Is Speed Work useful for Powerlifters?
Speed training is any form of training used to develop maximal velocity, or how fast one can move. In powerlifting, ‘dynamic effort training’ is a method used in many training programs with the goal of moving the bar as fast as possible, typically using 50-75% of an athletes 1 rep max. The training method was popularised by Louis Simmons at Westside Barbell, the theory being that speed is an important factor in developing maximal strength. It is often stated that speed training increases the rate of force development, thereby allowing an athlete to move heavier loads with more velocity and with more explosiveness. Often accommodating resistance is added to the barbell by using bands and chains, which help an athlete to accelerate the bar harder, inhibiting a deceleration effect. The dynamic method has been shown to successfully improve a wide variety of sports that have an explosive component, allowing athletes to produce force much more quickly. In powerlifting, speed training certainly has been applied incredibly successfully, with countless lifters swearing by the method and a number of world record holders preaching the benefits of dynamic effort training. But the question is, is it an optimal way to develop force and build a huge total on the platform? It is incredibly important to be able to thoroughly analyse any idea or theory, however popular, to see if it stands up to scientific critique. This article aims to achieve that.
Force = mass x acceleration
This biomechanics equation dictates that when a mass is moved quickly, more force is produced. A powerlifters main goal is to produce the maximal amount of force. Therefore, dynamic effort training seems to be a very beneficial method of training in theory. Speed is a component of maximal force after all. Lets have a look at what the research tells us….
In the Science and Practice of Strength Training, Zatsiorsky stated that maximal muscle force production takes approximately four tenths of a second (.4s) to achieve. Based on this analysis, it does not seem that maximal force takes much time to achieve at all. This certainly would not be the case in something in a plyometric movement that generally last less than .25s, however based on these findings you would expect maximal force to be able to be achieved when using the dynamic/speed training method. However, this data seems to only apply to single joint movements, and may not apply to compound lifts like the squat, bench and deadlift. In further research, Kawamori et al analysed peak force production in a series of different pulling movements, and found that peak force development is attained at around .205s at loads of 60% of an athletes repetition max (a percentage that’s commonly used during dynamic effort training). This data does seem to support the benefits of dynamic effort training allowing high force outputs to be produced.
However, when it comes to force production, mass will always win.
When we look at recent research that has been conducted using deadlifts from the ground (as specific to powerlifting as possible) Swinton et al found that maximum force cannot be reached at ‘dynamic effort’ percentages. The paper found that force creeps higher and higher as load increases, indicating that although velocity is increased at a lower percentage, adding mass is more superior than increasing velocity to elicit maximal force production. Other studies have since validated the findings that peak force production is associated with load, and not bar speed. In practice, it seems that one just cannot accelerate the bar fast enough to match the force development that is produced in a maximal lift. Indeed, a bar moving with more velocity will always produce more force than a bar with less velocity, but only if the load on the bar is the same. As soon as more weight is added, force production is indefinitely always higher. Max weight beats acceleration hands down when it comes to peak force.
As you can see from the table above taken from the Swinton et al paper, as load increases, so does peak force.
Technical Prowess is not necessarily developed
It is often thought that with lighter weights in the dynamic effort percentage range, good technique can be developed. This is definitely true, but as a powerlifter, it is not important to maintain good technique at lower percentages, only during the three maximal attempts you have on the platform at 90%+ of your 1RM. No one gets rewarded for how good their sets look in the warm up room, only how good their technique holds up under maximal load. It is common to see lifters have flawless technique at 60-80% of their 1RM, but as soon as they get above this threshold, strength weaknesses begin to show. This is why I am such a big proponent of heavy singles at above 85% of an athlete’s 1RM to be regular place in a powerlifter’s program. The motor unit recruitment is entirely different at these weights, and will challenge an athlete to maintain flawless technique. After all, the better an athletes technique at maximal load, the more muscle they will be able to recruit, and thus the higher amount of force they will be able to produce. It is not uncommon to see a lifter grind a lift for up to 6-8 seconds and end up completing it due to zero technique breakdown. I highly doubt that doing triples at 60% of their 1RM was the main contributor to their ability to do this. Specificity is key, and that doesn’t just apply to exercise selection, but also to intensity. Heavy singles are much more specific to a powerlifter, and are far more superior at producing force and developing efficient technique than lighter loads moved quickly.
Many athletes will greatly benefit from speed training, but probably not powerlifters
When we look at the force-velocity relationship, we see that there is an inverse relationship between force and velocity. The higher the force produced, the slower the velocity, and vice versa. In order to maximise power (the rate of which an athlete can produce force) a combination of speed training and maximal strength training appears to elicit the best results. This allows an athlete to apply force at a higher velocity, giving them a quicker first step, allowing them to throw further, hit harder, and jump higher. When it comes to solely developing maximal strength however, it is less of a consideration. Although there is a time limit that maximal force can be sustained for, this time component is limited by your ATP and Creatine phosphate stores, which can last up to 10-12 seconds at maximal intensity. It is incredibly rare to see an athlete grind a lift for more than 10 seconds, so this will almost never be a consideration for a raw Powerlifter. Even if a powerlifter took a long time to reach peak force during a lift (studies show it doesn’t take very long) they would still almost always be able to comfortably complete the lift in this 10 second window. A focus on developing maximal force through heavier loads will thus always be much more beneficial than trying to improve the rate at which you produce force through speed training with lighter loads.
