Jan 29, 2015Taking Off
First-step acceleration is among the more valuable skills in most sports, so it deserves special attention in a training program. Developing flexion-extension patterns, coordinated efficiency, and explosive strength are the keys to putting your athletes a step ahead.
By David Donatucci
David Donatucci, MEd, CSCS, is the Director of Fitness for the PGA of America. He is the former Coordinator of the Center for Athletic Performance at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and has been a strength and conditioning coach and consultant for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Browns, and Cleveland Rockers (WNBA). He can be reached at: [email protected].
In physics, acceleration is a vector quantity representing the rate at which an object changes speed. It’s what happens every time you step on your car’s gas pedal, drop an object from an elevated position, or take off running from a standing start.
In an athletic context, first-step acceleration is one of those precious commodities that separates the best from the rest. A track athlete who can generate more force off the starting line, a wide receiver who can accelerate out of his stance faster than the defensive back, and a soccer player who can change direction and quickly build speed to chase down a loose ball all have a distinct advantage over their opponents.
To enhance an athlete’s acceleration, several areas of training must be addressed. An athlete must be strong enough to push against the ground with maximum force, coordinated enough to flex and extend the extremities optimally, and efficient enough to do so without wasting effort or motion. Each of these areas can be improved with a properly designed, targeted training program.
ELEMENTS OF ACCELERATION
Biomechanically, the track athlete, wide receiver, and soccer player share many similarities when they begin to accelerate. There are some fairly obvious differences in the movement patterns for each sport, but the laws of force production and the physical mechanisms at work are mostly universal.
The first concept is movement efficiency. Athletes should always try to minimize the number of steps it takes to accelerate, or to change direction and then accelerate. Each additional step amounts to wasted movement and decreased effective power output, so first-step acceleration training should always include drills that focus on developing fluid, efficient movement.
The next element is extension. The crossed extensor reflexes often receive inadequate attention in acceleration training programs, but I believe they are a critical component of building speed.
Let’s explore this concept at the most basic level. Think about what happens when an infant crawls: The body’s reflex patterns complement one another, so as the right leg flexes, the left leg extends, and the arms do likewise. The limbs work in opposition to one another, and muscles throughout the kinetic chain translate this pattern into forward movement. Acceleration training should also harness these extension patterns, and recruit the key muscles to improve force production and forward propulsion.
When an athlete runs, the crossed extensor reflex can be broken into two parts–the flexion movement and the extension movement. During flexion, activation occurs at the ankle (dorsiflexion), then continues up to the knee joint and the hip. This is why coaches cue athletes to “cock the toe” or “pull those toes up”–the ankle joint is the foundation of flexion. Conversely, activation for extension starts at the hip and moves down to the knee and ankle, creating the leg drive commonly referred to as triple extension.
The final basic component of first-step acceleration is the neurological patterns that govern all types of movement. From the time we first learn to coordinate our movements through crawling, then walking, then running, the body constantly seeks maximum efficiency by experimenting with movement mechanics and muscle use patterns.
Why do so many athletes display sub-optimal acceleration movements? A lot of factors can throw a wrench in the neurological system, from improper training during a growth spurt to early sport specialization to the overuse of bilateral strength training, which interrupts the body’s natural flexion-extension patterns. I believe even something as simple as improper breathing during exercise can cause an athlete to fall out of his or her natural, optimal movement patterns. And once a new pattern is learned, it can be difficult to break.
Teaching optimal movement patterns for first-step acceleration usually involves changing some deeply ingrained habits. Most athletes I encounter exhibit a certain degree of wasted motion when they run, and it restricts their acceleration. When I work with them to address these problems, they can easily become frustrated with the challenge of learning mechanics that seem remedial–nobody wants to admit they don’t know how best to take off running from a stationary start.
During these sessions, I always remember the phases of learning that lead to successful conditioning. They were first introduced to me by Loren Seagrave, the renowned track and field and football performance coach, who has worked with several college and NFL teams on speed development. They sound very simple, but they’re valuable when teaching movement patterns as part of an acceleration training program.
Phase I: Unconscious Incompetence. The athlete doesn’t really know what he or she is doing and has difficulty with the task.
Phase II: Conscious Incompetence. The athlete understands the task and the goal of a given drill, but still has difficulty executing it.
Phase III: Conscious Competence. The athlete understands the goal of the drill and is able to perform it, but only if they think about what they are doing. Successful completion of the activity occurs only in slow motion, not at game speed.
Phase IV: Unconscious Competence. The athlete can perform the task without thinking about it. The new movement pattern has become second nature, and they can execute it in a competitive setting while focused on the sport-specific situation at hand.
