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Some Thoughts on Speed Training for Powerlifters | Bryan Dermody

November 14, 2016

In the powerlifting community there have generally been two different camps of thought when it comes to speed training. One camp wholeheartedly believes that it is an effective training method for powerlifters. While others believe that it is not an effective tool for powerlifters. The goal of this brief article is to offer some additional thoughts on speed training for powerlifters so that those in the powerlifting community can better make an informed decision as to whether or not to implement this method in their training.

Although I will refer to an article entitled Why Speed Work Doesn’t Work by Mike Tuchscherer, the current article is not a rebuttal to Mike’s. Mike is a very intelligent and successful powerlifter. He puts an awful lot of thought into his own training and he makes several good points in his article. I have much respect for Mike. I would simply like to propose additional considerations regarding speed work for powerlifters. I should also note that I am not seeking to make this a very academic article. I have not done research on my own, nor will I cite research articles. The emphasis here is on readability and practical application, so take it for what it is or leave it.

Mike highlights two reasons why speed work (which he defines as anything below a 7RPE) does not work. First, he says that force production is simply not high enough to carry over to powerlifting. Second, he says that technique cannot be perfected with speed work because the lighter weight changes the motor pattern too significantly. I will first respond to Mike’s reasoning and then add some additional thoughts to consider.

           

Force Production and Powerlifting

I completely agree with Mike that maximum force production is the strength quality we are after in powerlifting. I also agree with Mike that a powerlifter cannot achieve adequate force production levels with speed training as defined by him in order to elicit a training response specific to powerlifting. However, I would encourage the powerlifter to consider two things:

  1. Speed work with accommodating resistance (i.e. chains and/or bands) plus additional bar weight can increase the total percentage of resistance to a point where force production is high and the lifter still elicits a response in rate of force development and not peak force production alone. Again, I do not have the research to back this, other than the empirical research of this method producing results for many powerlifters. See an example protocol for this below.

 

  1. In his article Mike states that there is no time component to powerlifting. While I certainly agree that a given lifter does not get judged or rewarded differently for finishing a lift faster than another lifter, there is a time component to getting stronger. Strength is made up of force and velocity. As a strength athlete I always want my own force-velocity curve to be increasing. That is, I want to produce higher and higher forces at a given velocity and I want to produce higher and higher velocities at a given force. Speed work can help move your force-velocity curve up and to the right on the typical force-velocity graph. This is an increase in my ability to produce force and this is the name of the game in powerlifting.

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Speed Work and Technique Perfection

I would argue that speed work can perfect technique. Mike argued in his article that the weight on the bar with speed work as he defined it is too light to carry over to technique on maximal or near-maximal lifts. I agree with this, and I am adding that speed work done at heavier weights (which is still speed work as I will explain below) is specific enough to the competition lifts to perfect technique.

Defining Speed Work

For many powerlifters who have used speed work in their training repertoire, the protocol of Louie Simmons has been their guidepost. I realize that even Louie’s thoughts and practice of speed work have evolved over the years, but the very basics of his recommendations when they were first introduced to the powerlifting community were 8-10 sets of 2-3 reps at 50-60% 1-RM for bar weight, plus added chains or bands. The intensity of lifts performed like this is likely too low (and I think Mike’s research backs this up) to have a positive effect on maximal force production. Additionally, with the advent of the Tendo Unit (used to measure bar velocity), advocates of speed work were recommending that powerlifters hit 0.7-0.8m/s on their speed work. When one considers that most maximal lifts (i.e. 3rd attempts in powerlifting meets) are far below this (more like .15-.30m/s), one can see that performing these lifts at more than double the velocity with which they would be executed in competition is simply not specific enough to elicit adaptations in maximal force production. Again, I do not have the research to back this up, but my own training and that of several powerlifters that I work with would suggest that speeds closer to .40-.55m/s are more effective at eliciting adaptations in maximal force production with regard to speed work. *One also has to consider that the intent to move the bar as fast as possible is more important that actual bar speed in eliciting improvements in rate of force production.

That being said, let’s take a look at what a very basic training protocol could look like for speed work in powerlifting.

Traditional Speed Protocol:

Sets

10

Reps

2

Intensity (bar weight)

50-60%

Velocity

.70-.80m/s

Accommodating Resistance

Chains or Bands


Modified Speed Protocol:

 

Sets

5

Reps

2

Intensity (bar weight)

70-75%

Velocity

.50-.55m/s

Accommodating Resistance

Chains or Bands

 

Sets

5

Reps

1

Intensity

75-80%

Velocity

.40-.50m/s

Accommodating Resistance

Chains or Bands


This is just a very basic protocol for speed training. There are many more ways you can skin this cat. Here are two:

  1. If you have something to measure bar velocity, set a desired velocity for the day and see how high in bar weight you can get and still maintain that given velocity. For example, let’s say I set the velocity at 0.5m/s for the day. I will start performing doubles on the squat. My first set will be somewhere around 50% of my 1-RM, plus chains and/or bands. I will continue to increase the weight 20-30 pounds each set of 2 until I cannot maintain 0.5m/s. With this method you get one freebie – that is one set where you miss 0.5 m/s. But if you go 2 sets in a row without hitting the specified velocity, shut it down.

 

  1. Again, if you have something to measure bar velocity, set a desired percentage of bar weight to work at for the day and see how fast you can move that weight. For example, let’s say I pick 80% of my 1-RM bar weight, plus chains and/or bands. I perform a single as fast as I can and continue to perform singles until I no longer maintain or increase velocity for two sets in a row. Then next time I do speed work I try to beat that velocity at the same percentage of bar weight.

 

Uses for Speed Work

I have offered some considerations as to why speed work may actually be effective in eliciting adaptations in maximal force production. Briefly, I offer several additional uses of speed work in powerlifting:

  1. Training the nervous system: Often young powerlifters with very low training maturity and those that are simply not gifted with highly functioning nervous systems can benefit from speed work. In this case, I would recommend lower percentages of bar weight (i.e. 40-60%). The aim here is simply to teach the lifter how to produce force fast and to get them to recruit the big, fast-twitch muscle fibers that produce the most force.

 

  1. Work a weak or slow portion of the lift: Often lifters are weak or slow at different parts of the lift. Speed work can help them to be able to move weight (at increasing poundages) through sticking points.
  1. Give the body a break: Powerlifting is a very physically demanding sport and sometimes the muscles and joints simply need a break from moving heavy weights. Speed work (again, at the lighter percentages of bar weight) can be a great way to give the body a break, yet still achieve a training adaptation.

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you will at least consider some of the thoughts brought forth in this article. I believe that they can help you achieve success in powerlifting. Thank you to Mike Tuchscherer for all of your hard and selfless work to help out the powerlifting community. I recommend reading anything you can get your hands on by him. In the mean time, train hard, train drug-free and don’t forget to supplement your training with the best in the business: BetaTOR, HMB and PEAK ATP!

- Bryan Dermody, Powerlifter/Former Strength & Conditioning Coach

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