4 Drills to Enhance Your Sprints

Now that the weather is finally more favorable, it's time to get outside and run around. Whether you're playing in a summer league for high school sports or you're an adult in the real-world and you join up with a grown-up league. Most field and court sports require quick bursts of speed to reach a ball or an opponent with the ball. Today I have some drills you can implement to work on that explosion and subsequent acceleration. 

All of the drills would be best performed for 5-8 yds each for 2-3 sets of 2-4 reps. You'll want to keep the volume low to minimize fatigue. Each rep should be explosive and quick and you can't do that if you're tired.

In each drill you want to focus on a few things:

1. Apply as much force as possible on the first few steps-- think about exploding out of your shoes.

2. Maintain a tight core-- this will minimize any lateral movement thus streamlining your body as much as possible. Plus, you can transfer force from the ground through your legs more effectively through a stiff core than you can through a loosey-goosey one. 

3. Maintain strong knee and elbow drive-- don't run like a limp noodle man

Without further ado... 

Falling Start

If you have a hard time with acceleration, this is a useful drill as it forces you to lean forward (the acceleration phase requires a forward lean of the torso). 

Side Start

Side starts are perfect for working on acceleration in the frontal plane, sideways, as most of the time in a game scenario, you won't start running in the saggital plane (straight forward).

PUPP to Start

It's also not guaranteed that you will always start sprinting after an opponent standing up. This drill teaches you how to drive forward from the ground and pop up quickly.

Barrel Roll to Sprint

Let's say you made a spectacular dive in a game, but you need to get back up on your feet. By practicing rolling, you will teach your vestibular (balance) system how to re-orient so you won't be caught unawares during the heat of the moment. At least two of my athletes reported rolling in a game and I personally witnessed another doing so during his game. I was so proud. 

There you have it! Try those out the next time you find yourself on a field!   

3 Cues for Cleaning Up The Deadlift

The deadlift is one of those lifts that you can do over and over and still continue to refine your technique. I console frustrated athletes with the fact that I, even after nearly 10 years of deadlifting, am still tweaking my technique and learning to to most efficiently hoist iron.

That said, here are three cues I use on myself and with my athletes that should speed up the refinement process. 

Cue: Hold pieces of paper under your arms. OR Squeeze oranges under your armpits. (Courtesy of Tony Gentilcore.) 

Fixes: loose upper back

As tight as a wet noodle.

As tight as a wet noodle.

Why do we want a tight upper back? A) by creating tension in the upper back and lats, which in conjunction with the anterior core, it creates a nice "belt" around the spine and protects the lower back; b) tension throughout the back transfers force from the hips to the arms and thus the bar moves. Without it, there's a much higher risk of injury- particularly to the lower back- and the movement deteriorates rapidly.

 "Squeezing oranges," which is a great external cue, cleans it right up! It's especially useful with newbie deadlifters as they may not have the body awareness to know what a tight upper back feels like yet. 

It's like magic!

It's like magic!

Cue: Pull your chest (or sternum) to the back wall.

Fixes: Hips rising faster than the shoulders

If you or an athlete struggles with popping the hips up to soon- like the immortalized "Bend and Snap"

then this cue can help. By thinking about pulling the chest to the wall behind you, it shifts your focus from yanking your hips up to pulling your chest up, thus slowing down the hips ascent and, for most athletes I've seen, will synchronize the rise of the shoulder and chest so they move at the same rate. 

Hips popping up at the start.

Hips popping up at the start.

Hips, above, are rising faster than the shoulders and it will quickly turn into an RDL. Below, the hips stay lower than the shoulders and the two move together.


Cue: Grab the floor with your toes

Fixs: flat feet, wiggly feet, loose feet

All of the above are unhelpful for deadlifting. Considering that the feet are the only body part in contact with the ground, wouldn't you want that contact to be stable? You can't produce maximal force while standing on an Airex Pad so why create one with your wobbly feet? Gripping the floor tightens up the foot and lower leg musculature which in turn, produces a rock solid foundation to push against. 

