Weights versus Sprints
Reggie Johal reviews the various viewpoints on the role of weight training in a program designed to improve speed.
It is funny how when people go to a buffet restaurant, they usually pick a selection of different foods to gain the most enjoyable experience or read a variety of different books and watch many different films. However, in the sports world, some people still maintain the curious stance that their particular favourite measure of fitness is all-important and the measure by which all athletes should be judged. Certainly, you will not have to read much on the Internet to hear certain powerlifting coaches argue that so long as athletes of all types get stronger and stronger, their performance will continue to improve, as strength is the foundation upon which all other physical qualities are based. Likewise, some running coaches still maintain that only running, maybe with some plyometric and bounding work, is all athletes need to build their speed, and that weight training is superfluous.
Although these viewpoints are extreme, a great deal of confusion still exists on the place of weight training in any program designed to improve speed. At one extreme some will point to sprinters such as Kim Collins or Carl Lewis who would perform a minimum of weight training to argue that weight training is secondary to sprint training and plyometric work (which these athletes performed extensively). Others will argue that when an Olympic weightlifting champion of the 1970's David Rigert could reportedly run in the ten second range with no sprinting work. Athletes such as Ben Johnson and Dwain Chambers had high strength levels (steroid use is a factor with these two) then weight training is something that needs to be factored in as the most crucial factor in training success.
To reconcile these opposing viewpoints, many things need to be taken into consideration:
The athlete's training age
An athlete who has not performed much running should emphasise sprint training technique. Otherwise, the correct technique is much more difficult to learn later on. Having said this, strength is the platform upon which explosive performances are built, especially in sports other than sprinting so building a strong base is something that should be encouraged from the beginning, with the use of bodyweight exercises if needed or regular weight training in the gym.
Explosive Strength Deficit
The explosive strength deficit was defined by Mel Siff in his book Supertraining, as "the percentage of maximal strength potential which is not used during a given motor task" [Mel Siff, Supertraining (5th edition), 2000. Pp. 9-10]. To test the explosive strength deficit is difficult outside of a laboratory, but a rough proxy would be to measure the difference between someone's 1RM and the speed required to lift the poundage. If two lifters can squat the same 1RM, but one can perform the lift much faster, then his explosive strength deficit is much smaller. A smaller explosive strength deficit would indicate he is already utilising the amount of force he can apply efficiently so would be advised to try to increase his force production to garner continued improvements. If a sprinter is heavily muscled, and squatting 600lbs but struggling to jump high, then it would be better for this type of athlete to reduce their weight training volume, and instead, focus on methods to increase his explosive capacities like sprinting and plyometric work. On the other hand, an athlete with a large explosive strength deficit may already be strong but unable to express his strength effectively, so more accelerative and ballistic exercises would be useful for them such as plyometric training and sprint training drills such as bounding.
Training Time Available
Sometimes, as discussed in this article about organising speed and strength training for American Football, athletes will only have so much time to develop different physical qualities. It is almost assured that unless you are a full-time track and field athlete with no responsibilities, decisions will need to be made about what biomotor quality needs emphasising. The explosive strength deficit is one tool that can help guide us in deciding on where the athlete is best advised to focus their efforts, but the athlete's available time is another. Assuming they are reasonably proficient in both running technique and weightlifting technique, it can be argued that strength is easier to develop than speed and that it should, therefore, be considered a higher priority. As there will be a transfer from strength gains to speed gains, especially for relatively underdeveloped athletes, then there is an argument to be made that strength gains are both easier to make, and less taxing on the CNS and muscular systems than sprint training can be.
Type of Strength
Different sports have different requirements for strength and speed. Still, most coaches recognise that it is the capacity to express strength rapidly, explosive strength, that separates elite athletes from the rest. Measures such as a high vertical jump and excellent performance in the Olympic lifts are better measurements of explosive strength compared to the lifts most athletes perform such as the bench press or deadlift. An athlete with a 500lb deadlift but only a 200lb clean is showing that their explosive strength is likely deficient assuming technique for the clean is okay. All other things being equal, an improvement in their performance on the cleans would not only increase their performance in that lift but have greater carryover to their sprint times.
Type of Sport
Careful consideration should be paid to the sport an athlete is engaged in before making recommendations. Is it a sport such as Judo or Boxing, with little requirement for straight-line speed, or something such as American Football or Baseball where players will frequently be called upon to engage in maximal sprints? If it is the former, then there should be little need for sprint training at all, beyond maybe as an assistance exercise to help develop rate of force development and starting strength (a high level of starting strength being required for a fast start in sprinting). On the other hand, those sports where maximal speed is reached frequently should still consider the relative importance of sprint training versus weight training. This may be governed by the position as well as the player's performance as measured by explosive strength deficit testing and performance in the vertical jumps. Even if a player such as a football offensive lineman has a relatively poor level of speed does not mean they should be performing much sprint training. Instead, depending on their results in performance tests it would be more suitable for this type of player to focus their weight training more on strength training exercises that have more carryover to blocking in football such as the power clean.
Another consideration when it comes to sport is the level of reactive work inherent in the sport. For instance, basketball is a sport where full speed is very rarely reached but where explosive strength as demonstrated by slam dunking the basketball is highly sought after. Given the high level of jumping these athletes already engage in a typical sprint training program, especially one featuring lots of bounding and plyometric work is likely to result in overtraining and, in any case, be working something that is already a strength of these players - a test to see their vertical jump performance is likely to show a very large difference between their jump from a static crouched position versus when they can initiate the movement with a reactive dip before exploding upwards. So here, we have athletes who are more likely than not already showing excellent explosive strength as measured by a high vertical jump who are often prescribed further jump and plyometric and sprint training. Instead of this, they would be better off by working more on their overall force production through the use of regular strength exercises so that they can build a bigger strength platform upon which to express their explosive qualities such as jumping ability and this would likely improve their straight-line speed (even though it is not an essential element of their sport).
Ironically, Carl Lewis, who throughout his career was said to have eschewed the use of weight training in favour of sprints and plyometric work, began to implement it towards the end of his career. By that time, he would have been in a position where his technical ability and reactive strength would have been very high, with little room to improve. On the other hand, by working on quality, he had previously neglected he was able to continue to perform at an Olympic gold medal-winning performance until the age of 35. High hurdler Greg Foster was another who emphasised strength work late in his career over technical work on the track for similar reasons, that by that point it was the one motor quality where improvement was realistic, and which could then aid his performance in the 110m high hurdles.
An athlete and his coach should sit down and work out which measure of fitness is most essential for their sporting success. At the same time, they should consider the contribution to their success to date of different elements involved in overall performance - technique, strength, explosive strength, linear speed, and many other factors beyond the scope of this article. It can be the case that they have been neglecting weight training activity, or emphasising it too much, or possibly doing too much of the wrong type of strength work. Depending on the athlete's results on performance tests, it is very rare that they will need to perform sprint training solely, or solely weight training. Instead, as most of us know intuitively in other aspects of our life, an all or nothing approach is not needed. Instead, we should focus on emphasising our weak links and maintaining our strengths to accrue continued improvements in performance. Like the buffet table, there is no need to pick only one activity to improve performance. Instead, a carefully periodized program, possibly emphasising a conjugated approach, with only the volume and intensity of work shifting through the year, will serve athletes far better in achieving high-performance levels.
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About the Author
Reggie Johal is a former international American Football player for Great Britain, with a lifelong passion for strength and speed training, and has assisted many athletes on the applications of training protocols for their sports. He can be contacted through his Sports Nutrition site.