A Different Way To Look At “Speed Work”

A highly debated topic within powerlifting over the years has been speed training. While some swear by it, others oppose. And what I want to do is propose a new idea of speed training, that really does not include any “speed”. Let me start by noting that this article is meant to be read is my theorizing and application of principles combining into an idea that could possibly hold true and be applied within training. I am not saying these practices are tried and true and you should apply them immediately, but rather I am presenting arguments and theories of a possible new way to look at speed work, and then I plan to put them into practice. Basically this is my ramblings and thoughts, and rather than just store them in my head while testing their application, I am writing them down for myself and also for anyone else who may want to test their validity. And I 100% encourage counter arguments against my proposed theories, as I would love to hear rebuttals to what I have to say. Since these are just ideas and theories, the more constructive feedback I can get, the more I can turn these into sound principles.

Let’s first take a look at how and where I formulated my views on speed work and power within powerlifting from. While speed work is highly debated, the argument on whether powerlifting is actually a “power” sport should not be. There is very little power application actually within powerlifting competition, and on the scale of power to strength, testing your 1 rep max on the platform is about as close to the strength side as it gets. With that being said, I will not say that the application of power cannot be used within powerlifting though, I am just going to propose what I believe is a new way of looking at it. In my opinion, speed work is not the correct way to term the training we should do to increase power within powerlifting, but rather should be looked at as “acceleration work”. The reason I believe this, is that with a true 1 RM or sets taken close to failure, “speed” and “explosive” is usually the last thing to describe what that lift looks like. If speed and power, as seen and applied in olympic lifting, were vital within powerlifting then you would not have people like Layne Norton setting squat world records while having a squat that at even submaximal weights looks slow. Grinding out a rep is everything power is not, and instead is the work of our muscular strength pushing through to help us complete the repetition.

Let’s look into the advice and teachings of Boris Sheiko, an esteemed and legendary powerlifting coach from Russia, who is entrenched in a land of power movements. In my opinion, if there is someone who would know if power is relevant within powerlifting, it would be him, as he grew up in an era and country that founded the principles of power that we have today and led to the popular Westside dynamic effort methods. Summarizing the comments of CJ Murphy that he shared in an Elite FTS article in regards to what he learned at a Boris Sheiko seminar (1), he stated that he was a bit perplexed by Sheiko’s comments in regards to rate of force production. Unlike the Westside principles that he had been taught, CJ heard from Boris that his recommendation was to not “explode”, but to go “fast” under control. Where speed training seems to teach a ballistic effort to move the bar as fast as you can, Sheiko took more of a controlled acceleration approach. And you can see this in his lifters. If you have ever watched Sergey Fedosienko lift (one of Sheiko’s clients), his lifts are fast, but the odd thing is that the speed of his lifts look about darn near the same whether it is with submaximal weight or 1 RM loads. They always look under control and fast, but I wouldn’t describe it as explosive, grinding, or shaky at any point. As CJ stated, Boris’s approach is that the lift within the eccentric to concentric is like a metronome, and Fedosienko’s lifts definitely fit into this category.

One piece of analytical and perceptual evidence that I believe also gives good insight into speed and power within powerlifting is taking a look at Westside lifters vs. Sheiko clients/sub-maximal powerlifting advocates. A theory that can be 100% agreed on in powerlifting is that specificity is key. I will expand that to include that your ability to grind through a 1 rep max is also based on the specificity of the absolute and relative intensity of your training. If you watch Westside lifters, they are usually pretty good at grinding through 1 rep maxes, and that’s because they train with high absolute and relative intensities on a weekly basis. The same could be said with those who train with amraps on a consistent basis and are taking sets to a high level of relative intensity. When you are consistently training at those thresholds, your ability to grind through heavy weight increases. While I believe someone who follows the Westside principles may argue that their speed work allows them to “speed” through heavy weight, I would argue that their specificity of consistently heavy loads is the reason they are so good at it. On the opposite end, Sheiko clients and others who are proponents of sub-maximal training usually tend to make their 1 RMs look somewhat effortless. It is not to say that they couldn’t grind or do not grind at times, but more likely than not they will not be as skilled in the act of grinding through a maximal rep due to their submaximal training and specificity. My argument is not that one is better than the other (high relative/absolute intensities vs. sub-maximal training), but rather that through the analytical and perceptual evidence I have gathered, that speed work does not seem to translate to the “speed” people seem to desire. And if this is the case, “speed work” in relation to powerlifting does not make much sense, as those who are proposing speed work are those tending to grind through 1 RMs, and those opposing speed work are the ones that are seemingly “smoking” their 3rd attempts in competition. There is obviously more variables that could go into this particular argument, and not every Westside lifter is grinding through reps and not every Sheiko client is smoking 3rd attempts. But I do believe there is some validity to what I have stated.