Another boon to the cue: it breaks the habit of "toes up." (Note: I'm not 100% oppposed to the "toes up" cue, particularly when I'm teaching someone how to posteriorly weight shift for the first time. But as an athlete progresses, we pull the toes back down and teach gripping. Jarrett did a fantastic job explaining why we do that in his article. If you want to increase your lifts by 1000%, read his article linked above. Seriously, you won't regret it.)

Give those a shot and I guarantee you'll feel fantastic!

The Art Of Pull Ups: After The First Rep

Last week's post had thoughts on conquering the first pull up. It's always the hardest, but the subsequent reps are much easier to accumulate. As an avid pull-upper, below are tips I've used to increase my max pull up number.

1. Do more pull ups.

The best way to get better at pull ups is to do more pull ups. Halt! Before you leap onto a bar, I don't mean rep out as many as possible until the pull up resembles a raw, wriggling fish.

Practice makes permanent, not perfect. 

I really like doing reps throughout my training session. It's a sound way to accomplish a higher volume without sacrificing form because each set only has a few reps. Two years ago, I set a goal to be able to perform 10 pull ups at the drop of a hat (or an off-hand challenge). Note: I could already do about 5 pull ups at this point, but the idea remains the same. This meant that 10 pull ups had to be easy and my max needed to be in the teens. I needed to build up both strength and endurance. Once per week I would perform pull ups throughout my workout until I hit my total rep goal, for example on week 1 I started with 7 sets of 3 working with a goal of 21 total reps. Week 2, 27 total, Week 3, 30 total. Once I hit 50 total, I upped the reps to 4. And I started back with 7 sets of 4, then 8, etc. Each time I hit my top-end total reps, I'd increase the rep count.

Fast forward a year, and I could comfortably hit 10 reps any time I wanted. Huzzah!

1.5 Grease the Groove.

This is how one should implement "do more pull ups," and whynot maxing out works. (Thank you Pavel Tsatsouline) Instead of providing a long-winded explanation, click HERE for a much better one. The bottom line of Grease the Groove training is neurological training to create a more efficient movement pattern. I'll say it again, practice makes permanent, not perfect (so practice perfectly)!

2. Do more pull ups. And be patient.

Seriously, there isn't a magic trick to this. I planned on having a couple different tips, but really, it just comes down to practicing and performing more pull ups over time (and doing them well!). Over the past year, I incorporated them into ladders, wove them throughout my regular training sessions, and did a pull up every time I went to the bathroom (that only lasted a week, though, because I drink a lot of water).

Essentially, the grease the groove article explains it well. Start small and work your way up.

It takes a while to get "good" at pull ups, especially for us ladies, and so patience is key. Remember, it took me a whole year to have a solid 10 pull ups in my back pocket. Be patient and do more pull ups.

Here's my post-workout let's-see-how-many-I-can-do

Intern Blogs Part 3

Today's blog comes from SAPT intern Nick Allevato. Nick is in ROTC at Mason and brings us a great post about the state of the physical training requirements of the Army.

The Immobile Army:

Why the Army Fails at Fitness. Why it needs to change.

As I read through past blogs and noticed Mike’s Navy post, I feel compelled to rep the Army (Go Army, Beat Navy).  However, I am going to focus on a major issue I perceive in our Army; it’s the Army’s physical fitness testing and it’s failing our troops.  In fact, when Army fitness specialist Dr. Edward Thomas tested Soldiers on the World War Two era Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) in 2000, the results showed that even the current APFT “studs” could not keep up with Greatest Generation fitness.  So, why has such a decline occurred in Army fitness?  Why are our Soldiers looking like this guy?

Well, it’s all about the “standard” and they’re actually meeting it.

