This is one of the most frequent questions I hear as a strength and conditioning coach. I have blogged on this topic many times, but I wanted to go a step further and explain the science behind how lifting makes you faster.

How does lifting weights make an athlete faster? At the most rudimentary level it increases the athlete’s ability to apply more force into the ground which propels him or her forward further and increases stride length. However, let’s take this a step further and uncover why weights are used to increase athletic performance.

Lifting weights at a high intensity (above 80%) increases faster motor neuron conduction velocities, increases the ability to raise excitability of motor units, and increases motor unit recruitment. A motor unit is what fires the muscle. An increase in motor unit involvement allows more muscle fibers to be involved in the activity and creates a stronger contraction. Faster contractions lead to higher jumping, faster sprinting, harder throwing, etc., which can obviously lead to improved athletic performance.

This is when the art of coaching becomes involved. Some exercises involve far less motor unit recruitment than others, maximal sprinting requires the greatest amount of motor unit involvement. If I have my athletes sit around and do bicep curls all day I can guarantee no one is getting faster. By the same token I don’t need to sprint all the time to get faster as any exercise that requires a large amount of neural drive will enhance the activation and innervation of all the other muscles. This is why sprinters bench press. Is the bench press specific to sprinting? No, however it is a good stimulation for the body’s nervous system as it recruits 35% of the bodies motor unit. Improving performance comes from enhancing the athlete’s ability to recruit the highest threshold motor units and keep those motor units activated through strength training so that they can utilize them in athletic movements at any time.

Why does strength training need to occur at high intensities? Because of a process called Rate Coding. The body is an extremely efficient machine and it wants to perform the given task with the least amount of energy required. If you drop a pencil on the floor you’re not going to recruit all of your muscle fibers to pick it up off the ground. The highest threshold motor units are activated last. Strength training must be performed at a high enough intensity or speed in order to activate the motor units that are responsible for the strongest contractions.

So, does this mean all I have to do is squat and I will get really fast? Not so fast. Increasing speed requires a delicate balance of sprinting, plyometrics, weightlifting, mechanic adjustments, and movement ability. However, sprinting has a much lower genetic ceiling than strength training so that is a good place to start! Basic increases in relative strength will lead to increased speed in novice and intermediate athletes.

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