Coaching, jumps, sprints & more
Everything about jumping and sprinting and how to improve your performance
DO YOU REALLY NEED TO DO SQUATS? If I were to say to coaches of athletes in a range of sports from football to sprinting to rugby to martial arts to marathon running, that their athletes shouldn’t squat, I’d probably be run out of town (as fast as my non-significantly squat trained legs would allow!). I can hear the cry already, ‘Squats are a must-do; they’re a fundamental part of sports conditioning’.
However, it’s possible to argue that squats are perhaps over-rated and their value to actually enhancing sprint speed, particularly in the training mature athlete (i.e. when an athlete has developed considerable ability to bend and extend their knees against resistance) questionable. In the beginning God created the Squat
The movement of bending and straightening our legs (using the ankle, knee and hip joints) known as flexion and extension respectively is a fundamental human movement. Hundreds of everyday actions require a squat, the most obvious being sitting and getting up out of a chair. The resisted squat as used in sports conditioning, i.e. with added weight (for example, with barbells, barbell and chains, dumbbells and powerbags for example), can be found in the majority of athletes’ training routines. These exercises are normally performed with a concentric muscular action emphasis. This means that the muscles of the ankle, knee and hip joints shorten under load to move the weight. Squat jumps can also be included in this category where the athlete lowers, perhaps holding dumbbells at arms’ length or a barbell across their shoulders and then rapidly extend their thighs to leap into the air. This is a dynamic exercise I really like.
There are numerous other squat variations, such as single leg squats, Bulgarian split squats and single leg squats, however, the focus of this post is largely placed on the double leg back squat. Coaches from virtually all sports prescribe the squat in the conditioning routines of their athlete and for valid reasons. The action of extension and flexion is fundamental to running and jumping. On foot-strike during the gait cycle a runner’s knee’s will be flexed ready to absorb and transfer ground forces to propel the athlete forwards by means of rapid extension of the ankle, knee and hip. So we can see how easily the squat can be viewed, for example, as a sprint mirroring exercise.
Many sprint coaches and athletes will be familiar with developing significant squat strength as manifested in 1 rep max ability, but conversely fail to see direct improvement in what really matters sprint speed. Now there are a number of potential reasons for this:
1. The Closeness of the Squatting Action to What’s Actually Required when Sprinting
Sprinting is a unilateral activity, the normal squat bilateral. A sprinter’s foot will only be in contact with the ground for 0.089 of a second or so when they are flat out and traveling at 11-12m/s for elite men - and in that blink of an eye they have to impart and overcome force equal to two-three times their body weight. And they will need to transfer the vertical absorption of force into a horizontal push through optimum sprinting biomechanics to get to the line as fast as possible. Can you think of a time when you or an athlete you have coached has achieved those parameters when squatting? An athlete weighing 80kg would have to shift potentially 240kgs in that nanosecond! So, it’s very unlikely.
Now, equally crucially in terms of what I am going to argue later on, how are the dominant muscles in the squat (the quads), relating to the other key muscles involved in sprinting, notably the hamstrings and hip-flexors.
The actual contribution of these latter muscles to the squat, although used in the exercise’s action are much reduced in comparison to what's required when sprinting – again of which more later.
Relevance of Muscular Actions
Unless there is an attempt on the part of the athlete to lower and drive up out of the squat movement as fast as possible, the stretch-shortening cycle will not really be tested in the way that they are during sprinting (and even if this is done the match will be minor rather than major). Considering the hamstrings – a similar stretch, followed by a rapid contraction is fundamental to the late swing phase in the running cycle, when the lower leg is pulled back toward the track ready for foot-strike.
Additionally the degree to which the hamstring is lengthened with significant force being generated at both its poles is very different. These actions/requirements are not a part of the squat, although the hamstrings are engaged during the eccentric phase.
A very similar argument can be forwarded for the hip flexors – of which more later. Sprinting is a plyometric activity. The 100m distance is normally completed for elite men using 41-45 steps. On each and every one of these the muscles (and other soft tissue) will be required to catapult the sprinter forwards. On foot-strike the musculotendon structures of the ankles, knees and hips will be put on stretch and then they will contract virtually instantaneously and in doing so will generate great power (also known as the stretch-shortening-cycle). As noted the squat is a primarily concentric movement.
Now, it is true that greater concentric power will boost sprint speed (particularly in new to sprinting athletes and in terms of enhanced acceleration, of which more later), however, once a basic level of extensor-derived quad strength is developed the role of the squat becomes significantly reduced as a sprint speed enhancer.
As touched upon much research also suggests that heavy load squats have more of a relevance to conditioning acceleration rather than flat out speed.
American researchers looked at the relationship between body weight, 1RM squat and 5,10 and 40 yard times (1). Seventeen male US Football players participated in the survey and they were divided into groups in relation to their 1RM squat and their body mass. Squats were tested to a degree of flexion of 70-degrees and power-to-weight ratio calculated. Sprint times were assessed by way of timing gates. Perhaps not surprisingly it was found that the athletes with the superior power-to-weight ratios had faster times at 10 and 40 yards. It’s important to consider power-to-weight ratio in the light of ultimate sprint performance ability and squat training protocols. If an athlete regularly trains using a 4-6 set x 8-10 rep protocol, using weights in the 70-85% 1RM ranges then the workout will elicit a significant androgen response. This will likely result in weight gain through muscle hypertrophy, due to the copious amounts of the stimulatory hormones being produced - testosterone and growth hormone. Thus coach and athlete must be mindful of the squat protocols they employ (and for other similar exercises and always be aware of body weight increases and its affects on power to weight ratio).
Research backs up the notion of the importance of the hip flexors when it comes to sprinting. A Japanese team specifically looked at the contribution of the psoas major and thigh muscularity on the 100m times of junior sprinters (4). The research comprised of 44 sprinters (22 male and 22 female) aged 14-17. The cross sectional area of the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings and psoas major were analysed using magnetic resonance imaging. The average of left and right sides was calculated and this was related to 100m performance from official races. It was discovered in both genders that the faster sprinters had a greater development of the psoas major in comparison to the quadriceps femorsis muscles. Absolute muscle size was not a factor.
However, having said that it is likely that psoas major muscle size in elite sprinters is a key attribute to generating speed. In an RTE documentary on Asafa Power (former world 100m record holder with 9.76 seconds) it was discovered that his psoas major was twice the size of that of 10.02 Japanese sprinter Nobunara Ashara (5).
To be continued
1) J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1633-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b2b8aa.
2) Above: Instr Course Lect. 1995;44:497-506. Motion Analysis Laboratory, Gillette Children's Hospital, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.
3) Joes Scott: http://speedendurance.com/2013/01/21/3-reasons-the-squat-is-not-the-cornerstone-of-strength-training-for-sprinters/
4) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Dec;38(12):2138-43. 5) RTE documentary (available on youtube) http://hight3ch.com/the-science-behind-asafa-powells-speed-documentary/
Jargon Buster Psoas Major: Long muscle that runs from the spine across the pelvis to attach onto the thigh bone. As part of the hip flexors it functions to lift and externally rotate the leg.