The Key to Speed Is In Your Spine

A nuance of sprinting technique might change how you coach speed forever.

One of the most stagnant professions in all of the land is coaching strength and conditioning—particularly at the college level. This is not a shot at my peers in an attempt to make myself look special. I don’t care where you go in the country; make a stop at any university and you are going to see a weight room full of kids squatting, cleaning, deadlifting, and benching. It just is the way it is, and there is no dramatic change in sight.

A common postseason practice for many college strength coaches is to make a few calls to programs that we respect and agree to a visit for a couple of days to talk shop. The intent of the visit is to share ideas, and hopefully find a better or new way to teach the same ol’ stuff. I’ve written countless articles on coaching and how to connect with your athletes, yet the very best coaches in the business simply teach the basics in the most relatable way for their athletes. The rapport is established, the energy is set, and they know how to deliver to their kids in the most effective way—the same ol’ stuff.

You’re Not Alone in Your Rut

Listen, I’m as guilty as anyone. I love having my ideas affirmed from someone I respect. Our profession is flooded with guys and gals who can flat out coach their asses off. Super smart, extremely resourceful folks who can get anyone moving with precision. I would love to think I’m one of those people, and these visits have the ability for me to, in my mind, substantiate that I’m on top of things. The glaring issues with that way of thinking are twofold. First, do I really need to have so-and-so tell me I’m right on the money with my approach? And second, what am I potentially missing out on by not stepping out of my comfort zone and investigating something off the beaten path?

My first major realization with the potential of doing something completely abstract happened by accident. How many of you are martial artists? Well, I am (loosely) and my understanding of human movement was flipped on its head when I started studying baguazhang with my Sifu when I was in medical school. I trained bagua and tai chi with him for five years, and my own movement became so detailed, so refined that my glory days of “athleticism” were not only revitalized but probably surpassed.

As I moved better, my coaching started to take on a new look. I understood my own system of building athletes in a much deeper way, and even created levels of nuance that I realized no one else was doing. It was revolutionary how it changed how I was approaching my kids, deepened my understanding of biomechanics, and completely revamped how I thought about the same ol’ stuff.

What’s Up with David Weck?

Early in December 2016, my assistant Chris White started doing some unconventional training that he’d seen an old friend of mine, David Weck, talk about on Facebook. For those of you who don’t know who David is, he’s the founder of BOSU Fitness, the inventor of the BOSU Ball, and one of the most forward-thinking coaches in the world. David is, more than anything else, a balance expert. He understands balance on a level that would make most of us cower into the corner. I met David in early 2007 when he paid a visit to me and my staff on the recommendation of a mutual friend. David and I hit it off instantly because of our mutual love for the Chinese internal martial arts. That one visit set the stage for over a decade of friendship from afar, one that would pay massive dividends near the end of 2016.

As I was saying, Chris White began dissecting what David was posting for a couple of weeks before asking me if I could get in contact with him and perhaps set up a meeting. David and I had been friends for years, but most of our conversations centered around the arts, not so much around strength training. I had, however, hit a bit of a stale place in my own thinking, and figured that if anyone could inspire some thought, it would be the outside-the-box thinking of David Weck. We had one Skype meeting that resulted in a trip for White and I down to Weck Method in San Diego on December 19th.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what we were going to experience, but I knew it would be something I had never heard before. I could have made calls anywhere in the country, and would have been granted permission to come visit most anyone. I needed a shot in the arm, and I knew it. And I knew that I wasn’t going to get inspired by someone who was going to pat me on the back within the profession, and spend the days talking about lifts, techniques, and drills I already knew.

Within ten minutes of our arrival to Weck Method, I knew I had made the right decision. David has almost a supernatural gift of seeing and analyzing movement. His focus at this time was on a funky sprinting nuance that he had identified nearly a decade ago, but he hadn’t refined his analysis of it until only three months prior. We had been communicating on random other things for the entirety of 2016, but it wasn’t until the fall that he said, “Chris, I have something profound for you.”

