Jan 29, 2015
Finishing Strong

A college track coach–who also designs strength programs for some of the world’s top runners–explains how good things happen when strength training and track and field embrace each other.

By Danny Brabham

Danny Brabham is Assistant Head Coach for Men’s and Women’s Track and Field at Baylor University and has served as strength coach for 400-meter Olympic champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Having coached track and field for 35 years, I have seen the sport change and evolve in many ways. One of the most exciting progressions has been the integration of strength training into our athletes’ workouts.

A traditional fear of bulking up and the difficulty of working with strength coaches who primarily focus on the school’s football squad have long kept track and field athletes out of the weightroom. In addition, as track coaches, we like to control every aspect of our athletes’ training and don’t necessarily want to turn one part of it over to a coach who doesn’t specialize in our sport.

But over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to work with three strength coaches here at Baylor University who have helped me develop specific training protocols for track athletes. I’ve also served as strength coach for two of our nation’s premier 400-meter runners, Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. My work with them has helped me to develop a specific strength training program for long sprinters, which can be used by runners at any competitive level.


When I began my coaching career at Baylor (after coaching at the high school level for 16 years), there was no effective means for our athletes to perform any sort of strength training. There was only a small, cramped, hot room at the end of the track where our athletes trained on outdated machines. After some time we were allowed to use the football weightroom, and as an afterthought one of the strength coaches was assigned to work with our team. But the coach seemed to give us very generic workouts and rarely spoke to our athletes one-on-one or even as a group.

In 1999, however, LeBaron Caruthers arrived as Baylor’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach. Not only was he an NSCA national strength coach of the year (1992), but he was also a former track and field athlete (two-time All-American in shot put). He brought sport-specificity to the weightroom and opened the doors to our team.

He understood the importance of listening to what the sport coach was hoping to achieve. From the first time we talked about our goals for the track and field team, he was receptive to our ideas. Although he was hired by our football coach, LeBaron found time to design workouts for different track and field events, even tweaking programs based on the goals of each individual athlete.

Just as important, he actively worked with our athletes when they were in the weightroom. One of the main points we discussed was developing a relationship with our team members, letting them know that he was genuinely interested in what they accomplished both on and off the track. This really paid off as the athletes began to trust him.

The program we implemented was not fancy. We began our lifting regimen by concentrating on flexibility, warmup, and strength gain. The first six weeks of training were designed to get the athletes strong enough to avoid injuries once we began event work. We lifted three days a week, with two of those days concentrating on Olympic lifts, snatches, cleans, deadlifts, and squats (both front and regular). A dumbbell circuit was included in these workouts, as were numerous body weight exercises. The third day was designed to improve speed and flexibility by doing such lifts as step ups with a bar on the back, fast cleans, accelerated overhead dumbbell pulls from the floor, hamstring and quadriceps work, and bench presses.

We then gradually moved from a strength phase to different event phases. The athletes were able to adapt without much of the soreness and negative thoughts that had previously been associated with the weightroom.

After LeBaron left, we were assigned another strength coach, Torre Becton (who has since moved on to Iowa State). He, too, was extremely focused on what our athletes achieved in the weightroom and during competition. From there, Milton Leal took over and he has been another great weightroom partner. My thanks to them for enabling our athletes to compete at the highest level possible.

I relay the above thoughts for two main reasons. One is so that strength coaches know why track and field athletes and coaches often aren’t big fans of the weightroom. The other is to help strength coaches understand that if you do give our sport some attention, we will respond to it.


Baylor University is nicknamed “Quarter Mile U” because it has produced some of the nation’s and even the world’s top 400-meter runners. Alumni Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner have been the top 400-meter athletes in the world for the past two decades. Along with helping to coach them as undergraduates, I have had the pleasure of serving as personal strength coach for both of them since they’ve graduated.

The programs I’ve designed for them have not been elaborate. In our sport, so much energy is needed for workouts on the track that strength training must never overload the athlete. My focus has been to specifically target all the muscle groups these athletes use in their event, concentrating on strength gain without much body weight gain.

One key has been to develop a routine that balances all the muscle groups associated with the athlete’s racing in order to reduce injury risk. We also look specifically at the athlete’s injury history and try to correct any imbalances.

When I began training Michael, we did exercises that would essentially develop all the opposing muscle groups. Most of the squat work was done on squat machines or simply with his body weight. Very seldom would we load heavy weight on his shoulders because he had issues with lower-back stability and alignment. This proved very successful, and also helped him avoid injury. In addition, we worked with Dale Smith, a physical therapist based in Dallas.

Another key with Michael was for me to explain the reasoning behind each of the exercises and what exactly they would do for his racing strategies. Michael was always willing to work extremely hard to excel in his sport, and knowing the why behind the work really motivated him.

The table titled Johnson 2000 details the workouts Michael did in preparation for the 2000 Olympics, at which he won a gold medal in the 400 meters. Most of the bench workouts are based on percentages of his bench max, which we tested approximately three to four times per season. At the time of this workout, Michael’s bench max was 315 pounds.

Monday’s workout focused on the chest, triceps, and shoulders. Wednesday’s workout was for the chest, biceps, and pecs. And Thursday was about the chest, triceps, and shoulders again. Every day also included work on the legs.

