Wide receiver John Ross accomplished the nearly impossible when he broke Chris Johnson’s 40-Yard Dash record time of 4.24 seconds with a lightning-fast 4.22-second sprint at the 2017 NFL Combine.
If you thought Ross had a history as a track sprinter, you wouldn’t be mistaken. His exceptionally fluid form and explosive stride look like those of a track star rather than a football player.
But according to Gary Cablayan, speed coach and owner of Evo Sports Training, Ross was nowhere near as fast just six weeks before the Combine. When Cablayan started training Ross for the big event on Jan. 11, Ross ran a relatively pedestrian 4.53. That’s by no means slow, but it probably wouldn’t have caught the attention of the Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him ninth overall.
“He was really bad but with the time he ran, I thought, ‘Sheesh, if he can run that fast looking like that, we have a lot of room for improvement,” Cablayan recalls. “There was a ton of stuff wrong. His start was wrong. His top end was wrong. He was super tight and super choppy when he ran.”
Ross showed great potential, but Cablayan had to teach him how to be a sprinter so he could realize that potential and shave valuable seconds off his 40 time.
It’s safe to say that Cablayan’s plan worked magnificently, as Ross shaved a whopping .31 seconds off his time. Even a tenth of a second improvement is considered a success. Scary thing is, Cablayan believes Ross could’ve run faster.
Every day is critical when a player prepares for the NFL Combine, and missing even a day can be a major setback when you only have six or so weeks to make improvements. Ross missed over a week because he was sick and had doctor consultations.
Also, the Combine puts athletes under immense pressure. Grueling days of evaluations, team meetings and testing, together with the importance of the event, make it unlikely that any athlete will run his best possible time. Ross was no exception.
“John didn’t have a perfect start. He had a perfect start the night before, and I think if he did that alone, he would’ve ran a 4.20,” Cablayan says. You can see Ross’s perfect start in the video above as he was rehearsing for the Combine.
This shows us two things. First, John Ross is an incredible athlete with the ability to quickly learn and improve. Two, Cablayan knows how to make someone fast and reach their full potential.
Here are the five steps Cablayan took to improve Ross’s 40-Yard Dash time. You can use them to shatter your personal record and turn coaches’ heads.
Step 1: Improve Technique
Sprinting with perfect technique isn’t just for show. It creates a powerful and efficient stride that puts more force into the ground to propel you forward faster while wasting less energy.
This was a major priority for Ross, who showed great speed potential when he first started training with Cablayan, but was unrefined. In particular, he had a tendency to run on his toes, which is like running on shock absorbers.
“Coaches often say that you need to run on your toes, but that’s probably one of the biggest lies that’s ever been told,” Cablayan says. “When you land, you want to be barely off your heel like when you’re jumping rope.”
To achieve this position, you need to keep your ankles dorsiflexed (toes pulled toward your shins) as you sprint.
“You want to have the calf really flexed so it can push and respond to the ground,” Cablayan continues. “When you jump rope, you keep your leg stiff to bounce off the ground. That’s the same thing you need to do when you run.”
For Ross, it was such a major focus that he worked on sprint form drills six times a day on speed days and twice a day on non-speed days. Rehearsing the technique over and over helped him learn how to properly fire his muscles and move his body when he needed to sprint at full speed.
Although sprint form drills can seem monotonous, they paid off for Ross when it was time for him to perform.
The Drill: A-Skips
A-Skips are one of the most basic speed training drills you can perform. The trick is, you need to do them correctly to learn the proper ankle position and foot mechanics.
“To do A-Skips correctly, you need to land on your heel,” Cablayan explains. “If you land on your toes, you end up dropping your toes down, which is a bad habit. The toe should always be dorsiflexed when you’re sprinting until it hits the ground. We hit the heel and roll onto the foot.”
How to: Drive your right knee up to parallel and slightly skip with your left foot, keeping your ankle dorsiflexed. Drive your right foot down and skip as you bring your left knee to parallel. Continue alternating.
Sets/Distance: 3×20 yards
Check out the video above to watch one of Cablayan’s athletes demo proper A-Skip form.
Step 2: Increase Hip Flexor Strength
Hip flexors are often overlooked in training programs. In fact, many workouts avoid training the hip flexors because they’re chronically tight because we sit so much throughout the day.
