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Bigger, Stronger, Faster Sports Training

There are three broad categories that coaches tell us to improve on.  Can you think of what they are?  All throughout my career I would hear coaches say “you need to be bigger, stronger and faster”.

The problem that I have with some coaches who say that is:

  1. How much bigger do I need to get?  Does the coach mean I need to be taller? Do I need wider or fatter?  There is this misconception that in order to be successful, we need to be built like trees, stronger than an ox or faster than a gazelle.  Yes, depending on the sport you want to be bigger and stronger, but not all sports requires us to be big.
  1. This is the thing that drives me crazy, “you need to be stronger”.  Ok, I understand that I need to be stronger, do I need more upper or lower body strength?  Do I need my non dominant side stronger?  That is where athletes have the most problems in their training programs, they are given such a broad idea that they cannot pinpoint the exact problem.

As coaches we need to take some time to sit down and understand how we can effectively develop our athletes quickly and as safe as possible.  Remember, we may think that these kids know what they are doing; some may know how but most do not.

Developing a Stronger Athlete:

When we are designing a strength program for athletes, you need to design it to be efficient, safe and effective. An efficient training program means that you are giving your athletes exercises that puts them in the best situation to succeed.  Most training sessions (especially during the season) can only allow you to train 35-45 mins. In that time, we need to get to get our athletes in and out.  An efficient and an effective program also needs the right progressions for the athlete to maximize their gains.  Having a safe program is the most important factor.  Too many times I see personal trainers or coaches giving their athletes or clients exercises they have no business doing.  Especially with young athletes, we can fall into training them like a full grown adult.  If  I have some who who can not perform a proper squat, why would I make them do a deadlift?  Even as simple as a push up, starting them with a wall push up and progressing to the floor can help tremendously.

Why Do Athletes Need Strength?

If you ask athletes about what they want improve on, most of them with say strength.  Did you know that you can improve speed, power and agility all at the same time?  Most people think that you have to split these up into different programs.  Wouldnt it be awesome to improve these qualities by just getting stronger?  For the athletes who want to be able to jump through the roof or run past their components, improving your strength could be the solution.

Maximal Strength and How It Can Improve Abilities?

Maximal Strength is a huge factor for helping athletes improve in all phases of development.  When I am examining an athlete’s strength abilities, this can help me predict on what the athletes ceiling on improvement could be.  When you increase your maximal strength, you increase your body’s ability to apply force (Folland 2007). When I want to improve lower body strength this can help the athlete jump higher to spike the ball or finish off blocks.  Some of my favorite maximal strength exercises are deadlifts, squats, power cleans. These exercises are designed for you to develop multiple joints in one exercise. Deadlifts in particular, especially as you approach and exceed 90% of your one-rep maximum, serve as a catalyst in boosting limit strength as they rouse the fastest and largest number of high threshold motor units, increase rate coding and motor unit synchronization, and streamline neural drive (Folland 2007).

How Long Does It Take To Build Muscle?

If you are unfamiliar with exercise physiology, there are 2 ways to increase strength.  There is neural recruitment, this means your muscles are learning how to work together to perform a movement.  The 2nd is my favorite hypertrophy-building muscle. According to research,  increases in strength by untrained people within 8 weeks of a strength program are mostly caused by neural recruitment.  Studies have even suggested that after 8 weeks of a strength training program, the magic really happens and we have hypertrophy.  Strength gains takes time and you need to be patient for your muscles to grow big and strong.

Developing Speed in Athletes

In most sports, short bursts of speed are crucial.  This can be sprinting down the line to beat out a base hit, breaking through the whole as fast as you can to get a first down or racing your opponent on the track.  When we sprint this requires us to use high force production.  If you have ever noticed that when you work on improving your strength and power, these exercises can also be considered as exercises that improve your speed.  Could you image using exercises that could enhance all of the three phases (strength, power and speed)?  There has been a mixture of results from different studies the relationship between different measures of tests on muscular force, power and sprint ability.  The reasoning behind the different results is that the people that were tested on were different genders or different ages.

Does running speed increase when performing strength and power tests?

Baker (1999) investigated the relation between running speed and a number of strength and power tests. Twenty professional rugby league players were assessed for 10 and 40 m running speed, maximum strength in a 3 repetition maximum (RM) squat and 3RM power clean from the hang, and leg power. Power was assessed by the Plyometric Power System (PPS) during barbell jump squats with loads of 40, 60, 80, and 100 kg. The results indicated that, while 10 and 40 m sprint performances are highly related, no absolute strength or power score was significantly related to either sprint performance, almost all the scores relative to body mass were significantly related to sprint performance. For the 10-m and 40-m sprint, there were some increases in speed. After examining the research, professional rugby players may need to be trained differently to a certain extent for 10- and 40-m sprint capabilities, as the longer distances appear more reliant on stretch-shortening cycle performance.  What we can learn from this study is that if you are trying to develop sprint performance, the amount of weight used in your strength program can help out.

Can Plyometric Training Improve Your Running Speed?

