Sometimes I forget how important it is to lift heavy stuff.
But I recently read a book called “The Speed Encyclopedia”. The book is the most comprehensive guide I’ve ever read for anybody who wants to move faster and it reminded me why it’s so crucial to move heavy stuff around, even if you’re not doing it in your sport (and even if you think it might make you injured, a myth which is about to be dispelled below). In the article below, written by Travis Hansen, author of The Speed Encyclopedia, you’re going to discover why it’s so important for you to “train like a powerlifter”.
Why You Should Train Like A Powerlifter If You Want To Get Faster
Strength training is simply the ability of the body to develop more force in movement. This style of training is also most athletes’ missing link to getting faster.
But very rarely do I witness athletes lifting hard and heavy like they should, especially enough to increase speed.
And no one (and I mean no one) embodies this approach better than a powerlifter.
Yes, you read that right: a powerlifter!
To clarify, powerlifters gear their programs and approach around improving three core lifts: the bench press, deadlift, and squat. That’s it. There are other exercises involved of course, but everything they do is centered on performances in these three exercises. Their methods have been explored and validated, and they absolutely work, and always will.
Doesn’t Lifting Heavy Weights Increase Risk Of Injuries?
Now I’m pretty certain that many will be rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and quite possibly shouting obscenities as they read this, since heavy weightlifting is automatically associated with injury and extreme fear from the general public. Fair enough. I used to perceive the sport in the same way until I realized my own ignorance and all of the unprecedented value powerlifting provides to an athlete, and we should be crediting this culture for their philosophy. All I ask is that you please hear me out and get outside your comfort zone for a moment, and honestly consider all that I am about to share with you. I absolutely sympathize and understand why so many do not embrace the notion of lifting heavy weights, but there is no question on the positive and substantial effect that a modified style of this type of training can have on athletes. If you are not training heavy then you are making yourself weaker, slower, unhealthier, and less capable and athletic in competition. Period.
There generally tends to be two primary reasons why coaches, athletes, trainers, and parents dismiss this type of training from their athletes’ training model, regardless of the type of sport. The first is injury risk. This is a fair assumption since many tend to get injured at some point in the training process. I’ve been there.
However, if your program design and technique are where they should be then this should not be a problem, and the risk of injury is drastically reduced. Many studies have measured the rate of injuries associated with weight training compared with the rate in other sports. For example, a study published in the November/December 2001 issue of The Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons cited research showing that in children ages 5 to 14 years, the number of injuries from bicycling was almost 400 percent greater than the number of injuries from weightlifting.
And there’s more.
In a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescent athletes published in 2002 in Strength and Conditioning Coach, author Mark Shillington reported in a screening of sports‐related injuries in school‐aged children that resistance training was the likely cause of only 0.7 percent (or 1,576) of injuries compared with 19 percent for football and 15 percent for baseball.
The truth is that weight training and competitive lifting sports are among the safest activities an athlete can participate in. This fact is known worldwide. For example, renowned Russian sports scientist Vladimir Zatsiorsky in his book Science and Practice of Strength Training has this to say about the dangers of weight training. “The risk of injury from a well coached strength training program has been estimated to be about one per 10,000 athlete‐exposures, with an athlete‐exposure being defined as one athlete taking part in one training session or competition. Compared to tackle football, alpine skiing, baseball pitching, and even sprint running, strength training is almost free of risk.”
Every single time someone comes to me with a present underlying injury, there is always something definitively wrong with either their lifting technique or program design, or both. And just so we are on the same page, program design refers to the specific structuring of all of the training‐related variables (exercise selection, training frequency, rest period, training volume, type of workout, skill focus, etc.) that dictates how our body will respond and adapt to the training we are performing. If any of this is improperly assigned then we will not benefit as much from our training and we could risk potential injury.
