Practical Application of Speed Training Techniques in Advanced Bodybuilding Training

Charles Staley’s comprehensive article on speed strength training laid the theoretical background for understanding the various sport uses of speed strength training as well as the various methods suitable for each and the mechanics of the working muscles. That article, however, did not specifically address the application of speed strength training techniques in bodybuilding, which is the aim of this article. The goals of speed-strength training for specific sports are quite different to those of bodybuilding; while the former strives to develop maximal speed-strength (power) or plain velocity (speed) of movement, the latter uses speed training as an alternative way of increasing training intensity for the purpose of inducing muscle hypertrophy, with no special concern for maximal velocity goals.

Regular Training First

If you are a beginning trainer, it would be a mistake to incorporate speed training in your training. The ability to employ speed training techniques in an effective and safe way relies upon a foundation of muscle strength, biomechanical integrity, and neural pathways which are developed during the beginning stages of bodybuilding. If you rush your way to use speed training, you will face the risk of various injuries, including muscle strains or even tears, and tendon and ligament damage. You would do well to stick to conventional training, in which the weight is lifted in a slow, constant speed and the muscles are under a more-or-less constant tension throughout their range of motion. (Notice I did not use the adjective “controlled” to describe the movement, as “controlled” is sometimes used to qualify the movements in traditional training as opposed to other, more advanced, methods; I maintain, however, that control is an essential quality to observe in any type of training, including speed training, as I will show later).

Physics for Physiques

Some very basic laws of physics first. Weight is a product of mass (m) x gravity coefficient (g) = (mg). When you lift an object vertically (like a weight, say…), you are generating a force equal to its weight plus the product of its mass (m) x acceleration (a) =(mg + ma). If there is no acceleration, like when moving the object upright at a constant speed, a = 0 so the force you are generating is equal to the object’s weight. Work is the product of force x distance. Therefore, if you push a dumbbell 20 inches above head level you will have performed a work double that of pushing it only 10 inches. Poweris defined as work divided by time, so the less time it takes you to do the work, the more power you generate. For instance, moving that dumbbell the same distance in 2 seconds requires generating 2 times the power as moving it in 4 seconds. For our intent, this last rule is the most important issue, because it shows why training at a higher speed entails higher intensity.

Why Speed Train?

Speed training provides an alternative path to the progressive resistance principle, which states that in order to induce muscle hypertrophy, one has to constantly keep increasing the weight used. Once past the beginning/intermediate stage, many bodybuilders reach a plateau or a “rut” where they cannot increase the weight they are using anymore. In order to continue to induce hypertrophy, you have to keep increasing the intensity, but if you cannot up the amount of weight, you have to use alternative ways to increase the intensity. Moving the weight at a higher speed implies expanding more power, as explained above, and more power translates directly to a higher intensity. Also, consider that like any other systematic change in the way you train, you are actually periodizing your training, which is a good thing by itself, whatever the change. Finally, speed training may develop motor unit recruitment patterns different to those developed using the same exercises with regular training, thus potentiating better gains with subsequent regular training cycles.

Speed training would best be applied in the form of a cycle. It should not be used on a constant, ongoing basis as an alternative to conventional training based on the progressive resistance principle.

Machines vs. Free Weights

Machines lend themselves well to speed training, provided they are not of the iso-kinetic type (mechanically damped to enforce constant movement speed), are of high quality (robustly constructed with heavy-duty bearings having relatively small friction) and are well maintained. (This needs to be carefully observed, because as the speed increases, the chances of the machine jamming in the course of execution increases sharply. See below). The execution of speed training with free weights, on the other hand, places extra demands on stabilizer muscles, mostly because the body is not accustomed to the relatively large momentum resulting from the fast movements. The stabilizer muscles (which are not specific muscles in the body, as Charles Staley explained, but rather the ones that contract statically to anchor or stabilize the body in each exercise) have to adjust to the forces generated by fast movements in speed training. It would be wise, then, to begin speed training with machines (pulley stations qualify as “machines” for this purpose). This will allow the use of relatively heavy weights while observing proper form. “Proper form” in speed training does not relate only to keeping proper posture and not using other muscles to “cheat”, but also to accurately carrying out the acceleration, speed and deceleration goals of the specific speed training method and exercise.

