A sprinter’s engine is the sum of his muscles, tendons, and ligaments working in harmony with one goal: produce maximum force from the ground to propel him or herself toward the finish line. To enhance speed and force production, drills on the track are designed to potentiate the body’s elasticity. Training off the track should mimic the purpose of the sport: make the athlete faster.
As Percy Duncan said, “running occurs on the ground. Sprinting occurs over it.” The statement rings true to the powerful posterior chain present in all sprinters. The sprinter’s power is not a product of his vertical displacement per se, rather, the force produced by the hips extending and pushing the body forward. Since the combination of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and spinal erectors work synergistically in a force-couple relationship, training should focus on using these muscles in unison for maximum speed development.
The purpose of this article is to help gain insight into training the sprinter. Through kettlebell ballistic exercises, the sprinter will become faster, more powerful, and reduce chances of injury. In kettlebell training, there are two types of movements: “grinds” and “ballistics.” A ballistic exercise is a movement meant to produce power. A “grind” exercise is where a weight is moved slowly to generate strength. The difference here is speed. The ballistic movements put focus on moving the weight as quickly as possible.
Training the Sprinter: Barbells vs. Kettlebells
Traditional track and field training revolves around the barbell and variations of the Olympic lifts. Although effective, the Olympic lifts are technique- oriented and can take years to master. With our singular focus of speed development, I have found the kettlebell to be the sprinter’s ultimate tool. Kettlebell ballistics like the swing, the plyo swing, and the snatch are safe alternatives to barbell lifts that present their own unique benefits. Kettlebells are safe, portable, and will not overtax the athlete’s central nervous system.
Keeping in mind that a primed central nervous system is the athlete’s ability to use their muscular system in unison, we must note the virtual force that the kettlebell generates. Although forces are higher using a barbell, the kettlebell allows the athlete to accelerate the kettlebell in the hinging and extension pattern to achieve a greater load of force without actually lifting a heavier weight. This is a valuable insight when considering that if an athlete’s central nervous system is fried from too heavy of lifting, their performance during sprinting will suffer.
Through kettlebell movements, training off-the-field is practical: kettlebell ballistics offer much of the benefits of barbell training without taxing the body to a high degree. Kettlebells offer the athlete a chance to train their power, speed, and strength in a safe, consistent and effective manner.
The three kettlebell exercises that I have found bring the greatest benefit to sprinters are the swing, the plyo swing, and the snatch.
The Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is the master movement in kettlebell training. The swing is characterized as a quick hinge of the hips in the downswing, to a powerful hip extension in the upswing. This movement brings the body into a standing plank where the athlete must contract the muscles of the hips, quads, and abdominals at once. The direct transfer of energy from the downswing to the upswing causes a unique attribute: a quick eccentric action to a powerful extension.
This pattern is why plyometrics are used for power athletes. The quick transfer of force for sprinters is from the foot hitting the ground to pushing off the ground. When we travel upstream of the foot, we see that the sprinter’s calves, hamstrings, and glutes extend to push them forward. If we are able to replicate this hip extension pattern during off-the-field training, we create a functional movement, producing high forces that translate to faster times.
The kettlebell swing’s beauty is in its simplicity. This is a safe movement for nearly all athletes regardless of age. Many novice trainees see the dynamic motion of the body during swings and worry that it may be injurious to the lower back.
Top spine specialist Stuart McGill says,
“Consider the kettlebell ‘swing’… where the emphasis is placed on hip extension. The spine is braced in a neutral posture and quite dynamic hip extension activation can be trained. It is also an exercise in which the entire posterior chain is ‘balanced’ in all aspects of performance back fitness.”
The lower back develops great isometric endurance through kettlebell swings. Knowing well that the biomechanical breathing during hardstyle swings creates high intra-abdominal pressure as air is sniffed through the nostrils during the downswing, and exhaled through a hiss in the teeth on the upswing, the swing itself is a self-protecting exercise. Not only does hip extension become stronger, but the abs go through a bracing cycle that protects the lower back.
If maximum power potential is the goal, I recommend sets of 5-10 swings with the heaviest bell proper form will permit. For me this looks like 5 sets of 10 swings per workout with a 48kg bell. For others, they may benefit from a smaller bell (20kg-32kg) with focus on bringing the bell into the backswing with higher speed.
The Kettlebell Plyo Swing
Picking up where we left off on the kettlebell swing, the plyo swing is a specialty exercise for the athlete looking to enhance their eccentric strength. It’s important to realize that strength is a prerequisite to power. If the athlete is not strong enough, they will be unable to absorb the force impact of the foot landing on the track and turn that into propulsion forward.
In regard to eccentric forces, the stronger the athlete is in absorbing force from the ground, the quicker they will be able to turn that force into speed moving forward. The plyo swing is similar to a regular swing, but with a focus on a downward jump before the bell reaches its downswing. This jump is similar to the plyometric called a “depth jump,” where the athlete jumps or steps off a box and as quickly as possible, returns that force into a jump up or forward.
