The relationship between strength and speed is often misunderstood and debates on whether increases in strength result in improvements in speed are often very polarizing. Both sides can often cite cases of specific elite sprinters to support their claims. One side provides examples of sprinters who have never lifted a weight in their entire life (or who’ve done it poorly) and still compete at the highest levels. The other side often provides research and points to elite sprint athletes who have developed extreme strength. I tend to take a balanced view on the issue. I love the weight room and try to get athletes very strong in traditional weightlifting exercises but recognize that this is just a part of the equation of improving sprint performance.
Unfortunately, I inadvertently stirred this debate recently on twitter when I tweeted about some facts about sprinting kinematics and none other than long time friend and fellow ELITETRACK blogger Vern Gambetta responded with the following:
@MikeYoung not a good justification for heavy squats as some have interpreted this.
— Vern Gambetta (@coachgambetta) May 7, 2014
Following Vern’s comment, proponents for and against the use of heavy loaded strength training chimed in. One of those who did was Coach Scruggs, who’s worked with some of the top bobsledders in the world and mentored under some very accomplished coaches. He tweeted the following rebuttal.
— Steven Keith Scruggs (@sport_scruggs) May 7, 2014
So who’s right? Are heavy lifts important for sprint speed? The results of the study cited by Coach Scruggs (and several others I’ve seen) suggest that at least in sub-elite sprint populations (typically American football players or collegiate track athletes) greater strength in movements like squatting, leg pressing and dead lifting definitely improves speed. But to be fair, the other side can point to athletes like Christophe LeMaitre and Kim Collins and show that traditional maximal strength development is not required to sprint at elite levels. The key to understanding these studies and the dichotomy of thought can largely be explained by how we define speed. In almost all cases of research, speed is assessed by looking at a 30m or 40yd sprint time. In the world of elite sprinting, this is very short and it goes a long way in explaining how their could be such disparity of opinion on the value of maximal strength training for sprint speed. You see, 30-40m is a test of speed but it more specifically looks at acceleration….how well the athlete can move their body from rest to a state of higher velocity. And this is why there’s likely a strong connection with strength and ‘speed’ if we’re using 30-40m as the benchmark. The ground contact times, rate of force development and even length of ground stroke during acceleration are much more similar (albeit still vastly different) to activities like heavy squatting and pulling than those weight room activities are to higher velocity upright running. Also, when accelerating you’re forced to overcome your own inertia and Newton tells us that the degree of acceleration is directly related to the force applied to the ground. In contrast, the ground contact times, rate of force development, requirements for elasticity, and ground stroke are FAR shorter in maximal velocity sprinting when compared to acceleration mechanics so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we see athletes capable of world class upright maximal velocities who aren’t competent or experienced lifters. The physical qualities are so different between upright top end velocity running and heavy weight room work that some athletes are seemingly able to maximize their top end speed without stepping foot in the weight room. They’re likely doing this by using more specific stimuli like plyometrics and sprinting.
So is heavy lifting important?