To get faster, you need to get stronger. This may fly in the face of everything you've heard about speed training, but put simply, strong athletes are fast athletes.
It may sound counterintuitive, because speed is typically thought of as being developed on the field. And that's true. Field work plays an important role in your speed. But the foundation for getting faster is created in the weight room. More specifically, how strong you are in relation to your body weight dictates how fast you'll move on the field.
"I can determine with 99.7 percent accuracy what your 40-Yard Dash time is based on your strength-to-weight ratio," declares Ryan Flaherty, CEO of Prolific Athletes (Carlsbad, California) and trainer to elite athletes such as Marcus Mariota and Russell Wilson.
How Strength and Weight Affect Speed
Flaherty says that speed is all about your strength-to-weight ratio. "How much force your body creates compared to your body mass determines how fast you are," he says.
When you sprint, you put force into the ground with your feet, which is what propels you forward. In simple terms, the more force you can put into the ground with each stride, the faster you will move in the direction you want to go.
However, this is also in relation to your weight. If two athletes produce the same amount of force but one is 20 pounds lighter, he will run faster because his strength will propel him further with each stride.
Flaherty points to Usain Bolt's recent 100-Meter Dash victory in the 2015 World Championships as a perfect example. "When you look at all things considered, he's just taking fewer steps than everyone else," Flaherty says. "Bolt's taking 41 steps where the next-fastest guy is taking 43 or 44."
Height does play a role in stride length, but it's not the defining physical trait. "I can show you a 5-foot-6 guy who has an incredible strength-to-weight ratio with the same stride length as a 6-5 guy who has a terrible strength-to-weight ratio," he asserts.
Strength-to-weight ratio also plays a role in multidirectional quickness and even sports skills. Every time you move in your sport, if you have greater strength in relation to your weight, you'll be faster and more effective in that movement.
"We can even predict the mph on your fastball with your strength-to-weight ratio," Flaherty he says. "Whether you jump, run or throw, everyone has a specific strength-to-weight ratio they need to be at."
Flaherty provides the following strength-to-weight guidelines for athletes based on the Deadlift:
- NCAA athletes - 2 X Body Weight
- Elite NCAA Athletes - 2.5 X Body Weight
- Pro Athletes - 3 x Body Weight
If you weigh 180 pounds and want to become an elite level NCAA athlete, you should be deadlifting 450 pounds.
But Doesn't Technique Help?
According to Flaherty, too much emphasis is placed on technique and mechanics and not enough on strength-to-weight ratios in athlete training programs. He says, "I can bring out one group of athletes with perfect technique and another group of athletes who all I work on is strength-to-weight ratio and no technique. The strength-to-weight ratio group will destroy the group with perfect technique."
He says that technique and mechanics can only make a 5- to 10-percent improvement in your end result, whereas your strength-to-weight ratio can result in a 60- to 70-percent improvement in your speed. Getting stronger is simply a more productive use of your time.
However, that's not to say that technique is unimportant. It just shouldn't be your primary focus. "Once your strength-to-weight ratio is where it needs to be, you can make minor adjustments to your mechanics and technique," adds Flaherty.
"Your ticket to the dance is the strength-to-weight ratio," he says. "If you don't have a strength-to-weight ratio on par with the athletes in your sport, there's no way, regardless of how good your technique is, that you're going to run as fast as they do."
The Best Exercise to Get Faster
Flaherty's go-to exercise for developing his athletes' strength-to-weight ratio is the Concentric Trap Bar Deadlift. Here's how to perform it:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart in the center of a trap bar.
- Bend your hips and knees, and reach down to grasp the handles at your sides.
- Tighten your core, pull your shoulders down and back, and tuck your chin.
- Extend your hips and knees, and drive through your heels to stand up straight.
- Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement.
- Drop the trap bar to the ground and repeat.
There are a few benefits to this variation of the Deadlift compared to the conventional version:
- The trap bar shifts the load to your sides in line with your body. This puts less stress on your back compared to the conventional Deadlift, which has the barbell in front of you.
- Lifting technique is a bit easier than with barbell Deadlifts, since you're basically just standing up off the ground—something you've been doing since you were about 9 months old.
- If you want to get faster, building bigger muscles is not always ideal because that increases your weight. "What happens a lot of times is people get stronger and add lean muscle mass, which increases their body mass," he explains. "And that doesn't necessarily make them faster or any more explosive because they've increased their body mass at the same rate as their strength." Working only on the concentric phase of the lift (picking the weight up off the ground) stresses the central nervous system and increases strength without tearing muscle fiber—which is how muscles get bigger.
Flaherty recommends performing the Concentric Trap Bar Deadlift once per week in your off-season during a lower-body workout. Do 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps, and use a weight that's as heavy as possible without sacrificing your technique. Remember, your goal is to build your strength-to-weight ratio, and it won't work if you're not supporting your goal with a complete training program and a balanced diet.
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