Single Leg Strength and Power Development for Sprinting

Michael Johnson World Record 200m

Michael Johnson World Record 200m


The 5-yard hop has been an accepted measure of a person’s ability to accelerate since the early 80’s. The 10-yard and 20 yard sprint have also been accepted measures of the ability to accelerate in a sprint. The question becomes how does one prescribe exercise to enhance this ability? Over the years, I have come up with some drills and exercises that when combined tend to positively impact this ability.



The Exercises / Drills

Single leg RDL: This exercise is done as an RDL (meaning the hands go no lower than the kneecaps and the eccentric movement is controlled while the concentric movement is quick. *see my article on the difference between RDL and good mornings for clarification) The reps are linear with a relatively intense load using a bar or two dumbbells / kettle bells while hinging at the hip with the knees flexed. The core is braced and the spine is natural and tight. I usually begin by prescribing 25 – 35% of the power clean max.

Single leg rotational good morning: This is executed with a lighter load than the RDL using 2 dumbbells / kettle bells and rotating at the hip and lifting the swing leg up in order to hinge at the hip while reaching both implements inside or outside of the foot. This will better engage the full musculature of the hamstring. I usually begin by prescribing 25 – 35% of body weight in dumbbells / kettle bells.

Single leg box hop: This drill is used to improve the hips ability to impart force into the ground when using only 1one leg in a range of motion similar to the sprint. I understand it is vertical, but I have found an athlete must learn to summate force vertically before we ask the athlete to summate force linearly. I train the athlete to make use of not only the arms in an explosive / ballistic manner but also the swing leg should be reach back in hip extension and forcefully driven into extension to assist the jump. The athlete can land on one leg or two, but we do NOT jump down. Rebound box jumps can very easily lead to calf injuries and are an elite drill which, in my opinion, have a very high risk to benefit ratio.

Single leg long jump: This is a single response hop like the single leg box jump up in which the athlete can land on one leg, two legs or run through the landing. The key is to summate force on a linear plane and explode out. This is a learning or strength drill prescribed prior to the learning to execute the multiple hop drill or used exclusively in place of the single leg box hop up.

Stump run: Before the multiple response hop or full bound is introduced, I have the athletes do stump runs. The stump run is executed by trotting forward in a slow jog and bending one leg at the knee and continuing to run quickly (NOT necessarily fast) while hopping on one leg and driving the swing leg explosively front to back while keeping it flexed and never touching the ground as if the flexed leg did not exist below the knee. This teaches single leg impulse (without the cycle of the actual sprint when the heel recovers above the knee near the glute), short impulse time upon ground contact in the support leg and intensely stresses the hip flexor of the “stump” leg.

Single leg linear hop:  This is executed for distance and power covering ground is similar to the stump run but more force is imparted into the ground resulting in more air time. This drill can be prescribed for reps or a distance. For example, if I assign a distance of 20 yards, then I will have asked the athlete to “sprint” on one leg a similar number of ground contacts as they would do in a 40 yard sprint.

bounding-632x421Bounds: This is the highest level drill of a plyometric nature that I ask my athletes to do as the rhythmic ability and neural stress is extreme and can take several sessions before an emerging athlete or one that is not a natural motor athlete can master. Unless the drill is mastered, the training effect is certainly dampened at best and could be non-existent in many cases.



When I am combining or programming theses drills – I first must look at the athlete’s abilities. If they lack strength – then more strength volume (in sets – NOT reps) will be assigned. I will do 5 x 5 or 6 x 4 or 8 x 3 type of strength work in the double or single leg RDL or good morning exercises. If the athlete is strong yet not very powerful in terms of starting / explosive strength then I will assign more single response plyometric drills. If the athlete has some strength and power yet is lacking elastic power, then the multi-response drills will be assigned to a greater degree.

Contrast / complex training versus linear stacking of the drills: This is usually dictated by the space in which we train. If the drills can be done contrast / complex in nature – then we will alternate the loaded exercise with the plyometric drill and finish with some sprints. If the area does NOT lend itself to contrast / complex training then we will do the loaded exercises first, then the in place plyometric drills (which I will alternate with the multiple response drills in order to go from strength speed to speed strength) and then finish with the sprints.


Frequency and Dosage

These drills are usually done in some fashion once or twice a week in the off-season. They are always done early in the workout (after activation, warm – up and build up) and after a rest / recovery day. Remember, the nervous system is being trained, not the musculature system. Therefore the nervous system must be fresh and recovered to above 90-95% in order for a training effect to occur.


Full rest is required between drills and exercises for maximum training effect to occur. I do this by prescribing upper body exercises, core exercises, stretching or corrective exercise drills in order to maximize time, focus and training and minimize discipline problems.

Remember it is the quality of the efforts we as coaches are interested in, not the quantity. These drills and exercises are for strength and power and it is counter productive to prescribe this in team building, competitive and “mental toughness” training sessions as the technical aspects /recover requirements of the drills are paramount. Increasing the density of sets or the volume of reps will dampen the stretch reflex as well as the neural rate of force development ability and will increase / solidify the ability of the athlete to exhibit the “slowness” in ground contact time when sprinting and jumping.


