I’m pretty certain that a majority of coaches and trainers at this point can appreciate the benefits associated with “Supplemental Exercises” in their comprehensive strength training program. I adopted this term from mastermind Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell because I think their terminology is the most logical of all the variations of the word I’ve heard over the years. Other common alternatives to this training category that you may have heard of before would be auxiliary lifts, or assistance exercises. A simple definition of supplemental exercises would be exercises intended to primarily satisfy specific training elements that other exercises cannot. Below I’m going to discuss 5 benefits that you may or may not heard of that supplemental exercises bring to the training table.
#3-Restoration of structural weaknesses
#4-Central Nervous System Preservation
In 2005, The Journal of Experimental Biology released a study indicating that sprinters were indeed the largest type relative to all track and field runners (100m-10,000m). 1 This should come to no surprise since an increase in the cross sectional area of a muscle increases that muscle’s specific force production capabilities, but I think it’s good review and reference in case there is still a doubt out there. Fortunately, supplemental exercises do a fantastic job at increasing muscle growth specifically, due to the fact that you are training through a broad rep spectrum (6-15 reps). If we consider recent research complements of Brad Schoenfeld, along with past real world evidence and research from many other notable authors and practitioners, you will notice that this approach really works in getting track and field athletes bigger.
This rep range that you should utilize with supplemental training will induce a lot of muscle damage, fatigue, and tension which are 3 factors necessary to stimulating growth pathways in the human body. Conversely, there definitely is an upper limit to hypertrophy levels with sprinters and hurdlers, etc. especially in advanced performers. However, slight to moderate amounts of hypertrophy at select areas of mainly the lower body may assist a beginner or intermediate level athlete get stronger in the weight room, which in turn could lead to greater explosiveness off the blocks and during the initial acceleration phase leading to greater top speed and reduced times if endurance and other elements are addressed properly. The hypertrophy training objective would of course be emphasized in the off-season where specificity and competition are not a primary focus yet.
Training Resource: The Speed Encyclopedia
Strength endurance or the ability to sustain a high degree of force output over a longer period of time is going to be the next quality that supplemental exercises seek to improve. I’m not exactly certain on this, but there may also be some carryover in sprinting with this form of training since you are conditioning the neuromuscular system to prolong its power and strength to support the complete duration of a sprint, not just the start where it’s usually referenced. Perhaps this could benefit speed and some aspects of special endurance since you are working to expand the alactic envelope, as Charlie Francis used to say.
Supplemental exercises do a fantastic job at addressing several potential structural deficiencies that may be present in one’s body. For example, single leg strength is going to be vital due to the Bilateral Deficit which I will discuss in more detail shortly. Moreover, being able to create and maintain stiffness at ground contact to ensure proper hip height at takeoff will be heavily reliant on single strength and power across every muscle group. There is a vast array of appropriate and specific exercises that can be prescribed to ensure an athlete is maximizing their strength potential in sprinting when it really counts.
This type of training also directly prevents or treats several injuries that could arise for a number of reasons. The list of reasons why supplemental exercises work so well in this arena is huge, but a prime example can be seen with bent knee hip dominant work. It’s important to train the posterior chain in both a bent and straight knee position, due to the movement principle known as “Active Insufficiency.” When we bend the knee or distal end of the hamstrings, then their ability to store energy and contract this muscle group is invariably reduced at the hip.
By default, the glutes will automatically step up and increase their level of contraction, and this becomes significant since the glutes are generally relatively weak and extremely important in sprinting, according to over a dozen studies that I’ve seen. When bent knee hip extension performance levels increase via exercises such as: barbell hip thrusts, glute ham raises, the nordic move, slideboard leg curls, stability ball leg curls, etc. it then automatically prevents overload to the hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, and calves for various reasons. All of these, as you know are common injury sites during max effort sprinting.