The plyo swing does not involve an actual jump. It is similar to the “jump” of an Olympic weightlifter between the second and third pull in the snatch and clean & jerk. They are not jumping off the platform, but rather moving their feet into the catch position so quickly that their feet become airborne before clapping down on the platform.
As the bell accelerates through the upper triangle of the thighs, the sprinter must resist the higher force demands of the accelerated bell by loading their hips with greater tension. What happens next is pure, explosive magic: The upswing comes from the high tension produced by the hips during the backswing.
By adding this “power jump” in the plyometric swing, the bell accelerates faster than in the traditional swing. The athlete must absorb the impact of the power jump in the downswing to propel the bell forward in the upswing. You may have seen a similar exercise – the banded kettlebell swing is similar to this movement. In my opinion, the plyo swing is superior to that banded swing, simply because it does not require a band. The band sometimes slips off the bell and is a hassle to manage. In the plyo swing, all that is required is one bell and precise timing.
Before getting started with the plyo swing, make sure that you master your heavy kettlebell swings with a focus on accelerating the bell into the downswing. The power jump in the plyo swing will accelerate the bell faster than in the regular or banded swing, so proceed with caution. Before starting your sets, I recommend practicing the “land and load” drill for 3 sets of 5 repetitions to prime the central nervous system.
The Kettlebell Snatch
The kettlebell snatch is a unique exercise that starts with a one-handed swing and finishes in an overhead lockout. The athlete must direct the transfer force from horizontal to vertical into an overhead catch. What the snatch achieves over the swing is a greater path of movement from start to finish. I have found that kettlebell snatches build two unique variables: offset power and power endurance.
A heavy kettlebell snatch requires a large output of force from the hips into the upper back musculature. Like a swing, a powerful hip extension is required. The snatch is unique because it comes from a single hand attachment to the bell. Thinking of the mechanics of the swing, we compare the bell to a ball, and the arms to a chain. The hips of are the driver of the “ball and chain.” In the snatch however, one hand attaches to the bell, creating greater demands on the core musculature to disallow rotation in the movement.
Snatching a bell involves total connection of the body in order to prevent rotation during the swing portion of the movement. As the bell approaches chest level (as seen in a swing), the athlete gives the bell a pull to redirect the trajectory from out, to up. This pull activates the muscles of the upper back and shoulder in one precise movement. If the snatch does not have the prerequisite of total body tension, the bell is likely to be redirected to the wrong spot and the lift may be missed.
Now let’s talk about power endurance. Even as a world class sprinter approaches their maximum velocity, it is only a matter of time before they start to slow from their top speed. In the track and field world, the sprinter with the best power endurance is likely to win the race. He is the athlete that slows down the least.
The kettlebell snatch is the best exercise I have found for gaining power endurance. By scientifically progressing through intensity and volume, the snatch delivers heart pounding conditioning that is applicable to sprint training. For power specific training, the athlete should use a heavy bell (up to half bodyweight) for low (3-6) repetitions. For power endurance work, the athlete may use a lighter bell (16kg-24kg for men, 10-16kg for women) for 10-20 repetitions. Variables can be changed as desired, i.e. EMOM workouts (every minute on the minute) or high-volume snatches supersetted with strength movements.
My favorite type of workout is “contrast training.” To work anaerobic, glycolytic, and aerobic energy systems at once, I will perform a heavy grind exercise like a deadlift and superset it with high volume snatches. I find that my strength gains are elevated while my power endurance and aerobic endurance both increase. I’ll set longer recovery periods (3:00-5:00 minutes) between these bouts to ensure that form stays on point.
Sprinting is the most dynamic movement that the human body can achieve. Although practice on the track is necessary to master the skill of power and speed, off-the-field training should serve to enhance the athlete’s abilities. The kettlebell’s effectiveness comes from its simplicity. Unlike the barbell, technique is honed more safely and comprehensively to allow the athlete to focus on his singular goal of faster sprinting.
When starting kettlebell training, develop a sufficient base in the kettlebell swing. Of all exercises, this will take you the furthest in your journey of strength, power, and endurance. If training for a specific event that requires you to give it your all, bring the plyo swing into your practice. The plyo swing will develop robustness in the body to withstand the rigors of dynamic sports and activities. Finally, experiment with the kettlebell snatch. There is a learning curve that requires the athlete to hone their form, but the benefits are worth the effort. You will gain power from heavy snatches, and valuable power endurance from lighter weight snatches for reps or time.
Sprinting is harmony of the human body. The sprinter knows that his quickness is dependent on the quality of his training on and off the field. Kettlebell ballistics offer speed development in a safe, fun, and effective manner. Add the swing, plyo swing, and snatch into your practice and you will see tremendous gains in your body’s ability to withstand, and thrive in sprinting of any distance.