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.


Speed Training Systems

Speed can be developed – if it is trained first and foremost in the training program. Speed should be considered first in the plan daily, weekly and monthly.  Speed must be trained concurrent with other systems in order to maximize the ability.  If speed training is delayed in the training cycle until the athlete is “in shape” or until the athlete perfects their form, then it is usually too late to incorporate the speed protocol due to the demands of the season. Speed should be started early in the training cycle, first in the day and early in the week. The rest and recovery from each bout of speed repetition should be a minimum of 3:00 – 5:00 minutes, depending upon the distance covered and the fitness level of the athlete.

Key Techniques of Speed

Posture – the correct posture for starting, transition, change of direction and absolute speed must become an automatic response. This posture requires a braced core, flat back, retracted shoulder blades in a “tall” posture attitude.

Core strength – is a key in order to limit energy leakage from shoulder to opposite hip as the athlete attempts to put force into the ground.

Stance – The stance is the key to the start and the start is the key to race to the finish line, the base, the ball and/or the opponent.  Whether starting up or down, linear or laterally, the stance determines the ability of the athlete to impart force into the ground, the length of the ground contact time and the ability of the athlete to maintain the proper techniques for acceleration during the second or get away step.

Casted ankle – this technique of “toe up” is key in order to impart force into the ground in a short amount of impulse time.

Thigh Separation – this cue is excellent in creating mastery of individual stride length abilities.  It tends to enhance both knee punch as well as glute extension which are critical techniques in linear speed.

Arm Drive – Arm drive is from shoulder height with the hand in front to almost shoulder height in back with the elbow (which is very limited in many over bench pressed athletes) with the hand passing even with the shorts pocket during the downward stroke.

Leg Drive – Leg drive consists of knee punch, thigh separation, high recovery with the ankle crossing above the knee and the heel just brushing the buttocks.  During the drive phase the toe never gets ahead of the knee.  In fact, as the knee begins the downward drive to the ground the knee and toe should be in a perpendicular line to the ground.

Head Position – is in the anatomical position with the “eyes on the prize”, be it the finish line, the ball or the opponent.

Speed Progression of Training Pyramid

(thanks to Dr. Bob Ward)

Over Speed

Speed Endurance

Absolute Speed for Speed

Plyometrics for Power and Acceleration

Resisted Sprints for Power and Acceleration

MediBall Drills for Speed, Power and Acceleration

Moderate Load Olympic Style Strength Training 2 – 10 sets of 1 – 3 reps

Big Load Heavy (Power Lift Style) Strength Training 3 – 8 sets of 1 – 5 reps


Speed Drills

Flying Stick Drill Set up a series of sticks or strips that begin at 7’6” between each stick.  Allow for an acceleration zone of a minimum of 15-20 yards.  The total number of sticks should allow for a minimum of 7 sticks and a maximum of 16 sticks.  The number of sticks will be determined by the speed fitness of the athlete.  If the athlete is fast and fit, the number of sticks will be in the mid-teens.  If the athlete is slow or does not possess adequate speed fitness, then the number of sticks will be in the high single digits.  Once the athlete becomes comfortable, the next lane of sticks is set at +6” or 8’.  The next lane is 8’6”, the next lane is 9’.  If the athlete is national class and/or tall, then the stick drill can be increased in 9” increments – 7’6” to 8’3” to 9’.  As soon as the athlete loses form and begins to reach then he must move back down one level, increase his speed or maintain better form.

Speed Tests

10, 20, 40 and 60 yard sprint – from a start utilizing either a 2 (upright) or 3 point stance, begin timing on the athletes first movement.  Stop timing as the athlete’s core passes the finish line.

Flying 20 and 40 yard sprint – utilizing a 15 – 25 yard acceleration zone time the athlete from one end of the flying sprint zone to the other end.

3 Step 5 and 5 Step 10 Drill – Have the athlete with national or world class speed attempt to 3 step the first 5 yards and 5 step the first 10 yards of the 20, 40 or 60.  Do not count the first step (which just gets the athlete to the start line).

Stride Length – Utilize a 20 – 25 yard acceleration zone and measure the 2 longest strides from the tip of the rear toe to the tip of the front toe.  This should equal out to 1.265 multiplied by the athletes height in inches, + or – 4 inches.

Sample Speed Training Programs

Absolute                           Sport                           Sport

Sport                                Speed                         Special

Speed                            Endurance              Endurance I

Intensity                                           95% +                             90 – 95% +                   90 – 95% +

Distance of Run                           15 – 35 yds                       40 – 100 yds                100 – 200 yds

Reps                                                       3 – 6                                    3 – 6                             1 – 5

Sets                                                         1 – 3                                    1 – 2                             1

Total Distance in Session          45–630 yds                     120–1200 yds             100–1000 yds

Recovery / Reps                              2 – 5 min.                          2 – 5 min.                 5 – 10 min.

Recovery / Sets                               8 – 10 min.                      8 – 10 min.                    N / A

The key to speed and acceleration is to train it first, foremost and it must be the overall focus of the program.  Strength is easy, lift heavy stuff and people get strong.  Hypertrophy is up to the athlete and what food choices they make and how they utilize nutrient timing.  Power is the combination of speed and strength and should be a by focus of the focus on speed.  If speed is to be enhanced, then it must be a focus of the program.