How to Master the 40 Yard Dash Start (Part II)

In the first article I showed you how to effectively arrange your muscles and joints in the optimal position of a sprint start, based on loads of real world evidence and sound scientific research. Now I’m going to show you how to properly transition from your established setup so that you can maximize your first step and subsequent acceleration to record faster times than you had before! There are 6 essential elements that will be discussed. I guarantee that if you master these you will get better.

  1.  Body Angle
  2.  Arm and Leg Sequencing
  3.  Double push-off
  4.  Spine snap
  5.  Stride Length
  6.  Explosive Intent

1. Body angle is going to be the first and perhaps most popular start technique addressed. I have to admit that I’ve started to get a little fed up with this technique, since it seems to occur most naturally relative to all other cues. According to science, “The Lean” should occur at an angle between 45-70 degrees. Obviously, more explosive athletes can get away with a more aggressive approach. Keep in mind that after watching several of the top NFL Combine performers over the years, I’ve noticed that the lean can be preserved for approximately ten yards and then the athlete simply transitions into a more upright stride with less hip, knee, and shin angle to continue to increase speed production. A diagonal to horizontal body posture demands a tremendous amount of power to sustain, and even the best simply can’t cycle their lower extremities fast enough to support this position after accelerating off of the start.

2. Arm and leg sequencing is the next up on the list. I think this technique is the most confusing for athletes to comprehend and arguably the most difficult to coach properly. After proper stance and alignment have been generated, the athlete needs to focus on driving the arm on the side of the lead leg forward, and the arm on the side of the back leg backwards. This cue has worked effectively and efficiently with all athletes that I’ve came into contact with over the years. Moreover, place a particular emphasis on initiating the arms as fast as possible since they tie in with the lower body, and the nervous system sends signals for contraction there first. This removes potential movement delays and can help improve performance.

3. The double push-off involves simply driving both of your feet back and down into the ground momentarily to allow for greater acceleration and leg drive just prior to the rear leg “recovering” or swinging through so that we can maintain balance and control and continue the sprint cycle. Often times athletes will pick up their lead leg which is suppose to be the primary drive leg at the start, which removes this essential sprinting function and slows you down. You’ll often see receivers make this mistake (false step) as they start from the LOS.

4. Spine snap is something I decided to come up with which is intended primarily for beginner-intermediate level athletes who aren’t freaky fast and strong yet. Often times these athletes have been conditioned by their parents and coaches to lean as much as possible off the start. Unfortunately, they often stumble, shorten their strides, or perform lateral steps out of the start and end up doing more harm than good to their times. In this case I always instruct them to snap up as fast as possible and ensure them that even though I’m essentially telling them to stand up and get more vertical, they will still present some degree of body angle or lean that everyone is so worried about.

5. Stride length is still a pretty undermined topic of the 40 yard dash start. I have to credit Joe DeFranco because this is originally where I heard it, and he sold me on the technique. Intuitively athletes will not recover the rear leg or swing it through as much as they should when they go to initiate movement out of their start stance. This invariably creates an excessive number of steps and foot contacts leading to slower times. Recall that acceleration or speed is a product of stride rate (how fast we take steps) vs. stride length (how much ground we cover with each step). If one of these elements is deficient then we will be slower and plenty of research supports it. Furthermore, momentum and speed is going to be very low at the start so it’s the only time to really load the legs, increase joint angles, increase ground contact time, store more kinetic energy, and apply as much strength and power into the ground to build up some momentum and cover more ground. A 6-7 step count without overstriding is optimal. Overstriding at the start would involve a lack of deceleration by the distal hamstrings and proper knee angle in the lead leg upon ground contact. As a result the athlete’s center of mass would be concentrated in their rearfoot (heel) rather than their forefoot (toes) leading to excessive ground contact, etc.

6. Explosive Intent. This last cue should be well understood, but it’s still missing often times during sprint attempts. Trying to create overspeed and override your neuromuscular system’s current level of set speed in the body should always be the goal when performing any linear speed work. It’s an essential principle to optimal acceleration and speed development, and it requires to act as explosive and as fast as possible with every rep. This simple strategy can shave off hundreths to a tenth of a second and I’ve seen it several times. Just remember the “Law of Specificity.” In the case of the 40 yard dash, if you want to be super fast you actually have to go out and act like you are with every opportunity you get. Period. Over time the body will adapt several processes within your body (fast twitch fiber conversion, muscle growth, rate of muscle recruitment, etc.) that will allow you to reset your current level of speed a bit higher each time. There is much more that regulates speed function, but this is the most basic rule to help get the ball rolling.


And if you want more, grab my speed training book for athletes!

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