by Eric Cressey T-Nation
Imagine two lifters standing near one another – each with a barbell loaded to 405 pounds on the floor in front of them.
Assume these two are identical in every way – except for one key fact. Lifter A was a high-jumper, but Lifter B got his physique from more traditional bodybuilding methods.
Neither of these guys has ever deadlifted 405 previously.
Which of the two do you put your money on to hit the PR if you don't know anything else about them?
Ten times out of ten, I take the high jumper – and I'd guarantee you that most folks in the human performance industry would do the same. Why?
Based on his athletic background, you can assume that he's learned to apply force quickly.
These two might have the exact same peak force capabilities, but the guy who can put force into the ground the quickest to break that bar from the floor stands a better chance of completing the lift.
The take-home message is very simple: learn to apply force quickly and it'll make you stronger. The optimal approach, however, is not that simple; in fact, it's different for everyone – and that's what I'll cover in this article.
What You Can Learn from the Crazy Father of an Unathletic 14 Year-Old
At Cressey Performance, we train a lot of high school athletes. Roughly once a week, we have a father come in and tell us that his kid needs more "agility training" in his program because he isn't quite fast enough. I encourage them all to read this article: Make My Kid Run Faster.
The basic gist of the article is that you can do all the speed training you want with a young kid, but unless he has a foundation of strength, it won't help much at all. It's the equivalent of swapping out the fuzzy dice in the mirror of a car with no engine.
Sprinting and change-of-direction work involve substantial ground reaction forces, and without adequate strength to provide eccentric control, unprepared bodies turn to mush. You have to have force in order to display force quickly.
How does this apply to incorporating speed work in a strength-training program? Very simply, if you haven't built a solid foundation of strength, incorporating specific speed work in your program probably won't do much for you.
What's a solid foundation of strength? If I had to estimate it based on previous experience, I'd say a 1.5x body weight squat, 1.25x body weight bench press, and 1.75x body weight deadlift.
With folks that aren't quite at that level who still want to give a passing nod to speed, I typically just recommend that they add a few additional warm-up sets on their first exercise of the day. On these additional sets, their focus is outstanding concentric bar speed in perfect technique. So if a 185-pound guy is working up to squatting 230x3, he might proceed as follows:
Bar (45) x 8
95 x 5
135 x 3
155 x 3 Fast
165 x 3 Fast
175 x 3 Fast
185 x 3
205 x 3
230 x 3 (first official work set)
A normal work-up for this guy might be 45x8, 95x5, 135x3, 185x3, 205x3 – and then on to his first work set at 230. In this instance, however, he adds an additional three sets of speed work without beating up on his body or adding unnecessary volume that could interfere with his more important work sets.
In the process, he not only gets a chance to practice technique, but also learns that he should always accelerate the bar as fast as possible. The intent to develop force quickly is where it's at – even if the bar speed isn't tremendous, that bar speed will come in time.
What Constitutes Speed Work, Anyway?
I've seen some blanket recommendations about how to best train bar speed in the weight room, but I'm not sure that there's one that's universally accurate. You see, the slower you are (regardless of how much force you can develop), the lower the percentage of one-repetition maximum (1RM) you'll need to use.
Conversely, the fastest guys usually don't even need to train speed; their natural reactive ability allows them to just lift heavy stuff and continue to get faster. You can usually identify these naturally fast-twitch guys as people who will absolutely smoke a lift at 99% of their 1RM, but get absolutely stapled by 101%. They either crush a lift or don't get it at all (whereas most folks will have to grind them all out).
As the saying goes, "It's easier to make a fast guy strong than it is to make a strong guy fast." Most folks (myself included) are somewhere in the middle.
With that in mind, I like to let the bar "sound" dictate whether the weight is right. In most cases, if you're accelerating the bar with good speed, you'll hear the plates rattle against each other in the strongest portion of the movement.
In fact, a good way to test this out is to simply load up a bar to roughly the weight you think you should use, but use several 2.5- and 5-pound plates in the process, then put the safety clamp about 1" away from the weights. If you're smoking big weights, the plates will make some noise – but you won't get this if the bar is too heavy.
At what weight will this take place? In most cases, 40-70% of 1RM is your best bet. Of course, there are exceptions; as an example, jump squat percentages will be lower because you're actually leaving the ground. And, of course, the Olympic lifts – which are absolutely fantastic for improving rate of force development – are self-limiting in that if you can't move the bar fast, you simply won't complete the lift.
Of course, all the preceding paragraphs assume that you need external loading to improve speed to the point that it'll carry over to lifting. That's not necessarily the case.
Ten Ways to Train Speed in Your Strength Training Program
A lot of folks get stuck in a rut when it comes to training speed in the context of strength and conditioning. It seems like everyone's all about just doing box squats and bench presses – but there really are a number of other options.
Sprinting: No equipment needed. It might not carry over perfectly from a specificity standpoint, but running fast will never make you less athletic. In terms of resisted sprinting, I've never been a fan of sprinting with parachutes, but we will use sprinting with sleds.
