So I came upon an article the other day about speed development. In this article the author states several times that increased strength development always results in increased speed development if their weight and technique remain the same. So an athlete that only lifts 300 lbs. will be faster if he gets his lift to 400 lbs., and faster at 50o lbs., and so on.
At novice levels there is a high correlation between all motor abilities. I remember Coach Joe Kenn use to joke that he could take a young kid and do walking lunges for a quarter-mile everyday and he would get faster. This just speaks to the extent of how easily a novice athlete can make gains.
As an athlete advances there becomes less and less correlation between maximal strength and speed. At some point there is no correlation and it can actually become a negative correlation.
Maximal strength work can be a hinderance to speed developement in the slowing down of the nervous system. The human body adapts to how it is trained. When athletes focus on slow heavy lifting day after day, the body can and will adapt to the slowness it continually repeats.
Coaches must always remember speed and maximal strength are separate motor abilities. Earlier on the correlation is high, as the athlete moves higher in advancement the correlation becomes less and less. If you were to take Usain Bolt and increase his squat 50 lbs., many individuals think this would make him faster. If it were only that easy. Taking him from a 450-500 lbs. squat would yield no improvement in his world record times. At some point, continuing to train maximal strength for an athlete is not worth the time of training invested. When an athlete reaches a certain point, energy should be directed towards maintaining that strength, and focusing towards raising other key motor abilities.
Many coaches believe that olympic type lifts have a direct correlation with speed since the O-lifts are performed with such speed. This correlation is only to the novice coach as the speeds achieved in the lifts compared to speed of contraction at maximal speed are nowhere close to one another. A good Olympic lift velocity may reach 1.3 meters per second, where-as speed usually hangs around 7 meters per second.
It takes time to develop maximal force. This has always been an area of misunderstanding. Sprinting ground contact times are measured in the hundredths of a second. This is the time that an athlete has to display force in sprinting. Being able to grind through a four-second rep means nothing when your foot has .08 seconds to display as high a force as possible. Like I have stated throughout after a certain level of strength has been achieved, the focus should change. Athletes should be more worried about the speed at which they can display strength than at the sheer magnitude of how much more they can lift.
Take a competitive powerlifter, or an elite level Olympic lifter. These athletes would be world record holders in speed if it were that were the main determinant of speed. While these athletes may be fast they do not progress in speed at the same level their maximum strength progresses over the course of years.
There are so many more things involved in speed, than just strength alone. Speed is more dependent on the stretch-shortening cycle, reactive ability, elasticity, nervous system efficacy, tendon attachment, and limb length, among many others.
I get a lot of athletes who are after the quest of the holy calves. A large group always in that hunt are baseball pitchers. I’m not sure what it is but everywhere I’ve been, including the Angels, pitchers have always asked about how to make their calves bigger. Part of the problem recently was the lower body of Cubs pitcher Mark Prior. Mark Prior is known in baseball circles as the pitcher with “huge legs, and even bigger calves.” Now, huge legs are a good thing most likely, especially for a pitcher. In reality, huge calves probably don’t have any effect, positive or negative, on the act of pitching. However in speed oriented sports it can play an outcome.
Many athletes believe larger calves increase your vertical, or make you faster. This isn’t generally the case as the calf complex contributes very little to overall power. The gastroc, and soleus should be trained to store and release elastic energy. That is essentially its job during sprinting. We don’t want it to give way and absorb force upon the foot strike during a sprint. This would increase our ground contact time and slow us down.
Here’s the problem with creating huge calves on purpose. The larger the calf complex, the more the lower leg weighs. Having more weight below the knee and towards the ankle can actually hinder running speed, according to Charlie Francis. It increases the lower leg lever, and slows leg turnover. We want less weight towards the distal end of the leg and more on the proximal. In other words, we don’t want a large calf muscle, we want large thighs, hams, and glutes. It an extreme case, it’s almost like wearing an ankle weight.
So in the end what are we to do? Don’t directly train the calves with strength work. It takes valuable time away from more important needs as we know the calves contribute very little to overall power. All our training for the lower leg comes in the form of barefoot warmups, sprinting, explosive jumps, hops, medball throws, etc.
Now there are cases where this information may not directly pertain. One such example would be basketball. Basketball players may need direct work due to previous injury history, weaknesses, or deficiencies. Training the calf / ankle for proprioception would be highly important as well in preventing ankle injuries in basketball athletes.
