Learning From Charlie Francis: Sled Drags & The Reverse Leg Press
The reverse leg press was one of the strength exercises revered by sprint coach Charlie Francis and his famous sprinter, Ben Johnson. Here's how we can use sled work to duplicate some of the adaptations brought about by this seldom appreciated exercise.
A colleague once told me that the strength work of Ben Johnson- the man that many consider to be history’s most talented sprinter- consisted of the incline bench press, the half-squat, and the reverse leg press. Later on, I read the book written by Johnson’s coach, The Charlie Francis Training System, and in it Francis talks about why the reverse leg press was integral to developing the muscles important to stride length and acceleration. He explains that the exercise favours the hip extensor portion of the hamstrings and even the hyper-extensors of the hip, that it begins with a concentric muscle action the same as a block start, and that the load is located behind the athlete- simulating the action of pushing the ground behind and away as one accelerates.
Well, for years I’ve wanted an affordable reverse leg press that wouldn't take up an absurd amount of floor space- and my search has not gone well. However, at a recent speed summit, world renowned strength coach Joe DeFranco reminded the audience of the versatility of sled-work and its usefulness as a “slow-method” for developing speed.
Though it sounds contradictory, what is meant by DeFranco is that speed in team sports is about the ability to accelerate more than it is about the ability to achieve top sprinting speeds. And, as opposed to the short lengths of time that the foot spends on the ground during top-speed sprinting, acceleration exhibits significantly longer ground contact times. DeFranco’s presentation was about using sleds to teach athletes to generate force during acceleration by loading the sled with as much weight as possible and dragging or pushing it with prolonged ground contact times. After watching his presentation I began to think that sleds might actually provide a viable alternative to the reverse leg press.
It turns out that aside from the cumbersome process of loading and unloading the sled, the exercise certainly checks off the right boxes. For one, during a sled drag the load is located behind the athlete and the athlete must adopt a posture that supports acceleration in order to drag it. If the sled is being pushed as opposed to dragged, it may even be better as it would include the recruitment of the chest muscles. Second, the range of motion and dragging angle favor the hip extensor portion of the hamstring as much if not more than the glutes. Third, the exercise begins concentrically (without a stretch) like sprint starts do. Fourth and most importantly, the longer ground contact times demanded by heavy sled drags allow large forces to be produced with each step, and can train athletes to cover short distances in less time and with a decreased amount of strides.
If you are looking for training methodologies and tools to improve speed and acceleration but you don’t have a reverse leg press- sleds are a great option.
As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or inquiries about how we might serve your sports performance needs.