It’s All About the Jump

It can be argued that everything in sport training, development and competition can be related back to the jump in terms of the lower body and movement.  The squat is a jump – type movement, only in slow motion.  The clean, jerk and the snatch are jumps with weight.  Most sports possess some type of jumping action in the normal course of action.  Plyometrics are a variety of usually linear jumps that come to us from the discipline of track and field.  Agility and mobility drills are just multi – directional plyometrics developed by sport coaches over the years to mimic the demands of sport.  Even the action of sprinting can be argued to be nothing more than jumping from foot to foot.  We have noted for years there is a very high correlation between the ability to jump high and/or far and the ability to accelerate for 10, 20, 40 and 60 yards.  If we accept these statements as true, then if we increase the ability to jump (and land) then will this translate to an increased ability to accelerate, sprint and change direction?  If we accept this premise as probable, then is it the jump that is the training stimulus or the landing?

Notice the force absorption @ the landing!

Observe pre-schoolers as they play.  They absolutely love to jump down off of stuff and land in a deep squat position.  They will spend many minutes climbing up on playground equipment, walls, steps, bleachers and even the couch and jump off and land in a deep squat position.  However, they spend very little time trying to jump up and touch stuff.  Now observe any athlete in competition as they jump up.  They will gather themselves eccentrically to load the musculature, jump up concentrically to execute the movement and then (remember – what goes up must come down) they will land and again load the system eccentrically.  Many experts in the field of athletic development have stated that the better able the athlete is in accepting load and absorbing force the better the athlete will be in producing force.  Many of our accepted plyometric experts have for years taught us the progression of teaching the landing first when introducing plyometric training.

In order to develop the ability to jump (and the corresponding ability to accelerate and change direction) we must first teach the skill of landing.  We must then refine the skill of landing and then begin to repeat (or rep) the skill of landing.  Finally we must master the skill of landing in a variety of stances and a variety of ranges of motion while accepting a variety of loads.  We can increase the time under tension by holding the landing position for time.  We can increase the load by jumping up in the air, jumping down off of a box or adding weight via a weight vest or dumbbells (I would recommend only adding up to 10% of fat free weight as a starting point).  We can increase the volume by adding reps and doing multiple sets.   We can progress from squat stance activities to split squat or lunge stance activities in order to increase the difficulty and load.  We can increase the functionality by jumping off of two legs and landing on one, since many sports skills are executed off of one leg. Proper posture is paramount as is equal weight distribution through the foot with the big toe, little toe and heel supporting the body weight in a 60 – 40 distribution from the fore foot to the heel.

Depth jump circuit adding load by box height

As far as a training progression is concerned, I would recommend the following:

Can the athlete physically get into the position with:


even and equal weight distribution

stamina for up to a 30 second hold

Can the athlete hold and pulse up and down in the squat or split squat position for:

up to 30 seconds

up to 20 repetitions

Can the athlete drop down into a squat or split squat position?

Can the athlete drop down into a squat or split position and hold and pulse?

Can the athlete execute the above protocols with added weight?

Can the athlete jump up and land in and hold a good squat/split squat position?

Can the athlete execute the drill jumping down off of a low box?

Can the athletes execute the drill jumping down off of increasing box heights?

Try squat jump and hold for 3 - 10 seconds between jumps!

I would recommend a ratio of two holds/drops for every jump type activity for beginners or at the beginning of a training period.  Remember, the more force the athlete can absorb, the more load the athlete can accept, the more force they will be able to produce as the muscles and tendons become trained to store the elastic/kinetic energy and produce the force with great impulse into the ground in a short amortization phase during the stretch – shortening cycle.

Some of the landings and holds will be low or deep in nature as it takes a greater range of motion to accept the force placed on the system as the athlete lands.  Other landings will be higher in the squat or split squat position as the forces are not so great.  Coach the athlete to land as “softly” as possible, in as “high” a position as possible.  Other times coach the athlete to land soft in a “low” position.

In order to run fast and jump high the athlete must be able to land strong and accept load.  In order to convert strength into power as the training cycle progresses, the athlete must possess the ability to accept load/absorb force first, before converting it to power in an efficient manner.  The quicker the impulse, the shorter the amortization phase the more powerful the athlete.  This is a trainable commodity, but the foundation is the ability to demonstrate eccentric strength and the foundation must be developed first and must be strong and stable.

Question and Answer for Strength Coaches

What is the importance of plyometric training and where does it fit in your program?

Plyometric training is one way to bridge the gap between the strength training program and the field of competition.  It is essentially speed – strength training, with the load fairly constant (bodyweight) and the training stimulus being speed of movement and volume (sets times reps).  Several years ago I was talking to some of the coaches at Nebraska, Mike Arthur and Brian Bailey and they had instituted an outstanding concept with their linemen.  Instead of a lot of traditional plyometrics, they implemented more agility training due to the size of the athlete they were dealing with at the offensive and defensive line positions.  They quantified the plyo’s by sets, reps and foot contacts and the agilities by sets and reps in order to keep track of training loads and volumes.

