to exert more force.
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Since traditional barbell training is limited to the loads that a lifter can successfully move at his weakest point, he technically is barely taxing his body throughout the rest of the range of motion. If the lifter can only move 300 pounds at the bottom of a Squat, at 90 degrees of knee flexion, but can move 400 pounds from 45 degrees of knee flexion into full extension, he is limited to squatting 300 pounds for full reps.
With bands, tension increases during his ascent, matching his greater force production with greater resistance. This allows the lifter to tax his muscles and nervous system at a much higher rate throughout the entire range of motion.
Training the body to exert more force at lesser joint angles can be directly correlated with forces exerted into the ground during acceleration, since a sprinting athlete is rarely exerting force at less than 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion (like the bottom of a Squat). These increased force production capabilities at specific joint angles are far superior in translating to improved sprint performance than traditional barbell loaded Squats.
How to do it:
- Use bands for movements where the tension increases during the lockout portion of the movement, such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Romanian Deadlifts, Step-Ups, Reverse Lunges and Split Squats
- Attach bands so the direction of resistance matches the direction of force application. Examples: At the mid-foot and the ends of the barbell for Squats or at a low attachment and on the hips of the athlete for Step-Ups. The band angle should be parallel the the front shin angle of the athlete
- Choose the proper length of bands so they don’t completely lose slack at the bottom of the movement. If your bands are too long, tie them through themselves or around a peg a few times.
Resistance Bands for Acceleration
Another benefit of adding band resistance is the ability to accelerate the weight through the full range of motion. Since speed strength is developed at lower intensity and higher velocity, the athlete should be able to move the weight rapidly to stimulate the proper training adaptation.
When an athlete is using a very low load relative to his 1RM, he will only be able to accelerate the weight during the bottom portion of the lift. If an athlete with a 400-pound 1RM Squat were training with 120 pounds (30% of his 1RM), he could not possibly exert maximum force into the bar. If he did, he would literally jump off the ground or drive the bar off his shoulders. So at some point near the top of the movement, he would need to decelerate to stay in control.
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Attaching bands to the bar pulls down with constant tension at the top. This not only accelerates the bar down during the eccentric (lowering) phase, it also keeps the athlete grounded as he exerts maximum force during the concentric (rising) phase. This allows him to accelerate through the full range of motion, since he no longer needs to worry about decelerating the bar and his body at the top. He can now focus on producing maximum force and accelerating with maximum speed throughout the entire movement. This leads to incredible enhancement in his ability to produce high levels of force through full extension and at a high velocity.
How to do it:
- Attach bands matching the proper direction of force application.
- Make sure the bands provide adequate tension but do not limit the speed of the movement. Bar velocity is key.
- Cue the athlete to accelerate through the full range of motion, like he was trying to touch his head to the ceiling or snap his belt buckle to a fixed point above or ahead. Cues vary to match the movement but externally focused cues are ideal.
Resistance Bands for Overspeed Training
The third benefit of using band resistance, and my personal favorite, is their use in overspeed training, which is when an athlete is forced to move at speeds that he or she is not capable of reaching on his or her own. This training method, generally reserved for intermediate and advanced athletes, can produce high levels of rate of force development and speed.
Rate of force development (RFD) refers to the speed at which an athlete can generate force. This is a crucial component of speed training, because an athlete can only use forces that he or she is able to generate in the time necessary for the specific movement. If a sport movement, like sprinting, requires an athlete to produce maximum force at 100 meters, but it takes him 300 meters to produce that force, he will never be able to realize his true speed and power potential in the sport setting. Nobody cares how much force an athlete can produce in the gym. It’s how that force production translates onto the field that really matters. This is where overspeed training can play a key role.
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Bands can produce an overspeed effect by pulling the athlete in the intended direction. Since the athlete is being pulled in that direction, some of the forces she needs to overcome to move in that direction are unloaded; therefore her muscles will be able to contract at a higher speed. We are essentially tricking the nervous system (CNS) into firing faster, since the muscles are able to produce a greater level of force than is required. Over time, this training stimulus can lead to neural adaptations, wherein the nervous system is firing at a faster rate, and therefore an improved rate of force development. When the athlete returns to a regularly loaded movement (body weight), she can take advantage of her improved CNS firing and RFD capabilities.
Overspeed training can be performed with a variety of sprinting and jumping exercises. To set up for overspeed movements with a band, simply attach a band to the athlete via a belt or shoulder harness, and to another point in front of where the athlete is going.
How to do it:
Depending on the band length and tension used, attach the band to the athlete’s hips and pull it out in front of the starting position. There should be some, but very little, tension on the band pulling the athlete forward. He or she can then sprint with the assistance of the band, allowing for an overspeed stimulus.
- Make sure the band tension does not accelerate the athlete forward too fast, resulting in a loss of control. The band should not change the athlete’s running mechanics.
- Do not pull the band forward. Just extend it and allow the band tension to provide assistance.
- If you are using long bands over a long distance, make sure to pull the bands out of the way as the tension lessens, so the athlete does not trip over it.
- Only use this method with advanced sprinting athletes, who have a high level of relative strength and power.
- Overspeed will exacerbate any mechanical issues and breakdown, so only use it with athletes who have efficient sprinting mechanics.
- Attach the band around the athlete’s shoulders, and to a point directly above him or her.
- The athlete should still be able to drop down into the jumping position, without the band pulling him or her off the floor.
- Cue the athlete to jump explosively off the floor.
- The band will allow greater jump height and speed of RFD.
- The band will also provide a deload to the eccentric portion of the movement upon landing.
- This can allow rapid succession of jumps with minimal ground contact time.