Speed Training or Strength Training for Youth Athletes

The other day we posted about the need for youth athletes to be strong.  That post gave me an idea of what to talk about next. Parents often come to us and ask, “How do I make my son/daughter faster? I read there’s a lot of great speed drills and agility things to do? Why aren’t we doing that?”

Youth Athletes and Strength Training


This is something I know Beau and Eric and I have talked to parents about when they ask why kids who train with us don’t do any “speed” work. The truth is, we’d have to really break this down to take a bigger view of what’s going on when we train for strength and when you train “speed work”.

Hard Truths


One big thing that most people don’t understand is that speed may not be trainable. And by speed I mean top end, full throttle speed. Running at 100% of your capabilities. Speed is a mostly inheritable trait. Meaning if your mom and dad were fast, and their parents were fast, it’s likely you or your child athlete may have inherited the genetics to be fast. If you’re pushing your high school athlete child to be the next national 100-meter track champion and you and your spouse have never participated in any athletic endeavors, it’s unlikely that your child is going to be a track star. All the speed work in the world will not fix this issue. This does not mean that there is no possible way to be a good athlete if you are not genetically fast, there is still hope.



Strength To Go Faster


Although speed is a mostly inheritable trait, there are things parents and athletes can do to improve their sprinting performance. That thing to do is get stronger. In the strength and conditioning world, we talk about FORCE PRODUCTION and POWER. Power and force production are closely related because power is the ability to produce force quickly. This is where genetics have a say. When sprinting, every time the runner’s foot strikes the ground, they are applying force against the earth to propel themselves forward. Faster runners can apply MORE force into the ground in LESS time. Meaning the faster runner’s foot is in contact with the earth for a shorter period of time than a slower runner. AND that faster runner is able to contract all of their muscles in synergy to apply a greater amount of force that propels them farther forward than a slower runner. That’s the bad news. I can’t teach you to do that, because you were either born with that ability or you weren’t. But strength has a say. Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. So, essentially, by making a runner stronger, which would be producing force against a greater and greater external resistance, their ability to produce force from the contraction of their muscles increases. If the runner’s ability to produce force has increased, they should be able to run a little faster. There is still that pesky thing about applying that force quickly, though.

Producing force when sprinting
Producing force when sprinting


Trainable vs. Not Trainable.


Ok, so you may be thinking, “Why am I going to spend my hard earned time getting stronger to increase my body’s ability to produce force if I’m just going to remain slow?” Well…. Because… that’s your only option. The equation for Power (which is the ability to apply force quickly) is:

Power = force x velocity

This equation shows that a powerful object is both strong (lots of force) and fast (lots of velocity). The fast (velocity) part is arguably not very trainable but, wouldn’t you know it, the force part definitely is. This is not to say that you can’t increase Rate of Force Production at all – just that the amount that RFD can be increased is wildly exaggerated. Training to be strong has a much greater influence over the power you can produce. That is why we train all of our athletes to be strong.


Transfer to Sport


Ok, so now we’re sold. Getting strong is a good thing for myself or my athlete. How does that work on the field? Once adequate levels of strength are reached, which can vary greatly depending on the person and the sport being trained for, we begin to train to use that strength to do athletic movements. To put that another way, we practice using our newly found strength for powerful movements. The debate over which movements to train, and how to train them, is big in the strength and conditioning world. There are a variety of ways to train powerful, athletic movements. At WS&C we teach the Olympic lifts (the snatch and clean and jerk), but we’ll also train jumps, or throws, or sprints; the options are plenty. But the end result is that we take the athletes’ ability to produce a lot of force and try to insert that into movements that need the athlete to produce force quickly. These movements lend themselves to sporting movements and thus a transfer to performance on the field or court.


Added Benefits of Strength


There are plenty of ancillary benefits to training for strength aside from force production and power. One benefit many strength coaches hang their hat on is durability. Strength increases the size and contractile ability of muscles. Bones grow denser and more rigid. Tendons and ligaments become steel cables. These all lead to a decreased likelihood of injury on the field. When an athlete is running, they not only produce force when their foot strikes the earth, but their foot, leg, knee, and hip also accept force from that strike. The forces the leg and its joints accept is MANY TIMES that of the athlete’s bodyweight. Now imagine your athlete is sprinting, cutting, changing direction, jumping multiple times A MINUTE in a game. The musculature of the leg, foot, ankle, and hip need to be able to withstand that workload, which is what overall strength helps the athlete do. What we also see with our high school and younger athletes that we train, is an increase in confidence. Knowing you can walk in a gym and squat twice your bodyweight on any given day is a game changer for young adults and kids. It’s an accomplishment that many people, athletes and non-athletes, can be proud of. When you are strong you have the confidence to go after opponents on the field, court, or track.

And don’t forget health. In America, we have a big crop of kids who are overweight, out of shape, and not interested in physical culture. Training for strength gives youth athletes something to do outside of their sport, and a good strength & conditioning program teaches them habits that will remain with them into adulthood. Too many times parents are using sport as a way for their children to exercise. This is ill advised because their child may come into a season out of shape and get put through the ringer in practice or a game, increasing the likelihood of injuries.


So… now what?


In the end, training for strength has more bang for your athletic buck. Spending time in the gym getting stronger, healthier, more confident, and maybe more powerful makes for a better athlete than spending a couple sessions of speed work on an agility ladder and running through cones. We discussed the need for the athlete to be strong in order to be able to accept the forces of running, jumping, cutting, and changing direction in a competitive athletic setting, and training with weights is how that athlete gets to that point. This is all not to say that speed work and agility work is not of any use. Working through sprint and running mechanics, learning to change direction better, and running drills are all valuable parts of an athlete’s training once they have achieved adequate levels of strength. Once those strength levels are achieved, speed training takes the form of using the enhanced strength level to perform powerful movements, as discussed above. Working through the techniques of sprinting, cutting, jumping, and changing direction makes the athlete more efficient at those activities, and thus faster. So get your young athletes in the gym, train using the barbell lifts – squats, presses, pulls, cleans, and snatches. Get them strong. Then set them loose.

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