Dialing in the Generator of Force

World class sprinters, the fastest men in football, the fastest men in basketball, and the most explosive athletes regardless of sex all do one very subtle thing when they sprint: something David has trademarked as Head Over Foot. Nearly all sprint and speed coaches teach athletes to keep the head over the center of the body when sprinting. The idea here is that the core is a transmitter of force to and through the limbs, not the generator of force. Dr. Stuart McGill is the king of this idea when it comes to lifting weights, and he’s dead right.

The problem is that many coaches then go out to the track, and the notion of the core being a brace finds its way into sprinting work. This is where David’s discovery and painstaking analysis had shown that the spine is not only a structural aspect, but more importantly becomes what David calls the “spinal engine.” We sat down and watched video after video of Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Billy Hamilton, Chris Johnson—the list goes on and on. The entire lot of them display this nearly non-detectable trait. David’s conjecture was that this trait is not only something unique to the fastest people in the world, but asks the bigger question: why.

Video courtesy of The Weck Method.

Harnessing the Spinal Engine

Now, this is where David Weck sets himself apart from everyone else. Weck Method is a 7000 square foot laboratory where the mad scientist develops and tests the sea of ideas he has (which, I promise you, are infinite). When we arrived on the 19th, we didn’t just sit around and talk about some funky trait that the fastest people have. David had built an entire system of what most of us would consider to be completely unorthodox exercises to train this very thing. The spinal engine, something Serge Gracovetsky wrote about in the 80s, was and is something that can be trained. More importantly, the stronger the core becomes with David’s list of exercises, the stronger this very simple trait appears.

I’m known as a kettlebell guy throughout the industry, and I’m proud of it. What most people don’t know is that my program with our athletes for multidirectional speed is where I actually shine. Year after year, we produce some of the fastest teams in the country. And when I say fast, I don’t mean track. I’m talking football, baseball, and soccer. A lot of our success with multidirectional speed has to do with the level of detail and time we invest in teaching these kids how to be hyper efficient with their feet, head and eyes, shin angles, and arm swing. I’ve literally spent two decades perfecting this program, and I’d put it up against anyone else’s system in the world.

What I haven’t found is a linear system that meshed with some of my ideas about turning. I needed seamlessness for both so that one lends itself to the other. I needed harmony and similarities that would shine through regardless if I was talking about accelerating forward, left, or right. I found it with David’s ideas.

Chris and I spent two full days with David reviewing the system and then immersing ourselves in his exercises. We left San Diego sore from head to toe, but with tools that I could implement immediately with my teams.

Video courtesy of The Weck Method.

Implementing the System

On January the 9th of 2017, we started our winter quarter at Cal Poly. I spent an entire week implementing this new system with my two fall sports teams, who were starting their respective offseasons: football and soccer. The assimilation period was short, and because I work with a crop of athletes who are very smart, the uptake was nearly immediate. I built opportunities to infuse David’s ideas into my already established lifting program. The outcome?

It’s only been a month since we started, and the results are astonishing. Speed is expressed through power, efficiency, and grace. Many athletes are born with one or two of those attributes, but need to train the others to become truly fast. Anyone can get a person to be powerful, especially when you control the strength-to-bodyweight ratio. But efficiency and grace are typically only given to those who pick the right parents, if you catch my drift.

David’s system allows us to address all three aspects of agility in a way that I can take a clumsy lineman, work a few concepts, drill like crazy, and almost like magic, transform him into a hyper-efficient, graceful big man. It’s almost impossible to understand until you see it with you own eyes.

You’ll Thank Me Later

The good news for you is that Weck Method, Cal Poly Strength and Conditioning, and Breaking Muscle have partnered to bring you the whole kit-and-caboodle. Over the next several months, Chris White, David Weck, and myself will be writing for Breaking Muscle’s Coaches Only site to deliver this entire system to you, the reader. If you are an athlete, if you are a coach, I can’t urge you enough to check in with Coaches Only and hear some of the most groundbreaking ideas in the speed development world.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit with David and receive his mentoring. I’m also rather proud of myself to have had the nerve to step outside of my comfort zone and take the leap of faith to not only listen to something new and exciting, but also make the decision to work it with my athletes. Catch us if you can…

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