How could that guy be meeting the Army’s standard?! An institution who is supposed to be ready for combat 24/7!  Well, the current APFT involves timed push-up, sit-up, and a two-mile run tests.  Soldiers are to do as many repetitions as possible and run the two-miles as quickly as they can.  It replaced the old APFT in 1992 and has not been modified since.  The events are scored on a point scale, with “60” in each event as "passing" and “100” being "maxing".  So, a minimum of 180 points are needed to pass the test and a solider can achieve up to 300 points.  The point system is scaled to age and gender and is based off repetitions and the run time.  To provide you some perspective of the required “standard,” take a look at the required passing scores for 17-21 year-old males and females:




2-Mile Run









Just to briefly interpret the table, which is based on 17-21 year olds (prime fitness age); males only need to do 1 push-up every 3 seconds for 2 minutes; females only need to complete 19 push-ups in TWO MINUTES; females can average nearly a 9:30 minute per mile pace for the 2-mile and males only need to average around a 8:00 minute per mile.  While it may seem somewhat sad, these are the standards for the world’s greatest fighting force!  Regardless of job description, for example an infantryman or a doctor, all Soldiers train for the same test; this test is the Army's interpretation of proper fitness.

But is this an effective and relevant standard?  Is it accurate to evaluate a doctor stationed in a hospital on the same test as a paratrooper?  Perhaps not, seeing as that would be like taking Spongebob and Squidward both taking a clarinet test when Spongebob’s job is to be a fry cook.  Not to mention that the event techniques aren’t even taught properly!  Just take a look at the push-up image to the left, which is the exact standard from the Army PRT Manual; the elbows flair out, the lumbar spine is in hyperextension, and the hands are not underneath the shoulders. This poor education of proper technique only makes an irrelevant fitness standard even worse.  See for yourself here as Army Drill Sergeants grade a Best Warrior Competition APFT:

Soldiers are simple individuals.  Not as to be interpreted as "stupid," but simple in how they perform, train, and execute.  Give a Soldier is a task with a standard to meet and they will do everything they can to meet and exceed that standard (standard=success).  This is especially true in today’s Army where downsizing occurs regularly.  Adherence to the standard, and only the standard, is how Soldiers ensure they still have a job.  Since the current APFT involves timed push-up, sit-up, and the two-mile run test, Soldiers are going to work solely on improving those scores.

Interestingly, the current Army Physical Readiness Training (PRT) program, which is the physical training doctrine, calls for Soldiers to perform certain crawling movements, hip stability work, and proper techniques.  But as mentioned earlier, Spongebob going to practice his fry cook skill if he is clarinet performance?  Of course not, because he would fail, then lose his job and his pineapple house.  In the same way, Soldiers are going to do push-ups, sit-ups, and running every training session because that’s their test; to them, doing anything else doesn’t make sense.

The result of this terrible standard of fitness is an immobile, unfit Army that doesn’t even realize how bad it is.  In fact, even the Army Master Fitness Trainers seem to lack understanding of how the body should move.

They are supposed to be the “coaches” of their units, yet they do not even understand a basic hinge pattern.

A change in the Army’s fitness standard is long overdue and the Soldiers are suffering as a result.  We are developing weaker, injury-prone Soldiers.  Who knows how many cases of low-back pain are due to the monotonous torque of the spine in the sit-up test? Or how many ACL tears could be with proper agility training? Or how much money the Army could save in rehabilitation costs by simply developing proper movement patterns in Soldiers?

The Army needs to change to a job-relevant, comprehensive APFT that reflects Army PRT and evaluates the basic principles of fitness (muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, etc.).  Recommendations could include an obstacle course, a timed ruck march or step-up test, an agility T-test, a sled push, pull-ups, and shuttle sprints.  These performance tests would be much more reflective of a properly moving, combat-ready Soldier.  At this point, the semantics of scientifically choosing one exercise over another is not as crucial as a simple step in the right direction.  In the words of General George S. Patton, “A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.”  An overhaul of the Army’s PT is needed, and it is needed now.

Useful References:

-“Army Physical Fitness Test is not effective for measuring a soldier’s ability to function effectively in today’s battle space”

-“World War Two Army Physical Fitness Test”

-“The Old Army, It Turns Out, Was the Fitter One”

Strength: You're Doing it Wrong! Part 2

In the first installment of this series, we dived into a couple of the fundamental errors many folks tend to make while on the quest to become stronger. In case you missed it (shame on you), you can check it out with the link provided above; otherwise, let's get right to it and pick up where we left off!

"You're Doing It Wrong" #3 - Overkill

In case you're wondering what overkill looks like within the context of a strength and conditioning program, Dan John once gave a fantastic illustration of it: "If jumping off a box helps my vertical, then jumping off of a building will help that much more." 

