First-Step and Quickness are two important elements of speed development and are vital to all athletes, no matter what sport they play. First-Step can be defined as the first 2-5 steps of an athlete in any direction (Linear forward, linear backward, lateral sprint, lateral shuffle, diagonals).
By our definition, the first-step not only includes movements from a standstill but also from moving and changing directions. Quickness is simply rapidity of movement and is also necessary for athletes. Being able to train the muscles to fire quickly will help make any athlete more explosive and ultimately faster.
Most court and field sports involve footwork and short, quick bursts of motion. It is important to improve quickness and coordination so that athletes can perform these movements naturally.
Key Components of the First-Step: · Stay Low · Balls of Feet · Balanced · React · Drop and Go
Efficiency Key Components of Quickness: · Balls of Feet · Balanced · Efficiency · Arm Movement · Coordination
Although many athletes are inherently explosive from a stand-still, a quick first-step can be developed through proper technique and training.
The Science Behind It
The primary technical aspect of the first-step is, rather obviously, explosiveness from a stand-still… or not.
Before further explanation, imagine this: you are holding a rubber band against a table, and you are attempting to hit the table with the highest force possible. If you hold one side on the table and simply drop the other, will the rubber band ever develop much speed or force? Now If however, you quickly stretch the rubber band higher up a couple of inches, it will shoot down at a rapid pace. This is the essence of the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC) of the human body.
There are two stages of muscular contraction during movement: eccentric (the lengthening) and concentric (the shortening; generally, the explosion of a jump, stride, or first-step). The rapid change from eccentric to concentric creates a strong elastic force in the muscle which, again, is known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle. This is precisely why a countermovement jump, where one drops their hips and then explodes up, will always develop more force than a non-countermovement jump, where the athlete does not utilize the eccentric contraction.
So, how does this relate to a first-step? It’s simple: if you can learn how to utilize the SSC on every first-step, you will immediately add to your explosiveness from a “stand-still.”
How to Stimulate the SSC
If for example, you were teaching a younger basketball player how to quickly explode past their defender, you would never instruct them to first take a step back, would you? It’s literally a step in the wrong direction; it will make you slower and give the defense more time to react. False.
The only way to activate the SSC, which biomechanically provides more force and thus a higher rate of acceleration, is to first load with an eccentric contraction, which can be created by taking either a “negative step,” “scissor step,” or skip, which can be lateral or linear and many times can also be used with a cross.
Additionally, the negative step has been proven to produce more force. According to a study performed by PJF Performance and the CSUF Biomechanics Lab, when taking a negative step, the test study created 2074.67 Newtons of force, over 1.3 times more force than when not taking a negative step (1566.07 N).
Lower Position = More Efficient First-Step
Apart from the Stretch Shortening Cycle, there remain a few key technical points that athletes must perfect to maximize their explosiveness. And these all stem directly from the command, almost cliché, that most athletes have heard about an athletic stance heard redundantly their entire life: “be low.”
How many athletes actually knew why they needed to remain low when attacking or exploding? In all likelihood, very few. But when you investigate it more thoroughly, one finds that there are two main benefits in attacking from a low position.
Firstly, when an offensive player is low, their strides automatically become longer and more controlled, without over-striding. When a player’s shin-knee angle surpasses 90º, it becomes a deceleration position. And, taking a long first-step will generally cause a player to do this… That is unless they are low. When low, a player is biomechanically more able to take longer strides without compensating explosiveness. And, longer strides, rather intuitively, mean that an offensive player is able to get past their defender more efficiently.
Secondly, when low, a player maximizes their first-step by applying force at a more efficient angle. Remember, force is a vector; not only the amount but direction/angle matters. When exploding out of an upright position, the body naturally wants to explode vertically, because that is the angle of the body. When low, the body is in a more horizontal position, thus able to expend more of the force in the horizontal plane, which is what truly matters in a first-step.
Finally, when low, the entire muscular system of the lower body is engaged when exploding. Think about it: if you explode by hinging your hips and knees just slightly, not much of the major muscles in the lower body will be utilized. When low, every bit of explosive power will be expended.
We have provided several drills to incorporate into your training for first-step quickness development. Remember to incorporate the components and technical points from above.
Box Drops with Sprints
You’ll need a plyo box and room to run to perform box drops with sprints. This exercise combines two separate exercises into one. For the box drop component, stand atop the plyo box.
Box drops place significant stress on your musculoskeletal structures, so start with a 12-inch box. Step off the box to drop to the floor. Land softly, with both feet hitting the floor at the same time.
As soon as you land, explode into a 20-yard sprint. Complete a total of six sets, resting 60 seconds between each one. This drill helps you learn to overcome inertia. For example, when you explode off the line in football.
You can progress with single leg box drop into a 20-yard sprint.
You’ll just need a single cone to perform the hop-hop explosion drill. Stand to the side of the cone. Hop sideways over it. Once you land, hop back over it to return to your starting point. As soon as your feet hit the ground, explode into a forward sprint for 10 yards.
Complete 10 reps, resting 60 seconds between each one and alternating which side of the cone you begin on. You can also perform the exercise while exploding into a backpedal instead of a forward sprint.
Sprinting while using resistance, such as a weighted sled or a resistance bands or cord, can help you improve your ability to overcome inertia and take off more quickly. Keep your sprints to just five to 10 yards.
Make it sport specific. For instance, start from a static position, with your feet set, in a square stance, like you’re on the line before a snap.
Explode into a sprint, trying to get up to full speed as quickly as possible. Complete five to 10 sets and rest 60 seconds between each one.
Tennis Ball Sprints
This drill works on your reaction time and your ability to start explosively and increase your speed.
You need a partner, a tennis ball, and an open space. Stand facing your partner with at least 10 feet between you.
Get in an athletic stance (feet hip-width apart, weight on the balls of your feet, chest out, shoulders back, hips pushed back slightly, slight bend in your knees, hands ready).
Your partner holds the tennis ball at shoulder level and drops it. Run to the ball as fast as you can and try to grab it before it bounces a second time.
If it’s too easy, it’s time for your partner to step back a bit. Have your partner mix up where they drop the ball.
This drill advances your first-step quickness and progresses an athlete’s ability to quickly accelerate and decelerate.
Start at one of two cones placed 20 yards apart. On the coach or a partner’s signal, begin lightly running back and forth between the two cones—this is the “First Gear.” When “Second Gear” is called, speed up to approx. three-fourths of your full speed. When “Third Gear” is called, run between the cones at full speed.
Calling out the “Gears” should be random forcing you to react quickly and change speeds. The drill should be executed for approximately 25 to 30 seconds.
Sprint and Backpedal Drill
A great drill that forces you acceleration and deceleration while running forward and backward.
Place two cones 10 yards apart. Begin in an athletic stance at the first cone. On the go signal, run forward toward cone two. When your coach or partner says “switch,” immediately decelerate and change directions, backpedaling back to cone one.
Perform sprinting and backpedaling for approximately 25 to 30 seconds.
Standing Long Jump
This simple but effective drills teaches you to use your strength to overcome inertia and go from a resting state to a fast sprint.
Stand at the start line in an athletic stance. Quickly move into a quarter squat while swinging your arms back. Without pausing, swing your arms to the front and drive your body forward.
Remember, the Standing Long Jump requires an all-out effort. That means you should perform the Jump and reset before attempting another one.
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