Jan 29, 2015
Turning It

Last summer, the San Jose State football team implemented a new speed development program focused on turning mechanics. Last fall, it saw its program turn around.

By Christopher Holder

Christopher Holder, MS, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at San Jose State University. A graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, where he was a starting center on the football team, Holder has also been a strength coach at EKU, Appalachian State University, and Cal Poly. He can be reached at: [email protected].

During the 1960s, San Jose State University earned the nickname “Speed City.” At the time, the school was producing a series of world-class sprinters, who would eventually account for four gold medals and three world records at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Four decades later, the school no longer has a track and field team, but the legacy of speed has been revived in the Spartans football program. Since our linemen are average sized and our skill players could be considered undersized, we have to bring something to the table that our opponents don’t. That something is speed–our ability to accelerate and change direction more quickly than they can.

Picked to finish last in every preseason Western Athletic Conference poll, the 2006 Spartans finished with a 9-4 record and beat the University of New Mexico, 20-12, in the inaugural New Mexico Bowl–the school’s first bowl victory since 1990. And part of the reason was the off-season speed-training program we implemented.

I would gladly share our workout calendar with drills for each week of the training season, but I don’t have one–I rarely follow a preset script for how the weeks will fall. Instead, I try my best to get to know my athletes’ bodies and adjust the “plan” based on how they are responding. In this article, I’ll give you a little insight into what we mean by speed, the importance of strength in building speed, and the guidelines I use to select the drills that will help us continue the tradition of speed at San Jose State.


With all this talk of track and field, you might think I’m a proponent of training football players on the track. That isn’t the case–in fact, the only thing that bothers me more than football players doing track workouts is football players doing heavy bouts of jogging. Both train attributes that a football player will rarely, if ever, use during a game.

Any good track coach will tell you that top speed during a 100-meter sprint is reached at the 40-to-50 meter mark. But a receiver, running back, or kick returner can reach this speed only after he has broken through all defenders en route to a long touchdown. For most teams, this sort of big play happens maybe four or five times a year–eight if they’re really lucky. Most long runs are filled with cuts and moves that prevent the runner from ever reaching full sprinting speed.

So expending lots of effort working on sprint speed is a waste of time. More importantly, if track workouts are your primary speed and conditioning tool for football, the moment your players go to change direction or make an explosive cut using those straight-line trained muscles in a lateral manner, the likelihood of injury increases greatly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen young men spend their summers training with track coaches to increase their “speed” then lose the first half of their season due to a blown hamstring on the opening day of training camp.

Simply put, my philosophy at SJSU is to build speed that can actually be used on the football field. This involves training athletes to accelerate, change direction, and accelerate again, even if it means losing a couple of 10ths on straight sprints. And making this happen means making them stronger runners as well as better runners.


Although we spend a lot of time teaching players the right way to change direction and accelerate, it’s not all about mechanics. Everything else being equal, the runner who can produce the most force while his foot is in contact with the ground will accelerate more quickly every time. And the stronger athlete will produce more force.

Building speed requires not just strength, but the right kind of strength. Look at almost any good speed coach’s program and you will find a lot of multi-joint freeweight exercises that focus on the hips–squats, deadlifts, Olympic pulls, cleans, snatches, and glute/ham raises. These bread-and-butter exercises will almost immediately translate into increased force production when the runner’s feet strike the ground. So these lifts form the core of our weight-training work.

After the heavy lifting is done, I also like to add kettlebell work as a finisher. Using multiple swing variations not only assists in power development and increases leg drive, it also provides anaerobic conditioning.

Since football obviously requires more than just lower-body strength, we do our share of upper-body work as well. I focus on lifts that translate to the field, such as pull-ups and non-machine-based rowing for major back work, shrugs, shoulder exercises that don’t focus entirely on presses, and whatever chest work I feel is necessary.

However, I never give my guys arm exercises, for three reasons. First, I know they will do them on their own, so why should I waste our time together on it? Second, I find that excessive arm mass interferes with speed-oriented lifts. Finally, they’ll get plenty of arm work from pulls and presses anyway.

While core and abdominal work are current buzz phrases, I follow the philosophy of one of my strength training heroes, Pavel Tsatsouline. A young woman at a workshop once asked him about the best exercise for the abs. He replied, “heavy squats,” and resumed his discussion about developing hip joint flexibility.

