Eliminating the “false step” has been a personal mission of many strength coaches I have heard or worked alongside of in my 15 year career.  I used to wonder quietly why it was such a bad thing early on in my coaching.  Based on angles and observation it seemed almost reflexive for most athletes.

Then a few years ago I had the privilege of seeing Lee Taft present his theory on speed development and multi-directional speed training and it all came together for me.  Lee eloquently explained that the “false step” is really just a plyo step – a chance to load the body up for what it was meant to do.  It essentially allows the athlete to reposition the body (or center of mass) more efficiently to load and explode.  Ever wonder why sprinters use a starting block?

track  &field

Look at all like an athlete’s body position once they step back and begin to move forward?

This topic has been covered in previous point/counterpoint articles in the NSCA journals and debated on forums, blogs and seminars alike.  For me, I have been encouraging the “false step” or “plyo step” the past few years because it is ‘normal’ for athletes to move that way.  As a matter of fact, one of the first things I do is put them in an athletic parallel stance position and ask them to accelerate for 10 yards.  Not once have I seen them not step back provided I do not cue them to do so.

Keep in mind that previous research done (Kraan, GA, van Veen, J, Snijders, CJ, and Storm, J. Starting from standing: Why step backwards? J Biomech 34: 211–215, 2001.) indicates that stepping back is instinctive in up to 95% of subjects.  Pretty telling, right?  Even so, many coaches will still argue this technique slows the athletes down.

Well, a nice little article from John Cronin and David Frost recently released in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research actually says otherwise.  They looked at the false start in comparison to the parallel start (feet together and leaning forward into a start) and a traditional split stance start.  Click here for the article abstract and check out this brief text from the abstract:

The false start appears to be advantageous over short distances by improving push-off and the temporal characteristics of the first step.

In this study 27 participants (athletic men around age 22) were asked to perform no less than 3 maximum 5 meter sprints from all 3 starting styles.  The false start was done first, and the other two methods were randomized with 90 seconds of rest between each trial and 3 minutes of rest between the different start patterns.

Per the article….

“No significant differences were noted in the time taken to the first gate between the false and parallel starts, although both styles took significantly longer than the split start (Figure 3). At 2.5 and 5 m, there were significant differences between all 3 starts (parallel was slowest). When the movement time was removed (time to the first gate) and only the time between each successive gate was examined, the false and split starts were not significantly different at any distance. Both however were significantly faster than the parallel start (15.0% for 0–2.5 m and 9.5% for 0–5 m).”

In a nutshell, the false start was nearly equal to the split stance start in terms of performance.  However, the authors conclude that very few times (if any) will an athlete have the ability to stop play and pre-set their feet in a split stance during competition.  So true!!  Also, think about backpedaling too.  In order to stop momentum and change direction you have to step back.  This is how the brain tells the body to generate maximum force and speed with the best use if energy expenditure.

We were born and wired with the right programming.  This article provides some solid proof and rationale for why the stepping back or the “false start” is actually not a flawed movement pattern, but rather an instinctive and effective way to begin an acceleration movement from a stationary start.  So, the next time you see athletes being taught not to step back, you may want to kindly step in and offer up this evidence for why they should be allowed to make this very movement as interfering with nature may actually hinder performance gains.