Sprinting is a great hip flexor exercise, but Cablayan explains that the way most athletes move in sports doesn’t hit their hip flexors. He says, “You need to be able to change directions in football. When you change directions, you’re not going to be upright like a sprinter. So they usually end up sitting a little bit more, but that causes a shortening of the hip flexors. So we have to get the strength back in there and help them run taller.”
Weak hip flexors make it harder to recover your leg and drive your knee after completing a stride, which slows down your stride frequency. Tight hip flexors also make it impossible to fully extend your hips and use your glutes and hamstrings to drive through the ground (more on this in the next section).
The Exercise: High Knees
Doing High Knees is the easiest, most basic hip flexor strength exercise you can do. If you feel they are too easy, try Standing Banded Hip Flexion.
How to: Stand tall in your starting stance. Sprint forward taking short strides and focusing on driving your knees to parallel.
Sets/Distance: 3×20 yards
Step 3: Loosen Up The Hips
Football players—or sprinters—don’t need the flexibility of a yogi. But overly tight hips will slow you down.
“John had a lot of flexibility issues,” recalls Cablayan. “He had no length in his running, so his steps were really choppy.”
Apparently Ross was so tight that he could barely get into a Walking Pigeon Stretch without squatting down and grabbing his foot. By the end of the pre-combine program, Ross was performing this stretch with nearly perfect form.
And this unleashed his stride.
“There was no knee drive going forward to really push the hips forward with it,”Cablayan says. “Once we got his stride to open up, he was basically just eating up the ground because he had great turnover.”
The Stretch: Walking Pigeon Stretch
The Walking Pigeon Stretch was Cablayan’s go-to stretch to open up Ross’s hips. You also need to open up your hip flexors, which you can learn how to do here.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Take a step forward with your right leg, raise your leg and grab your shin with both hands. Pull it up until it’s parallel to the ground or as far as your flexibility allows. Repeat with your left side.
Sets/Reps: 3×10 each side
Step 4: Build Explosive Power
An athlete can have perfect technique, but if he can’t put force into the ground it won’t matter. He will be slow.
That’s where the weight room comes into play. Lifting helps athletes add the horsepower they need to put force into the ground and propel them forward. This is an area Ross already excelled in, but Cablayan helped take it to the next level with an advanced lifting method called post-activation potentiation complexes.
Basically, you do a heavy lift followed by a plyometric exercise that closely matches the movement pattern of the first exercise.
“We do that to trick the body and central nervous system to fire with more motor units and muscle fibers being used,” Cablayan explains. “We get a lot of great results from this.”
“On the show Sports Science, it showed that Ross’ ground contact time was as fast if not faster than Usain Bolt,” he adds. “That’s a main factor that makes Bolt better than most people.”
The Exercises: PAP Complex
Trap Bar Deadlift – 5×3-5
Depth Jump to Broad Jump – 5×3
Check out this article for more info on PAP complexes.
Step 5: Perfect the Start
The start is the most critical part of the 40-Yard Dash. A fast start dictates how quickly you can transition to top speed. It’s also where most time is lost because of crappy form.
The three-point stance used in the 40-Yard Dash loads your muscles and puts you in the optimal forward body lean to accelerate from a standstill. “We are trying to help the body load like a spring so when we do take off you get some extra push,” Cablayan explains.
From this position, you have to explode forward by driving your feet back into the ground and maintain a forward body angle. Only after 10 to 15 yards do you begin to transition to an upright sprint.
To learn how to perfect the technique, check out this article. It includes starting technique tips from Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.
The Exercise: Sled Pushes
Cablayan recommends performing Sled Pushes to teach your body to push back into the ground while your torso is leaning forward. He explains, “We do a lot of prowler work where we push and get full extension at a slower speed. When you slow things down, you can feel it a little better. You need to use a weight that’s challenging but allows full extension.”
How to: Start with your hands holding the poles of a sled and position your body at a 45-degree angle. Keeping your core tight, powerfully drive your legs back in the ground to push the sled forward as quickly as possible.
Sets/Distance: 5×15 yards
Cablayan also has Ross and his other athletes perform Bounding drills (shown in the video above) to improve the first few steps of their start.