It’s All in the Hips

“You can look at any sprinter and all you see are big bulging muscles in the legs, but the real secret is the power generation in the hips. Usain Bolt ran on vary fast legs as a Youth and Junior athlete, but the big difference now is the power from the hips.  Plus great technique.”

– Jimson Lee, “Glen Mills on Usain Bolt and Good Sprinting Technique”

Better stated, the power comes from the glutes! This is a short piece about athletic performance and literally getting your butt in gear. Sprinting is critical to success in a very large number of athletic endeavors. Athletes are always looking for that new thing that will help give them get an edge, but we, as a result, often end up over looking something as simple as using the largest and strongest/most powerful muscles in the body (I know pound for pound the tongue is the strongest, but running your mouth is not quite what I mean here).

Some of you might already be doing this and if that is the case, great! But I have a feeling that most are not and are therefore struggling, despite their athleticism, to find that next gear. Again, this is one of those stories where I was obviously late to the party and only wish I knew this (I mean really knew this) when I was younger. This one change made a huge difference in my athletic performance.

But the secret is not in doing any crazy drills; I mean, obviously, sprinting is highly technical and drills help build strength in the right places. The secret is in being able to engage your glutes and really feel them being used, and this will change how running fast feels!

Charlie Francis was quoted as saying, “You run on the ground, you sprint over it.” In this, he was describing what is known as the “sprint position.” The basics are simple enough:  Coaches all have their various coaching cues, such as running tall, shoulders down and relaxed, strong arm drives, high knees, etc. But many lack the strength to get into and hold this position, and many more, I don’t think, can really imagine what it’s supposed to feel like.  Once you feel your hips (I really mean your glutes doing all the work), a lot of the above will begin to take care of itself.  After the initial breakthrough occurs, refining will be what it takes to really perfect it.

The reason why I feel pretty confident in believing that most athletes are not engaging and using their glutes as much as they could be was based on my experience teaching middle school P.E. in Maryland. I had had the breakthrough myself after coming off of a pretty long layoff from a knee injury (rugby related) and was immediately enjoying a great deal more success on the pitch. So when it came to doing track and field with my kids, I decided to show them my discovery and see if it could help them. Instead of doing the usual boring A and B skips, etc., I skipped all of that and had the kids, instead, do some light accelerations to safely warm up before we tried my experiment and really take off.

This also gave me the chance to watch them and develop a baseline–especially the fast kids–to see if maybe they weren’t already doing so. As I watched them running and then building up to their fastest, I just wasn’t convinced that any of them were really employing the power of their gluteus maximus muscles.

It was at this point that I started asking questions about how running their fastest felt, where they felt it the most, and most felt it in their quads and calves. It was here that I had them do some basic A marches but encouraged them to try and feel their glutes pulling the leg down rather than thinking about ‘pushing’ the leg down with their quads. I even would have the kids push their raised leg down into my hands have them tell me which muscles they felt doing the work. Again, most felt the stress in their quads, just as if going up stairs. So I had them shift focus and really pull the leg down into my hands using their glutes. Most picked up this little tweak pretty quickly, and I could immediately feel them pushing into my hands with a lot more force. Once we had figured out how to feel our glutes being involved, a really cool thing started to happen:  As they sprinted across the field, there was an almost night-and-day difference. They all looked like little Usain Bolts trucking across the field. You could see them having more power in each stride, bouncing down the field. This part was another coaching point:  I had them visualize and imagine their feet and ankles were giant springs. I could see stronger plantar flexion as they ‘toed off’ and their strides were bigger. They couldn’t necessarily move their limbs any faster, but the power they were generating by using their glutes was propelling them that much further with each stride, which was something I knew from finally figuring it out myself. Visually, their technique just looked that much better polished, and… dare I say it? world class. It was pretty cool, and the kids really could feel the difference. Now they were feeling (until they got tired) like they were flying.

The other by-product of feeling the power coming from your glutes is that you will feel taller and higher off the ground. You can’t have your hips too high off the ground; you want your hips as high off the ground as possible. Once you start experiencing this sprint position, as efficient as it is, initially, fatigue will come quick. Therefore, you will have to reboot your training to build the right strength and endurance to hold that new feeling for all-out sprints.

There is a tremendous amount of material out there, obviously, but if you are an athlete who is looking to gain a little more speed, I strongly suggest Charlie Francis’s book, The Charlie Francis Training System, and watching a great video produced by Coach Bud Winters. They will offer other insights into technique and movement that will be very helpful. I can guarantee that what they teach will be profoundly more helpful if you already have your butt in gear!