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The transfer of maximal strength to sprint performance


Sprinting is a movement that is a key skill in the sport of track and field, although it also occurs frequently in almost every team/field sport. Research shows that elite status and/or team success in these sports has high correlation with sprint ability (Baker & Newton, 2008; Fry and Kraemer, 1991; Gravina et al., 2008; Seitzet al., 2014). Therefore it is of major interest to the strength and conditioning coach to understand the effect of maximal strength on sprint performance.

In the early beginnings of sport science, there was very little attempt made to apply science-based training strategies to sprinting, as it was generally believed that sprint performance was entirely dictated by genetics (Delecuse, 1997). Coaching perspective have changed since then; it is now generally well-accepted that any sport that requires high velocity sprinting should incorporate some kind of strength training. However, there is at present a large amount of disagreement within S&C as to exactly what role training for maximal strength should play in the pursuit of improved sprinting.

Rationale for increasing strength to increase speed

During a sprint, there are 3 major forces acting upon the athlete: gravity, wind resistance, and the ground reaction force (GRF) between the athlete’s feet and the ground. With strength training we are attempting to manipulate the 3rd variable of GRF.

In theory, increasing the maximal force generating ability of an athlete should allow for a higher peak GRF and greater impulse per stride (Hunter et al., 2005), allowing them to attain higher acceleration and maximum velocity (Cronin et al., 2007). This idea is given credence by studies that have compared elite to non-elite sprinters note higher force production in elite sprinters (Hunter et al., 2005; Mero et al., 1992).

Issues with increases in maximal strength

Increases in maximal strength likely reach a point of diminishing returns for sprinting. Of particular concern is ensuring that the athlete does not add so much muscle mass that body mass increases. This would increase the amount of effort needed to resist the force of gravity and decrease sprint times (Ostojic, 2003).

Additionally, for a highly explosive action such as sprinting, force is only as useful as the rate at which it can be applied. Sprinting exhibits extremely short contact times, there is not enough time to develop the kind of force that would be associated whilst lifting maximal loads. For example, Mero (1988) reported that elite sprinters coming off the blocks (the slowest part of a sprint) had just 342 ± .022 s available to produce force. It would then seem more likely that exercises that focus on a fast rate of force development (such as plyometrics or other power exercises) would have a greater transfer to sprint training. Therefore it is not yet clearly understood just how much transfer an increase in maximal strength can influence sprint performance.

Image from Hunter et al. (2005) showing the different forces acting on a sprinter.

Research on sprinters

It is important to note that while there are many studies examining the effect of other resistance training modalities such as hypertrophy and resisted sprinting, this review will specifically address the effect of an increase in maximal strength (1RM) and sprint performance. As such, it’s conclusions will largely only be applicable to compound barbell exercises which can be loaded to maximal weights.

Although both strength training and sprint training are used widely in strength and conditioning, there are few studies examining the effect of maximal strength on sprint performance (Cronin et al., 2007).

A meta-analysis from Seitz et al. (2014) pooled data from 15 studies and found a significant correlation between effect sizes for increases in back squat (full, parallel, or half) and sprint times (r = - 0.77; p ≤ 0.001; 95 % CI -0.85 to -0.67). Additionally, combining strength training with both power training and plyometric training is likely to be the best resistance training approach for enhancing sprint performance than just using one of these approaches (Adams et al., 1992; Haff & Nimphius, 2012; Harris et al., 2000)

Research on sprinters with resistance training experience indicates that increasing maximal strength (in tandem with sprint training) can lead to improvements in sprint ability. A study on elite junior sprinters found a 1.9% and 4.3% improvement in 20m sprint flying time and acceleration, respectively (Blazevic & Jenkins, 2002). Interestingly, despite the researchers using two groups, one that trained with low loads at a high velocity and one that used high loads at low velocity, they found no difference in improvement between groups. Botb groups had resistance training experience so it is unlikely that this could be explained by a novice training effect.

Research on field sport athletes

The literature shows an increase in maximal strength can also lead to improved sprint performance in team sports like rugby and soccer as well, so long as actual sprint training (and potentially power/plyometric training as well) is also included (Coutts et al., 2003; Kotzamanidis et al., 2005; Seitz et al., 2014). Coutts et al. (2003) reported a significant improvement in 10m (1.2 ± 0.07 %) and 20m (1.2 ± 1.2 %) performance following a increase in mean full squat 3RM from 87.6 ± 19.3 kg to 120.1 ± 22.2 kg. However it is important to note that the players also trained for speed and power as well. In youth soccer players (approximately 17 years old), a group that combined strength training with sprint training significantly enhanced 30m sprint times from 4.34 ± 0.17 seconds to 4.19 ± 0.14 seconds (Kotzamanidis et al., 2005). Interestingly, the group who only performed strength training saw no significant increase in sprint performance, despite a larger increase in half squat 1RM. Though there is still a need for more research, these findings may indicate that trained subjects will only benefit from an increase in maximal strength if it is trained in tandem with actual sprint training.

