There has been an ongoing debate in strength and conditioning on whether lifting weights makes you faster or slower. The focus of this article is to dive into this topic, but the answer is that it depends on the following factors.
You have to produce force to lift, run, or do anything active. Force creates by friction. Now take that concept, and relate it to speed. To get faster, you must improve something in strength and conditioning called rate coding, or the rate at which your body can recruit motor neurons and contract. Hence when I train athletes, I want them to control their weight at the beginning of their training career; as they progress in training age (Click on this link for an explanation of long-term development), different training methods are required to see further progressions. Simply working on strength and basic speed mechanics is no longer enough to get them faster or get the speed to transfer after two to three years of development, although sometimes this may be necessary to regress. These are the following principles to follow in programming if you wish to progress and maximize athletic potential in speed through training. Attached is a video to further explain how strength and speed affect one another from Eric Cressey, The Absolute Strength to Absolute Speed Continuum – YouTube. If you take the time to watch this video, Strength and Conditioning coach Eric Cressey explains the importance of detail when programming for athletes and the relationship between mobility and stability throughout the season. Understanding how to use this as a metric when programming is critical for the athlete’s success.
- Movement, Mechanics, Fluidity
If there is one request I get from parents and athletes, they want to improve their speed. A couple of things go into this before giving them a wildly complex “Elite” Program. While respecting anatomy, I always want to program ways to improve the athlete’s mobility. For example, if the athlete has anterior rotation and lacks dorsiflexion, then the chances of them activating their glutes allow the athlete to propel forward and be explosive, and control knee valgus, to name a few, then the athlete will not reach their potential from an explosive perspective. Note that this stage is more about improving neuromechanics than “mobility” or correcting firing patterns through teaching proper technique and progressions (9). Mobility and stability exercises are inversely related, so the practitioner must address what needs to be the focus. This focus may differ depending on if the athlete is in or out of season (9).
- Development of Absolute Speed
I stated earlier in the introduction that you must get stronger to get faster. While this is true, you also have to train fast as well to get that strength to transfer. Implementing plyometric drills that include a pre-stretch and working on elastic force or speed work. When programming speed, the focus should be on having a good range of motion in the ankle during the training session but understanding how to create stiffness in the joint during acceleration, multi-directional, and bounding work. Reactive work, or understanding how to respond to external stimuli, should be thrown in the speed program. To effectively combine speed exercises with a weight training program, agility training must progress similarly to that in the weight room, from simple, low-intensity drills to more complex, higher-intensity routines. “As long as each exercise is biomechanically sound and properly addresses the needs of the athlete, this will allow the senior athlete to perform at a higher percentage of their maximal capacity.” Incorporating a speed and agility program in a systemic progression also allows the athlete to understand how to utilize the force developed from a well-balanced training program effectively. Implementing these practices allows power to have a higher transfer to sports (8).
- Speed Strength
Speed Strength is typically more specific in training protocols and is usually applied through either weighted balls or weighted vests when performing plyometrics. When an athlete is trained enough, using the French contrast method is a great way to attack this area if it lacks. Blakey et al. found that unless strength training is applied with some plyometrics, transfer to dynamic leg and power during sport will be less likely (6). When implementing a combined program of plyometrics, power, and strength training, the athlete may receive benefits of an integrated program without contending with possible injury from increased velocity associated with greater heights.”
- Strength Speed
Strength Speed, or explosive strength as I like to call it, can be developed with Olympic lifts, hex bar trap jumps, or any lift that allows the body to use a high percentage of weight and move quickly and safely. As a former competitive Olympic lifter with experience coaching these exercises, I know these lifts can be very beneficial for developing this type of strength. Technique, however, must be on point. If the athlete, for example, cannot get in the front rack position in the clean or falls into hyperextension on the catch position, the practitioner should ensure that this deficiency in mechanics is fixed. However, this is WHY I like them, especially for youth athletes. You have to have proper mechanics to do them and see the benefits. If an athlete cannot perform the appropriate technique in the Olympic lifts due to a lack of movement efficiency, this will also hinder them on the field. In a study by Daniel Hackett Et al., they found that implementing Olympic weightlifting training is an effective way to improve vertical jump height if performed with proper technique (by 7.1%) compared to traditional resistance training. This improvement may be meaningful for athletes involved in speed, agility, and power-related sports when targeting a program to improve overall power output (5). Note that unless speed and agility are effectively implemented (7), then transfer to speed from the Olympic lifts may be limited.
- Absolute Strength
You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe, so you often see elite sprinters and fast football players lift at high intensity for low reps. As the training age progresses, you must be more specific to see improvements. Regarding youth athletes, developing a base for them and teaching the fundamental movements, then increasing the strength numbers dependent on their sport will set them up for their athletic career and after. Such exercises to improve Absolute strength that has shown to improve sprint performance include front squats, back squats (1), deadlifts, lunges, and their variations (2). These variations, reps, and overall volume will depend on the training age, anthropometry, sport, and season they are currently in (3). Exercises that include horizontal placement and unilateral stabilization training, all areas of athleticism should improve. In regards to the importance of improving overall performance, teaching the body how to utilize the core through an integrated, high-intensity full range of motion movements will increase oblique and abdominus activation, thereby protecting integrity around the spinal column. When performed correctly, the back squat can significantly improve the athlete’s strength and speed and reduce the likelihood of injury in the spine by activation of the gluteus maximus as well as other exercises such as the barbell hip thrust and deadlift. Improving athletes’ strength through a foundation of holistic, multi-joint, and various planes of motion will set them up for long-term success. When a base strength develops this way, then transferring the speed to the field of play will also be more likely.
While anthropometry should be respected, proper movement should be addressed (3). For example, being able to go parallel in the squat, obtaining the front rack position, press overhead properly, performing an in-line lunge, and doing an overhead squat without lifting your heels off the ground should be a must. Understanding these concepts and knowing that movement over maxes must be paid attention to when developing an all-around sound athlete is critical for the longevity and health of an athlete. Teaching the athlete how to use these movements during the field of play through responsive drills, linear and acceleration mechanics, as well as sound progressions will maximize transfer.
- Styles, Williams. Matthews, Martyn J. “Effects of strength training on Squat and Sprint Performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30 (6): P 1534-1539, 2016.
- Chmiel, J., et al. “Post Activation Potentiation of Back Squat and Trap Bar Deadlift on Acute Sprint Performance.” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings. Vol. 9. No. 4. 2016.
- Choe, Kevin. Kinetic Differences between a back squat and deadlift in collegiate aged lifters. California State University, Fullerton, 2017.
- Van Den Tillaar, Roland, and Atle Hole Saeterbakken. “Comparison of core muscle activation between a prone bridge and 6-RM back squats.” Journal of human kinetics 62.1 (2018): 43-53.
- İnce, İzzet. “Effects of Split Style Olympic Weightlifting Training on Leg Stiffness Vertical Jump Change of Direction and Sprint in Collegiate Volleyball Players.” Universal Journal of Educational Research 7.1 (2019): 24-31.
- Blakely, Jay B., and Dan Southard. “The combined effects of weight training and plyometrics on dynamic leg strength and leg power.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 1.1 (1987): 14-16.
- Hoffman, Jay R., et al. “Comparison of Olympic vs. traditional power lifting training programs in football players.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 18.1 (2004): 129-135.
- Young, Warren B., Brian Dawson, and Greg J. Henry. “Agility and change-of-direction speed are independent skills: Implications for training for agility in invasion sports.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 10.1 (2015): 159-169.
- Cronin, John, and Gord Sleivert. “Challenges in understanding the influence of maximal power training on improving athletic performance.”