the joy of strength training


February 16th, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Speed work

Speed squat

Since the beginning of 2009 I have been incorporating speed work into my training and it has brought a valuable new dimension to my powerlifting.

Speed work has been around for many years and has been popular in the powerlifting world since it was so enthusiastically utilised by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell. However I have noticed that it is starting to seep into non-powerlifting training and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. This is no bad thing and I suspect that everyone who lifts weights can benefit from this type of training.

What is speed work?

Speed work is all about moving the bar as fast as possible. It is not about performing a workout as fast as you can, it is about moving the bar from A to B as fast and explosively as possible.

Being able to move the bar fast helps in a number of ways. If you are lifting weights to develop strength for sport, speed work will improve your power, which is essential for many athletes. If you are trying to lift heavier weights, being able to exert force explosively will make it easier to get a heavy weight moving.

Speed work also helps to improve rate of force development – in other words, how fast your neurological system can get your muscles to full strength. It can take up to several seconds for full strength to be reached but the faster this happens, the quicker you will be able to overcome gravity and get a very heavy weight moving.

Speed training protocols

The methods of Westside Barbell are a useful way into speed work, especially if you train in a powerlifting style. Westside Barbell utilises very low reps per set, say 2 or 3, performed with 50-60% of one rep max. Several sets are performed with brief rest intervals, say 30-60 seconds. An example of this would be:

8 sets of 3 reps at 55% of one rep max with 30 seconds rest between sets

The aim is to execute each lift as explosively as possible. To be precise, in the case of the squat and bench press it is the concentric (upward) portion of the lift that is to be performed explosively. The eccentric (downward) part of the lift should be controlled although not excessively slow.

Westside Barbell uses speed work with box squats to train lifters to explode off the box, but you can do speed work without a box too.

Prilepin’s table

The protocols used by Westside Barbell are based on the research of A. S. Prilepin, who came up with a way of quantifying optimal volume and intensity for lifting. His research was based on Olympic weightlifting but Louie Simmons has amply demonstrated that it is applicable to powerlifting as well. In 1974 Prilepin published a now famous table using percentage of one rep max as his measure of intensity:

Percentage Reps per set Optimal total Range
70 and below 3 – 6 24 18 – 30
70 – 80 3 – 6 18 12 – 24
80 – 89 2 – 4 15 10 – 20
90 and over 1 – 2 7 4 – 10

The emphasis was more on the total number of reps to be performed in a session – the optimal total – rather than the precise number of reps per set.

Westside Barbell simplified its use of this table by using mainly the lightest and the heaviest intensities. On their dynamic effort (speed training) days lifters focussed on 50-60% of max and on max effort days they focussed on 90% of max.

The reason for this is that in powerlifting significant speed is only possible at the lighter weights, such as 50-60% of max. In the 70-80% range it is difficult to get the bar moving fast, so the exercise is less beneficial from the point of view of technique. Once you get to 90% the aim is not actually to move the bar fast – it’s too heavy – but to use the technique developed by speed work to improve the efficiency of your neurological system. The intent to move the bar fast actually improves the performance of the lift.

Another factor to take into account is that speed work at heavy loads is very taxing. It is much easier to recover from 50-60% loading than 80% loading and this should be factored into your overall programme. Working at 70-80% of one rep max is not necessarily less beneficial, but it does depend on your set and rep protocol, your level of experience and your overall programme. Programmes that utilise 5×5 for example might be more suitable for a 70-85% loading. For Olympic lifters the issues are slightly different since all their lifts are performed fast, whether they are at 50% or 90% of max.

Force development

One aim of speed work is to improve both the amount and rate of force development. The amount of force a muscle can produce depends upon the number of motor units (muscle fibres and their motor neuron) that can be recruited.

A beginner may only be able to recruit around 70% of their available motor units. An advanced lifter by contrast may be able to recruit in excess of 95% of the available motor units. Training at high speeds will over time improve this motor unit recruitment, which makes you stronger.

Rate of force development is how quickly you can reach maximum force or maximum recruitment. It actually takes up to several seconds for a muscle to achieve maximum force. The quicker you can make this process, the easier it is to get a heavy bar moving.

Lifting slowly

For anyone who has come into free weight training through the normal gym route, lifting fast goes against everything we have been told by gym instructors. Trainees up and down the country are instructed to lift in a slow and controlled fashion, no matter what their training aims or abilities. As Rippetoe points out in Practical Programming, this is immensely convenient for the owners of health clubs but not very helpful for training purposes.

There is an argument to be made that those completely new to lifting should not undertake speed work until they have embedded good technique. But once that good technique has been learned, lifting fast and explosively is as safe as lifting in a slow and controlled manner – and in some cases is even safer. Lifting explosively is essential for developing power and is required for common exercises such as the clean or push press.

Starting speed work

Speed work isn’t as complicated as it sounds. If you have been lifting for a while and are confident in your technique, you are probably ready to try it. Stick to the protocols in Prilepin’s table and you can’t go far wrong.

If you don’t know what your one rep max is, now is a great time to find out. It is useful information for you and it is better in the long run to determine a true one rep max, rather than extrapolate from, say, your five rep max. Once you have established your training one rep max, you can use this information to establish your weights for speed work.

Some people do one or two speed days per week, other people will alternate within a session – such as doing speed squats and heavy deadlifts one session, and speed deadlifts and heavy squats the next. Some may only do speed training every other week.

Do the speed work early on in your session, after you have warmed up. If you feel like doing triples or doubles after your speed work, this shouldn’t be a problem but be aware that despite the light weights the speed work will have pre-exhausted you. It’s probably not worth going for singles and if you do they are likely to be less than your best.

Doing the power lifts fast and explosively can feel strange at first. It may take you a few sessions to get used to performing the lifts like this. I’m sure it almost goes without saying that you must maintain good form throughout and don’t allow fatigue to cause your form to deteriorate.

Soon you should start to see carryover when you perform your heavy lifts. Your ability to get past your sticking points and overcome inertia will gradually improve.

Further reading

Speed training for size by Matthew Perryman on EliteFTS
The importance of volume by Louie Simmons
The evolution of Westside Barbell training by Mark Riefkind on Dragon Door
How to warm up for a one rep max by Tim Henriques from T-Nation

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