So with the foundation laid on why I believe the speed work that has typically been done is not optimal in its translation to powerlifting competition, let’s take a look at what I am proposing with “acceleration work”. Continuing with the advice and theories of Boris Sheiko, included in Charles Poliquin’s “Five things I learned from Boris Sheiko” post on his website (2), he stated that Sheiko taught that in particular with the bench press, that the faster the acceleration was, the higher the sticking point would be. And that the higher the sticking point was in the concentric phase, the easier it was to push through that sticking point.

So how do we improve our acceleration…….pause work. There are multiple benefits of pause work:

  1. Improved ability to strengthen and brace in the paused positions, leading to increased stability in that range. Most likely with bench and squat that would be the bottom position.
  2. With squats, it helps to increase the neurological awareness of where “depth” is if we are pausing at the bottom position.
  3. Less reliance on the stretch reflex, which can help improve our recovery abilities during a misgroove.
  4. Acceleration from that position. In a situation where we would typically rely on the stretch reflex to propel us, we now have to produce that acceleration voluntarily from that position. This could also be a discussion of working on your maximal strength, versus relying on other factors and using your absolute strength.

The main focus here will be number 4, with pause work directly helping with our acceleration. Now that is nothing new. A simple google search of “pause squat for acceleration” brings up multiple articles from highly credible sources on how pause work in the squat, bench, and deadlift can lead to improvements in acceleration. Where I feel my proposal is different is that I am stating that this can be substitute for the traditional “speed work” that has been used in powerlifting for years. Rather than just prescribing pause variations within a training program, it can be used as a foundational principle within training to improve bar acceleration in our lifts, termed “acceleration work”. An easy way to see the difference between someone who consistently practices pause work vs. does not is to watch the sticking point of a powerlifter who trains touch and go bench press far too often leading into competition. Once they compete and have to pause, that sticking point hits them hard right off the chest. They relied on the momentum of the stretch reflex to help propel them off the chest, and when they can no longer do that, their true acceleration shows through. I can see the argument then that we have to pause in competition for bench press, but not for squat, so where would the benefit of “acceleration work” come in for squat? I would then go back to the fact that pause work within a squat will help to improve our maximal strength and acceleration from that position without other factors at play, specifically our ability of stretch reflex to create acceleration. When looking at acceleration, the amount of time I would say we truly are accelerating during the squat, bench and deadlift during a maximal lift is very, very small. While I did not find conclusive research regarding this, it seemed that the initial acceleration period would be around .1-.2 seconds during a maximal lift, and after that we are usually decelerating at least until we break through our sticking point, with another very slight acceleration period after that. So to say that we need to worry about speed throughout the entire movement in my opinion is false. Rather, we just need to worry about the few milliseconds that we need to accelerate from the bottom position and possibly through the sticking point, then after that strength is the dominant factor of the movement. And that is where pause work has its benefits.

“Acceleration work” through paused repetitions versus speed work also has the benefit of the ability to use heavier loads. In the controversial article “Why Speed Work Doesn’t Work”, Mike Tuscherer made the point that if done correctly, speed work is using such light weights that the technique and motor unit requirements do not have the carry over to sport practice that is needed.(3) When we are under a heavier load, there is going to be a different level of bracing and motor unit recruitment needed. But with the idea of “acceleration work”, we can still fulfill that ability of using loads in the 70-85% range on a regular basis, and up to circa max or maximal loads if desired to fulfill that need for technique practice that can translate to the platform.

So if pause work can now be used as a foundational principle for “acceleration work”, what movements would be beneficial within a powerlifting training program to supplement as variations to our competition lifts? For squat, there are three main variations that reduce or eliminate the stretch reflex, and then within those three variations we have multiple options as well. For the three variations, this would include pause squats, pin squats (or also known as anderson squats), and tempo squats. With the pause and pin squats, we can change these variations in regards to where we place the pause. Typically the most popular points will be at the bottom position of the squat, making sure that we are not resting on the hamstrings, but rather still in an actively contracted and tight position where the hip crease is just below knee level. The other point being just above parallel, as that is many times where the sticking point of a squat for low bar squatters in particular is located. I included tempo squats as well, as even though they still have a small reliance on the stretch reflex process, due to the elongated eccentric, the benefit from the stretch reflex is reduced and could therefore have some benefit in regards to acceleration as well.

In regards to bench press, the variation options are very similar to squat. The one big difference though is that the bench press actually has to be paused in competition, so now there is even more of a reason for us to train with pause work. Even if there is disagreement on the concept of “acceleration work”, I still believe for powerlifting specificity that we should use a pause on all bench movements on anything 6 reps or less. Anything over 6 reps I would let someone decide themselves what they prefer, as we probably are all well aware the difficulty of trying to breath correctly on an 8 to 10 rep paused bench set. Back to the discussion of variations though, with bench if we are pausing with most or all of our movements, that will be our primary “acceleration work”. From there we have some options of pin press, spoto press, and block presses the work through different ranges of motions and sticking points depending on our needs. Also, the same as with squat, tempo bench press could be an option as well due to its decreased reliance on the stretch reflex.

