How to Program Speed Work for Raw Powerlifters

Speed work for raw powerlifting gets a bad rep sometimes, and I can understand why. Lots of equipped lifters swear by the power of speed work to help increase a one-rep maxes, but when a raw guy tries to add some speed work to his own training, it doesn’t work. And you can find countless variations of Westside training methods tailored for raw lifters that substitute dynamic effort days for repetition ones – further suggesting that speed work doesn’t have a place in the raw lifter’s toolkit.

Personally, I’ve had a lot of success incorporating speed work into my own programs, and those of some of my athletes. I think the secret involves understanding why speed work works, and how to incorporate it into the structure of a long-term training plan.

What Is Speed Work?

First, I think it’s useful to clarify what exactly I’m talking about here. Louie Simmons, founder of Westside Barbell, undoubtedly popularized speed work in the form of the dynamic effort (DE) method that he uses with his lifters. The DE method generally calls for a lifter to perform 8-12 sets of 1-3 repetitions using 45-65% of his 1RM, and usually incorporates some form of accommodating resistance, like bands or chains.

When I’m referring to speed work, though, I’m using the term a little more broadly than that. To me, speed work involves any sort of training where you’re trying to keep bar speed high and reps low. I don’t think it’s useful to set guidelines for exactly how fast the bar is moving or what percentages or RPEs you’re using – most people understand what it means to move the bar quickly, and, for me, that’s enough. But just banging out a light set of 10 doesn’t qualify.

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Why Does Speed Work Work?

Here’s the thing you need to understand: Why Simmons devised the DE method, he was working exclusively with equipped lifters. For those of you who don’t know, lifting in a squat or deadlift suit or a bench shirt provides a big boost through what’s typically the hardest part of the range of motion: Off the chest in the bench press, out of the hole on the squat, and off the floor in the deadlift (although gear tends not to help as much on deadlifts). That boost allows equipped lifters to handle a lot more weight, but to take advantage of it, they need to learn to carry the momentum created by the equipment through the entire range of motion. DE training helps to practice that skill without having to handle the huge weights that can really beat up your body, so it’s an incredibly useful tool.

Raw lifters, obviously, don’t have the benefit of equipment like that, and for them, the weights will typically move slowly off the chest, floor, or out of the hole – and if they miss a lift, they’re likely to do so at that part of the range of motion, anyway. It’s not always the case, and if your sticking point is halfway through a lift (say, at the knees on deadlift), it is possible that you’ll benefit from speed work in exactly the same way as an equipped lifter would. But usually, if you want to get benefits out of speed work, you have to apply it a bit differently. Because speed work does have some very important benefits that often go unnoticed.

First, by its very nature, speed work is light work. After all, you usually can’t move a heavy weight very quickly! Light work, of course, is valuable as a form of active recovery and as a method of increasing the overall volume of a program. But I’ve found that many lifters approach light work with an almost begrudging attitude – as if it’s something to be slogged through, rather than treated with as much focus and intensity as heavy training. By adding the element of speed to a light day, you’re forcing yourself to focus on the details, and to get them right – and your training will be much more productive for the effort. And, because you’re keeping the reps low, that focus will be easier to maintain.

In a very similar way, speed work is better than light work as a tool to practice technique. Oftentimes, lifters will be able to demonstrate nearly textbook form with light weights (say, under 80% of their 1RM) – only to have that form fall apart once the percentages start to creep up. That’s due to several reasons, but partly, it’s because compared to heavy training – where the focus is primarily on putting in as much effort as necessary to complete the lift – light work affords the lifter the extra headspace to focus on keeping good form. That focus might involve a long list of cues, or it might mean the lifter moves very slowly and cautiously to avoid repeating bad habits.

Regardless, when you’re focused on moving the weight quickly, you lose that extra headspace, which is actually a good thing – it means that you’ll be forced to learn the kinesthetic feel of proper technique rather than relying solely on verbal cues. And again, low reps is important here. If you’re practicing technique, busting out ten perfect reps with no break is pretty darn tough – but you can probably do 8 or 10 sets of singles or doubles just fine.

How to Incorporate Speed Work Into Your Own Training

By now, you probably know that my number-one rule of programming is make small changes. Otherwise, there’s really no way to understand how your body responds differently to one stimulus compared to another.

Fortunately, in the case of speed work for raw lifting, it’s easy: simply substitute speed work for light training. For example, if you follow a traditional powerlifting split, where you squat and deadlift once a week, bench heavy once a week, and bench light once a week, change that light bench training to speed training. While you certainly don’t have to stick to the parameters of Westside-style dynamic effort training for your speed work, I do think it’s a good place to start (remember, that’s 8 to 12 sets of 1-3 reps with 45-65% of your 1RM).

There are a few caveats to note. First, remember we’re making small changes. If you decide to change your light bench training to speed training, just change your working sets of the bench press. Don’t try to apply this method to your assistance or supplemental movements. And make sure that you give yourself at least a month or so to determine how you respond to speed training. Don’t abandon it after a week or two just because it feels a little different at first. In fact, that goes for all programming changes!

Finally, let me be clear: I don’t believe that speed work is a secret method that’s going to skyrocket your lifts to the elite level in just a couple of months. It’s simply another useful programming tool that, when used properly, can have benefits for quite a lot of people. If you’ve ignored it as an “equipped-only” training method, it might be time to revisit that assumption.

Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.