‘Speed training’ may not be optimal, but ‘submaximal’ training is
We’ve established that speed or ‘dynamic’ training performed in the traditional manner does not seem to sufficiently help to aid maximal force anywhere near as much as heavier loads does. Are there some ways we can take the principles of dynamic training and apply them to a powerlifting program, namely submaximal training?
Increasing the cross sectional area of a muscle is thought to enhance a muscles force-generating capacity. Thus, getting bigger gives an athlete the potential to get stronger. Studies have shown a high correlation between muscle size and powerlifting performance, making it essential that powerlifters incorporate hypertrophy training into their program. Increasing training volume over time and accumulating metabolic fatigue appear to be the biggest drivers of muscular hypertrophy. Using the submaximal percentages prescribed in speed training is an excellent choice here. Training with submaximal loads at 50-75% allows you to accumulate a lot of training volume in a short period of time without accumulating too much fatigue, making it an excellent choice for improving muscular size. The only thing that differs from ‘speed’ training is the number of reps performed – 6-12 reps are suggested as this allows you to also take advantage of the benefits of metabolic fatigue through the increased time under tension.
Active recovery days/weeks
Powerlifting training can be very physically demanding, particularly when training volumes are incredibly high. Active recovery days at loads of 50-75% of an athletes’ 1RM for sets of 2-3 can help to reduce some of this structural stress that an athlete accumulates when doing heavier weight for high volumes, so an athlete can train harder in subsequent training days, whilst still being provided with a light stimulus to prevent detraining and maintain sharp motor patterns. Active recovery weeks or ‘deload’ weeks can help an athlete to recover between hard training weeks, but also can serve as a way to elicit a supercompensation effect. Supercompensation is the product of a planned period of lower volume/intensity training, and results in an increase in performance capacity. This is especially important when an athlete is approaching competition, where absolute strength needs to be maximised. Thus, many powerlifters reduce their training loads to 50-75% of their 1RM after an overreaching phase in order to drop the fatigue associated with hard training, and elicit a supercompensation effect ready for competition. This is called a ‘taper’, and is a topic for another article. But for now, submaximal training in lower rep ranges can help an athlete recover between training sessions, between training weeks, and optimally prepare for competition.
Accommodating resistance to target sticking points
There are certain instances where bands and chains could help an athlete to improve their ability to accelerate the bar at a sticking point in their lift. In this instance, developing speed may have merit. If you are weak through a certain range of motion, acceleration will be slower through that range of motion relative to the preceding and proceeding ranges of motion in the lift. If an athlete’s sticking point is at a pretty common place in the lift (ie right at the bottom of a squat, off the floor in a deadlift, and off the chest in a bench press) then just simply getting stronger will be the best approach to take as this is the common strength curve in a raw lifter. However, if an athlete seems to slow down at unusual points of the lift (for example, at lockout in the squat and deadlift, or half way up in a squat) then accommodating resistance may allow the athlete to recruit more motor units and generate more force through this sticking point, thus improving their ability to make it through this sticking point. I would recommend that an athlete use’s slightly higher percentages than ‘dynamic’ percentages when using accommodating resistance – 70-90% of their 1RM. This allows them to get the benefits of increased acceleration, but at a higher force production.
Work capacity training
Submaximal training can be a great way of building special work capacity for a powerlifter. Developing a good base of specific conditioning is very important for a powerlifting athlete to improve their aerobic system. The more efficient the aerobic system, the greater the athletes lactate buffer system. This is important because an efficient lactate buffer system can help an athlete recover optimally between bouts of alactic exercise (i.e. strength training). It allows an athlete to tolerate higher volumes in a single session, recover optimally between training sessions, and perform well during long days of competition. Aerobic conditioning is hugely neglected in powerlifting, but the truth is it’s something to be taken into account if an athlete wishes to tolerate high levels of training stress and be able to recover efficiently. Performing submaximal lifts with controlled rest periods of 30 seconds – 2 minutes is a great way to improve specific work capacity whilst also increasing your weekly training volume on the main lifts. This method is best performed at 50-75% of an athlete’s 1RM, 2-5 reps, 10-12 sets. This is not the sort of training that should be the main focus of a powerlifter’s program as competition draws closer, but can be a great addition further out from competition to build work capacity and training volume.
Above is a video of Chad Wesley Smith demonstrating how he utilises work capacity training in the squat.
I’m a Strength & Conditioning/personal development blogger currently studying Strength & Conditioning at Uclan University. I have a huge passion for strength training, personal growth and philosophy. My content aims to inspire you to develop mentally and physically, under the barbell and beyond.
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