Research on recreational/untrained subjects

The training literature clearly shows that an increase in maximal strength is highly likely to increase sprint ability in untrained or recreationally active individuals (Dintiman, 1964 ;Kraemer et al. 2000; Murphy & Wilson, 2010; Tricoli et al. 2005; Wilson et al., 1996). Taking these studies as a whole, it appears that an average of about 23% increase in lower body strength (i.e. 1RM squat) is required to elicit a significant increase in sprint times (Cronin et al., 2007). Most studies that have failed to see a concomitant improvement in sprint times did not attained a 1RM improvement of this size (Balsalobre-Fernandez et al., 2013; Cormie et al., 2010; McBride et al., 2002).

However this research may be useful for informing us on the general correlation between strength and sprint ability. The current research would indicate that in subjects with little training experience, an increase in maximal strength will result in improved sprint performance. Murphy and Wilson (2010) had their cohort of 30 recreationally active men perform strength training, where a significant increase in squat 1RM (Pre: 115±20 kg, Post: 139 ±19 kg) resulted in a significant decrease in 40m sprint time (Pre: 5.83 ± 0.36 s, Post: 5.70 ± 0.28 s). Dintiman (1964) also observed significant increases in untrained subjects’ 50m sprint time (9%) when maximal strength was increased in conjunction with flexibility.

Sex differences

There is very little research on maximal strength’s impact on sprint performance in females (Cronin et al., 2007). Interestingly, a study from Fry et al. (1991) found that despite a significant increase in female volleyball player’s 1RM squat, there was no significant increase in 9 m or 37 m sprint times. It could be that biological sex may affect the transfer of strength training to sprint performance, however this one study is not enough to make such an assertion.


Squats are the most commonly tested exercise with relevance to strength training for sprints (Seitz et al., 2014). Sprint performance has been shown to improve when using both smith machine squats, barbell squats, barbell half squats (Blazevich and Jenkins, 2002; Coutts, 2003; Kotzamanidis et al. 2005; Wisløff et al, 2004). One common issue in the literature is the use of different squat depths, which makes results difficult to compare. Research is mixed as to which type of squat is more suited to enhancing sprint speed. Rhea et al. (2016) reported that the 1RM for quarter squats was more strongly correlated with 40-yard sprint time than half or full squats, whereas research on young soccer athletes found no difference between the squat depth used (Keiner et al., 2014) These results could indicate that athletes of a higher training age will respond better to higher specificity (quarter squat) in their exercises when trying to improve sprint performance.

There is a significant difference between the degree of performance improvement obtained from different training frequencies, with 2 days per week generally producing the best results (Seitz et al., 2014). For example, Paz - Franco et al. (2017) found that 2 days per week led to greater sprint improvements than one day per week or one day every two weeks, in professional soccer players. For in-season training, Rønnestad et al. (2011) also found one strength maintenance session per week was superior to one every 2 weeks for sprint performance.

Deadlifts were found effective in untrained test subjects, whereas hip thrusts were not (Dintiman, 1964; Bishop et al., 2017). Interestingly, Contreras (2016) found that hip thrusts were superior to front squats for improving sprint distances of both 10 and 20m.

Impact on different sprint distances

Though there is little research testing the link directly, it would appear that strength training has a greater transfer to shorter than longer distances. Rumpf et al. (2016) compiled a brief review on the effect of different training modalities on performance at varying distances. They found the effect size for strength training was small (ES = 0.31) and decreased as the sprint distance increased. This would indicate that acceleration is the phase of a sprint which maximal strength transfers most to. This is perhaps unsurprising given that it is here when there is a longer amount of time available to produce force.


The evidence is strongly indicates that an increase in maximal strength (in sufficient magnitude) can improve sprint performance, but there appears to be some limitations to its applicability.

The first is that strength training is not a replacement for sprint training. Almost every study that has compared a sprint-and-strength-training group to a strength-training-only group has found the former to achieve higher results. This makes perfect sense when viewing the problem through the lense of training specificity: it is logical that practicing the act of sprinting is critical to achieving maximum results in that skill. For example, Lockie et al. (2012) compared groups of athletes using sprint training, strength training, plyometrics, and resisted sprint training. Although all groups improved acceleration similarly, the strength training group was the only one that did not improve power measures such as reactive strength index, drop jump height, and countermovement jump. Additionally, the free-sprint group was the only one that improved sprint specific variables such as flight time and contact time, and had greater improvements in stride frequency.

It is important to note that simply having the ability to produce large amounts of force is not sufficient to sprint at high velocities. The athlete must also possess the technical ability to express that force in the right direction, such as horizontally in the acceleration phase (Morin et al., 2011).


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