Stepping Backwards to Run Faster

Whilst observing and working with numerous coaches conducting speed/agility/change of direction workouts I’ve noticed that a good amount of coaches do not allow the players to perform a false step (also known as a plyo step/rhythm step/backward step) before accelerating. I’ve had debates with several coaches in the past about this at various universities and training facilities, as my philosophy is to actively promote this ‘step back’ and develop my athletes ability to use it effectively, whereas theirs is to either deliberately set the athlete up in a split stance or to tell the athlete to consciously avoid stepping back. I wanted to investigate this difference in coaching philosophy and give a definitive, research-supported answer.

If positioned in a parallel (shoulder/hip width) stance, an athlete’s natural reaction will be to take a false/backward step prior to commencing forward motion. Many coaches deem this backward step to be literally ‘a step in the wrong direction’ and believe it is less time efficient (a ‘wasted movement’) than a forward step. This has resulted in coaches deliberately stopping their athletes from using this technique. Numerous articles (both academic and non-academic) have been published that state that taking this approach may be a mistake.


To provide an evidence-base I recommend reading the research paper by Frost (2008). The researcher took 27 male athletes and tested them in three sprint-start stance conditions – parallel with a false step, parallel with a forward step, and a split stance. They found that the false step was superior to the forward step, particularly over the first 2.5m. The split stance resulting in quicker movement over the first 2.5m and was therefore superior to the false step in this regard. However another study cited in the article found that more horizontal force and power could be generated at push off due to the presence of a stretch-shortening cycle in the false step (hence the alternative name ‘plyo step’). The reason the split stance results in slightly quicker sprint times is because the center of mass does not have to be shifted and thus sufficient horizontal impulse can be generated more rapidly (albeit not as much total force as the false step). The article concluded that they are unable to justify the deliberate removal of the false step when coaching athletes as it is clearly effective in improving sprint performance in distances as short as 2.5m.


Despite the results of the aforementioned study I can understand many coaches’ rationales for not utilizing the false step in sports such as football. Firstly in football there are numerous stoppages between plays, due to this the athletes are able to set up in a split stance which was shown to be effective over short distances, and if athletes have perfected this starting position they may get better results than the participants from Frosts study. In addition, this split stance is a more stable position (particularly for the defensive/offensive line) as players only have fractions of a second to hit or brace to be hit.


In other sports I believe that the false step should be encouraged, particularly in those sports that lack sufficient time to allow players to reset into a split stance position before commencing play. It is a natural response for athletes and will result in faster sprint times than a forward step and almost equally as fast as a split stance, with the added benefit of more horizontal force being produced due to utilization of the stretch-shortening cycle. Also with practice and coaching the false step may promote a more horizontal torso position that will be beneficial for optimal acceleration mechanics and force production, whereas the forward step may actually increase the likelihood of an athlete stepping forward excessively and creating a braking force thus slowing them down.





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About scotthobbsstrength

Scott Hobbs - Strength and Conditioning Coach Scott graduated from St Marys University, London (UK) in 2014 with a B.Sc (Hons.) in Strength and Conditioning Science (First Class) and has almost completed his post graduate studies (PGDip) in Sports Rehabilitation. He is a Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a Level 1 British Weightlifting Coach, a Level 1 USA Track and Field Coach, and a certified personal trainer. With over seven years experience in the strength and conditioning field (and more than ten in the fitness/health industry), Scott has worked with amateur/club level to elite national and international athletes in sports including rowing, football, rugby, powerlifting, sprint hurdling, weightlifting, lacrosse, and tennis (amongst others). Scott currently works as the associate strength and conditioning coach at the United States Military Academy (West Point) where he works with Army Football, Men's Rugby, Men's and Women's Tennis, and Women's Basketball. He also runs the analytics program for football and basketball, which includes GPS and readiness monitoring. Prior to West Point, he gained experience in D1 athletics at the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University. Before leaving the U.K. he was graduate assistant lecturer at St Mary's University where he taught undergraduate students on the Strength and Conditioning Science degree program. Other previous experience includes work with athletes at DeSales University, London Irish Professional Rugby Club, St Mary's University, and London Rowing Club. In his spare time, Scott actively competes in strength-based sports, having won a national competition in the UK and won two state meets (setting a state record in New York) in powerlifting. He also enjoys outdoor and combat-based sports. Scott currently lives with his wife, Anna, and son, Leo, in Highland Falls, NY (USA).

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