Box Jumps: You go up, but don't come down – so the pounding on the body is minimized. I've read of quite a few high-level deadlifters who have utilized box jumps with outstanding success.
Countermovement (Vertical) and Broad Jumps: You can do these with body weight only, or against added resistance. Band-resisted broad jumps are arguably my favorite exercise for training posterior chain power.
Medicine Ball Drills: These might not carry over from a specificity standpoint, but frankly, people spend too much time in the sagittal plane – and power training is no different. Plus, it's fun as hell to try to smash medicine balls. You can do overhead, rotational, and scoop variations. I'd also put sledgehammer swings against tires in this category.
Non-Sagittal Plane Plyos: Like medicine ball drills, they aren't necessarily "specific" to lifting, but there will be carryover, and you'll certainly move better on the whole. We utilize many different variations of heidens with our athletes.
Olympic lifts: As noted earlier, assuming you learn proper technique and you have the adequate mobility to perform them correctly, you can't go wrong with Olympic lifts if you're trying to improve universal bar speed. Cleans, snatches, high pulls, jerks, you name it; if you're slow, they can help.
Squat Variations: Following the percentage variations I noted above, you have loads of options for variations: different bars (straight bar, giant cambered bar, safety squat bar), free squats, box squats, Anderson squats (from pins or chains), and different forms of accommodating resistances (chains and bands).
Deadlift Variations: I increased my deadlift from 510 to 628 in just under a year, and I'm convinced that it had to do with the fact that my programs included speed deadlift variations twice a week for that entire period. You can do conventional, sumo, trap bar, and snatch grip variations.
Bench Press Variations: As with the last two examples, variety is easy to include. You can vary grip width, change bars (straight bar, multipurpose bar, thick bar), perform the movement with or without a pause at the bottom, and implement different accommodating resistances.
Plyometric or Clap Push-ups: These can be a good change of pace for those who are bored with speed benching – and they can be great exercises to take on the road if you don't have a lot of equipment at your fingertips.
How to Pick the Right Speed Exercises for You
Several factors influence which of the above modalities you choose, but the foremost of these factors are a) your goal and b) your current training experience.
If your goal is to deadlift a Buick, then you need to go with specific options. I'd use speed deadlift variations almost exclusively, and perhaps just use some broad/box jump variations and a bit of hip dominant squatting for speed as variety. Specificity will always rule if lifting heavier weights is the only goal.
If you're just an Average Joe trying to get more athletic with some solid carryover to your strength training program, I'd rotate my "speed work" on a monthly basis. Each month, in both the upper and lower body, I'd do one movement with minimal external loading (jumping variation, sprinting, medicine ball work) and another with more appreciable loading (speed box squats, speed deadlifts, or Olympic lifts).
If you have two upper-body and two lower-body training sessions in each week, you could simply do one in each as the first movement of each session. I'm in this category, and I tend to do one day of speed benches and one day of speed squats or deadlifts per week, then supplement it with a bit of sprinting and some medicine ball throws. In other words, I get some general, and some specific.
If you've got decent speed already, chances are that you can get away with just once a week in both the upper and lower body.
As you can probably tell, I don't see any reason to devote specific training sessions, weeks, or entire blocks specifically to training speed. Rather, I see it as one component of a comprehensive program – and something that can be trained alongside other strength qualities in each training block. You might do more of it at certain times than others, but that doesn't mean it should be performed to the exclusion of everything else; heavy lifting and rep work definitely still has its place!
When to Include Speed Work
Most of the time, the best place to put your speed drills is first thing in your strength training session, right after the warm-up. In other words, it'd be your "A1." There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule.
I've often done my speed deadlifting as my "B1" exercise after heavy squatting.
We'll also integrate complex training, in which a speed exercise is preceded by a heavier load. In other words, you might do a heavy set of 2-4 reps on a front squat, and then do a set of five countermovement (vertical) jumps within 20-30 seconds.
You'd rest 2-3 minutes, and then repeat the process. Through a principle known as post-activation potentiation, the heavy loading of the front squat increases neural drive and recruitment of high-threshold motor units, which in turn allows for greater power output on the subsequent task. It can work great, but if you do it all the time, you can burn athletes out.
Finally, in certain cases, it might be necessary to do a separate speed session altogether. Sprinting and medicine ball work, for instance, may need to take place in a separate location than lifting, so for sake of convenience, you'd just perform those exercises on their own.
Basically, the idea is to train speed when you're fresh. Doing a bunch of box jumps at the end of a heavy lower body training session isn't just unproductive; it's dangerous.
Everyone needs speed, but some certainly need to improve in this regard more than others – and some don't even "qualify" for dedicated speed work because they haven't already built up a solid foundation. If you use the aforementioned strategies for implementing speed training in your training programs, I'm confident that you'll start hitting big weights faster than ever.