So this article is about why speed work doesn’t work — at least not for the reasons you think it does. I’m sure this article will make some people rejoice and make other people pretty upset. And for myself, since I rarely write articles that get such a divided response, I’ve gone over this quite a few times just to double check and make sure I’m not saying anything crazy.
My claim: It’s my professional opinion that “speed work” is not the optimal method for developing maximal force, particularly for trained powerlifters. Let’s stop there as this will give us plenty to talk about….
Speed Work Defined
For now, let’s define speed work as anything under a 7 RPE. If you complete a set and you could have done 5 or more reps, it counts as speed work. If you’re doing doubles or triples with less than 75%, it probably counts. If you’re doing singles with less than 85%, it probably counts. If this is just a warm-up to your heavier work, then it probably doesn’t count as speed work.
Just for the sake of clarity, I’d say those percentages are bottom-tension percentages of a 1RM in whatever lift it is that you’re doing. Usually peak force is at the bottom of a lift like the squat or bench, so this seems to be the most relevant number. Also for the record, I tend to place more value on the RPE than the percentage, but I figured I’d put percentages up as guidelines since a lot of you don’t use RPE yet.
Reason #1: Force Output During Speed Work Is Crap
If you attempt a squat in a meet and grind it for 15 or 20 seconds, but complete the lift for white lights, yet your competitor completes the same weight in 3 seconds, who wins? Assume both of you move up 5 pounds and miss. The answer is you tie (or win/lose based on bodyweight which is pretty much a tie) because there is NO time component to powerlifting. Despite the name, power (in the physics sense) is not what you care about as a powerlifter. You care about force. It’s common meathead knowledge that force equals mass times acceleration and many of you can cite Russian manuals that state, in theory, you can maximize force by maximizing the mass on the bar or the acceleration.
I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work in reality. I’ve tested it.
Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar. Are you trying to maximize force? Add weight. In real life, you won’t be able to accelerate enough to produce force like you can in a max lift. No way around it. Sure, a set done with maximum acceleration will produce more force than one done with an even tempo. But only if the weight on the bar is similar. If you always accelerate maximally, you will produce more force if the weight on the bar is heavier, even though acceleration is less.
For those who want a reason why, here it is. It takes time for your body to ramp up to maximum force (Fmax). In a heavy lift the bar speed is slow enough to get there (or get close). In a light lift, the bar speed is too fast for you to have time to get to Fmax.
Force, the most important quality for a powerlifter, is not practiced with speed work. Doing speed work does not produce maximal force. In theory it should, but in real life it doesn’t. My numbers indicate that even at 75% of 1RM (too heavy to be considered “speed weight” by most), force production is still only 85%. When you consider that increasing the weight to 90% or 95% yields near-maximum levels of force production, it’s easy to see that when it comes to practicing your ability to produce force, you can’t beat heavy weights. And if you’re worried about spending too much time with 90-95% loads, please read my previous article “You are not overtrained”. Don’t be scared.
I’ve gathered data on peak force production values in each of the three powerlifts by measuring force with a tendo unit as well as using motion analysis software on videos of the three powerlifts. Peak force production with highly sub maximal weights (defined above) does not approach peak force production values generated by heavier weights REGARDLESS OF INTENT TO ACCELERATE. Sure, trying to accelerate produces more force than NOT trying to accelerate. But it still doesn’t produce as much force as using a heavy weight. Measurements of peak force production using 75% of 1RM were approximately 85% of the peak force that was measured when using 90% of 1RM for the same number of reps. In other words, lighter weights produced about 85% of the peak force value that the heavy weights did.
During peer review, many thought using peak force production was an error and instead I should use average force production. I did collect data on that and average force production was even more linked to bar weight than peak force. I decided to look at peak force because that was the variable that responded more to outside influences. Things like intent to accelerate, fatigue, and load all affected peak force. Load was the only factor that seems to affect average force.
The real question in any training discussion is not “what works”. Rather, you should ask, “What is optimal?” As Dr. Hatfield says, it’s always a question of good, better, best. The evidence shows we can get higher peak force production by increasing the RPE beyond 7. To do this, should increase the weight until you are getting RPEs of 8+ for the number of reps you are performing.
Additionally, if you’re seeking a greater volume of work, I think doing that volume with higher peak force values will be more beneficial unless you are having recovery issues (and then speed work acts as a band-aid for a larger problem). If you’re trying to support muscle mass or develop your technique, I’d suggest that there are better options out there than doing speed work. Even for pure power development, I think there are better options available. Remember, good Better BEST!
