When considering the physical attributes that make up athletic performance such as strength, speed, explosiveness and endurance, speed trumps them all. If you had to pick one over all others, the smart choice is speed. In wrestling for example, no matter how strong, in shape or technical they are, the faster athlete has the advantage. He will be able to beat his opponent for takedowns every time as well as escaping from the bottom position much easier. These are the two main ways to score in wrestling and the faster athlete will have control of them. In football, the benefits of speed are obvious, from running to the goal line faster, protecting your quarter back better and even tackling. A hit given by a lighter bodyweight athlete who’s extremely fast hurts as much as being hit by a heavyweight. Improving your speed will help you excel in nearly all physical sports, so any athlete who wants to win and be the best should be training for it. The question is how do you do it?
The best way to improve athletic speed is by taking a methodical approach by incorporating various exercises and drills into numerous aspects of your training throughout the entire year. However if you’re looking for an easier, shorter program, you can also improve speed by just adding a few basic concepts to the training that you’re already doing. When planning your program, keep in mind there is a genetic component to speed; some athletes are naturally much faster than others and this is wired in their DNA. These athletes will still want to train for speed to try and improve what they’ve got or at least live up to their full potential. If you’re an average joe athlete like most of us are, there is still hope. Every athlete can greatly improve their speed by training. Even if you’re not born with superman speed genes, you still have a certain amount of genetic potential at your current level of muscle mass. In most athletes, chances are high the speed component of their genes remains widely untapped and is underdeveloped simply because of a lack of training if not a lack of training know-how.
Improving your speed is a tricky game involving both your nervous system and musculature at the same time. The point is to get the body’s muscles to contract more explosively through certain motions, however all aspects of speed should be considered when developing a training program. Besides a one-time explosive contraction, an athlete may also need speed for an extended period of time, like a 40 yard sprint. Most sports require numerous reps of explosive contractions, rather than just one. All of these should be trained for however it’s most important to use exercises and training methods specific to the sport. There are several basic training methods well known to improve speed in every athlete regardless of the sport. For the best carry over however, exercises and speed drills incorporating movements and scenarios specific to the sport is a must.
One way to improve your speed is to try to become faster and more explosive moving just your own body weight. This includes fast movement body weight exercises such as plyos, box jumps, knee jumps, sprints, long jumps, explosive starts, etc. Drills that are specific to the sport are also great to practice and necessary for the best carry over to actual performance. For example wrestlers practice ghost shots for thousands of reps to develop a faster, more explosive takedown. Football players practice exploding off the line for thousands of reps to be first on their opponent and perfect their technique. There are several ways to incorporate body weight speed drills into your program. One way is to give this type of training an entire session of itself once a week, for 8-10 weeks. Another way is to include just a few body weight exercise/drills at the beginning of other types of workouts. For example your warm-up for leg day is numerous sets of box jumps.
For the best speed carry over, it’s better to keep fast-twitch body weight movements at the beginning of a workout. This is when your nervous system is the freshest and least fatigued. Some argue that performing body weight speed work at the end of a workout can possibly lead to a reduction of speed. This is because at the end of a hard training session, you have most likely physically peaked much earlier and cortisol levels will be higher. Explosive contractions are very demanding on an already exhausted nervous system and this can easily and quickly lead to over training. This is why performing explosive body weight movements at the beginning of your workout makes the most sense. Before doing this, it’s also important to stretch and warm up really well using dynamic methods. Overall, performing body weight speed work before training is a great warm-up and also improves conditioning. It should also be noted that in many sports, athletes must continue to be explosive for lengthy periods of time, while they’re exhausted. Considering this a percentage of your speed training should also include drills at the end of hard workouts or right after specific body parts are pre-exhausted. When performing body weight speed work when you’re already fatigued, choose lesser complex movements. For example, at the end of a hard leg day, don’t choose box jumps as they’re too taxing on the nervous system and also dangerous to perform. A better choice is long jumps.
Besides body weight explosiveness drills, you can also become much faster by adding resistance to your speed work. An example of this is holding light weights while performing box jumps. For wrestlers, a good example is performing ghost shots against the resistance of a training band. For sprinters, this is running while wearing a parachute or while attached to a resistance band. For improving your vertical leap, this is practicing your jump wearing a harness with resistance bands attached to the ground. While these exercises are very helpful, they should not completely replace body weight drills but rather simply added to the program. Body weight drills should be performed first and can be used as a warm-up for the body weight drills with resistance. After a good dynamic warm-up, simply performing several sets of both of these types of speed work several times a week before your usual workout will produce noticeable gains in speed in just 6-8 weeks depending on the intensity level during each session.
For the most complete development, speed training should also be incorporated into weight lifting. This is done by lifting sub-maximal weights as fast as you can while still maintaining control of the movement. A good example is using the box squat for speed work. The best way this is done is by using 40-50% of your max for 6-9 sets of 2. Sets are performed as explosively as possible and coming to a complete stop on the box during each rep. Contrast such as bands and chains are also helpful in developing speed however better for advanced athletes. A good method to produce known results is to perform speed work for box squats over a three week wave of progressive resistance. For example, week 1, perform 8/2 at 45% of your max, week 2, 8/2 at 50% and week 3, 55%. Speed work can also be performed for other exercises like the bench press, dead lift, hang and/or power clean. If using pulling motions (like the dead lifts or cleans), perform 5-6 sets of explosive singles rather than 8/2. These exercises should be performed as the first lift during a session with supportive accessories to follow. You can also continue speed development when performing rep work during accessory lifts. To do this, perform each repetition as explosively as possible for each rep/set you do.
I’m Dan Levesque, owner/operator of HighlandsFightGear.com. We are an online store that sells equipment to combat athletes including wrestling gear, mma and boxing supplies and apparel. I have been a sports chiropractor, professional powerlifter and strength coach for more than 20 years and have personally trained and coached many high school, college and professional athletes from numerous different sports. I am currently the strength/conditioning coach and nutritional counselor for several high school and middle school wrestling teams. If you would like more information about how to become a faster, more explosive athlete or how to incorporate speed training into your program, contact me through our website.