Since plyometrics are from track and field, which is a predominantly linear sport, they tend to develop speed and acceleration linearly.  Agilities are traditionally rooted in court/field sports that involve change of direction and acceleration.  Garret Giemont, the long time NFL strength coach organizes his agilities into speed angles and shuttles.  Angles being the W drill, the L drill, etc. which tend to conserve speed through the angles of the cuts.  These drills tend to be less demanding than the shuttle type drills (the 5 – 10 – 5 20 yard short shuttle) that require the athlete to change direction and come back down a line that is 180 degrees opposite of the one he or she was originally on.

Implementing these two concepts into the training program has elevated our return on training.  This coupled with the influence of Mike Boyle’s concept of a predominantly lateral day alternated with a linear day have produced even better results.

Our training progression is landing first emphasizing bend at the hip – knee – ankle and land soft. This is followed by the simple drills such as box jump – ups (and step down), which are done year round.  In the off – season we implement hurdle jumps and for the lighter athletes we also include hurdle hops.  The heavier athletes (football linemen) do more agilities.  In our total program, time – wise or rep wise, plyo’s only comprise a minute share of emphasis.  We implement a lot more agility training into our program because we feel we get more bang for our buck with agilities than plyometrics.  The ability to maintain speed through a cut or change of direction while maintaining a low athletic position is much more important than the ability to generate speed linearly.  We use the plyo’s to develop elastic strength in our athletes more than to enhance their ability to accelerate or develop speed.

What is your philosophy of training to develop power in your athletes?

Power development is of primary importance for athletes of virtually every sport.  The ability to generate force in a short amount of time in order to accelerate the body and/or an implement is central to most sporting endeavors.  In designing a program, there are many variables, but only a relative few will create a training effect of power.  Power development involves some load/resistance and a lot of speed of movement.  The load can be as light as body weight or as heavy as up to 60 even possibly 70 percent of a one rep max in certain speed – strength exercises.

In Olympic style weight lifting (which is speed – strength in nature) as the load increases, the nature of training will move from speed – strength to strength – speed as the movement slows with the corresponding increase in resistance.  In order to maximize the power output (or the speed variable in speed – strength) then two things are paramount in selecting the exercises, drills, protocols and modalities.  These are the load, which must be kept relatively light (depending on the exercise/drill selection) and whether the skill involves release of an implement or leaving the ground.   If at any point in the drill the movement slows more than 10% from optimum then the power output drops dramatically.  In the case of release skills such as throwing a medicine ball or squat jumps, the power output can be dramatic and measurable.

Any type of plyometric training is by its very nature power development.  Boiled down to its simplest form, almost every sport is based on some type of jumping, hopping, bounding and throwing.   Sprinting is bounding from foot to foot.  Cleans, snatches, jerks are jumping with weight.  Squatting is a very similar movement, but you don’t leave the ground.  In order to create power, you would need to do squat jumps, the same movement as squats, but with “release” off of the ground and a much greater power output.  Medicine ball training can be plyometric in nature such as mediball bench press, twist toss and crunch sit – ups with a toss.  Mediballs can also mimic cleans with forward and reverse scoop tosses.  The load is much lighter than cleans and snatches and the implement is released so the power output is greater with a very similar movement.

As with any quality training parameter, the rest/recovery bout should be long enough to allow for maximal restoration in order to keep the quality of the efforts very high in regards to speed and/or distance.  The volume is relatively low in total and especially within each set.  Remember, less is more in regards to volume in relation to power development.  In Olympic lifting the optimal rest is 2:00 for snatches and up to 3:00 minutes for heavy cleans.  Sets in Olympic style training usually have reps that are generally 2 + or – 1.  I have taken the same approach with mediball training, if it is total body exercises.  Remember, power training is for quality, not quantity of effort.  How many times do you come out of your stance as a football lineman every 40 seconds?  How many times do you come out of the blocks as a sprinter in 2:00?  How many times in a row do you jump for a rebound if you were a basketball player? 3? 5?  If it’s 10, maybe you are training the wrong basketball team.

The order of training is critical in a day as well as within the week.  In a workout, the order is warm – up, loosen – up and build – up to sport speed.  This warm – up is followed by technique work, speed training, and power development. Strength training and work capacity, fitness or conditioning is always last.   In any particular week, the order is speed first, followed by power second.  After this (or the second day) then there is some leeway in the composition of the final days of the workouts based on time of the year, training age of the athletes and number of days left in the program for the week.  If it is based on the European week, then Wednesday is fitness, Thursday is recovery, Friday is strength and Saturday is fitness, again.  In America, it usually is Wednesday is recovery, Thursday is strength and Friday is fitness.