This was a paper I wrote recently on squat progressions during for my masters degree at Northern Michigan University. Although imperfect, I think the content covers how coaches could potentially progress squats from general, higher volume modalities, to more specific, higher intensity modalities.
The purpose of this post is to assess the rationale behind squats as a modality for improving sprint speed and jumping performance in track and field. The second purpose of this post is to present a potential squat progression for elite sprinters and jumpers in track and field.
Through anecdotal evidence, squats have been used as modality to improve lower body strength across a variety of populations. Squats are used in collegiate weight rooms across the country, and numerous studies have been conducted on the impact of squats on sprint performance (5–7, 14, 18).
Literature suggests that increased strength leads to increased acceleration capabilities by means of increased rate of force development in the correct direction (18). Acceleration is a function of the body’s ability to generate net force in the correct direction. When starting, this force is generated concentrically, as the main objective is to provide propulsive forces in the positive direction (16). Once at top end, the body relies mostly on eccentric force generating capacity to maintain velocity (3, 4, 20). Although it would seem logical to conclude that concentric force generating capacity is more important, as it is responsible for positive work, eccentric force generating capacity appears to be the limiting factor in max velocity running(2, 8). This can be explained by short ground contact times, large stretch-shortening cycle reliance, and high muscular stiffness demands during ground contact at maximum velocity sprinting.
Similarly, long jump and triple jump performance is highly correlated to max takeoff velocity (1, 13). That being said, one could conclude that sprint speed is largely responsible for elite long and triple jump performances.
Squats are useful because they recruit major muscle groups that are utilized during track and field. This includes almost all of the muscles in the human body. In terms of the prime movers, squats recruit the triple extensors.
When completing a squat, your central nervous system activates neurons ultimately responsible for muscle contraction. Generally speaking, greater neural input leads to greater mechanical output (17). The neurons responsible for muscle contraction during a back squat are the same neurons that are responsible for muscle contraction during sprinting and jumping.
Although squatting does recruit the same nervous system and muscles that are used during sprinting, weight room practices are relatively general in comparison. Squatting isn’t single support, rate of force development during a heavy squat is not close to rate of force development during sprinting, and coordination during a squat is relatively different when compared to the sprinting action. Further, power lifters and weightlifters aren’t the fastest sprinters.
However, improving your squat does yield many physiological benefits that indirectly help sprinters and jumpers run faster and jump higher. Squatting improves the following physiological mechanisms: functional muscle mass, maximal force generating capacity, power output, soft tissue adaptation, postural strength, and improved lumbar-pelvic rhythm (2, 9, 11, 12).
The second purpose of this paper is to present a potential squat progression for elite sprinters.
Once an athlete has attained a very high level of performance, it is very difficult to continue to progress (15). This is known as diminishing returns. At this point, the athlete and coach must reassess the effectiveness of their program and apply their knowledge to maximize the athlete’s performance (7). To achieve true genetic potential, an athlete must adhere to a carefully planned progression.
In my opinion, a logical annual squat progression could start with a concentric focus, shift towards an isometric focus, and finish with an eccentric focus. Elite sprinters should focus on developing work capacity first, then shift towards lower volumes and higher intensities. Bar velocities could be manipulated as the season progresses. Range of motions could be altered, but most high level athletes will benefit from incorporating some form of full range of motion squats throughout the entire year.
As previously stated, the weight room is relatively general in comparison to sprinting. However, there are similarities amongst the weight room and the track. These similarities should be paired in a complementary and compatible way. This will better prepare the athlete for the demands placed on their body during sprinting, jumping, and periods of high training loads. Adaptations to each squat modality can be built upon as the year progresses. This layering effect of training could potentially allow for maximization of adaptation. All focuses will be developed or maintained all year, but in varying degrees.
Generally, I believe that elite athletes should start the season with two heavy squat days. The focuses will be on developing maximal concentric force generating capacity, functional muscle mass, and improved work capacity(1, 5, 6). These physiological adaptations provide the framework for more advanced squat and sprint progressions. Because sprinters and jumpers are required to accelerate prior to reaching max velocity or jumping, being able to accelerate well is a pre-requisite to running fast. Generally speaking, stronger athletes have been shown to accelerate better than their weaker counterparts (14, 16, 18). That being said, it is logical to develop the physiological systems that enable elite athletes to accelerate first, as it precedes everything. For example, the athlete might complete one day of low volume, heavy deep squats, and another day of higher volume, slightly lighter deep squats. This would allow for increased time under tension, increased neural drive across a large range of motion, and improved work capacity(7). After developing maximal concentric strength, work capacity, and functional muscle mass, the athlete can manipulate the squat progression slightly to continue the adaptive process(3, 4).
The athlete may benefit from added variation that would provide a great enough stimulus to further develop physical capacities, or maintain previously developed physical capacities. Specifically, athletes may use of isometric, or pause squats. For example, one day of isometric squats, and one day of deep squats. The isometric squats could be done with a four-second pause at the bottom. This modality would improve tendon stiffness and increase strength in deep knee and hip-joint angles (2, 9, 11, 12). As stated above, capacities previously developed would be maintained or advanced. This general principle continues throughout the annual plan, as it would be redundant to develop certain physiological adaptations, only to let them detrain through reversibility (15). For example, the time under tension in pause squats would likely exceed the previous training cycle, and could assist in increasing functional muscle mass. The next progression would be to develop eccentric force generating capacity.
Due to the high eccentric demands placed on the body during sprinting and jumping in track and field, eccentric force generating capacity greatly assists in providing the physiological framework necessary to spur further performance improvement (3, 20). Being that maximum eccentric force generating capacity takes place during high velocities and far exceeds concentric force generating capacity, it is typically developed through the use of plyometrics. However, there is benefit in developing eccentric strength in the weight room, including increases in type IIX muscle fibers, increased work capacity, decreased amortization during explosive movements, and improved stretch shortening cycle (8, 10, 19). To develop these qualities, athletes could perform squats at a decreased pace during the eccentric portion, perform supramaximal quarter squats, or perform supramaximal lowering onto squat rack pins. All of these modalities will improve eccentric strength of the lower extremities.
Squatting for sprinters should continuously trend upwards in regards to intensity. To do so, sets and reps will typically trend towards increased sets and decreased reps. Intensity should continue to increase throughout the annual plan. This can be done by increasing load or bar velocity. After progressing the squats across several months, the athlete would likely have benefitted from a variety of adaptations mentioned above. These adaptations could compound so that the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. Ideally the athlete would finish the training year with jump squats and a decrease in squat volume relative to the beginning of the year. This tapering effect would ideally maximize performance gains.
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