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Athletic drills to prepare for the American football combine

American football players

The combine is an important part of every American football player’s career. In this post, adapted from All-Pro Performance Training, we explore some of the key athletic drills you’ll need to prepare for when getting ready for a combine.

The combine

At a combine coaches and scouts often cross a player’s name off their lists if he does not meet or exceed the benchmark level of performance in the tests that are most pertinent to his position. These evaluators know what numbers each athlete should achieve in order to play successfully at their level. For example, scouts know that a prospective NFL defensive back generally will run the 10-yard split of the 40-yard dash in 1.58 seconds or faster. This player might be extremely skilled in his coverage techniques and his tackling ability, but if he cannot run 10 yards in 1.58 seconds, he will likely be unable to keep up at the professional level. His performance in position-specific drills becomes less relevant if his numbers already suggest that he lacks the physical tools to succeed at the next level.

Below we explore two of the general athleticism tests and drills which are nearly universal at combines of all levels. An American football player who trains to improve his performance in these tests is also training to become a better athlete.

Vertical jump

Vertical jump: (a) countermovement; (b) jump.

Purpose

Evaluate lower-body explosive power in a vertical plane.

Execution

In a tall, relaxed standing position with feet hip-width apart, the athlete takes a couple of deep breaths and begins to lightly swing both arms forward and back. After a few seconds, he slowly brings his arms above his head with elbows bent, still relaxed in his entire body, and, when ready, rapidly drops his hips while simultaneously throwing his arms down (figure a above). When he hits his predetermined countermovement position, he recoils out, throwing his arms up vertically toward his target while extending and looking up at that target (figure b above).

For those without access to a Vertec, the tool that is commonly used for this test, jump mats are popular for calculating athletes’ jump heights based on time spent in the air. New mobile applications and low-cost measuring devices also continue to emerge. Athletes can even jump holding a piece of chalk and mark a wall next to them at the top of their jump in order to measure their jump height.

Common errors

Many athletes go into the vertical jump test without having worked with a Vertec. As a result, they don’t know where they should stand or how to properly reach their hands at the apex of their jump. Even though the vertical jump is directed straight upward, it still produces a slight forward arc. So if an athlete jumps from directly under the Vertec, he will reach the top of his jump a few inches past the Vertec. Athletes often blindly reach for the Vertec pegs while looking down or straight ahead as they jump, instead of aiming and looking toward their target. Many display asynchronous arm and lower-body movements during either the loading or the takeoff portion of the jump and often during both. One of the most common errors occurs when an athlete’s bottom countermovement position is either too high or too low relative to his optimal depth.

Methods to improve

Athletes should rehearse the vertical jump’s rhythm and timing through the countermovement and takeoff phases. Arm and hip action in both phases must be perfectly synchronized to create maximal jump height. When an athlete swings his arms effectively, he places more force into his countermovement, thereby creating a greater stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) response. Then, as he reverses direction and begins his takeoff phase, proper arm swing timing generates greater momentum into the jump as his lower body propels him off the ground.

Each athlete should practice lowering his hips to the ideal lowest point of his countermovement. This point is by no means universal among athletes. Each athlete and his coach must work together to determine the athlete’s sweet spot, which is dictated by his elasticity—that is, his effectiveness in using his stretch-shortening cycle. This is where the eccentric utilization ratio (EUR) and reactive strength index (RSI), become extremely helpful for testing improvements. These values determine how far an athlete should pull himself down before reversing direction and moving up. A more elastic athlete benefits from a shallow and quick countermovement because it allows him to rely more heavily on his stretch-shortening cycle. Meanwhile, a more strength-based athlete will test higher if he uses a deeper countermovement since he has more time to produce force for the jump.

Prep like a pro

An athlete’s placement relative to the Vertec device can affect how he tests in the vertical jump. As he takes off in his jump, his hip extension will cause a slight movement forward in the air. Athletes who stand directly underneath the Vertec to begin their countermovement, as many are coached, will have actually passed the Vertec as they reach their jump’s apex. Landow Performance coaches teach combine prep athletes to move their starting position about 6 inches back from underneath the Vertec. This way, after extending their hips in takeoff, they will migrate to the middle of the Vertec by the apex of their jump, thus maximizing their contact point with the Vertec pegs.

40-yard dash

Purpose

The 40-yard dash (depicted below) is regarded as the crown jewel of combine testing, and for good reason. The test contains several valuable metrics that football teams rely on to gauge a prospect’s general athleticism.

40-yard dash course.

The split recorded at 10 yards—indicative of lower-body explosiveness and pure acceleration—is critical across all position groups. The 20-yard split reveals how long an athlete can continue to accelerate, and at what point he begins to transition into top-end speed mechanics. The back end of the 40-yard dash indicates the athlete’s ability to maintain his speed.

Execution

The athlete approaches the starting line with both feet together and pointing straight ahead. From this position, he steps back with one foot so that his feet are in a heel-to-toe relationship, then brings his other foot back to meet it so he is standing a full shoe’s length behind the starting line. The athlete again moves one foot back, creating the same heel-to-toe relationship with his front foot. Next, he moves his back foot out to the side so that he is standing with his feet hip-width apart, with his front foot’s heel and back foot’s toes still aligned. He wiggles his back foot on the ground back about 3 to 4 inches and drops to a kneeling position with the toes of both feet remaining in place.

Now in a kneeling position with one leg back and one forward, the athlete places the arm opposite his front leg—referred to here as the lead arm— rotating his hand so that his biceps points toward the finish line. His lead hand should take the full starting line by placing the inside of his thumb and index finger as far forward as possible, right along the very edge of the line. The athlete then raises his hips, maintaining only three points of contact with the ground: front foot, rear foot, and lead hand. His weight shifts forward, but he maintains some weight on his rear leg, a distribution of 75 percent weight forward and 25 percent on his back leg.