As for the deadlift, it is already a concentric only movement when performed correctly in competition standards (dead stop, not touch and go). Even so, there are still some things we can do variation wise that directly improve our acceleration in regards to implementing pause work. We can implement a pause at certain points during the movements, usually at a sticking point, to increase our acceleration from that position. Typically with pause deadlifts, these pauses are inserted either right when the bar breaks the floor, or as the bar ascends to just below the knees. The other way we can train this is through reset reps when we are performing deadlift for multiple repetitions. Reset reps call for after each repetition that we step away from the bar and reset. Even with dead stop deadlifts, there is still some build up of the stretch reflex that helps us advantageously during the next repetition, so doing a full reset fully relieves us of that built on tension.

Lastly we need to look at how we could program this “acceleration work” into our training protocols. In regards to the Westside/conjugate method, I do not want to do the disservice of trying to rework that program to plug in an “acceleration day” over the dynamic effort day, as that would entirely change the protocol they have set up, and most likely would not allow for adequate recovery. But with some other popular programs, I see some wiggle room to work this in.

In the popular DUP protocol, if we are looking that the original setup of Hypertrophy – Power – Strength setup, we can easily plug this “acceleration work” into the power day. As it stands, the power day currently within the DUP system is really just a lighter relative intensity and lower volume recovery day in prep for the heavier strength day later in the week. To not mess up the recovery protocols in place, we could still shoot for lower relative intensities and lower volumes on this day to allow CNS fatigue to dissipate, but emphasize pause work variations on this day to train our acceleration. This pause work would also allow us to use relatively lighter loads in relation to competition lifts to achieve the same relative intensities, so it plays a second role in allowing for some additional recovery.

As for more standard western periodization strategies, the “acceleration work” could be added in through variations picked to supplement the competition lifts, as is typically done, especially further away from a meet. Pause work is already a very popular variation in many programs, but just the idea of using it as “acceleration work” will be a bit of a different way to approaching it. If lifts are typically done in a 2 day a week frequency, “acceleration work” could be used on one of those days, and competition lifts on the other. If competition lifts are performed both days, then “acceleration work” can be used to fit in afterwards as supplemental volume and variation to complement the previous competition movements.

One thing to be determined is the individual need for “acceleration work”, and how much that will actually benefit each individual in their pursuit of strength. While this needs to be delved into much deeper, I think some type of test could be modified from the strength deficit theories presented in the book “Supertraining”. To summarize, Verkhoshansky advises a jump test to determine someone’s strength deficit, with which we can determine their strength to power ratio, in sense. You have them perform two standing jumps, one from a static start and the other preceeded by a slight dip. The jump with a slight dip should be higher as we can rely on the stretch reflex, but the strength deficit is the difference between the two. In regards to athletes, the larger that deficit, the more their programs should feature power based movements, and the smaller the deficit, the more hypertrophy and strength based movements should be prioritized. (4) While I have no idea the exact numbers, I am sure some type of ratio of pause to non-paused squat/bench/deadlift could be developed to determine someone’s acceleration ability in regards to their maximal strength. The calculation would be simple, as it would be something such as your pause squat 1RM or estimated 1RM divided by your competition squat 1RM. This would give us a percentage that would then translate into our “acceleration deficit”. If there was some type of controlled experiment or analysis of a wide array of lifters, I am sure some type of definitive ratio could be developed to determine the need requirements for “acceleration work” based on someone’s deficit. And just like Verkhoshanksy’s method, the larger the deficit the more “acceleration work” that would be needed, and the smaller the deficit the more general strength and hypertrophy would be prioritized.

In regards to this whole article, I know I am reaching here to an extent, but a reminder that this is my ramblings, thoughts, and theories on this subject, not my solidified recommendations. Piecing the information together I have researched, these are some of the thoughts and conclusions I came to, and plan to experiment with these ideas in application to determine their validity and performance benefits. There are always many variables at play in regards to why a program works, so even if adding “acceleration work” to someone’s program increases their total on the platform, it will also not mean all that I have theorized is valid. It will just be another tool in the arsenal in the pursuit of strength that will hopefully pan out into something. As mentioned before, please give me feedback, in agreement or countering, as I’d love to get a discussion going on other’s views in regards to this subject and where I may be onto something or where I may be reaching.

  1. https://www.elitefts.com/coaching-logs/my-weekend-with-boris-sheiko/
  2. http://www.strengthsensei.com/boris-sheiko-5-things-learned/
  3. http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2013/03/25/why-speed-work-doesnt-work/
  4. Verkhoshansky, Yuri, and Mel Cunningham. Siff. Supertraining. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky, 2009. Print.

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