In first-step acceleration training, athletes often must pass through the four phases as they relearn flexion-extension patterns. Most athletes are posterior-chain dominant, meaning their posterior chain muscles (such as the glutes and hamstrings) are overly tight or overactive during running movements. As a result, extension of the ankle, knee, and hip when attempting to generate force from the ground is not as efficient as it could be.
A classic example involves skipping. When you watch an athlete skip, most will “skip up” instead of pushing down–their lower leg pushes up to create the hopping motion, instead of their upper leg driving down into the ground. Changing an athlete’s skipping pattern from a skip up to a drive down can help them with basic acceleration movements in their sport. It can be accomplished through cross-crawl training, teaching the athlete how to extend when jumping, and using linear wall drills–I’ll explain these in detail later in this section.
Proper movement progressions are the key to improving first-step acceleration. The specific goals of these progressions are threefold:
1. Teaching the athlete how to utilize the edges of their feet when accelerating. 2. Teaching the athlete how to “explode” into their acceleration quickly. 3. Teaching the athlete how to minimize their steps for maximum efficiency.
For running on the edges of their feet, linear and lateral wall drills are among the best forms of training. To begin, the athlete stands approximately half their height away from a wall or other immovable object. They lean forward, keeping the core tight and the arms straight, and place their hands on the wall at shoulder height with their heels raised slightly off the ground. While maintaining this body angle, they raise their right knee so the thigh and foot are parallel to the ground and the shin is parallel to the leaning position of the body. This is the start position for several wall drills:
Linear single leg switch. From the start position, the athlete extends the right leg to the ground while raising the left leg to imitate the right leg’s original position. When the right foot reaches the ground, it should be the same distance from the wall as the left foot was at the start. The athlete holds this position for two to three seconds before extending the left leg to the ground, and repeats the movement six to eight times, keeping their head still during the movement.
Linear double and triple leg drive. From the start position, the athlete performs downward extension with the right leg while simultaneously raising the left leg, holds for two to three seconds, and once more extends to the ground. This movement is performed twice or three times (creating two or three hits on the ground) for each repetition. Throughout these drills, body position should be consistent and the core should remain tight.
Lateral wall drills. Starting the same distance from the wall as in the above linear drills, the athlete turns 90 degrees and extends the arm closest to the wall sideways, then leans against the wall. They perform the same single, double, and triple leg drives as in the linear drills with each leg, facing in one direction and then the other. The free (non-wall side) arm should flex and extend with the opposite leg.
To teach athletes to explode into their acceleration, I like to use power exercises that concentrate on extension of the hips. Here are two examples:
Depth drops. From an erect standing position, the athlete rapidly moves down into a quarter- to half-squat position with the hips back, knees bent with a slight forward shift (over the shoelaces), feet flat on the ground, shoulders over the knees, back flat, and elbows bent at 90 degrees. They hold this squat position for three to five seconds, then return to the erect starting position, repeating the movement eight to 10 times.
Once the athlete masters this movement, you can increase the height of the drop by having them drop down from an elevated position into the squat, starting at six inches, then 12, then 18, and so on. A typical session of this drill might include four to six reps and three sets.
Squat jumps. This drill is a natural progression from the depth drops. The athlete lowers him or herself into the quarter- to half-squat position, then rapidly stands up into an erect position. This non-jumping movement trains proper extension and emphasizes activation of the hips, and it teaches athletes to explode by generating force from the ground through hip extension. Once they’ve mastered this movement, have them actually jump as they explode upward, raising the arms as they “take off” and bringing the arms down as they land. The landing for this movement should be the same as with the depth drops.
It’s important to note that the different angles of acceleration, in any sport, are all based on linear acceleration–that is, the athlete’s hip extension and posture are similar whether they are running forward, pushing laterally, or performing crossover movements. Of course, linear acceleration in a training exercise is not the same as movement during competition, so I recommend varying the athlete’s acceleration workouts to promote maximum movement versatility. For instance, one week of first-step acceleration training might consist of linear acceleration drills on Monday and Wednesday, multi-directional drills on Tuesday and Thursday, and maximum velocity drills on Friday. (For sample workouts, see “A Day’s Work”). WEIGHTROOM WORK
The methods I’ve described thus far address movement mechanics and coordination patterns, the training for which would mostly occur in a gym or on a field. But strength is another major component of force production, so the weightroom must be a priority as well.
The key to strength training for first-step acceleration is to recruit the muscle groups needed to execute explosive movements such as triple extension. A good starting point is to evaluate an athlete’s movement patterns during running and basic training exercises for any faults that might be caused by muscular weakness.
