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Old 04-01-2013, 11:46 AM   #1
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Max Brawn
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Default Speed work: Not this again



So the last article I wrote made some people rejoice and made other people pretty upset. And for myself, since I rarely write articles that get such a divided response, I went back just to double check and make sure I didnít say anything crazy. Iím usually a pretty wordy writer and that article was pretty quick. As such, I donít think I was as precise as I ought to have been, so letís run this gauntlet one more time.

My claim: Itís my professional opinion that ďspeed workĒ is not the optimal method for developing maximal force, particularly for trained powerlifters. Letís stop there as this will give us plenty to talk aboutÖ.


The definition in the original article:

ďFor now, letís 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 youíre doing doubles or triples with less than 75%, it probably counts. If youíre doing singles with less than 85%, it probably counts. If this is just a warm-up to your heavier work, then it probably doesnít count as speed work.Ē

Just for the sake of clarity, Iíd say those percentages are bottom-tension percentages of a 1RM in whatever lift it is that youíre 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 Iíd put percentages up as guidelines since a lot of you donít use RPE yet.


Iíve 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 doesnít 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.

Some people 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.


This is where my observation of the data ends and my interpretation of it begins.
Increasing 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 itís 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).

That 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. Itís important to note that power generation typically wonít matter to a powerlifter, but it is probably more important to other athletes. Itís also possible that speed work sessions are easier to recover from than bouts with heavier weights, though some people have the opposite experience.

The real question in any training discussion is not ďwhat worksĒ. Rather, you should ask, ďWhat is optimal?Ē As Dr. Hatfield says, itís 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 youíre 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 youíre trying to support muscle mass or develop your technique, Iíd 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 Iíve stated, power itself does not play a large role in powerlifting. Sure, there IS a time limit when exerting Fmax. You canít 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 youíre not grinding out 1RMs for longer than 10 seconds, you arenít 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 youíre 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 canít remember seeing a lift and thinking, ďMan, if he could have just kept grinding another .125 seconds, he would have gotten it!Ē I think a powerlifterís 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 Ė 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. Thatís narrow difference, but an important one.


Iím not trying to engage anyone in religious debate. If you care about your training method with religious fervor ó to the point where youíre unwilling to try to understand my arguments or form logical ones of your own, then please donít try to talk training with me. I donít insist that everyone agree with what I say, but itís a good thing for everyone to challenge their own assumptions from time to time. Iím 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 doesnít mean Iím 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 someoneís ideas involves questioning them to see if they hold water. Good ideas deserve to be debated and questioned. Whatís more, itís the quality of a personís logic that determines whether or not their questioning is good. The notion that the one who popularized some idea must grant someone ďthe rightĒ to question them is absurd.

I also donít mean to insinuate that any entire program doesnít ďworkĒ. Anything will work given the right circumstances. But as I said, itís not even about what ďworksĒ. ďDoes it workĒ is the wrong question! Itís about what is optimal. There is NO program or system that is perfect and we all have more to learn. What Iíve presented here is something Iíve 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 donít think itís optimal, but they donít take it personally. Conversely, there are things I do that they donít think is optimal. I donít 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 donít expect that you, the reader, will change your mind on speed work immediately (though you might), but as a courtesy, just let what Iíve said here sink in for a few days. Maybe it causes you to question what you were previously doing. Maybe it doesnít. Life goes on.
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