Some of the leg work, such as leg extensions and curls, involved both single-leg and double-leg exercises. On the double-leg workouts, we would push a hard toe in/toe out and do straight extensions to load the quads and hamstrings in different planes. This helped us avoid injury. (Michael was 33 years old at this point in his career–in a sport plagued by leg injuries.)

These specific workouts were conducted one month prior to the Olympic trials. As we got closer to the trials and then the Olympic Games, he only did one set of each exercise. One week prior to the Olympics, he performed just the Monday and Wednesday workouts with a reduction in sets.

In 2004, I began to work with Jeremy, and we progressed through the same basic scenario that Michael had. For Jeremy, however, we also wanted to address some imbalances. He had a weak core that caused alignment problems and could potentially lead to injury. Our physical therapist in Dallas helped diagnose his weaknesses and make sure the strength program addressed the problems.

We added stability ball and band exercises in order to stabilize his weaker core muscles. We also worked on strengthening his hip flexors, adductors, abductors, abdominals, and the smaller muscle groups along his back by doing horizontal arm/leg lifts with five- to 10-pound plates in each hand. This solved most of his alignment problems, and it was great to see both sides of his body begin to work together more efficiently.

The table titled Wariner 2008 details Jeremy’s program in the month before this summer’s Olympics. When the preliminary heats in Beijing were two weeks away, we reduced the workouts to two days a week. The week he competed, he did just one day of maintenance work and reduced the bench weight to 155 pounds.


Doing an exercise correctly, of course, is key to making it effective. While many of our exercises are self explanatory, there are some I’d like to provide specifics on.

Seated Ball Leg Lifts. The athlete sits upright on a stability ball with arms across his chest and feet together, facing a mirror. He is instructed to keep his shoulders level and head aligned with no movement. The athlete lifts one leg off the floor with the last contact coming from the heel. The knee moves to about 10-20 degrees past horizontal. At this point the foot returns to the floor for the next rep. This is done until one leg has completed the proper number of reps. Then the opposite leg does the exercise.

Front Raises. The athlete takes a dumbbell in each hand and stands on one foot. He then raises each dumbbell, one at a time (alternating arms), bringing it up to shoulder height for the assigned number of reps. The exercise is repeated on his other foot.

Running Curls. The athlete takes the dumbbell in one hand and lifts it up until there is a 90 degree angle in his arms. Performing a running motion, he moves the dumbbell from behind his hip to shoulder height, repeating until he has done the assigned number of reps. The reps are then performed with his opposite arm. The emphasis should be on maintaining the 90 degree angle during the entire sequence of reps.

Flexor Pulls. The athlete attaches a half-inch rubber resistance band to the top of his foot at floor level. He then places a stationary object, such as a bench or rail, far enough away to stretch the band to three or four times its length. Leaning at 45 degrees, he then moves through a running motion, keeping the ankle of the drive leg above the knee of the leg on the floor. He does each leg for the assigned number of reps. Keeping the 45 degree angle is key.

Short Stroke Push-Downs. This exercise is done with a two-inch resistance band through four planes: front, right side, left side, and reverse pull. The band is placed on a stationary object approximately seven to eight feet high. The athlete holds the band with both hands and stands back until it is at a 45 degree angle. He then pulls the band straight down until his arms are also at a 45 degree angle. With a very fast motion, he pushes down until the number of reps is reached. The distance of the push-down should not exceed one inch.

To complete the exercise on the right and left sides, he shifts his feet to 45 degrees with the shoulders rotating back to be parallel with the wall. He then pulls to the outside of the hip across his body. To do a reverse pull, he turns around and pushes down while facing away from the machine or wall to which the band is secured.

Horizontal Arm/Leg lifts. The athlete lies on his stomach on top of a stability ball, with his hips in the middle of the ball and weights in each hand. He lifts his right arm and left leg to parallel. He then repeats on the opposite side until the proper number of reps is reached. Some of these exercises are done with a five-second hold on top, while others are done with no hold at all.

Ad/Ab Band. Using a half-inch resistance band, the athlete attaches the band to a stationary object at floor level and then to one of his feet. With the shoulders parallel to the band, he walks out to three or four times the band length. He then pulls the band across his foot until the band is at least one foot length past the foot on the floor. He does this exercise pulling the band both in front of and behind the stationary foot. Once the assigned reps are done, he switches to the other foot.

Dumbbell Rolls. Lying on his back on a bench or stability ball, the athlete takes a dumbbell in each hand. Beginning with the dumbbells straight up above his shoulders, the athlete alternately rolls the weight until one is touching his thigh and the other is at shoulder level overhead. The weights switch positions until all reps are completed.

Six-Stage Flys. Standing with his feet together, dumbbells in each hand and to the side, the athlete takes the weight on both sides up until his arms are straight out and even with his shoulders. He then takes the weight to the front, even with his shoulders. Next, his arms go straight up until both are overhead, then back to the front, sides, and down to his legs. That is one rep, and the athlete repeats until all reps are completed. There is one full minute between reps on this exercise. This can also be done while sitting on a stability ball with feet together.

Whether working with a track and field team or one elite athlete, I have found strength training to be critical for reaching goals. Track coaches can be hesitant to let you into their circle, but if you show that you’ll listen and work with them, the rewards are great.


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