The false step has been a natural enemy of coaches across many sports for decades. Why waste time taking a step backwards when you need to move forwards?
Many coaches have tried to eliminate the habit of false stepping from their athletes’ movement toolbox in the name of greater speed and efficiency. However, research has found that this demonization of a false step may be misguided.
Why the False Step Is So Natural
To fully understand this issue, we must look at the physics and biomechanics of the human body.
Try initiating a sprint from a tall, standing position. You are not allowed to lower your hips. Odds are, it will feel terribly awkward and pretty darn slow.
This is because of something called your center of mass. For most people the center of mass, is about 10 centimeters below your belly button. As you exert force into the ground to propel yourself forward, your center of mass naturally shifts forward to put you in a more efficient position.
The false step is often the quickest and most instinctual way to get us into this forward lean position, which is why it’s so common. Shift the hips back, shoot a foot behind you, and suddenly you’ve gone from a standing position to something more akin to a sprinter’s stance.
The false step is usually very reflexive. People don’t consciously think about taking a false step—their brain sends a message to their body to run fast, and it just kind of happens. When we take that step backwards, we tap into our stretch-shortening cycle. The false step stores energy throughout our tendons (such as the Achilles) and muscles that we then use to produce more force to propel ourselves in the desired direction.
This is why movement specialist Lee Taft has moved to eliminate the term “false step” and rather refer to it as a plyometric or “plyo” step.
“The athlete is instinctively repositioning one foot behind the center of mass to have a proper force application angle to move the center of mass forward, or in whatever direction of travel. This action of repositioning the foot behind the body opens the joint angles of the knee and hip and creates a “stiffness” that induces a stretch-shortening cycle response, also known as an elastic response. This action alone creates quickness—which is what athletes want,” Taft writes in a Simplifaster article on the topic.
“These movements are hardwired into the neural system and are an indispensable aspect of the fight or flight response.”
Can a False Step Make Us Faster?
The research overwhelmingly indicates that when uninstructed, the vast majority of athletes will utilize a false step to initiate forward movement from a stationary position. A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found an initial step backwards was observed in 95 percent of participants when they were instructed to sprint from a standing position.
The research also indicates that the false step is going to likely be the strategy that helps them cover ground the fastest, particularly when starting with their feet parallel to one another.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined how three different starting strategies—a start out of sprinter’s blocks, a forward step and a false step —impacted the acceleration of collegiate football linebackers over distances of 2.5 and 5 meters.
Unsurprisingly, the fastest times were generated with the use of the sprinter’s blocks. But between the false step (which the researchers actually dubbed a ‘rhythm step’ in this study) and the forward step, two starting strategies that can actually be used on the field, the false step resulted in significantly lower 2.5- and 5-meter dash times than the forward step.
There’s reason to believe some of these same principles apply to using a false step for multidirectional starting, as well, as detailed in this study from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
“Whilst other factors not assessed here might require consideration, a rationale for (false step) removal based on conceptions of increased step time, misdirected or slow force production are not supported,” the authors write in the abstract.
Should We Always False Step?
Based on the existing research, I think many coaches spend too much time and energy trying to remove false stepping from their athletes’ movement toolbox.
However, I think movement is multifaceted. I believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different movement types that occur during a competition like a soccer game. Could a plyo step be more advantageous most of the time? Definitely, but I don’t believe it means we rule out all other strategies.
There are certainly cases where a false step can inhibit an athlete’s performance, whether it be the method in which they utilize it or the scenarios they deploy it. Some false steps really are “false” steps that serve little purpose, while others are indeed more “plyo” steps that can actually enhance performance.
I also believe a forward step can make sense in certain situations, such as if you’re already in a good body position with substantial forward lean. Additionally, if you only need to cover a meter or so to intercept a pass or make a tackle, a false step may be totally superfluous.
False stepping isn’t nearly as bad as many coaches might lead you to believe. In many cases, it’s actually more beneficial from a performance standpoint than taking your initial step forward. False stepping is a natural human response, and spending a lot of time and energy trying to prevent it is likely unwise.
However, all false stepping is not created equally. and there are indeed times where a forward step might make more sense. But when it comes to getting from point A to point B fastest from a standing position, and those two points are more than just 1-2 meters apart, a ‘plyo’ step is often going to make athletes faster, not slower.
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