Without a shadow of a doubt, the 40 yard dash remains the absolute most popular football athletic measure. Athletes, coaches, and parents long to lower their or their athletes times to make a major impression everywhere. Although there are several variables which affect a player’s stock at anytime (i.e. confidence level, experience, work ethic, instincts, collective athletic ability, etc. etc.) there is no denying the 40 helps performance for ANY player on the field. Now I’m going to address several key techniques and our specific start training system to help immediately shave a few hundredths to even a tenth of a second off of your 40 yard dash time. First, lets break the full start into 2 essential phases:
PHASE #1: START SETUP
PHASE #2: START
-ARM AND LEG SEQUENCING
PHASE #1: START SETUP
The feet are where I like to start when coaching the 40 start with my athletes. It’s the first part of the body to arrange so it makes sense, I think. The feet should always be shoulder width apart to ensure equal leg drive from each side of all of the leg joints and surrounding musculature. Lastly, make sure that you position the feet in what’s called a “medium start stance.” Researchers have tested 3 different foot start positions and then measured the level of speed associated with each one. The first was the “bullet start.” Basically, the feet were crammed which allowed a quicker takeoff, but less strength and power was expressed. The next option is the “elongated start.” This variation provided athletes adequate strength and power, but a slower transition out of the start, since the feet were arranged so far apart. So by default the medium start addresses what each one is missing, and offers a great balance by allowing us to exit the start quickly and apply high levels of strength and power into the ground in the process.
The knees are pretty simple. The lead leg should be set at approximately 90 degrees, with the rear positioned at approximately 120 degrees. Be sure to pay particular attention to the rear leg as it has a tendency to want to straighten in a majority of situations. This removes any pre-stretch or loading which is essential to storing potential energy in the muscle and tendons so that we can apply high amounts of force off of the start.
Hip height will be critical for maintaining balance and guaranteeing that the posterior chain (aka glutes, hamstrings, adductors, etc.) are contributing with your takeoff action. The hips should be set slightly above the level of your shoulders. Please take notice that the hips will almost always want to hang to low since athletes are generally weak here, so keep them up.
Each segment of your spine (lumbar, thoracic, and cervical) should be aligned in a neutral position. Simple and effective cues here are to pre-set your butt and chest out as you setup in your stance. Many athletes naturally round their back, so when they adjust by straightening the spine this automatically pull the back of the pelvis up which in turn loads and activates the hips more which can lead to more force potential out of the gate.
Arm support has 3 progressions. A standard arm support setup has the athlete set their shoulder on the side of the support arm directly above the hand. If you are working with a raw beginner then they may need to shift their weight back into their feet more so the shoulder sits slightly behind their hand. If you or your athlete is explosive and strong then you want to turn the 40 yard dash into a 39 yard dash and shift weight well forward until the shoulder is in front of the support hand.
Lastly, is neck positioning. Too often athletes will want to create cervical extension and protraction. This is wrong, because it may set off a reflex referred to as “The Pelvo-Occular Reflex.” This a natural movement reaction that involves the pelvis tilting forward as the head extends forward and up to help adjust our center of gravity. As I already mentioned, we want some level of anterior tilt as we arch our lower back and load the hips, but this may cause an excessive tilt when you combine the two. The head down and neutral cervical spine position also seems to relax the athlete and improve efficiency out of the start in my experience. This is just classic forward head posture that we are always trying to cure in our athletes, just in a more prone body position.
In the next part of this article I will thoroughly cover each aspect of the actual start, so stay tuned!
And if you want more, grab my speed training book for athletes!