Quick physics lesson: how do we get faster? Well, acceleration (a) equals force (f) divided by mass (m):
a = f / m
So if we want to accelerate faster and we plan on weighing the same, we must increase the force we can apply to the ground. What’s the simplest way to improve force production? Lifting weights.
If you’re struggling to get faster, the answer may not be to run more. Strength training can give you much-needed horsepower to improve your sprint times.
This article explains why weightlifting for sprinters is important. I call on two experts to share their favorite exercises to improve sprint performance.
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The Force-Velocity Curve
Sprinting is simple: The fastest person wins. But should sprinters always train fast?
The force-velocity curve shows us that the heavier a weight is, the slower you can lift it and the lighter a weight is, the faster you can lift it. But if all your training focuses on moving light weights quickly (i.e., sprinting), you’ll never maximize your ability to apply maximal force.
This spells trouble for a sprinter who has maximized his or her technique but lacks the force-production capabilities or muscle mass to get faster. This is where strength training comes in.
“From an intent standpoint, sprinters need to learn how to apply force into the ground harder and faster,” says Greg Robins, a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance who specializes in speed and power development.
Luckily, lifting weights does exactly that.
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Good Lifter, Good Sprinter?
Will getting strong in the weight room automatically make you a good sprinter? Of course not, but many of the lessons you learn under the bar can transfer to the track and give you the tools to get faster.
“Becoming a solid lifter means internalizing how to brace, push, pull and create force,” Robins says, noting that these concepts are harder to learn in the lightning-quick action of sprinting. “To be fast, you must know how to get stiff in the right areas while simultaneously relaxing others. Weightlifting is one of the most controlled places to learn that, and also get stronger at the same time.”
Take the Squat for example. Learning to squat requires learning how to brace the abdominal muscles, keep the torso tall, drive with the legs and put maximal force into the ground quickly. Not surprisingly, all these things are also required for sprinting, but you can break each one down more easily while squatting, making the weight room the ideal place to learn them.
What exercises work best for sprinters?
“Basic things done well,” Robins says. “The exercise is less important than the execution. However, squatting, single-leg training, plyometrics and various core stability exercises should make up the bulk of training.”
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The muscles that extend the hip and are responsible for driving through the ground should get priority, according to Colin Aina, head trainer at 212 Health & Performance in Rumford, Rhode Island.
“Focus on the big movements,” says Aina, a USA Track and Field certified coach and 2004 Olympic trials qualifier in the 110-meter high hurdles. “Hip extension is the best way to get fast. I like Cleans when performed correctly, Step-Ups and anything for the glutes and hamstrings.”
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Getting Outside the Sagittal Plane
Sprinting occurs in the sagittal plane, meaning everything happens in a forward-to-backward motion. But getting outside the sagittal plane and including side-to-side and rotational movements can enhance core stability to reduce the risk of injury.
“Frontal and transverse plane activity will have less direct transfer to improved sprint performance but it will keep you in the game for the long haul, which is nothing to scoff at,” Robins says. “You’ll get better stability of the torso in handling the violent action of the lower half.”
Side-to-side movements that focus on strengthening the hip external rotators can keep the hips healthy while strengthening the lower body. Lateral Mini-Band Walks work well in a warm-up or within the workout itself.
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Training the core with anti-rotation exercises like Cable Chops will improve torso positioning, which prevents wasted energy while sprinting.
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Get Stronger to Get Faster
If your sprint times aren’t getting better, try focusing on getting stronger with big lower-body lifts like Squats, Deadlifts and Lunges. Don’t forget side-to-side and rotational movements too. Once you learn to put more force into the ground, you’ll shave more seconds off your times.