After a decade of training athletes, I’ve more than realized that this is the most difficult part of being an effective coach and getting the results you and the athlete both want. Program design is an art that requires careful and precise understanding of all scientific parameters or guidelines. I view it as a tax return. If one number is out of whack then the whole return is compromised and we receive a bad outcome, by either paying more money or not receiving as much of a return. Training works in much the same way. Many times, a model will be strong in certain areas, but lacking in others and the result is not what it could be. Lastly, strength training is one of the best forms of exercise for injury prevention and general rehabilitation treatment, contrary to popular belief.
The reason is pretty simple. With bigger and stronger tissues (tendons, ligaments, muscles) derived from strength training, our collective body structure will be more resistant to all of the external forces and demands being placed upon it in sport and training, and we will be far less likely to get injured. I always elect to use the analogy of a bigger rubber band versus a smaller one to my athletes when attempting to convey the message that strength training will make us healthier. Which one will tear first if there is an equal amount of effort placed upon each? Obviously, the answer is the smaller rubber band. So as long as our program design and technique are fantastic, then building a dense body structure is going to help keep athletes healthy over the long term.
What If Your Sport Doesn’t Require You To Move Heavy Stuff?
The next concern that coaches or others have with powerlifting or lifting heavy weights is “specificity.” In other words, they feel that squatting and deadlifting have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not an athlete can run faster or perform sport‐specific movements better. But wait, everyone believes in stretching and that is not specific to the act of sprinting, right? Again, I can understand this perspective in that many are fearful of heavy weightlifting, or they are simply ignorant, but the fact of the matter is that movements do not have to always be exactly the same to translate and benefit one another.
Powerlifting and speed training are no exception, to say the least. Let me pose this question before I get into the science: why does nearly every legitimate Division 1 football program integrate heavy weightlifting into their off‐season programs, and why are these guys constantly the fastest people in sport outside of sprinters, who also utilize heavy weightlifting? Of course – it gets them stronger, but if you were to ask any of the unbiased, informed, and objective athletes and coaches, I am sure they would tell you that it helps make them much faster as well.
Aside from personal experience here, I’ve heard it from too many of my athletes in the past and present. It’s something that you truly have to experience to appreciate completely. A large majority of speed development systems to date completely disregard heavy weightlifting, and it’s at the expense of each and every athlete entering that program looking to get faster and it re‐embeds the long‐held notion that speed cannot be taught, learned, or improved that much, when it definitely can.
Now to help refute this commonly held misperception, we need to consider and introduce 3 unique functions of muscles in the human body to better appreciate what “non‐specific” training exercises can bring to the table.
#1‐Muscle can move in multiple directions.
#2‐Muscles move through large ranges of motion.
#3‐Muscles move through a variety of different joint angles.
This is extremely important information in refuting always being “training specific” in the context of developing speed, and even other areas of training. I will be providing you with specific evidence here shortly, but the fact is that the muscles that we utilize heavily while deadlifting or squatting are the exact same ones that we will call upon when the time comes to run sprints of all distances, contrary to popular belief. Of course the direct activity levels of each of the individual muscles are going to be a little bit different at different phases of each movement, as well as the angles and ranges of motion, but the simple reality is that it’s the same muscle groups working. Always keep in mind that muscles are very versatile and adaptable in nature. This helps simplify many of the confusing movement comparisons listed in literature.
To help reinforce this notion, below is a series of EMG reports for what would be typically known as very “different” movements. Electromyography is a technique used mainly by researchers to test the specific skeletal muscle activity in target motions. Please note that all muscles in the entire body are active in these movements, but I’m only going to share the results of the lower body since this is the main driver in sprinting.
In 2002, Caterisano and his colleagues found that “as squat depth got deeper, the gluteus maximus becomes more active during the concentric contraction phase of the lift. Muscular contribution shifts from the biceps femoris, vastus medialis and lateralis to the gluteus maximus. This suggests that the gluteus maximus is the prime mover during the concentric phase of the squat, and the other muscles play a secondary role.” What this study found is that the hips, especially the glutes, are more active than the quads in a back squat movement performed correctly.
In 2002, Escamilla performed a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. This study found the majority of muscle activity was in the quadriceps and gluteus maximus when greater knee flexion angles were present, whereas the hamstrings were very dominant with less knee flexion during the deadlift.