Prevention and management of neural fatigue both locally at muscle fibers and centrally throughout the entire nervous system is always a chore when programming, and very important if athletes want to become faster and super-compensate or peak at the right time. In most instances, supplemental exercises will preserve the nervous system so that we are not inhibiting its ability to recover, unless a sprinter is super strong in the weight room or overtraining elsewhere. These exercises will generate a very high amount of muscular and metabolic stress with subsequent tissue soreness in the hours and days to follow initially, but recovery rates from this type of training stimulus are generally much quicker than with true max effort work in my experience, and as a result, are less likely to create potential frustrating plateaus and performance issues that are common in sprinters or athletes alike.
Being able to dissect the body and provide specific strength exercises is so valuable for sprinters because you will never fully be able to develop target areas and muscle groups that may be lacking without integrating supplemental lifts into you or your athletes program. Over a dozen studies I’ve found correlate the squat and deadlift with sprinting speed, along with a lot of anecdotal evidence. These exercises to a phenomenal job in building a solid foundation of strength throughout the entire lower extremities, but at some point, a developed sprinter will have to specialize more and breakdown their exercise selection even further, in much the same way other sport cultures approach their training regime (i.e. power-lifters, bodybuilders, etc.)
As many of you I’m sure know, the glutes are one of the primary muscle groups acting during a sprint. 2 This becomes especially true during postural changes that automatically occur after the start and initial acceleration phase is over. Once the runner becomes upright, the glutes really start firing, especially in the stance or drive leg. I already discussed bent and straight knee hip dominant patterns earlier and they serve huge here as well. Forefoot Dominance is key in being able to prevent deceleration and increase or preserve top speed throughout a sprint. 3
Aside from just being more powerful which pushes sprinters forward onto their forefoot, the distal hamstrings need to be able to prevent or slow the knee from extending during the late recovery phase. If they are unable to eccentrically control excessive knee extension from occurring, the foot will inevitably land in front of the runners mass causing an over stride pattern which becomes detrimental from both a health and performance standpoint. Fortunately, lots of bent knee hip training can counteract this potential technical deficiency from emerging at any time.
Furthermore, straight knee hip training can reinforce stronger propulsion and hip hyper-extension which is a vital component to increased stride length and classic front and backside mechanic features.
Arm drive is obviously another key support feature in sprinting. Just look at the size and perceived strength of sprinters upper bodies. Supplemental lifts like chins, pulls, military presses, pushup variations, bench press, and much more are going to help really carve out a sprinters physique and ensure that more energy is fed in the intended direction and that the legs contract faster and more explosively. This is assuming of course that all program variables are prescribed properly based on the level of the sprinter, training objective, time of year, and training schedule.
Recommended Reading: The Speed Encyclopedia
The “Bilateral Deficit” is another limiting factor of our human movement system that supplemental lifts can help rectify which I mentioned previously. If you aren’t already familiar, basically our body finds it potentially neurologically confusing to execute contractions from both limbs simultaneously with maximal effort. 4 The mechanism for why this occurs wasn’t entirely clear based on what I researched, but contractions out of a two leg stance for a given leg were approximately 20% less than off of one leg according to some authorities. What this means is that sprinters may be potentially restricted in their force production capacity during an actual sprint unless they acquire more single leg strength via step-ups, sled variations, single leg squats, Bulgarian split squats, etc.
Last but not least, supplemental lifts for athletes help optimize total body posture which helps regulate performance. If the cervical spine is protracted forward, the thoracic spine is kyphotic, if the pelvis is tilted too far forward or too far back, or if the knees aren’t conditioned in a neutral alignment, then muscle balance will not be achieved and neither will higher levels of strength and power output due to cascading reciprocal inhibition.
#1-Weyand, P. Davis, A. Running performance has a structural basis. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 208: 2625-2631, 2005.
#2-Wiemann, K., Tidow, G. New studies in athletics 10: 29-49, 1995.
#3-Hasegawa, H. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21: 888-893, 2007.
#4-Bobbert, MF. Explanation of the human bilateral deficit in human vertical squat jumping. Journal of Applied Physiology 100: 493-499, 2005.
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