Because of the increased possibility of machines jamming when using speed training, carefully check the following points:

  • Inspect the bearings of the moving part. Make sure that they don’t have any free play, they are not wobbly, and they don’t have any tendency to stick. Ascertain that bearings are properly lubricated. If you are not sure, ask the facility manager. Explain that you intend to use high speed on the machine and that you need his or her approval of the integrity of the machine.
  • In machines using a single stack of weights or a single loading bar for plates, and which present a wide span between two arm handles (fork-like designs), you can inspect the integrity and quality of the bearings by carefully attempting to apply force to one side of the machine. Using a relatively light weight and applying force at a high speed, observe whether there is any noticeable friction, wobble or tendency to stick. This method is also applicable to inspecting the movement of the bar in a Smith machine, the movement of the padded bar of the leg curl machine (leg extensions are not suitable for speed training – see below), and the movement of the platform in the leg press machine.

This is not to say that speed training should not be executed with free weights. On the contrary, speed training with free weights affords some advantages over machines, specifically the complete lack of friction, the extended range of motion in some exercises, the recruitment of synergist muscles, and a kinesthetic feedback (sense of movement at the joints) more closely resembling that obtained in everyday movements. However, the initial weight used should be lower than those used with machines, to allow the body to learn to compensate correctly for the forces generated by the movement. I suggest you heed this carefully – you could end up with an injury otherwise. After some training with relatively small weights, you could then build on the improvement of the stabilizer muscles in coping with fast movements and gradually use heavier weights.

Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight exercises are also very suitable for speed training. The reasons again have to do with stabilization during the movement. As it happens, we know how to handle relatively fast movements of the body – and how to stabilize it during such movements – from our everyday activities.

The two exercises that come to mind here are dips and chins. If you can’t perform these satisfactorily using speed training – and many can’t – a good idea would be to perform these on an assisted machine, where the foot platform is counter-balanced (loaded) by a varying weight. Selecting a proper amount of counter-balance weight will allow you to perform a satisfactory number of reps using speed training.

Velocity Patterns through a Movement

The positive (concentric) part of most exercises, no matter whether performed traditionally or by employing speed training, can be divided into three phases:

Acceleration Phase: The initial part of the movement, in which the weight is brought from a standing still to the target speed;

Constant Speed Phase: The part of the movement in which the weight is moved in a more or less constant speed (note that some speed training techniques omit this phase);

Deceleration Phase: The final part of the movement in which the weight is decelerated in order bring the weight to a stop at the required position while avoiding hyper-extension, -flexion or -rotation, depending on the case.

The best-known exercise deviating from this pattern is the deep squat (going below 90°), in which the pattern is acceleration – deceleration (reaching the sticking point) – acceleration – deceleration. But many other exercises can be performed using differing acceleration and deceleration patterns throughout the movement, depending on both the varying force curve through the movement and, with advanced trainers, trainer’s explicit control.

Joint Lock-Out

While in conventional training it is advisable to avoid joint lock-out at the end of a movement, especially where the elbow and knee joints are concerned, this is not practical in speed training. However, because of the lower weights used in speed training, the risk of joint hyper-extension is somewhat reduced.

Observing the Speed Limit

While the target of sports-specific training may be to achieve very high speeds, our goals in bodybuilding are quite different and so is the desired speed. In bodybuilding our aim is to induce maximal muscle hypertrophy and so we want to use the combination of resistance (weight) and speed that will accomplish this. This implies using heavier weights and slower speeds than those used in many types of sports-specific training. Another consideration is that the use of heavy weights promotes the risk of hyper-extension, -flexion or -rotation at the end of a movement. The higher the weight, the more inertia it has and the bigger the momentum it generates, and consequently bringing it to a stop requires the antagonist muscles (the muscles working in an opposite direction to the “working” muscles) to generate more force and do this in a shorter order. Since there is a practical limit to the capabilities of the antagonist muscles, the speed employed should be such that it will not risk arriving at such danger situations.

The target speed for the concentric part of the movement for bodybuilding training should be between 0.75 and 1.5 seconds. This, however, is a generalized figure and should be determined individually for each exercise. The determining factor here is the length of the movement, which is, of course, directly related to the time it takes to execute it. For instance, the length of movement in a machine shoulder press is larger than that in a dip and, consequently, you should aim to complete a dip in about 1 second while for the machine shoulder press you should aim closer to 1.5 seconds.