There was a study conducted in 2011 that analyzed muscular activity of various muscles in the squat, deadlift, and vertical jump. The results indicated that the hips, primarily the glutes, were the prime movers in the vertical jump. I could not find the specifics as to how much they were dominant, but other authorities have cited the glutes along with the hamstring muscles as contributing up to 60% in the vertical jump pattern.
In a study in 1995, Dr. Wiemann and Dr. Tidow utilized EMG testing to see the various skeletal muscle activity levels at the knee and hip during sprinting. They concluded that the muscles mainly responsible for forward propulsion in full speed sprinting are the hamstrings, the gluteus maximus and the adductor longus. The hamstrings are singled out as the most important contributors to produce the highest level of speed.
So now you clearly see how powerful your hips are in movement and the strong relationship between many movements of the lower body. With all of this in mind, increasing strength potential in these muscles through now arguably labeled non‐specific exercises like deadlifts and squats will allow you to effectively be able to drive more force into the ground and run faster since these muscle groups will be much stronger.
Moreover, the squat and deadlift are more similar to sprinting than we usually give them credit for. This has to deal with “torque‐angle curves” that will be discussed in greater detail in the Hip Dominant Training section. Don’t worry about the big fancy word. It just means being range–of‐motion specific. If you analyze when we sprint, from the landing up until mid‐stance our hips, knees, and ankles will be bent or flexed, just like with a squat or deadlift. The more force we can drive out of a squat, the more force we will produce in this phase of the movement.
The third similarity that powerlifting and sprinting share is the structural likeness that each type of athlete generally possesses. Below is a chart taken from Tudor Bompa that shows very similar levels of fast‐twitch muscle fiber that both weightlifters and sprinters share.
Lastly is the value of “vertical force” that is present in squatting, deadlifting, and sprinting. You saw earlier just how important vertical force production is for speed. Squatting and deadlifting produce horizontal force, just not as much. It sounds ridiculous because we seem to be moving almost purely in the horizontal direction as we sprint, and our moving mass is definitely traveling in this direction, but there is still some vertical‐based force assisting us in getting there. Hence, a squat or deadlift, which can only be achieved through powerlifting!
The 2 Best Exercises To Get Faster
The squat and deadlift are the two exercises that are going to allow you to develop the most of a certain type of directional force necessary to run faster.
“Ben Johnson won because he had the most vertical displacement. When he was pulling away from his competitors, he exhibited measurably greater vertical displacement than they did; when he slowed down towards the end of the race and cruised to victory, he had less vertical displacement than he had featured at maximum velocity. In fact, every sprinter in the talent‐packed finals at Seoul had some measure of vertical displacement.”
This quote is referring to former 100‐meter world record holder Ben Johnson of Canada, and how his ability to propel and lift his body up in the vertical direction while sprinting was integral to his amazing performance.
Oh, and Johnson also squatted 600 lbs. for reps at a body weight under 200 lbs. before he ran his gold medal‐winning 9.79 second 100 meter run at the Seoul Olympic games. Ben Johnson was the fastest during the ‘70‐‘80s era, and Usain Bolt is now. What’s interesting is that Usain Bolt too exhibited the highest degree of vertical force out of all of his competitors, and he is the best currently in this era. A study in 2012 in The International Journal of Sports Medicine identified the fastest 3 men on planet earth. Usain Bolt exhibited far more vertical force than either of the top 2 competitors, Osafa Powell and Tyson Gay.
Research Proves You Need To Lift Heavy Stuff To Get Faster
Now let’s look at some of the popular studies as well as a personal case study I did to help solidify the need for higher levels of strength for improved speed performance.
The first study was performed in 2009 and was found in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This study involved 17 Division 1‐AA collegiate football players. Each player performed a 1 rep maximum squat with 70 degrees of knee bend. Within the next week, a 5‐, 10‐, and 40‐yard dash time was taken for each participant utilizing electronic timing measures. The researchers concluded that there was a very strong correlation between 10‐ and 40‐yard dash times, and strong correlation across 5 yards. Subjects of the study were divided into 2 groups: those who squatted 2.10 x their bodyweight or more, and those who squatted 1.90 x their bodyweight and less. The former had significantly lower sprint times in comparison with the weaker group.