The point is that traditional high volume, body weight abdominal work should be saved for Gold’s Gym, since it’s usually more about show than anything else. I give my guys specific exercises for their abs only on rare occasions, typically to discipline them or work them to exhaustion before a weekend. Instead, we teach athletes how to pressurize the abdomen in lifting and how abdominal activation is the only way to ensure safety and back stability during heavy lifts. If they’re doing their base lifts correctly, their abs will do plenty of work.


Although I do not script an entire training schedule from start to finish, I do follow a traditional periodization scheme. As our resistance work in the weightroom goes through hypertrophy, strength, and strength/power phases, our running work follows a similar pattern.

During the hypertrophy phase of the resistance program, our running is very limited. Because of the microtears brought on by the weight work as well as central nervous system fatigue, the likelihood of injury dramatically increases during this period, so running intensity is generally kept below 80 percent of an all-out sprint. Although the bulk of our limited running is straight-line work, I will introduce some instructional change-of-direction drills at very low intensity.

Once the lifting transitions into the strength phase, we start turning and never look back. One of the most amazing things I have encountered in my coaching career is that 99 percent of the players who come to me out of high school don’t know how to turn–and many of them are unbelievably gifted athletes. They’ve simply never learned turning mechanics and how to change direction in the most powerful, energy-efficient way possible.

As a result, I spend more time coaching turning techniques on the grass than I do on lifting techniques in the weightroom. In fact, I coach every nuance of turning to almost every player during every training session.

We begin with subtle turn drills that focus on proper acceleration, deceleration, heel placement, and outside foot drive. This is also where I begin to work on the mechanics of turning by introducing the concept of “running with your eyes.”

One of the fastest ways to increase a football player’s speed and running efficiency is to get him to run with his eyes. The head acts as an anchor if the eyes aren’t first looking at the target. This forces a runner to get out of position when he changes direction, causing the shoulders to line up improperly and affecting body orientation. So we stress that when players set a foot to turn, their eyes should immediately find the target. This simple cue can fix some of the most complex problems in running mechanics. (See “Coaching Cues” below for more teaching points.)

Once we move to the strength/power phase in the weightroom, we begin the heavy lateral work that is the essence of our football speed program. The bedrock of this work is change-of-direction drills that help teach the players how to cut and accelerate. These drills basically upload motor programs into the athlete’s brain, so repetition, repetition, and more repetition are required to make the patterns stick.

This phase is also when I introduce position-specific metabolic sprints. Defensive backs, for example, will back pedal as fast as they can for five-to-10 yards and then open their hips and “chase” for 20 yards.

I develop a list of 18 sprints for every position group, each ending with a 10-yard finish. Once through the list is one quarter. We start with one quarter and as the summer wears on add more sprints until we reach four full quarters followed by a nine-sprint overtime. For those of you who are not counting, that is 81 sprints.


The drills and sprints I use to develop football speed vary from year to year and even from session to session. While I have a long list of standard drills that I routinely use, I also create many new ones–or adapt existing ones–to meet specific needs. I consider many factors when choosing and developing drills, but I always observe one hardcore rule: Keep the drills intense! Anything short of an all-out effort is not good enough. Fast is fast. Strong is strong. If you train fast, you will get fast. If you train slow, you will be slow.

So we spend all of our time working in bouts of very intense drills lasting no longer than 15 seconds. During drills longer than that, athletes will pace themselves and reduce their intensity due to their desire to finish the drill. Or even worse, they will work as hard as they can as long as they can, putting themselves in danger of a muscle pull. We want full effort on all sprints and change-of-direction work, and we obviously want to prevent injuries, so we keep the duration brief and the intensity through the roof.

We also want to replicate the physical demands players will face on the field, so we keep a close eye on recovery time. We aim for about 20 seconds of rest between repetitions to match the typical recovery time between plays.

The volume is dictated by the nature of the drill. A simple drill like a pro-shuttle can go as high as 20 repetitions. A drill with five to 10 very complex turns should be limited to 10 reps or fewer. We pay close attention to the athletes’ condition at the end of the drills and adjust the volume accordingly.