Shifting his body weight forward allows the athlete’s shin to move forward over his toes, a term referred to hereafter as shin angle. This forward lean should result in the hips being in a higher position than his shoulders in the starting stance. The forward body weight is evenly distributed between the athlete’s front leg and lead hand so that if he were to pick up his lead hand from the ground, he would fall. His other arm, referred to here as the up arm, reaches back to hip height with a slight elbow bend.

The 40-yard dash start is an orchestration of several movements occurring at once. The athlete simultaneously pushes off both feet, punching his back leg forward as the front leg drives back into the ground, fully extending. This push creates an aggressive split of the legs, which he mirrors by concurrently splitting his arms the opposite way. He swings his up arm forward into a “block” position, elevating his forearm and bending at his elbow so that his forearm crosses in front of his head. The block position shortens the athlete’s arm, allowing him to quickly move it from a somewhat awkward starting position to synchronize with extension of that same-side leg. From there, the athlete focuses on driving his arms back, swinging at the shoulders and aiming his hands for just outside hip level. As he picks up speed and his stride quickens, the athlete’s elbow will bend slightly more so that his arm swing speed can match the turnover rate of his legs.

Common errors

An athlete’s vertical and broad jump numbers are generally predictive of performance in the 10-yard split, but sometimes these results differ. When athletes run a slower 10-yard split than their jump numbers forecast, the disparity typically is due to a mechanical breakdown in the setup of the sprint. Restrictions in lower-extremity ranges of motion can prevent an athlete from setting up at the right angles to execute his start; improper limb positioning coming out of the start may also negatively affect his sprint times.

Many athletes crowd too close to the line when taking the starting position. Although it is helpful to place the hand as far forward on the starting line as possible, the rest of the body need not follow suit. A cramped starting position forces the athlete’s front shin angle to remain vertical. The thigh will move to wherever an athlete’s shin angle points. If he pushes into the ground with a vertical shin angle, his thigh will follow, and he will pop straight up out of his stance. Too much or too little forward lean causes an unbalanced start, which disrupts acceleration mechanics.

At combine and pro day events, the back hand often is seen positioned high above the hip in the starting stance because that is where countless athletes are taught to place it. For coaches or scouts standing 10 to 40 yards away, that hand movement will be the first movement they see to start their stopwatches. The same goes for lifting up one’s front hand from the ground before the rest of the body begins moving; every movement in the start should happen all at once.

Coaches commonly cue athletes to “stay low” as they accelerate. Although acceleration position is indeed based on a leaning torso angle, the torso should come up naturally. Attempting to hold body lean for too long generally results in a slumped chest and head, which diminishes speed. Coaches should never tell athletes when they should or should not be in an upright position. Ankle range of mobility, trunk stability, and lower-body explosiveness (estimated using vertical jump height) are all indicators of the body angle an athlete can find and maintain as he accelerates.

Cyclical leg motion in the acceleration phase is another common error in the 40-yard dash. The technical model for acceleration mechanics differs from that of top-end speed; the former requires a piston-like movement of the legs, whereas the latter is a cyclical motion. Athletes who accelerate cyclically will not be able to produce optimal force into the ground, and this will produce slower 10-, 20-, and 40-yard dash times.

During the second half of the 40-yard dash, athletes often begin to display sloppy recovery mechanics, delaying their back-side recovery, which then results in a lower thigh position upon front-side recovery. This places great strain on the hip flexors and adductors, which could eventually cause injuries. Sometimes athletes lack dorsiflexion in the foot as they recover. Similarly, suboptimal strike patterns—casting the foot out to strike in front of their hips, or striking on the fourth and fifth metatarsal rather than the ball of the foot—will not only slow athletes’ times but also put them at risk for hamstring injuries.

One fundamental error seen in the 40-yard dash may seem to be the most obvious and the easiest to fix, but it must be stated because of how prevalent it is: athletes who do not finish the test. Sadly, many players clock a slower time than they are capable of running because they begin to slow down before reaching the finish line. At Landow Performance, this is known as “running 38” instead of the full 40 yards.

Methods to improve

Simply positioning the back arm correctly in an athlete’s starting stance can shave substantial time off his measured 40-yard dash time. Landow Performance coaches teach combine athletes to keep their back hand hidden right at their hip so that it does not serve as a flag for scouts to start their watches.

Improving total body strength and lower body explosiveness in the weight room will certainly produce a faster 40-yard dash time. Yet many coaches and athletes overlook the dedicated practice of movement mechanics because they don’t know how to go about it properly. Practitioners who study, practice, and coach the preeminent technical models for acceleration and top-end speed will help their athletes make significant improvements not only in this test but also on the football field.

Prep like a pro

Moving back from the line an adequate distance can significantly aid the athlete’s mechanical ability to accelerate. Many athletes crowd the line with their stance in a seemingly logical attempt to start as close as possible to the finish line. However, for the 40-yard dash, consider “trading inches for angles.” This means to sacrifice a small bit of distance to the finish line so the athlete can have a greater forward shin angle on his lead leg, thereby creating a better position from which to accelerate. He should not try to create more of an angle than he can hold in acceleration, however, or he will begin to stumble forward out of his start. If the athlete can execute an excellent first three acceleration steps, he stands a chance to run a great 40-yard dash.

Summary

Getting the drills right can really pay off in a combine, so working through the tips above for the 40-yard dash and vertical jump can be really beneficial. Explore how to excel at more drills like these in All-Pro Performance Training.

Powerlifting book cover

Adapted from:

All-Pro Performance Training

Loren Landlow and Chris Jarmon

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