By now everyone and their mother has heard and read about the “sprinters vs. marathon runners” comparison. Sprint athletes are big, lean, and strong; marathon runners are weak, small, and fragile. As a result, most lifters hold onto this comparison as their crutch to avoid distance running, which, within context, makes sense. Since no one wants to look like a marathon runner, long jogs around the park shouldn’t be a staple in any muscle-building program. We know this…
But while that’s all fine and dandy, the reality is that getting jacked like a sprinter isn’t as easy as simply avoiding distance running. If it were, every guy in the gym would be walking around with 22 inch pipes and shredded 6 pack abs. Sure, elite sprinters lift hard, eat well, and have good genetics, but so do plenty of other lifters who, despite all of their efforts, remain stuck with toothpicks for limbs and doughy midsections.
Ipso facto, if all you take away from the sprinters vs. marathon runners comparison is that you should avoid distance running at all costs, you’re missing half of the equation. Sprinters don’t develop muscular physiques because they avoid distance running – they develop muscular physiques because, in addition to training hard, they actually sprint hard.
For that reason, it’s time to revisit the whole sprinters vs. marathon runners comparison and instead revise it to “sprinters vs. regular lifters” with the main difference being an obvious one: sprinters sprint, regular lifters don’t.
There’s a reason why sprinting shows up in Dr. Rusin’s Functional Power Training and Functional Hypertrophy Training (both of which I’ve completed with huge amounts of success), it simply works. The laundry list of benefits that accompany sprinting read almost like an infomercial: do you want to torch fat in the fastest and most effective way possible? Build more muscle? Develop explosive power? Boost testosterone, spike HGH production, increase protein synthesis, and improve insulin sensitivity?
It’s time to wind the clock back 20 years, dust off those long-forgotten running shoes, and re-learn how to sprint. While you’ll probably never sprint like an elite sprinter, you might as well look like you do. Sure, it’s going to be tough at first, but incorporating sprints into your training may very well be the ultimate game changer for taking your physique and performance to the next level.
Here’s the top 5 reasons to sprint for muscle and strength gains.
#1 Sprinting Is The Best Way To Burn Fat While Maintaining Muscle
While there’s definitely a time and place for low-intensity cardio, the research speaks loud and clear: for fat loss, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is king. There are a plethora of studies that have looked into and supported this notion, attributing the advantages of HIIT to various factors like EPOC (post-exercise oxygen consumption), enhanced insulin sensitivity, increased testosterone/HGH production, etc.
Diving deeper into the research, though, unfolds an interesting phenomenon; in many studies, the extent to which HIIT impacted fat loss was largely dependent on the actual modality that was used. In other words, while various forms of HIIT like biking, jumping rope, and rowing have certainly proven to be effective for fat loss, the results have been especially dramatic in studies that employed sprinting.
Nicholas Rizzo, a fitness researcher for RunRepeat, conducted an extensive meta-analysis of over 70+ scientific studies in order to compare the effects of conventional HIIT, sprint interval training (SIT), and moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) for fat loss. What he found was that, despite spending 60% less time exercising, SIT participants experienced a 39.6% higher reduction in body fat percentage than participants who performed conventional HIIT. In comparison to MICT, SIT resulted in a 91.8% higher reduction in body fat percentage while requiring 71.1% less time exercising.
The takeaway? Among all HIIT modalities, sprinting almost always reigns supreme.
One of the likely reasons for the stark differences in results stems from the fact that high-intensity interval training needs to be just that, high-intensity, in order to maximize its impact on fat loss. While a circuit consisting of burpees and squat jumps is cute and all, it’s hardly intense enough to deliver a significant training effect.
For that reason, sprinting is the clear-cut king for all things HIIT as it creates a brutal amount of fatigue and forces nearly every muscle in the body to fire on all cylinders.
Think about it: the body’s anaerobic energy systems are being pushed to their absolute limits, the arms and limbs are pumping as hard as possible, the core is working to withstand immense forces being placed on the trunk, and the feet are driving into the ground with maximal force on each and every step. Given all of these demands, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why high-level sprinters rest for 5-10 minutes between short sprints.
