May 5, 2022
Building Speed in the Trenches
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

Life happens pretty fast when playing in the trenches. Massive bodies colliding through an explosive burst, jockeying for positioning for 50 to 100 snaps a game. In football, success and failure are delineated by a matter of inches — particularly when you making a living playing on the line of scrimmage. 

Operating at a high level in a small space is imperative for success. Generating that strong initial burst off the line and maintaining that power until the whistle is blown can be the difference between pancaking a defender and turning into a modern-day matador. 

speed“Everything [for offensive linemen] happens in a very short distance — in a five-yard box, let’s say. If they can do their job in that frame, then they’ve done what we’ve asked,” said Chris Barry, ATC, CSCS, Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s strength & conditioning coordinator. “They don’t have to run miles to get in shape or even 40-yard sprints.”

So if not jogging or wind sprints, how does Barry build speed in his student-athletes? By utilizing drills that will simulate a lineman’s in-game motions. 

He goes back to that five-yard box example and has his linemen complete different types of movements — ranging from shuffles, sprints, and backpedals, among others. To manufacture that off-the-line burst, the Buccaneers trainer equips his players with weighted vests or has them hold medicine balls and complete a series of squat jumps. Without the added weight, Barry said, the squat jump alone won’t translate on the field when lining up opposite a 250-plus pound athlete. 

Ben Sims, CSCS, is in his first year at the helm of the Division III University of Mary Hardin-Baylor strength and conditioning program, and he took a very similar approach to build speed along the line of scrimmage for the Crusaders en route to a Division III national title this season.

“We want to not only build speed linearly and laterally in our linemen but do so while incorporating change of direction, plane, and level,” Sims said. “On top of that, our focus on deceleration and acceleration in short distances is a huge part of our injury prevention strategy regarding knees and ACLs.”

On linear speed days, Sims will set up cones at varying distances with a max of 20 yards and align up his players in a typical three-point stance. On the whistle, players must accelerate to top speed before stopping on a dime at the cone (with a two or three-step allowance) to work ACL strength. 

Sims also incorporates band-resisted broad jumps and sprints which benefit knee stability and promote explosiveness. And he also endorses the use of altitude landings on 16 to 20-inch boxes to allow the body (and the knees, hips, and ankles in particular) to get used to absorbing force.

When working with the Crusaders’ linemen, Sims’ focus is on injury prevention by building up strength in key body points while also emphasizing the importance of recovery. 

“Looking back at some of the injury histories of the program, a lot of linemen had ACL injuries,” Sims said. “And a lot of time athletes don’t recover enough when it comes to speed training. Ultimately, the only way to get faster is to sprint at 100% effort with good intent and strong recovery.”

» ALSO SEE: Tips for Integrating the Snatch and Clean & Jerk

To promote active recovery, particularly during the rigors of a five-month season, Sims lightens the rep load to 70% or 80% of an athlete’s max with lightweight ballistic exercises and focuses on stretching, mobility, and flexibility.

“There’s a science to [building speed in athletes] for sure, but it’s not rocket science,” Barry said. “It’s about getting down to the bread and butter and finding ways to succeed in a five-yard box.”

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