The lower leg generally doesn’t need to be trained directly with strength work. Again, the elastic properties can and should be obtained through explosive jumps, hops, plyometrics, and sprinting. I’ve heard top level track coaches comment that the faster athletes usually have a small calf muscle high up on the lower leg, as opposed to a longer, fuller calf muscle.
Sprinting, jumping, throwing, etc. all involve powerful movements around the hip. Train for hip extension and hammer the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors, and leave the calves to benefit from sprinting and jumping.
In the end direct calf work most likely isn’t going to be worth the training time. It can be trained through other means just as effectively.
A few days back I got a question in an email from student and thought I would tackle the issue on our readers mind.
“How would you best develop speed/power/explosion?”
The question is very general when it comes to training. In this sense I have to answer it very general. With a more specific question, we can develop a more specific plan to attack speed, speed-strength, strength-speed, power, explosion, etc. My problem with the phrase “power” is that it doesn’t necessarily convey any parameters. Power in what? Power can be increasing a fastball from 89mph to 92mph. The pitchers power has increased. I’ve alo seen an example once of an 80 year old man walking up a flight of stairs 1 second quicker than he previously had done. This would also be an increase in power, wouldn’t it. So without giving the meaning “power” any parameters it makes it difficult to define how and what your increasing.
When most people think of explosion or power they immediately think of olympic lifts. While olympic lifts do have the ability to increase “power” there are many other options available, and sometimes better options in my opinion. Again in a general sense, the olympic lifts will help to increase “power” in novice and intermediate athletes. As athletes climb the ladder of sporting ability, improvements in speed, power, etc must become more specific to the dynamics of the athletes skill and/or event. Many people believe that sprinting and the olympic lifts have a high correlation and that improving your clean will directly improve your 40 yd dash. When we truly look at their correlation we find it isn’t as it seems. With novice and even some intermediate athletes there is a correlation, but as sporting proficiency increases the correlation ceases to exist. High level sprinting usually equates to movement around 7 meter per second, while the olympic lifts average around 1.25 meters per second. Nothing in the weight room ever comes close to the speed reached, and angular velocities of body segments reached during sprinting. So when we compare something like olympic lifting to sprinting, they are separate motor qualities.
For our rotational based sports such as golf, softball, and baseball, I like to be more specific to the movement patterns that dominate the sport. These patterns are rotation movements in the transverse plane. For this type of work we rely heavily on medicine ball throws and variations for increasing our “power.” You can perform throws in a multitude of directions training the entire body. Whether performing a backward overhead throw for triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hips, or using roped medicine ball swwings for core stiffness and stability, medballs have so many applications.
As for the speed part of the questions, there is no better way to develop speed than to run fast. Sprinting at 95-100% is by far the best method for developing pure speed. No other activity requires the muscle elasticity, speed of contraction and relaxation, coordination of firing patterns, and so on as full speed work. Not only is sprinting tops for speed development, but can also contribute to strength gains. It’s a case of the chicken or the egg theory. It’s hard to say which one comes first, but sprinting can and does have an effect on strength gains. High speed work just like plyometrics in the next paragraph is extremely CNS taxing, so caution must always be used when it comes to training. That’s also one of the main reasons speed work is such a powerful training stimulus to the human body.
My last method for developing speed, power, and or explosion would be the inclusion of jump training, and plyometrics. Make sure you note the difference in the two. Jump training is simply that, jumping exercises and variations. These take many different forms and can progress from introductory jumps, like box jumps, jumps in place, to more advanced jumps, such as repeat hurdle jumps, etc. These are usually an introductory before plyometric training is introduced. Plyometric expecises are a powerful eccentric contraction followed immediately by a concentric contraction. The prior eccentric motion creates a stronger concentric contraction through elastic energy and the stretch reflex. High level plyometrics are generally considered the strongest training stimulus on the nervous system, and therefore require expertise when programming. They are powerful in their ability to increase power, but many coaches aren’t aware of their proper application. These were developed for high level athletes in Eastern Bloc countries and were never meant to be done by young novice athletes.
Sorry for the rant. When we talk about power it really helps to define what we’re talking about in the end. I don’t necessarily use the word power because it is so encompassing. It could refer to a myriad of things. I refer to speed-strength, and strength-speed when I’m referring to “power” type motor qualities. We’ll get into all that on another day though.