Beyond that, whereas other methods of conditioning are influenced by movement efficiency and skill (biking, rowing, etc.), sprinting is a whole different animal. Sure, someone whose running form resembles a deer on ice is going to be more exhausted after a sprint than, say, Usain Bolt, but there’s a reason why even Olympic sprinters, the most biomechanically perfect sprinters in the world, are completely taxed after a short race: sprinting is hard.
In other words, if you’re not gasping for air and contemplating whether or not to pack it in for the day after a 20-second sprint, it’s not because your sprinting mechanics are elite; it’s because you took it too easy and fell victim to mental midgetry. Maximal power output is maximal power output, regardless of skill.
#2 Sprinting Builds Muscle Both Directly & Indirectly
Sprinting’s impact on muscle growth is arguably the best-kept secret in the strength and conditioning world. Sure, it’s not in the same category as a squat or a deadlift (or any other lift, for that matter) but there are two unique mechanisms through which sprinting builds muscle both directly and indirectly.
First, sprinting increases the proportion of type II “fast twitch” muscle fibers in the legs, which has a direct correlation with increased muscle mass and strength – especially in the glutes and hamstrings. This is one of the reasons why the most explosive athletes in sports are almost always the ones with the best physiques, as their predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers enables them to train harder than most mere mortals.
Second, sprinting has been shown to yield enormous hormonal benefits by increasing protein synthesis, boosting testosterone, spiking HGH production, and improving insulin sensitivity. Since these hormones are paramount for muscle growth, fat loss, and recovery, sprinting is arguably the best “natural steroid” in existence.
In other words, sprinting won’t directly transform your biceps peak into a clay mold of Mount Everest, but it will facilitate positive hormonal adaptations that make it easier to grow and recover across the board. That means that, on top of building Instagram-worthy glutes and horse-like hamstrings, sprinting will stimulate more muscle growth throughout the rest of the body.
3. Sprinting Develops Power In a Way That Gym-Based Power Exercises Can’t Match
There are a number of ways to train for power – cleans, snatches, medicine ball throws, dynamic effort work, each of which can be phenomenal from a power development standpoint. That being said, there’s a missing link amongst almost all gym-based power exercises: actual movement through space.
Sure, the aforementioned exercises involve rapid changes in body positioning (e.g. hip extension and knee flexion), but there’s virtually zero movement in terms of actual physical displacement, which, believe it or not, is an integral part of living in the real world. It may be a tough pill to swallow for the lazier lifters out there, but big power clean numbers and loud medicine ball slams are hardly impressive if you who move with the coordination and fluidity of a cement-footed, pre-pubescent 11-year old boy, in which case, it’s time to start sprinting.
There are two particular reasons why sprinting is unparalleled for power development.
For starters, sprinting is the most “functional” power exercise in existence as it hones in on the most fundamental component of being a human being: locomotive movement. Paired with the fact that it simultaneously involves maximal exertion at peak intensities, there’s simply nothing that can replace its primal nature.
Moreover, sprinting involves significantly higher velocities than any other exercise, and it’s not even close. Here’s a fun fact: whereas elite weightlifters move 2 meters per second during a clean or snatch, elite sprinters move 10 meters per second, a 5x increase. Even average sprinters, who travel 8 meters per second, move at 4x the speed of said weightlifters.
What makes sprinting unique in this regard is that there’s zero resistance aside from bodyweight. Since most gym-based power exercises impose a degree of resistance in the form of weights or implements (barbells, medicine balls, etc.) the overall speed of movement is inevitably hindered. While certain exercises like box jumps are bodyweight-only, the problem is that their potential for sustained, repeated bouts of maximal exertion is limited to less than one second per jump. Sprinting, then, is the only exercise that involves unrestricted movement at peak speeds over the duration of 10-20+ seconds.
#4 Sprinting Recruits & Challenges The Entire Core Like Nothing Else
The core has two primary jobs:
To prevent unwanted extension, rotation, and lateral flexion at the trunk/spine.
To link the upper and lower body in order to create and exert maximal power.
In terms of challenging the core on both fronts, you’d be hard-pressed to find an exercise that fits the bill any better than sprinting.
Think about it: sprinting is a high-intensity, all-out exercise that requires full-body control and coordination, despite the fact that the arms and legs are pumping as violently as possible as the body propels through space. All the while, immense forces are being placed on the entire trunk throughout a dynamic, rapidly changing environment.
