The Oscillating Split Squat is a big-time weapon in athletic speed development. If athletes want to get faster, they often perform movements like Squats, Deadlifts and Olympic lifts. Although beginner athletes will reap benefits from them, many intermediate and advanced athletes realize no improvement in top-end speed from traditional power lifts.
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Just look at the track and field times of NCAA football players who ran track in high school, then balance a collegiate strength and conditioning program (almost always based on power lift and Olympic lift 1-rep maxes) with running track in the spring. Times almost never improve. In fact they usually go backwards from what the athlete ran in high school, unless training is meticulously balanced by the track & field staff.
To train top-end speed, you must improve the reflexive power of your glutes and hip flexors. Common lifts such as Squats fall short here, because they do not work your sprinting muscles reflexively, nor do they involve the hip flexors in a beneficial manner. Powerlifting movements are limited in direct transfer to sprinting skill (although they can be helpful in other ways, such as potentiation). Why? Because they are relatively slow, and in many lift positions, relevant muscles don’t get worked in the same manner in which they are recruited in sprinting. In early levels of development, this is fine, because young athletes can benefit from the coordination enhanced by basic strength training reflexive power of the glutes and hip flexors.
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Beyond the intermediate level of training, strength work needs to be more specific to bring improvement to a skill as dynamic as top-end sprinting.
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To improve speed, training needs to have specific qualities. Just because an exercise is performed on one leg doesn’t mean it transfers to running. An exercise must also have muscle-action characteristics of running. For example, a heavy weighted Lunge has little relevance to sprinting, and it can even be harmful in the restrictive muscle recruitment pattern it places on the athlete. Very important to sprint speed is not only how much muscle is recruited into the movement, but also how quickly the athlete can relax that muscle. Sports science shows us that the fastest athletes are those who can relax their muscle more quickly than their competitors.
A great exercise that satisfies this criterion, and helps athletes build their sprint skill, is the Oscillating Split Squat.
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- To perform the Oscillating Split Squat, descend into the classical rear-foot-elevated split-squat position.
- Descend to a position with your front thigh at, or a few degrees above, parallel.
- Tense the muscles of the quad and glute on your lead leg as much as possible, then, in an instant, release all tension.
- When tension is released, you will naturally fall down and “bounce” out of the bottom of the movement. This bounce is the body reflexively switching off and on muscle fibers relevant to sprinting. In addition, the hip flexors of your rear leg get a gentle stretch and contract stimulus, which helps improve their contractility.
You can see a demonstration of how this exercise is performed in the video above. When you perform it correctly, your front heel, or your entire foot, leaves the ground for a fraction of a second during the drop. This ensures the muscles are turning off in the correct sequence. Athletes who tend to “overmuscle” their movements will struggle with this reflexive action of the front foot, but when they learn it, they can expect a quick improvement in their breakaway speed capability.
All in all, the Oscillating Split Squat is a great tool in the arsenal of a sprinter or speed coach. I don’t advocate abandoning traditional lifts in the training and preparation of speed and power athletes (you shouldn’t either), but overemphasizing non-reflexive strength work has drawbacks. Oscillating movements are a front line weapon in counteracting those effects, and will help to restore the reflexive nature of the athlete.