Book Review - Explosive Running by Dr. Michael Yessis

This book review was written by coach Brian Matthews, from Phelps Training Systems located in Albany N.Y.

Running.  It’s simple, isn’t it?  To quote Bacon from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels “Left leg, right leg, your body will follow.”  Funny no doubt, but unfortunately this seemingly elementary task is done incorrectly throughout the world on all levels.  From the 40 min 5k crowd to the flawed start of the world’s fastest man, technical errors can be present at every spectrum.  Here’s where the book Explosive Running: Using the Science of Kinesiology to Improve Your Performance by Dr. Michael Yessis can become such a valuable tool for anyone who chooses to lace up and run.  Dr. Yessis is a master at what he does and his credentials are stacked a mile high: PHD from Southern Cal in Biomechanics, Professor Emeritus at Cal State Fullerton, consultant to several Olympic and Professional sports teams, author of over 2,000 articles and 16 books including Explosive Running, Editor-in-Chief of the Fitness and sports review international from 1966-1994, and Editor of the Soviet sports review from 1968-1972 where he also translated works from prominent Russian sports scientists.  

Dr. Yessis is the creator of many great pieces of exercise equipment such as the Glute-Ham-Gastroc-Raise (commonly known as the GHR), the Strength Bar, and Active Cords.  An industry leader, when Yessis talks you listen, what he writes you read and if he presents, buy a plane ticket or purchase the webinar because the man literally drops science with everything he does. 

Explosive Running is unique because it presents all the technical “science-y” data but does it in an accessible way.  Some chapters (which I’ll touch on later) include the kinesiology of running, special strength exercises for running and designing your exercise program.  Yessis gives the practical and applied means for improved running technique and speed.  A big proponent of specialized exercises, Yessis has developed an exercise tool called Active Cords.  It’s amazing to me that more people haven’t taken advantage of this totally unique product and its methods that can benefit athletes of all ages.  We use the Cords ourselves and have seen tremendous improvement with our athletes’ running technique.  The applications are nearly limitless, but two of the most beneficial exercises in my opinion are the knee drive and paw back exercises.  I know speed ladders and high knee drills are all the rage in the various speed camps throughout the country, and I’m not bashing them entirely because they can have their place as a general warm-up, but let’s use common sense people.  In sports, when have you ever seen someone move their feet in an agility ladder-style exercise? Furthermore, when have you ever seen someone run with their lead thigh above 90 degrees?  I’d venture a safe guess that the answer is never.  But time and again you see athletes put through a litany of these type of drills with “increasing” speed being the main factor.  This would be like having a swimmer flail their arms and legs about in water with hopes that their stroke and kicking would improve, it just doesn’t happen.    
One point Dr. Yessis touches on that I feel many coaches have encountered is the inconsistency of running advice.  Some coaches rely solely on opinion and disregard the basic biomechanics that occur while running.  This type of thinking is dangerous and could potentially lead to an injury for the athlete or client.  Another feature that he covers is the usage of video analysis for critiquing run technique.  Luckily in 2013 you don’t need to purchase a high priced stop motion camera.  If you own a smart phone there are many camera apps (ex: Coaches Eye) that are available to dissect mechanics at a frame-by-frame rate. 

From here I’ll highlight some of the main chapters and concepts covered in the text…

Kinesiology of Running
“Running speed stems mainly from three joint actions: ankle joint extension (pushoff), hip joint flexion (knee drive) and hip joint extension (paw back).”  That quote right there sums up the nuts and bolts of running.  This section examines every mechanical movement that can occur in ideal running form: a literal head-to-toe analysis starting with how the muscles and tendons in the arch of your foot work and ending with the importance of the upper traps and levator scapaule in maintaining the shoulders in their upright position.  No stone is left unturned; if you ever had any question on what happens during hip rotation while running Yessis has you covered.  

Active stretches for runners
Static stretches have their place but can oftentimes be detrimental in the world of running.  Running by nature is dynamic and requires powerful actions of the limbs (especially in sprinting).  When you do any prolonged static stretching “the muscles are completely relaxed, whereas in running the muscles perform both actively and dynamically in both concentric and eccentric contractions.”  The forces in the dynamic state of running far exceed the relaxed passive sensations in static stretching.  Therefore static stretching doesn’t adequately prepare one’s body for actual running and can potentially lead to injury.  This chapter also provides some useful dynamic stretches that target all of the major joints used in running, helping prepare the prospective runner for an injury-free experience.  

Special strength exercises for running
In order for an exercise to be considered “specialized” it needs to meet certain criteria. Namely, the exercise needs to mimic the “exact movement, range of motion and type of muscular contraction.”  So a throwing exercise, for example, can be done as the same movement and range of motion as a throw but if it is done at a slow speed then it is not truly a specialized exercise.  These types of exercises can have tremendous benefit to all that use them properly.  Weak joint actions can be strengthened and performance can be markedly improved.  Dr. Yessis covers a number of great exercises throughout this section and gives detailed pictures and descriptions of their execution.  As mentioned earlier, two of our favorites are the knee drive and paw back exercises.  The knee drive works hip joint flexion as seen in running and the paw back works hip joint extension as seen in running.  I’ve provided videos of both exercises below so you can get a visual on what the movement looks like. Additionally, I have provided a “before” and “after” video of a client of ours with a 3 month time frame between the clips.  Clearly, there is a difference between the two videos and through the aid of special strength exercises this athlete dropped almost a whole second faster in his 40 yard dash and is currently starting on his high school football team.

Here is a video analysis of an athlete before the use of the methods from Explosive Running:

Here is a video analysis of an the same athlete after several months of using the methods from Explosive Running

Explosive Exercises for running
Explosive exercises or speed strength exercises are extremely valuable in developing power and increasing running speed.  Dr. Yessis covers a variety of exercises and what particular part of your running they can aid.  Here are some examples: an explosive heel raise can result in a more effective push-off and a split squat jump can make a more effective takeoff.  Other exercises covered include a variety of skips, bounds, jumps and plyometrics. 

Special exercises to resolve common problems
This is a great chapter to assist in fixing those common flaws many runners encounter.  Heel striker? Try banded paw backs.  Lean forward too much when you run? Throw some back raises, ghr’s and lunges into your strength program.  I love this section because of its practicality.  Dr. Yessis covers virtually every running technique issue that can pop up and has an exercise that can help improve the technique.  The problems are covered with detail and the solutions are easy to follow and apply.
Overall, I feel Dr. Yessis has done some real groundbreaking work throughout his career and Explosive Running adds to his already impressive resume.  Easy to understand and follow, this book is a must-have for any track or team sport coach to aid in the improvement of their athletes.  Even casual runners can get great value out of this text.  I’d suggest everyone reading this article should buy a copy of the book and read it, video themselves running, and then apply what they’ve learned to make their running technique more refined and efficient.  Speed kills, but so do technical flaws.  Read, learn, improve and get ready to dominate on the track, field or court!

For more information on Coach Matthews, you can find him at