Given these demands, sprinting checks the “anti-movement” box in all three planes: the torso has to maintain a neutral position (anti-extension), resist excess rotation at the trunk (anti-rotation), and remain upright without bending towards either side (anti-lateral flexion). At the same time, the oft-neglected category of core training, hip flexion with a neutral spine, is being challenged to the N’th degree.
Moreover, since maximal power is the goal, the core must simultaneously work to link the upper and lower halves in order to create and express maximal force.
The result? Better core stability and control, an improved ability to exert maximal force, and for all the ab junkies out there, a chance to rediscover that all-but-forgotten six-pack.
#5 Sprinting Will Make You Better at Everything (And Harder to Kill)
Putting the aforementioned points together, there’s arguably no better exercise than sprinting for getting jacked, strong, and muscular while becoming a built-for-battle, well-oiled machine.
From a performance standpoint, sprinting will build explosive power, bulletproof your midsection, and improve your work capacity to seemingly limitless levels. From an aesthetic standpoint, sprinting is the best way to drop body fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible, minimize fat gain during a mass-gaining phase, or – for some lucky individuals – the secret sauce to building muscle while simultaneously losing fat.
In laymen’s terms, sprinting will make you better at (literally) everything. Plus, should a zombie apocalypse ever occur, you’ll be significantly harder to kill.
Sprint Training Guidelines
Before you venture out to the local high school football field in hopes of reliving your glory days, there are a number of things to keep in mind, lest you want to blow out your hamstrings and wind up bed-ridden for a week. Especially if you haven’t sprinted since the week before senior prom, it would behoove you to abide by the following guidelines:
It goes without saying that a thorough warm-up is paramount. Warming up for sprints requires more time than warming up to lift. All that stuff you used to do at the start of football practice, jumping jacks, high knees, power skips, build-up sprints, etc. are non-negotiable. If you’re not sure what to do, check out ‘The 6 Phases of a Dynamic Warmup.’
Start slow. There’s no need to be a hero and go all-out on day one, especially if you’re already banged up. After warming up, perform a number of low-intensity sprints starting at 50% intensity and then working up to 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90%, completing 1-2 each (or more) as necessary.
Keep it short and sweet. If you haven’t sprinted in years, a total distance between 100-150 yards is enough for one session. Whether that’s in the form of ten 10-yard sprints, five 20-yard sprints, or somewhere in between, staying within those guidelines will produce a meaningful training effect without much risk.
Monitor the intensity. Charlie Francis, arguably the greatest speed coach of all time, used to advocate sprinting at 95% intensity (as opposed to 100%) almost all of the time. Think of it like a max effort lift: the 5% drop makes virtually zero difference in terms of the benefits, but it’ll make a massive difference in terms of overall recovery and CNS fatigue.
Give yourself space to slow down. The majority of hamstring pulls occur while decelerating. For that reason, pick a distance that gives you 20+ yards of breathing room so that there’s ample room to slow down.
Rest as needed (within reason). Although HIIT is typically performed with short rest periods, not all HIIT is created equal. Sprinting is significantly more taxing than other modalities, which makes sufficient rest a must. Don’t sit around for too long, but wait until your breathing returns to somewhat normal levels before moving on to the next sprint.
How To Incorporate Sprints Into Your Training Program
For lifters who haven’t sprinted in years, 1-2 times per week is enough. After several weeks, adding in an additional day can be beneficial (provided you can recover from it). Ideally, sprints should be performed separate from lifting, with at least one buffer day before and after lower body training. If you must combine the two, performing 4-6 sprints before squatting or deadlifting is a good option to fire up the CNS and potentiate the system.
At the beginning, or at any point, for that matter, hill sprints or sprints on an incline treadmill are great options. The incline puts the body into a far safer position than flat-ground sprints due to the decreased footfall, which reduces joint stress and prevents over-striding. Plus, you can’t go as fast, which, for washed up lifters, especially, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Build-up sprints, which begin with a slow jog and gradually work up to a full sprint, are another meathead-friendly option that minimizes overall risk.
About The Author
Charley Gould, CSCS, PPSC, CFSC, USAW
Charley is a former professional baseball player, current strength-and-conditioning coach, and writer for T-Nation and Bodybuilding.com. He specializes in helping individuals look, feel, and perform like elite athletes. Gould is the head of sports performance at Universal Athletic Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.