Running backs need strength and power to break through tacklers at the line of scrimmage. But if you focus only on bulking up, you’ll run yourself right off the field.
If you want to succeed as an all-around running back—whether in the pros or in the park—it's crucial to improve speed and agility. Some of the best ways to step up your game? Focusing on your feet, working on quickness, and practicing explosive movements.
“These exercises are a crucial part of the game for any style of running back,” says Pete Bommarito, C.S.C.S., owner and president of Bommarito Performance Systems. “They can help with hip strength, acceleration, and deceleration, giving running backs improved change of direction skills.”
Bommarito knows his stuff when it comes to running backs—he’s worked with a number of NFL players through his career, including all-star rushers like Frank Gore, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Le'Veon Bell, Lamar Miller, and Jonathan Stewart.
Here are three of Bommarito's favorite drills for running backs to help improve speed and agility:
1. The RB Cone “Jump-Cut”
2 sets of 8–10 reps (one for right side, one for left side)
How often: This exercise should be done once a week for experienced players, twice a week for beginners.
What you need: Space two cones 5 yards apart to create the acceleration zone. The first cone is your “start cone,” and the second cone is the “stop cone.”Add two more cones next to the stop cone for jump cuts—place them 1 yard lateral to the stop cone on each side.
How to do it: From the start cone, sprint towards the stop cone at full speed, using your left leg as the leading leg. Once you get to the second cone, do a lateral jump cut towards the left jump cut cone. Re-accelerate straight up field at the left cut cone for 5 more yards. Repeat the movement on the right side with right jump cuts for the suggested reps.
What it does: “This exercise sequence is excellent for deceleration and acceleration of the edges of the feet,” says Bommarito. “It helps with maintaining a low center-of-gravity, and absorbing and re-directing force in position specific motions.”
Pro tips: Try to make as close to right angles as possible while making your jump cuts.
For experienced athletes: For the advanced athletes out there, on this drill you can create a 7-yard or 10-yard acceleration zone for the exercise. You can also move the jump cut cones to 1.5 yards out of the stop cone, instead of the usual 1 yard.
2. Lateral Line Bounding
2 sets of 5 reps (one set for right side, one for left side)
Do the two sets for each of the movements listed:
-Quick Jump to Stabilize
-Bungee Resisted Continuous Bound (optional if you have bungee or resistance equipment)
How often: This exercise should be done once a week for experienced athletes, twice a week for beginners.
How to do it: Lay down a rope or mark as a straight line, or imagine a straight line next to where you are standing. The action for this exercise is to jump laterally across the line—the goal is to jump a minimum of 1-yard away from the line on each side.
The Stabilize: Start on the right side of the line, with your right foot on the ground and left leg bent at the knee and off the ground. Use your right leg to push and jump as far laterally as possible to the left side of the line. Land softly on your left leg on the left side of the line. Make sure to absorb the landing, allowing for a good bend in your hip, knee, and ankle. Hold at the landing with a pause for 2-3 seconds. Repeat for the amount of reps for each leg.
The Quick Jump to Stabilize: Follow the steps for Stabilize. Start on the right side, jump to the left, but instead of holding the landing, redirect quickly off of your left foot, and stabilize your landing on the right side with a pause for 2-3 seconds. Do that for the amount of reps for the right leg, then repeat with the left leg.
The Continuous Bound: The idea for this exercise is to get off the ground as quickly as possible when you land—you want to make it a continuous side to side bound jump. Jump back and forth continuously without pausing for the amount of reps.
The Bungee Resisted Continuous Bound: Follow the steps for continuous bound, but use resistance on one side—making one side of your jump resisted, and the other side assisted by the bungee. This will overload the challenge of the entire exercise sequence.
What it does: “This is a great drill to strengthen the powerful hip muscles at high speeds,” says Bommarito. “It also works on the dynamic stabilization of the ankles, with the deep bending ankle positions that are very specific to how a running back needs to execute changes of direction.”
3. Line Rapid Response Drill with Burst
2-4 sets of 5-10 second reps for each movement (1-2 sets for right and left side)
-Stationary to Straight Burst
-Stationary to Angled Burst
How to do it: The drill can be done on any line on a football field, or with a line drawn on the ground. Start in a low squat position with your knees bent, then begin by chopping your feet quickly in place—similar to what you’d be doing with your feet during an up/down drill. Stand with your shoulders perpendicular to the line.
While doing the movement with your feet, keep the left foot “inside” the line while the right foot moves back and forth over the line—so, on every step, the left foot will stay in its spot and right foot will tap back and forth over the line (flip right foot and left foot for when doing drill for opposite leg).
What to do for each variation:
Stationary: Follow the original directions for the drill. Start with your knees bent, then begin by chopping your feet quickly in place. Keep your left foot on the inside/left side of the line while tapping your right foot back and forth over the line. Switch legs and repeat for 5-10 seconds.
Stationary to Straight Burst: Follow the original stationary directions for the drill. Pick a number between 5 and 10 seconds (or have someone verbally command you), and burst out of the drill into a 5-yard sprint straight ahead.
Stationary to Angled Burst: Similar to the straight burst variation—but when you burst out of the drill, cut with your right foot and sprint to the left at about a 45-degree angle from the line. Repeat with opposite leg, cut with the left foot and sprint to the right for about 5 yards.
What it does: “This exercise is a great way to raise the threshold of the reflexive properties of the muscles that cross the feet, ankles, and knees,” Bommarito says. “This is a great way to continuously maximize explosive power."
Pro Tip: “The cutting action of the foot back and forth across the line will allow the stretch reflex to be trained across the calf muscles in a deep bend at the ankle joint,” Bommarito says. “This will help with first step acceleration or the first step out of any cut – the key to agility."