3 Crucial Tips for Using Speed Work In Powerlifting

Do you want to try using speed work to boost your powerlifting performance? Here are three methods to do so properly.

Speed work for raw lifting gets a bit of a bad rap. Many lifters believe that it isn’t an effective way to train, and honestly, if you follow the common recommendations for speed work (45-55% of 1RM for 8-12 sets of 1-3 reps), it probably won’t work all that well. But that doesn’t mean speed work is useless.

First, if you’re not familiar with speed work, here’s the (really, really broad) oversimplification:

  • It’s based on the idea that moving sub-max weights at max speeds will help to lift max weights at sub-max speeds.
  • Louie Simmons popularized the idea of speed work for powerlifters as the dynamic effort method in the Westside system.
  • General recommendations for speed work consists of many sets of low reps, with short rest periods and light weights.  The whole goal is to move as fast as possible.

In my opinion, training strictly for speed won’t carry over too much to your maximal effort lifts, but if you train for speed in the context of a complete program, it can be a very useful tool for…

  1. Refining technique
  2. Recovering from and preparing for heavier training
  3. Making a “light day” more fun.

Here are three tips for doing exactly that.

Tip 1: Start Simple

If you’re not already training using the conjugate method, don’t just jump full-bore into it and expect good results. Instead, begin by using speed work in whatever program you’re using right now. Simply use the general recommendations for loading speed work in place of whatever “light” training you might be doing (by the way, you are doing light training, right?).

Here’s an example.  Let’s say your light upper-body training day looks like this:

  • Bench Press: 75% 1RM for 5×5
  • DB Bench Press: 3×10 with a weight you could use for 12
  • Pulley Pushdown: 2 sets of max reps with a weight you could use for 20
  • Seated Row: 3×10 with a weight you could use for 12
  • Band Pull-Apart: 3 sets of max reps using a mini band

To incorporate speed work, you’d simply change your bench press loading:

  • Bench Press: 55% 1RM for 12 sets of 3 reps with 60 seconds between sets
  • DB Bench Press: 3×10 with a weight you could use for 12
  • Pulley Pushdown: 2 sets of max reps with a weight you could use for 20
  • Seated Row: 3×10 with a weight you could use for 12
  • Band Pull-Apart: 3 sets of max reps using a mini band

Notice that the assistance work doesn’t change. That’s important, because if you change everything on your light day, you won’t know whether it was the speed work that made a difference, or changing up the assistance.

Tip 2: Adjust Your Volume AND Intensity

Remember, volume and intensity are the cornerstone of good programming. If you’re using generic recommendations, chances are, you’re not using the volumes and intensities that are optimal for you. In particular, with speed work, you’ll probably benefit from using more sets — maybe a lot more — than the typical 8-12.

Here’s why: you can’t consider any training variable in isolation. So while 12 sets of 3 might be a good one-third more than your 5 sets of 5 (36 total reps versus 25), you’re also using about one-third less weight (75% versus 55%). So that’s a great place to start, but the relationship between volume and intensity is rarely linear, so it’s possible, or even likely, that by decreasing intensity by 30%, you need to increase volume by more than that to create an optimal training response.

With typical speed work, at least as popularized by Westside, you’re using about 8-12 sets of 45-55% 1RM waved over a 3- or 4-week training cycle.  For example, it might look like this:

  • Week 1: 12 sets of 3 using 45% 1RM
  • Week 2: 10 sets of 3 using 50% 1RM
  • Week 3: 8 sets of 3 using 55% 1RM

Start there, and if you don’t see an improvement in your heavy training, try this instead:

  • Week 1: 20 sets of 3 using 45% 1RM
  • Week 2: 15 sets of 3 using 50% 1RM
  • Week 3: 12 sets of 3 using 55% 1RM

If that works, great. If not, revert to your previous volume parameters for a week or two, and then try varying the intensity instead:

  • Week 1: 12 sets of 3 using 60% 1RM
  • Week 2: 10 sets of 3 using 65% 1RM
  • Week 3: 8 sets of 3 using 70% 1RM

You can continue adjusting volume and intensity in this way until you find something that works. Remember, though, that your goal is to move the weight quickly. If your bar speed starts to slow, you’re going to heavy, so try something else rather than increasing the weight. Definitely do not “grind out” any reps on a speed day!

Tip 3: Be Careful with Accommodating Resistance

Most speed work involves the use of accommodating resistance, typically bands and chains, to encourage fast lifting and to make training more challenging. Because attaching bands and chains to the bar will add weight at the top of the movement, but not the bottom, then they can encourage you to start the lift even faster, in order to generate the momentum needed to power through a rep at the top.

But band and chain tension (band tension in particular) can creep up on you fast and instead lead to grinding reps — a bad look, as explained above. So instead, I recommend you try some alternate strategies for making sure you’re moving fast.

Try a Velocity Tracker

Velocity trackers measure how quickly the bar is moving. That’s a hugely useful tool for several reasons, but in the context of speed work, if we can measure the speed of the bar, then we can use that as a loading parameter. In other words, rather than using, say, 45% of your 1RM, you’ll use a weight that allows you to move the bar at 0.7 meters per second. In theory, that will produce better results.

Unfortunately, it can be really difficult to get your hands on a velocity tracker. If they’re available for sale at all, they tend to be pretty expensive, fragile, and a bit of a pain to set up at first. If you can’t make the tracker work, try this instead:

Set a Time Limit

Credits to Mike Hedlesky for this one.

Instead of tracking your velocity, use a much more simple metric: track the total time of your speed work. This essentially limits the weight you can use by itself, because if you’re using too much weight, you won’t be able to complete your speed work as quickly — your sets themselves will take longer, and you’ll need longer rest between sets as well.

Mike recommends taking between roughly 15 and 17 minutes to complete all your sets, but I prefer a simpler approach: simply time your first speed workout, and then try to beat that time for each of the next two weeks. When you reach the third week, increase the weight and start over. It looks like this:

  • Week 1: 45% 1RM for 12 sets of 3 in 17 minutes
  • Week 2: 45% 1RM for 12 sets of 3 in 16 minutes
  • Week 3: 45% 1RM for 12 sets of 3 in 15 minutes
  • Week 4: 50% 1RM for 12 sets of 3 in 18 minutes

And so on.

The Bigger Picture

Speed work can be really complicated, so that’s why it’s so important to start simple.  But if you do, and if you’re patient about how you incorporate it into your training, it can be an extraordinarily useful tool to help you get stronger.

Got your own tips on speed work?  Share them in the comments below!