For instance, an athlete who bends too far forward when accelerating, thereby throwing off their balance and limiting their extension, usually lacks core strength. Likewise, an athlete who cannot “sit back” and push through the heels while extending vertically on a squat jump probably lacks hip strength, which can directly hamper acceleration. Deficits like these can be highly individualized, so you must carefully observe the athlete’s movements, and also ask which muscle groups or body areas feel overworked or sore after running drills.
Core stabilization is one area where many athletes are lacking, and they may not realize the role it plays in acceleration. The abdominals, lower-back musculature, hips, and upper legs must be strong enough to allow coordination and power development between the upper and lower extremities during crossed flexion-extension and change-of-direction movements. If the core is weak, acceleration movements become inefficient or delayed.
For maximum benefit, the core needs to be trained in a vertical environment. The gravitational pull on the body is different when an athlete is in a standing rather than a seated position, and overcoming gravity is key to an explosive first step. Cables, plates, dumbbells, bands, and medicine ball exercises are all great choices for first-step acceleration strength training, because they can be performed in a vertical position and involve movement of the extremities.
Cables in particular allow the athlete to simulate cross-crawl movement patterns to develop power and strength. A cable exercise progression for this type of training might include: standing cable one-arm rows (three sets, eight to 12 reps each), stationary lunge cable one-arm rows (three sets, eight to 12 reps each), single-leg cable one-arm rows (three sets, eight to 10 reps each), single-leg cable one-arm rows with free leg movement (three sets, eight to 12 reps each), and single-leg squats with cable one-arm rows and free leg movement (three sets, six to 12 reps each).
This strength progression is ideal for acceleration training because it focuses on the essential movement patterns: Everything is based on opposite actions. For example, if the right arm is rowing, the left leg is extending. During the single-leg exercises, the right arm pulls while the right leg flexes forward, and the athlete stabilizes with the core muscles and the left leg. In the single-leg squat to one-arm row, as the left leg straightens, the right arm pulls the cable in a rowing motion and the right leg flexes forward. By recruiting the cross-crawl muscles of the core and extremities, exercises like these provide maximum transfer for generating force from the ground during first-step acceleration.
The glutes are another area that serves as a prime hip extensor and stabilizer. If they are not firing effectively, acceleration will be limited as the body is forced to compensate with sub-optimal movement patterns.
I like to evaluate glute firing using the prone glute activation test with palpation. In this test, the athlete lies face down with both legs straight and I place my right index finger on their right hamstring, my right thumb on their right glute, and my left index finger on the right side of their lower back. As the athlete raises their right leg, I can easily feel whether the glutes are firing adequately.
There are several quality exercises that can activate and recruit the glutes. Here are some I use when training athletes for first-step acceleration:
Two-leg hip bridge. The athlete lies face up with the knees elevated so the feet are about six inches from the buttocks, and the pelvis tilted so the lower back is as flat as possible. The athlete squeezes the glutes and slowly raises the hips off the ground, stopping when the belt line starts moving away from the sternum or when they reach the end of their range of motion. They hold the position for 10 to 15 seconds, during which time the glutes should be working more than the hamstrings.
Single-leg hip bridge. This exercise begins with the same movement as above, but when the athlete reaches the top bridge position, they raise one leg and hold for five to 10 seconds, again with the glute working more than the hamstring. If the athlete begins to feel a hamstring cramp, I have them perform more two-leg bridging before returning to this exercise.
Outside leg raise. The athlete lies on their right side, extending the left hip to give the illusion that the left leg is longer than the right. From this position, they raise the left leg in the air, maintaining the extended hip position. They hold at the top of the leg raise for five seconds, then return to the starting position.
Talk to the athlete as they complete these exercises, noting that they should feel the same glute firing mechanisms at work when they accelerate at the beginning of a running effort. If the glutes are not firing during simple movements such as these, the athlete will require some remedial glute strength work. Once that is completed, they will likely see a significant boost in acceleration.
A final note on strength training for acceleration involves scheduling. If movement training and strength training are being performed on the same days, movement training should come first (usually in the morning) and strength training should follow, after a recovery period of at least three to four hours. Any effective strength regimen will produce some muscle fatigue, and athletes in a fatigued state will have difficulty learning and executing precise movement patterns.
UP TO SPEED
As the old saying goes, “If you want to be fast, you must train fast.” Athletes who train using only slow movements in the gym and the weightroom will not experience maximum benefit. So no matter what specific exercises you choose for first-step acceleration development, it’s essential to incorporate game-like speed into the athlete’s training. Start slowly to ensure proper mechanics and technique, and build in speed as the athlete masters the movement patterns.
By focusing on these areas, athletes will experience maximum results. First-step acceleration is built on coordination, efficiency, and strength, and athletes who train for all these components will soon find that they are a step ahead, literally and figuratively.