When I played baseball and football, during the offseason and preseason training programs plyometrics was one of the topics of emphasis.  The exercises that showed the most improvements was power skipping, high knees and jump exercises (box, long, high, tuck, single leg).  Some agility drills (which happen to be my favorite that I still do) is the T-test, shuttle run and parachute running.  I remember hearing all the time athletes would say “why do we do these things, they do not help”.  I would think to myself, “are these exercises really improving our speed or are our coaches giving us these exercises to torture us”.

The purpose of plyometric exercises are to develop our fast twitch fibers.  Fast twitch fibers contract rapidly and are used utilized in actions requiring maximum effort for a short period of time. Plyometrics consists of a rapid stretching of a muscle (eccentric action) immediately followed by a concentric or shortening action of the same muscle and connective tissue (Baechle and Earle, 2000). You can design plyometric exercises that involve stopping and starting and changing directions.  Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of research on plyometrics and running speed but the research that is out there has shown that plyometrics can increase running speed.

Miller (2006) determined if six weeks of plyometric training can improve an athlete’s agility. Subjects were divided into two groups, a plyometric training and a control group. The plyometric training group performed a six week plyometric training program and the control group did not perform any plyometric training techniques. All subjects participated in two agility tests: T-test and Illinois Agility Test (It tests the ability to turn in different directions and at different angles). The plyometric training group had quicker posttest times compared to the control group for the agility tests. The plyometric training group reduced time on the ground on the posttest compared to the control group. The results of this study show that plyometric training can be an effective training technique to improve an athlete’s agility.

Do Olympic Lifts Improve Running Speed?

As we get older and move up in your sport, there will most likely be a time where you will experience olympic lifts.  These lifts involve the clean, snatch and jerk.  If you look at these exercises, you may think that these do not simulate any sport specific movements.  Did you know that these exercises involve fast explosive movements for the entire body?  Olympic lifts are extremely complex.  I have been fortunate to have a great strength coach while I played and I am now surrounded by people who really know the fundamentals of these exercises.  Studies have shown that Olympic lifts can increase your vertical jumping.  Just like plyometrics, Olympic lifts train your fast twitch muscles.  The similarities of most of these articles stated that as long as proper strength and stabilization are sufficient, then the athlete can work on sport specific speed, explosion, and power training.  Remember if you want to start incorporating these lifts in your program, it is crucial that you have a certified professional to show you how to do these right!.

Tips on How You Can To Improve Your Speed

   1. Add Triple Extension Exercises

When we are running, our feet come in contact with the ground and reacts against an immovable object (Souza 2002).  Triple extension exercises simulate the same type of movements as running.  Triple extension means the extension of the hip, knee and ankle.  Adding back squats, front squats and deadlifts can be an effective tool for positive gains in running.

    2.  Incorporate Plyometric Exercises

This does not mean we give a beginner athlete the hardest plyometric exercise known to man.  First of all, the athlete should demonstrate that they can do a proper squat.  Then start with a basic squat jump and progress as they get stronger.  With my athletes, I usually have them do 3 sets of 5-8 reps and we start with both legs and down the road progress to single leg jumps.

    3.  Give Your Max Effort

It took me until the end of my career to realize that the work you put in when your training will show out on the field.  Sure, some athletes can be lazy and just rely on God given talent but the majority of us have to put in the work to be successful.  I know you will have those days where you feel do not want to work hard but the harder you work the faster the results could come. Always pretend like you’re lifting the heaviest weight imaginable!

    4.  Try Resistance Running

Another great tool that could help increase your speed is resistance running.  Resistance sprints are increase your acceleration, short bursts of strength or speed and lower-body power.  After reading a couple of studies, the studies do support that sprinting performance can increase with resistance based sprints.  The studies did suggest that there needs to be a fundamental strength requirement before adding this type of training.  Over the past 2 years of training young athletes, having a periodized training program and progressing throughout the year is more beneficial than just throwing them into the fire right away.  There are significant benefits of resistance sprints but a weight training program should not be avoided.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
Squat 3 6 :60
Hip Thrust 3 12 :60
Deadlift 3 5 :60
Lunge 3 8e :60

Even though plyometrics and olympic lifts help improve your speed, this does not mean we abandon our sport specific exercises or drills.  If you are a football player, add drills that involve cutting or route running with you resistance training.  Our bodies will adapt and improve for performance when they experience similar movements.


  1. Souza A, Shimada S, Koontz A. Ground reaction forces during the power clean. J Strength Cond Res.. August 2002;16(3):423-427.
  1. BAKER, D., AND S. NANCE. The relationship between strength and power in professional rugby league players. J. Strength Cond. Res. 13:224–229. 1999.
  1. Miller MG, Herniman JJ, Ricard MD, Cheatham CC, Michael TJ. The effects of a 6-week plyometric training program on agility. J Sports Sci Med. 2006 Sep 1;5(3):459-65.
  2. Folland JP, Williams AG. The adaptations to strength training: morphological and neurological contributions to increased strength. 2007;37:145-168.

Written by Chris Barber, CPT, personal trainer at COR Sports Training Santa Clara, CA.