Reflexive Strength: Speed Training Success
At Garage Strength we’ve been training some of the best athletes in the country for over a decade. During that time spent training some of the premier athletes in the country, we noticed some things.
Some very important things.
One of those very important things we noticed is that untrained athletes (meaning they haven’t been cued or educated on proper mechanics) get to top speed they tend to have a little too much hip flexion; they start to lean forward; their knee height is a little too low, and they have a lower heel recovery at top end speed. That’s a lot of things going wrong. Add all of these technical errors up and it leads to lower ground reaction force, causing the athlete to take more strides and to not run as fast.
Not good. Not good at all.
Fortunately we have some training methodologies on the forefront of sports performance research to share with you that deal with the concept of reflexive strength for neuromuscular training.
And if you just asked yourself, “What does that even mean?!?” The simple answer is this: we’re going to tell you how to get faster and drop some knowledge bombs along the way.
The Stumble Reflex
First, what is a stumble reflex? Imagine this: you’re walking into practice and some bogus upperclassman who watches one too many Revenge of the Nerds films, identifies Ogre as their spirit animal and thinks it would be cute to stick their foot out and watch you tumble face-first to the floor. Little does this Ogre want-to-be know how athletic you are. You make contact with their foot, trip because your back leg is caught on the Ogre simulacrum’s foot; fortunately, your immediate reaction, without even thinking, is moving your planted front foot forward to prevent your face from making contact with the unforgiving ground.
And that folks, is the stumble reflex.
Now for as simple as the stumble reflex sounds, comprehending the stumble reflex is a tough task. It takes some reading, learning and thinking. We did our reading by investigating the literature of Carl Valle and Frans Bosch. We had book discussions at Garage Strength about the concept of the stumble reflex. We straight geeked out for hours over this scientific, nerd, kinesthetic jargon. But probably and most importantly than any book we read, is that we watch our athletes move. And in watching our athletes move, we noticed something: we noticed that wrestlers have very good stumble reflexes, but their stumble reflex is very specific to the planes they are operating on.
As great as wrestler’s are at demonstrating the stumble reflex, the stumble reflex is actually something that happens at high speeds. When the planted leg gets behind the trunk, the stumble reflex triggers the opposite, free leg forward at a very high, reflexive based speed.
The Crossed Extensor Reflex
What occurred? A reflexive action between both sides occurred. This action, the cross extensor reflex, is very prominent in running. Just like the stumble reflex is prominent in running. The cross extensor reflex is a key contributor to having a direct relationship between the planted leg and the swing leg.
Let’s think about Usain Bolt so we can visualize how the cross extensor reflex features so prominently at top end speeds. Mr. Bolt plants and he is running. He is upright with dynamic trunk control. His swing leg causes his knee to get to just about 90* with high heel recovery, because he is dorsi-flexed, because he has flexion in his knee and his hip, his opposite leg, because of the cross extensor reflex is much stiffer and can have a higher ground reaction force throughout his cycling. So now throughout his cycling he can create more force because of what the ground is giving back to him from an energy perspective.
In case that visualization didn’t work for you, try this. If the position of the swing leg at high speeds is optimally utilized with a high heel recovery, hip flexion and knee flexion, it will always lead to a better plant leg because of the cross extensor reflex.
Simply put, we know that sprinting is a combination of a high speed stumble reflex and a cross extensor reflex.
Okay. No problem. We, the readers, can dig it. But tell us, “O’ wise and purveyors of all strength secrets--how the eff do we get faster?!?”
Reflexive Strength Training
A lot of sprint based training needs to be based around reflexive strength. Reflexive strength training is absolutely imperative to improving high end speed. Reflexive strength exercises are used at Garage Strength to train the stumble reflex and crossed extensor reflex in the weightroom in training so that it can carry over to sport performance.
Here are three reflexive strength exercises we use.
1. The Elevated Step Up
To perform the elevated step up, the athlete needs to have their down leg elevated about six inches with the swing leg behind the trunk to help utilize the reflexive movement. The athlete needs to think about having a semi flexed position with the leg on the box and needs to swing the back leg forward, extending entirely with the leg on the box to get up onto the elevated box.
2. Good Morning Step Up
This is a unilateral movement in which the athlete lets the swing leg get behind them while maintaining dynamic trunk control. The athlete will bring the swing leg forward, bring the trunk upright and drive forward from the plant leg up on to the box with the swing leg.
This is a movement that we have seen carry over tremendously well during the drive phase and from the drive phase to the maximal, mechanical position in which athletes are running at top end speed.
3. DB Snatch to Box
This movement is similar to the good morning step up, but it is loaded with a different lever. The athlete will commit an explosive pull, drive the swing leg up onto the box and be stable overhead.
Typically we do about four to five sets with two to three reps on each side for each movement. Since all the movements are unilateral, the volume adds up because the movement is replicated on each side.
A coach will see which side has slight issues and the athlete will feel the weaknesses by side. But overtime, coaches will see and athletes will feel that reflexes are occurring a little bit better and a little bit crisper and, as a result, this will lead to greater top end speed.
The stumble reflex and the crossed extensor reflex are reflexive movements that can be improved through training. Using unilateral movements such as the dumbbell snatch to box, the good morning step up and the elevated step up, will help lead to greater top end speed, as well as faster reflexive reaction time within sport. Greater top end speed and faster reaction time in sport is a good thing. Let’s be blunt, top end speed and faster reaction time in this sport is frickin’ great!
Reflexive strength movements are cutting edge strength and conditioning methods that, as scientific literature is beginning to demonstrate, will dramatically improve athletic performance within sport. And at Garage Strength, we’ve been using them for years now. We recommend you do the same and begin to see improvements in speed, power and reflexive action.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.