People often make the mistake of taking an idea, or something that may be good either in moderation or a specific context, and carrying it to the extreme:

- "I've heard that focused periods of training with loads of 90%+ will augment my one-rep max, so I'll employ them all the time, every day." - "Since a few sets here and there of isolated bicep curls may develop connective tissue quality of the biceps tendons, I'll do thirty sets a week!" - "Strong lifters use bands for accommodating resistance, so I should use them, too." - "Three sets of heavy squats will make me stronger, so doing twelve heavy sets must have four times the effect."

Here's a tip. Always do the least required - be it intensity, volume, or using "secret powerful" methods - to incite the desired adaptation. This way, you can save the higher intensities, volumes, etc. for later in your training when they become essential for continued improvement. (Note: I discussed this in further detail, via the concept of the minimum effective dose, HERE.)

"You're Doing It Wrong" #4 - Sacrificing Form for Weight on the Bar

Putting it another way: sacrificing form to stroke your ego.

How many times do you see "that guy" deadlifting with a rounded back, squatting with the knees wobbling all over the place, or bench pressing with the bar bouncing off his chest like a trampoline?

Sure, sometimes it can be a simple lack of education - he (or she) hasn't been coached correctly on the ability to perform fundamental human movement. But other times, and this is more often the case (at least with males), is that people don't wish to take the time - and by extension refuse to exercise patience and discipline - to learn the various movements correctly. They don't care that adding fifty more pounds to the bar causes complete breakdown in form, as long as it means they can satisfy their egos by lifting fifty more pounds.

Dr. Kelly Starrett summed this up quite nicely: "Sacrificing good form will cannibalize your potential benefits."

Be it training to get stronger, run faster, jump higher, or simply improve your quality of life, lifting with poor form does absolutely nothing for you. Well, other than eventually showing up on your doorstep to exact payment by means of pain or injury.

(Note: for those of you who think one can't lift any appreciable weight with good form, check out the video below with Jeremy Frey.)

You can do pushups with your low back sagging toward the floor and your elbows flared, deadlift with a flexed (or hyperextended) lumbar spine, bench with your shoulders protruding forward, squat with the knees collapsing, overhead press with all sorts of compensation patterns, until one can't. 

Who cares who is around you or who may be watching. Recognize that you are in this for life, that a lot of small improvements add up to quite a bit, and that greatness isn't achieved in a day. Exercise the patience and discipline of a true professional.

"You're Doing It Wrong" #5 - Adding Too Many "Finishers"

Confession: I have a slight masochist streak in me, which loves to push my body to the brink of destruction on occasion. And I think it's evident that quite a few others do, as well, which is why sports such as CrossFit are so popular.

However, constantly pushing our body's limits - either as the training session itself, or as a "finisher" at the end of the strength training - will undoubtedly hinder strength gains.

You can only chase so many goals at one time, and it's easy to fall into the "I want it all! Now!" trap.  More strength, more endurance, more flexibility, more hypertrophy, etc. Attempting to achieve all these things, concurrently, is akin riding multiple horses with one saddle: rarely does it end well. 

Using myself as an example: back when I discovered the "wonderful" world of metabolic circuits and Tabatas, I'd throw them in at the end of every strength training session thinking that it would automatically turn me into a lean, mean, fighting machine. My primarily goal was strength improvements (I was following a powerlifting-centric program at the time) but me, in all my intelligent greatness, thought it'd be wise to throw in crazy finishes at the end of each session to improve my work capacity and keep body fat at bay.

Did I become pretty decent at doing a lot of squat thrust + tuck jumps in a short period of time? Sure....but to what end? Did I get stronger throughout the course of the program? Not so much.

At least, not nearly as much as I could have had I not committed such wanton foolery at the end of each strength training session. Our bodies can only handle so many competing demands; you can only get so far by trying to simultaneously train for both strength and the anaerobic lactic system.

Keep the goal.....well, keep the goal, the goal! If your goal is strength, then your actions should reflect this. 20-rep deadlifts in a circuit, for time, is not strength training.

