Speed Work and the Developmental Lifter

Written by: Kevin Cann

There is a massive misunderstanding about speed work in general amongst lifters and coaches.  Anyone with an Instagram account can put out information these days and actual knowledge gets lost in the process.  The lack of education and experience amongst those that share this information is incredible, but that is a complaint for another day.

Speed work is also known as the dynamic effort method.  When we perform speed work, we are looking to improve upon our ability to create max force more quickly.  Speed work will not directly influence your 1RM.  Instead, it gives us the tools to further develop our 1RM in conjunction with the other methods.

Powerlifting is drag racing.  How fast you get from 0 to 60 matters.  The typica force-time curve will have maximal strength at the peak.  There will be an area between the external load and the maximal force applied.  This area under the curve is what we are aiming to increase in order to get stronger.

To do this we must improve our ability to produce max force more quickly as well as increasing our capabilities to produce max force.  Only focusing on one piece will leave performance out there.  If we only focus on developing max strength, we will eventually get slower.  This decreases our ability to produce force more quickly and our lifts will stall out or even move backwards.  

If we only perform speed work, our ability to produce maximal force will decrease.  This is why we perform the max effort method on one day and the dynamic effort method on another day.  One day works at developing maximal force, another day works on developing maximal force more quickly (this is known as the rate of force development).

Powerlifting is a fad, and most people come and go within a 3-to-5-year period of time, often working with multiple coaches during that time span.  The typical Instagram “coach” works with beginners for short periods of time.  Those beginner gains easily last 2 to 3 years, especially as a lifter gains weight from training.  

These observations from “coaches” can be very misguided as they can think their methods are more successful than they truly are.  Higher frequency comp lift specific programs will only work for a period unless you are built for the sport of powerlifting.  With greater leverages for the sport, improving upon the efficiency of the movements makes a lot of sense, but I would still argue against for overuse and recovery issues.  At some point you will need to change it up.

Building a base for a larger peak is more than just hitting some half-assed bodybuilding volume at times. Developing specific strength qualities along he force-velocity continuum becomes important too.  This is a problem that needs to be solved in beginner to intermediate lifters.

Many lifters begin with no athletic background.  There are a lot of athletic qualities that have never been developed over time.  The high frequency programs come from the Russian national team, but what lifters fail to recognize is that those lifters went through a long term athletic development program.

From 6 to 9 years old they did gymnastics, swimming, climbing, and developed basic human movements. After that there was a large focus on building a base through GPP.  Only as the lifter matured through these schools did they get more specific work and the GPP became a smaller focus.  By the time they got to the more specific programs they had been lifting for over 10 years.  Most avoid developing a base all together here in America and jump right to these more specific programs.  They will work better in the beginning because it is a massive stimulus for the beginner, but it will lead to an earlier peak just like early specialization does in all sports.

Many beginners lack the overall strength to display force dynamically so programming speed work for them can be a challenge.  In these cases, plyometrics should be the main choice for developing explosiveness as well as body awareness and some form of athleticism.  I have had lifters that cannot jump off 2 feet at the same time in adulthood.  This will limit abilities substantially.

I shared a lifter on Instagram yesterday doing dynamic work.  She has been lifting for a year and a half and had no athletic background previously.  We started performing dynamic work a few months ago.  Each of her 3 reps got faster as she performed them.  This was an interesting find and the opposite of a more advanced lifter, or one that tends to have an athletic background.

This is due to her using each repetition to “figure it out.”  This is not a conscious process (but I am sure she makes it one), but instead her body figuring it out through developing the coordination.  This is often seen when a lifter performs the second rep with better technique than the first.  It is just the learning process of developing body awareness.

Some might take this as a sign that she is not ready for speed work, but I look at this as an ability to develop it.  We tend to only do speed squats and speed bench which will make up no more than 30 minutes of total training time in a training week of greater than 6 hours of training.  It is not a huge commitment but can have big implications later on to progress.

We perform more moderate weight pulls after speed squats which allow for more force development.  You could very easily program a few sets of heavier squats after the speed squats as well.  The speed squats just become a very targeted warmup there.  I find the bands to throw some people off when you take them off, so I do not tend to favor that approach.  I instead like to use heavy 3-8 rep ranges for a primary accessory that could be a low box squat, various grip bench press, rack pull, etc.  I would rather use the comp lifts themselves as a 70-80% with certain sets and rep ranges that allow for solid execution there instead of moving those heavier.

Looking at her velocities, she may be better suited for sets of 5.  We will do waves without speed work, and just throw in more plyometrics.  In these waves we will perform 5x5s.  The stronger lifters tend to avoid this a bit more as the recovery cost is higher.  They will stay to the doubles and triples.

I choose to not change her volume as it allows for greater recovery and extra energy to hit the accessories, including the deadlifts, harder.  This is what she needs, building a bigger base.  This increased recovery ensures she is recovered for her max effort work. When we are developing high levels of coordination we must be recovered for the session.  As Charlie Francis said, “A body in recovery is only seeking homeostasis.”

As a coach, it is important to understand that things are not so black and white.  It is not this all or nothing approach.  It is not all or no variations, or all or no speed work.  The practical application of things is filled with nuance.  “Coaches” on the internet should spend more time learning that and less time making memes. Learning benefits the lifter and making memes is attention seeking behavior for the individual.  That is not someone that should be coaching.

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The mission of Mass-Lift Powerlifting is to promote drug-free powerlifting competitions, training seminars, and fitness events throughout the country. Overall, our goal is to promote a healthy and active lifestyle that will encourage strength and fitness enthusiasts to compete at local, national and international level.