As I’ve stated, power itself does not play a large role in powerlifting. Sure, there IS a time limit when exerting Fmax. You can’t just grind away all day. But the time component is limited by your ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores. At maximum intensity, these can last around 10 seconds. So if you’re not grinding out 1RMs for longer than 10 seconds, you aren’t limited by your ATP/CP. And even if you do take longer than 10 seconds to complete a maximum attempt, studies have shown it only takes .15 seconds and .25 seconds to reach Fmax in pulls. My own measurements show time to Fmax as being significantly less (.10 to .17 seconds) in movements with an eccentric component. If you’re slow, that still leaves you 9.75 seconds to grind away. If you could double your RFD (which would be quite a feat), that still only gets you an extra .125 seconds. I can’t remember seeing a lift and thinking, “Man, if he could have just kept grinding another .125 seconds, he would have gotten it!” I think a powerlifter’s training economy would be better spent developing a higher Fmax rather than focusing on RFD.
And before anyone balks at the apparent contradiction, let me clarify – it only takes a quarter of a second or so to reach Fmax. But when using lighter weights, the measured Fmax is LOWER than the Fmax that is measured with heavier weights. That’s a narrow difference, but an important one.
Reason #2: Technique Is Not Perfected
This is where my observation of the data ends and my interpretation of it begins.
If you have decent form (i.e. you know what good form is and you can demonstrate it with light weight), then speed work will not help you get better. The weights are typically so light that they involve a different motor pattern than will be used on heavy weight. Besides, it makes far more sense to do technique practice with a weight that challenges your technique (and thus requires you to pay attention and practice) than to do technique practice with something easy.
Increased strength is an adaptation of the human body. The body adapts to stressors and when it does, it supercompensates. Couple that with knowledge of mylination, skill development, and the data above and I think it’s fair to say that doing speed work as defined in this article will most likely not increase peak force production values. The primary drivers of success in powerlifting are force production and technique (mostly because good technique supports force production).
With that being said, speed work has other training effects that may or may not help you reach your goals. It gets you more training volume, which is almost always good. This can support muscle mass, improve skill to somewhat, and improve power generation. It’s important to note that power generation typically won’t matter to a powerlifter, but it is probably more important to other athletes. It’s also possible that speed work sessions are easier to recover from than bouts with heavier weights, though some people have the opposite experience.
Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar.
I’m not trying to engage anyone in religious debate. If you care about your training method with religious fervor — to the point where you’re unwilling to try to understand my arguments or form logical ones of your own, then please don’t try to talk training with me. I don’t insist that everyone agree with what I say, but it’s a good thing for everyone to challenge their own assumptions from time to time. I’m willing to have a mutually respectful discussion on this or any training topic. Similarly, if you do speed work and I question its effectiveness, it doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting your guru of choice. Nobody gets a free pass in the realm of ideas. No person, because of the things they have done or said in the past, deserves to have their thoughts accepted without question. In fact, respecting someone’s ideas involves questioning them to see if they hold water. Good ideas deserve to be debated and questioned. What’s more, it’s the quality of a person’s logic that determines whether or not their questioning is good. The notion that the one who popularized some idea must grant someone “the right” to question them is absurd.
I also don’t mean to insinuate that any entire program doesn’t “work”. Anything will work given the right circumstances. But as I said, it’s not even about what “works”. “Does it work” is the wrong question! It’s about what is optimal. There is NO program or system that is perfect and we all have more to learn. What I’ve presented here is something I’ve learned and my intent is to share it so that others can improve their programs as well.
Some of my friends include speed work in their training. I don’t think it’s optimal, but they don’t take it personally. Conversely, there are things I do that they don’t think is optimal. I don’t take it personally either. We can discuss it like adults. Hopefully with good discussion, critical thinking, and careful review, we all get closer to the truth over time. I don’t expect that you, the reader, will change your mind on speed work immediately (though you might), but as a courtesy, just let what I’ve said here sink in for a few days. Maybe it causes you to question what you were previously doing. Maybe it doesn’t. Life goes on.
So why do people do it?
Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport. There is force and technique. Not much else plays a role. Speed work can contribute to hypertrophy, but it’s not ideal. So why do people seem to get gains from doing speed work?
First, it’s hard to say that speed work gave them the gains. These programming changes are almost never made in isolation, so it easily could have been some other aspect of training. It could have been the increase in frequency. Most lifters go from one heavy squat season a week to one heavy and one light session. In that case I would say that although speed work isn’t ideal, it’s a net win because frequency went up.
It can also help those who are chronically beat up. Since it typically involves lighter weight, it should cause less structural stress, so it can sometimes result in fewer injuries, which allows people to improve more over time. With that said, I think proper volume management and good general conditioning limits the need for this kind of thing for the vast majority of lifters out there.
And lastly, it’s a case of good, better, best. Speed work would likely produce results in someone if they were untrained enough. But that doesn’t mean it is ideal.
If you use speed work in your training, I encourage you to gradually migrate to something heavier. Don’t over-complicate it. Just gradually use heavier weights. Your prime work sets need to be at least an 8 RPE if not higher. No need to thank me — your future PR says it all.
|About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.