Upper Body: How to develop the perfect sprinter's upper body, thanks to Linford Christie.
Upper body? But you sprint with your legs, surely? True enough, but a sprinter neglects strength in the upper body at his or her peril. Dynamic arms and torso add an additional explosive weapon to the sprinting armoury. As an indicator of upper-body strength, many top male sprinters can bench well over100 kg. And both male and female athletes will also include in their weights workouts upright rows, press in front and behind the neck, dumbbell flies and so on - as well as literally tens of thousands of bodyweight circuit exercises.
Now that Britain's most successful athlete is coaching, you can readily see his trademark arm and torso emphasis being reflected in the developing physiques of the athletes he coaches - for instance, Jamie Baulch (400m) and Darren Braithwaite (100 and 200m). I recently watched Braithwaite undertake one of Christie's upper-body sessions, and in doing so gained a real insight into the hard work that goes into conditioning for an event that lasts a bare 10 seconds.
First I asked Braithwaite why there was a need for a powerful upper body. A dynamic arm drive is essential, he said, at the start, middle and end of a sprint race.
The start and pick-up
As Braithwaite explained, the rearward drive of the arms behind the body as it accelerates from the blocks will add to the exaggerated drive of the legs and will also help keep the athlete low - all required for a quick getaway. Great power is needed by the sprinter to accelerate rapidly and a vigorous arm drive will contribute to this and prime the athlete for the pick-up, mid and end phases of the race.
Mid-race, the sprinter will most probably be on top of his or her form and should feel in total control. Braithwaite emphasized that at this point the arms and legs should be working in perfect harmony. 200m and 400m runners may actually concentrate on arm movement mid-race in order to stay relaxed - hunched shoulders will cramp their ability to do this.
When form begins to fade (particularly over 400m), a concentration on a purposeful and long arm drive can help prevent the inevitable shortening of stride length that often ensues. Only a well-conditioned one-lapper will be able to drive the arms purposefully at this stage. Power and endurance are required - lactic acid can build up in the arms as much as in the legs.
The torso - abs and back
Throughout the sprint, abs and back muscles will be working as a kind of strait-jacket to allow for maximum power transference between upper body, legs and track.If the torso is weak, then lateral movement can occur and waste valuable effort. The sprinter needs all the powerful available to go straight down the track. No wonder, then, that sprinters complete punishing circuit routines which involve repeated dynamic exercises. Look at Christie himself as he drives for the line, a balanced and rigid upper body, arms punching forward and back, and you'll see the supreme result of such specific conditioning.
Non-sprinters can find out what the torso goes through when sprinting by completing a 30-second burst of stationary arm sprinting. You'll find your body wants to rotate laterally with each arm movement unless you brace yourself mid-region.
Athletes like Braithwaite will work on the various muscles in the shoulder, chest, abdominal and back regions by employing weights and circuit routines, sometimes in combination. Some sessions will be heavy, others will be more endurance-based, depending on the time of the training year.
All the exercises that follow form part of Christie's upper-body workouts, used specifically during the conditioning phase, ie, pre-Christmas/indoor season.
Bench press (chest development)
The bench press forms a key part of the sprinter's upper-body workouts - although it must be said that the exercise can be over-done, especially if athletes becomes too concerned with what they can 'bench' rather than with why they are training: for speed. The bench primarily develops the pectorals and triceps but in a plane of movement that is not specific to the sprinting action. Don't regard the bench as the equivalent of the squat for the upper body; although there are positive strength gains, these are less specific to the sprinting action than squatting itself.
Sample part session:
Bench - 25 reps x 50kg, immediately followed by 25 press-ups. Two minutes recovery, then repeat 4-5 times. Two mins recovery, then same again, but with 40kg on the bar.
Shoulder press, upright rowing, bent-over rowing
Developing the deltoids, rhomboids and traps, these exercises, like the bench, will generally strengthen the muscles used in the sprinting action. Performing front and rear shoulder press variants will provide the greatest dividend since the deltoids and traps work to pull the arms both back and forwards, as in sprinting. Christie's athletes perform seated shoulder press, which prevents the legs giving any assistance to the exercise.
Sample part session:
Seated shoulder press - 15 x 40kg, immediately followed by 15 x upright rowing, immediately followed by 15 x bent-over rowing (all with the same bar loaded at 40kg). Two mins rest, and repeat as above up to 5 times
Dumbbells allow for a more symmetrical body development, since a weaker left arm cannot be overridden by a stronger right one, as can be the case when using barbells. For this part of the session, Braithwaite used various weight dumbbells - 15, 10 and 7.5kg. The combination of exercises involved sprint arm drives, alternate shoulder press and curls, all done in succession with about 20-30 reps of each exercise. Once again, 4-5 sets would be carried out.
All the examples given here actually formed a part of only ONE strength endurance session as performed by Braithwaite! I would like to thank him for his invaluable help in preparing this article.
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