There are far too many good drills out there to cover them all. They can be as simple as the pro-shuttle that the NFL Combine uses, where athletes sprint back and forth over a specified distance (typically 20 yards), or as complex as a cone drill with five or more turns. The key is to remember that football speed is the ability to change direction and accelerate quickly, not how quickly someone can run a 40-yard sprint. We focus on the drills that will develop fast-twitch lateral movement over straight-line speed.

When doing cones drills, we keep the cones approximately five-to-10 yards apart. These distances ensure enough room for the athlete to accelerate and decelerate into the next turn. Occasionally, I will bump some drills to 15 yards, but these are absolute back breakers, so I use them sparingly.

I also prohibit runners from putting their hands down to the ground while performing their drills. This is a habit that needs to be broken during running drills, not encouraged. If one of my players puts his hand down during a play, he’s probably beat. Players need to be able to run and change direction without touching the ground with their hand, so that’s how we drill it.

Whenever possible, I add competition into the drills. We have runners face one another in our shuttles, and on the whistle, they race to the finish. It’s amazing how much effort you will get from an athlete when he has to compete against a teammate.

It is also very important to determine your team’s greatest weaknesses and make them the focal point of your efforts. For instance, once you know whether you need to focus on planting and changing direction, acceleration, or developing efficient running mechanics, you can choose or design drills that will improve that area. And don’t forget to continue your analysis. The idea is to improve enough in one area so you can move on to the next area of weakness.

Regardless of the drills used, it’s important to remember that constant drilling of these complex turns will develop a level of conditioning unmatched by straight-line running. Performing 20 repetitions of the NFL pro-shuttle is demanding on a neuromuscular level that could never be duplicated by straight-line running and will develop the conditioning needed to win games in the fourth quarter.

After spending a summer on change-of-direction drills, any football player will find that most of the movements and cuts in a game will not only be easier, but also easier to perform play after play. And this, after all, is the purpose of off-season training.

For a list of common speed-development drills used at San Jose State, send an e-mail to author Christopher Holder at: [email protected].

Sidebar: Coaching Cues

The following are points we insist on every time we run. There are many ways to teach football speed, but this is what has worked best for me.

• First, and most important, the initial movement of any drill is a very hard acceleration step or series of steps. We never jog–ever. We enter each drill with great enthusiasm and even greater effort.

• All drills require great arm action. We are talking about acceleration, and a runner with dead arms can’t accelerate to the best of his ability. We use cues like “fight to full speed!” “Fight” is a word that immediately cues the players to have violent arms, and it works almost every time.

• When approaching a turn, no matter the degree, the runner needs to gather his feet and lower his center of gravity. Simply sticking his foot out to stop is not only ineffective, but also puts the knee, hip, and ankle in a compromised position. I constantly tell our players, “Get low, chest over your toes, and load your hips!”

• I teach players to plant their heels on their final step in deceleration and use a heel-to-toe drive to change direction. First, it is the most powerful foot position you can have, with the glutes and other large muscle groups of the hip fully activated. Second, when we are on grass, a heel-to-toe drive will get all the cleats into the ground and provide surer footing.

• The golden rule of change-of-direction drills is to always cut off of the outside leg. No exceptions or allowances are allowed on this one. The best part about this cue is it’s self-correcting. Nine out of 10 times, if the runner cuts off of his inside leg, the grass will give, and he will end up on his butt. When one of my players falls, we yell “Inside foot!” as a group and go on to the next rep.

• When driving off their base leg, encourage runners to drive their hips toward their next target. The first rule in open-field tackling is to zero in on your opponent’s hip/pelvis. Wherever the pelvis points is where the runner is going, regardless of the head fakes or jukes. I tell athletes to drive the hips open and point their pelvis at their next target.

• Many younger runners have a tendency to “step outside of themselves.” They will go to drive off of their outside leg to change direction but they have stepped so far outside their base that when they push, they have little to no hip flexion or knee bend resulting in a weak drive. So we constantly remind our players that when they come to the point of redirection, they should have a solid base and their feet should be underneath their body, not outside of their frame.

• Another common mistake involves placement of the inside foot once the outside foot begins its drive phase. If I am pushing with my left leg and lifting my right foot to accelerate, I need to go somewhere. Many runners, in response, will take a little drop step. We don’t want to run backwards, so we remind our runners to go toward the objective. The step does not need to be large, but it should advance the runner toward the new target.

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