The second study I found was also located in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and was published in 2012. This study contained an introduction that mentioned previous research had expressed a relationship between maximal squat strength and sprint performance. This study aimed to test that theory once more. Nineteen professional rugby players were tested in the back squat for 1 rep, and 5‐, 10‐, and 20‐meter dash at the onset of the study. Next, each player was put through a strength mesocycle (one month) and power mesocycle. After that period of time, both absolute and relative strength levels had increased considerably, as well as performance across all 3 distances. Pre‐strength levels were at an average of 1.78 x body weight, and 2.05 x body weight after. 5‐meter performance average was 1.05 before and .097 after. 10‐meter was 1.78 before and 1.65 after, and 20‐meter was 3.03 and 2.85 before and after.
The third study comes from Mann and his team of researchers, who filmed a series of male and female sprinters at various competitions to assess them biomechanically. What they found during their analysis was that horizontal velocity is key for maximal speed and that is best satisfied through both strength acquisition and technical proficiency.
The fourth study analyzed data and information from the 100‐meter races at the 1988 Olympic Games. Researchers recognized that functions of strength at the beginning of a race during the acceleration phase are different than after maximum speed has been attained. Thus, strength training for each phase of the race could utilize a different approach. The concentric or shortening action of primarily the quadriceps is huge during acceleration. This is an acceleration‐based program, so this information serves great for this program, and this is why squats and max strength work are beneficial. Furthermore, eccentric loading was smaller and reserved for after longer strides and impacts have been created (Top speed). Thus, more eccentric and reactive strength work would improve this phase of the sprint. The authors mentioned drop jumps here.
The fifth study was conducted by Bret in 2001 in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.36 In this study, 19 national male sprinters competed in a 100‐ meter race. The race was broken down into three phases for analysis, as well as the speed differences for each. The results showed that concentric half squat strength was the best indicator of the 100‐meter sprint, and leg stiffness played a major role in the second half of the race.
Last is my own personal study. I decided to test this same concept and research the two sports that regularly and undoubtedly possess the fastest people on the planet year in and year out. Below is a brief list of elite sprinters and pro football players, along with their specific weight, 1 rep max squat, strength to bodyweight ratio and fastest 100‐meter and or 40‐yard dash time. Please note that these results were not referenced from scientific journals like most everything else, but rather university websites, NFL sites, and other online sources. As you are reading these, keep in mind the study from 1999 by McBride with the sprinters, Olympic lifters, and powerlifters. Sprinters in that study averaged a strength to bodyweight ratio of over 2.5 times their own bodyweight in the squat, which supports the information below.
I found this to be pretty fascinating to see and I hope you do too. Please keep in mind that this is just a small sample size selection. I probably could have located hundreds of more examples like this, and hopefully it is more than enough to convince you as a reader of the influence strength has on speed.
Conversely, of course, there are examples of individuals who have less than stellar strength skill, but still run very fast. Obviously, these individuals possess some specific genetic factors that can enable greater physical functioning that will create elite speed. I would be willing to bet, though, that these same individuals would absolutely benefit more if they incorporated strength work into their program on a routine basis and distinguished themselves even more, just like these genetically predisposed individuals in this small case study did. However, examples of these anomalies are very rare it seems, and it really discredits all of the hard work committed by so many in an attempt to take it to the extreme and be the best they can be, genetics or not. Plus, we cannot use these scarce examples as a model for athletes who need other outlets to improve, especially those who are on the cusp in a sport, where speed can be the difference between making it to the next level or not.
So what do you think? Do you do powerlifting? Do you incorporate heavy lifting? Speed sets? Not sure where to start? Here are the best two resources for you:
Leave your questions, comments and feedback about how to get faster and the concept of “lifting heavy stuff” below!