Selecting the Weight

There are no hard and fast rules in selecting the weight to use in speed training for bodybuilding. The most important guideline is to select a weight which will force you to use just about the right speed of movement. This should be light enough to allow you to use the faster movement speeds implied by speed training yet heavy enough to naturally limit the speed when applying maximal effort. By naturally I mean the weight will dictate a maximal speed commensurate with our speed goals for bodybuilding. As a rule of thumb, if you can complete the concentric part in less than 0.75 seconds, the weight is too low. I actually find that the best way to determine the amount of weight is to work my way down until I can move the weight at the right speed. A good starting point is to employ about 60 to 70 percent of your usual poundage (not your 1RM). For instance, if you are usually using a weight of 140 lbs. on a narrow-grip lat pulldown machine, use no more than 100 lbs. for speed training.

What should happen after a few sessions of speed training however is that, for each exercise, you will develop a “feel” for both the amount of weight to use and the speed at which to move it such that the resulting intensity and gains will be optimal.

Proper Technique

The most important issue to observe with speed training is that of constant tension through the range of motion. Even though you will speed the weight through the motion, which means you will generate a momentum that may decrease the load on the working muscles at some points in the movement, you still want to keep the muscles under constant tension. This implies adhering to two principals:

Using Super-Strict Form. You do not want any of the acceleration imparted to the load to originate from jerking or “cheating” movements. If you jerk, the initial part of the movement may be devoid of any tension on the working muscle – something you’ll dearly want to avoid.

Using Progressive Acceleration. Because the momentum that is generated when a mass is accelerated tends to reduce the load once acceleration stops, you should attempt to continue to accelerate the load throughout the movement. As long as the load is accelerated, more power is generated and the muscles are kept under tension. If you rely on the momentum generated during the initial part of the movement to “carry” you through the end of the movement, you are not placing the muscle under the constant tension necessary for best results. This also means that you should try not to apply maximal force right at the beginning of the movement, but rather increase it gradually over the course of the first third to one-half portion of the movement.

Speed Training Techniques for Bodybuilding

Since the purpose of using speed training in bodybuilding is not to develop maximal speed (velocity), but rather to achieve higher intensity training, I will discuss only those speed training methods that provide increased training stimulus for muscle hypertrophy:

Constant Speed Training

In constant speed training, you perform the rep at a relatively high speed, but without acceleration throughout the movement. This is a misnomer because as you begin your movement, you will accelerate the weight until it reaches a certain speed; in this respect, any type of weight training involves acceleration of the weight from its dead-stop starting position to a certain speed, only in conventional training this speed is relatively low and the acceleration required is proportionally small.

In constant speed training, you should attempt to accelerate the weight to a relatively high speed during the first one-third to one-half portion of the movement, and then attempt to maintain a constant, but high, speed through the end of the movement. Near the end of the movement, deceleration is achieved through both the reduction of power of the agonist muscles and the braking action of the antagonist muscles.

Explosive (Ballistic) Training

Perhaps the best known of all speed training techniques, “explosive” refers to the rapid recruitment of a large number of muscle fibers, and is expressed kinetically as a continuous acceleration of the weight throughout the movement. While what might happen in reality is that acceleration will occur in only part(s) of the movement, interspersed with constant speed/deceleration parts, the aim of the trainer is to keep accelerating the weight during the entire course of the concentric phase. Varying leverage points as well as the force curve of the muscle through the movement will translate to various speed patterns in reality, however the feeling of the trainer may be that of continuous acceleration.

The effectiveness of this technique lies in two factors: 1. The constant tension on the muscle that is maintained throughout the movement, as the continuous acceleration ensures that the momentum generated by the weight does not decrease the tension on the muscle as would happen with constant speed training; and 2. The motor unit recruitment patterns, which would seem to favor more high-threshold units as power is developed explosively through the movement.

Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT)

In various exercises such as the squat, mechanical leverages change through the movement so the tension on the working muscles changes in various points in the movement. In CAT, the trainer deliberately accelerates during the points where the leverage improves in order to keep the tension high. For instance, in a squat, the leverage improves once past the “sticking point” on the ascend, so a CAT trainer will attempt to apply more power at this stage. In classical CAT training for sports, a very deliberate attempt has to be made to prevent a forceful braking action near the end of the movement, which might hamper sports-specific faculties; however for bodybuilding this is not necessary and no special attempt at deceleration should be made beyond what is necessary to prevent injury.

