The following exercises are currently my main exercises of choice for athletes where I am working on developing straight line and multi-directional speed. The technical aspects of speed development are also important of course and should be trained concurrently with the exercises I am recommending.
Deadlift- This exercise is the best for all round strength development in my book. In terms of muscular recruitment I challenge you to find a more stimulating exercise! In terms of specificity to sprinting, it is a posterior chain focussed exercise, perfect for the maximum speed phase of the sprint. For versatility it is easily adapted for different training goals. From loading up triples, doubles and singles, to working with speed and power loads, with the deadlift you can do it.!
Split Squats- Clearly sprinting is a single leg activity and the demands placed on the body during unilateral activities are completely different from bilateral movements, therefore we need to train for this in the gym. Split Squats are a good choice for this as they are easily overloaded and a number of different stance widths can be used to emphasise different muscle groups. Shorter stances emphasise the quads and are therefore a good choice for the acceleration phase of the sprint whilst wider stances require greater contributions from the glutes and hamstrings.
Hip Flexion Work – Although it is known that elite sprinters have substantially larger psoas muscles it is still surprising just how little resisted hip flexion work you see going on in the gym. Usain Bolt’s psoas major is said to be double the cross sectional area of the general population. If this doesn’t tell you to go out and start doing some work on your hip flexors I don’t know what will! I like to use the cable machines for hip flexion work and begin this supine and work to a standing position over time. The supine position allows for greater loads to be used whilst the standing position ensures that the core is engaged fully in a unilateral stance. For the supine hip flexion work I like it to be done with the athlete placing their hands in the small of their back so as to feel the range of motion. Once the back is pushing into your hands that is your end of range. Don’t forget to raise your knee above 90 degrees if possible as this places the stress on the psoas more so than the other hip flexors.
Bounding and Variations- Up to now the exercises have been focussed on loading in a vertical plane but sprinting requires forces to be transmitted in a horizontal plane and I think bounding is an excellent choice for developing this type of force production capability. There are other options such as broad jumps, single leg hops and many others, but for the purposes of this article bounding is my choice. I like bounding as it can be used with all levels of athlete as well as all types of sprinting based sports and is still highly applicable. In the early phases the exercises should be done with a hold on one leg emphasising quiet landings between each repetition and progress to quicker, shorter contacts emphasising horizontal propulsion through the ball of the foot. A good cue is to think of the floor being a hot plate which you will burn your feet on if you spend to long! This should help to reduce the contact times. I also like to change from bounding to sprinting within the same drill as a progression with a focus on the first 4 steps after the change. The coach can pre set the change to sprinting (eg after 3 bounds off each leg) or randomly change on a command. Both have their place.
Split Cleans- I like exercises that tick numerous boxes and this is certainly one of those! Sprinters need to develop large mounts of explosive strength. Olympic lifting is a good tool but instead of the standard exercises why not use a variation that develops explosive strength whilst also placing stress through the system in a very specific position and developing unilateral eccentric strength at the same time through the catch phase of the lift. You will have to drop weight from your standard power cleans however this will enable you to develop more speed and power which is a good thing for your sprinting. All in all a very good and challenging exercise. Make sure you can actually perform basic power cleans before you progress to this lift though.
So there you go. There are so many exercises you could put into this list. As I say these are my go to exercises if you have exercises you think should make this list then feel free to let me know.
Written by Brendan Chaplin MSc ASCC CSCS
Brendan Chaplin MSc CSCS ASCC is a performance specialist and strength and conditioning coach. Currently he is Head of Strength and Conditioning for Leeds Met Carnegie in the UK and consults with governing bodies, sports teams, institutions and individuals looking to perform, look or feel their best. Follow him on twitter @BrendanChaplin or check out his website at www.brendanchaplin.co.uk.