I'm not poo-pooing on those who enjoy circuit training or want to add a "metabolic boost" to each training session. To each their own. But I do feel many miss the mark when it comes to choosing a goal and seeing it to the end. If you want to get better at circuit training, then do circuit training. But if you want to get stronger, then, well, do things that will make you stronger, and focus on those things alone.

Now, just because strength may be your primary goal, this doesn't necessitate you allowing yourself to fall so far by the wayside that you become winded from climbing a small flight of stairs. In fact, smart cardiovascular activity will only aid you in your quest to carry, push, and pull heavy objects. Just follow these rules with any conditioning you do:

  1. If you're worried about increased bodyfat levels, do your due diligence in the kitchen. A rule we use with our athletes at SAPT is that training should NEVER be used to make up for irresponsibility in the kitchen.
  2. Don't be an idiot.
  3. If you do need to develop your work capacity, go about it in an intelligent manner. Monitor your heart rate, employ joint-friendly modalities, and track your strength gains to ensure you're still moving in the right direction.

Examples for the Strength Enthusiast

- For some examples of joint-friendly conditioning options, check out the series I put together HERE and HERE.

Hill sprints are another great option.

- Todd Bumgardner also put together a solid article at T-Nation, A Practical Guide to GPP, in which he lays out some good options, along with providing advice on when to put focused periods of GPP (general physical preparedness) into your program.

- Tim Henriques wrote a great article, Cardio for Strength Athletes, that discuss and provides awesome guidelines for....well, I think the title is self-explanatory.

"You're Doing It Wrong" #6 - Training at Too High of a Percentage Relative to Your One-Rep Maximum

I tell you truly, it really is incredible how strong one can become by lifting with submaximal loads. While yes, there certainly are times to push it and incorporate periods of lifting close to your max, there's much to be said for maintaining solid bar speed and keeping the load low(ish) in training.

Yes, I am biased, as I work predominantly with athletes and I'm always seeking ways to make them stronger and faster with minimal risk of injury, but many successful powerlifters have (successfully) utilized this approach, as well.

Two quick examples of student-athletes at SAPT. Here is Carson, now at UVA and competing in powerlifting, who we helped take his deadlift max from 410lbs to 445lbs, never using loads higher than 365lbs in training!

And here is Red Dowdell (now playing Division I baseball at VMI) who trained at SAPT in-season during his senior year of baseball. I kid you not, we never had him lift anything higher than 275lbs during his in-season training, and yet he was able to pull 405lbs post-season. (His previous best was 325lbs.)

That's a 35lb and 80lb improvement, all accomplished while using loads well less than 90% of what they were actually capable of doing in training.

It's amazing what you can accomplish by ceasing to obsess over weight liftedin training as your sole benchmark for improvement, rather than improving rate of force development, honing technique, and judiciously manipulating frequency, volume, and other training variables to make yourself stronger and more powerful.

And the stronger you become, the more imperative it becomes to astutely plan and cycle periods of higher loading, given that your nervous system is more efficient and you recruit more higher-threshold motor units than you did as a beginner. While a beginner may be able to get away with regularly training close to their max, stronger individuals become absolutely fried from doing this too regularly. What may be 90% for a 700lb deadlifter (630lbs), will have a much different impact/effect on the human animal than 90% for a 200lb deadlifter (180lbs).

"You're Doing It Wrong" #7 - Failing to Train with Purpose

Even though, in the points outlined above, I touched on concepts of good form, not going too heavy, and never doing more than is required, this doesn't mean that you can expect to become stronger without training with conviction, purpose, and intent to succeed.

Those who constantly check their cell phones for texts and Facebook or Twitter updates, and those who converse with others while the bar is on their back, will always see sub-par results compared to those who train with some freaking purpose.

Don't just go through the motions! Put the magazine down, grab the bar as tight as humanly possible, and move it like you mean it!

When you walk on to your respective training grounds - be it your garage, a commercial gym, or an awesome performance institute like SAPT - let go of everything that was plaguing you outside the facility walls. Traffic, girlfriend/boyfriend problems, co-workers driving you nuts, celebrity news tempting you to read the magazine on the shelf, it all doesn't matter.

Focus on the task at hand, and then be amazed as you reach new heights.