Reactive Strength Training

Reactive strength consists of two elements: The stretch reflex (also known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle) and elastic kinetic energy. The mechanism behind SSC is as follows: As the agonist muscles stretch at the end of the eccentric (negative) part, a reflex mechanism kicks into action which causes the contraction of these muscles, thus preventing them from over-stretching. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons you have to stretch slowly and gently). When properly utilized, this reflex can add to the power of the subsequent contraction. Also, near the end of the eccentric, kinetic energy is stored in the elastic connective tissues, including muscle sheath, tendons, ligaments and the muscle itself. This energy is released at the beginning of the concentric phase, contributing to the power generated at that phase.

For reactive strength training, you should use a weight even lower that that used for the other techniques. A good starting point is to use about 50% of your usual poundage. The sudden reversal from the negative to the positive portions places extreme demands on muscles, tendons and joints. To utilize reactive strength in speed training, you should use a specific form as follows: Perform the eccentric part (e.g. lower the weight) in a moderate pace. Just as you reach near the bottom of the movement, brake (decelerate), almost coming to a full stop, but not quite; then slightly relax again, allowing the weight to “tension” your working muscles while mentally preparing to forcefully reverse directions. Then apply a strong, ballistic reverse force to begin the concentric part. If you do this right you should feel as if your muscles have a “springy” quality near the end of the eccentric and the beginning of the concentric. It is interesting to note that experienced trainers use this technique instinctively, even if they are not aware of it.

Be careful with this technique where balance of the body needs to be securely established before beginning the positive portion, such as in the squat, the bench press, etc.

The Pre-Stretch

The pre-stretch is used in regular training, but it has a synergy with speed training. The difference between the pre-stretch and reactive strength forms is that for the pre-stretch you decelerate and brake at the bottom of the movement, then slowly relax the working muscles somewhat so that they are slightly stretched beyond their normal starting position, then pause and hold this position for a moment and start the concentric position. There are specific exercises where the pre-stretch is most effective, such as low-pulley rowing, narrow-grip lat pulldowns, chins and dips.

Alternating Reps/Sets

I find it very effective to alternate speed reps with regular reps as well as speed sets with regular sets. Within a set, the basic idea is to perform a regular rep, then a speed rep, then a regular again, but variations on this theme are possible, like 2 speeds/1 regulars, etc. For sets, I find that a 1/1 alternation works best. Presumably, fiber recruitment patterns vary somewhat between regular and speed reps and this allows for a (short) partial recovery of fibers between the alternating reps, allowing for a fuller exhaustion of the entire muscle. On a larger scope this may be true for entire sets as well.

Selecting Exercises

Let me now discuss specific exercises. I’ll start with exercises suitable for speed training and then list some that are not.

Suitable

 

Exercise Optimal Execution Time of Concentric Part (in Seconds) Notes
Machine Shoulder Press 1.0-1.5 Make sure not to lock your elbows out too forcefully at the end of the movement. (As explained above, joint lockout is unavoidable in speed training. The point is not to lock the joint out with excessive force).
Assisted Dips 0.75-1.0 As above.
Assisted Chins ~ 1.5 or less for partials (see note). 1. With chins there’s no concern of elbow hyper-extension, so you can accelerate right through the end of the movement.2. If you do partial reps – e.g., going down to parallel (upper arms at 90° to the ground) – cut the speed down to 1 sec. or less.
Narrow-Grip Lat Pulldown 1.0-1.5 Use a pre-stretch or reactive training form for maximal effect.
Low Pulley Rowing 1.0-1.5 As above.
Pec Dec Flies ~ 1.5 As above.
Smith Machine Bench Press ~ 1.5 Avoid using too heavy weights.
French Triceps Extension 1.0-1.5 As above.
Triceps Pushdown 1.0-1.5 As above.
Hack Squat ~ 1.5 As above.
Leg Press ~ 1.5 As above.
Seated Leg Curl ~ 1.5 Do not perform on a lying curl machine. See below.

 

Unsuitable

 

Exercise Reason
Leg Extension High risk of knee hyper-extension, in a position preventing other joints from absorbing some of the lock-out impact.
Lying Leg Curl High risk of lower back injury.
Shoulder Lateral Raises Because of the long movement at the palms, this exercise is performed at quite a high speed normally, generating a rather large momentum; using speed training will result in a decreaseof tension through a large portion of the movement.
Deadlift High risk of lower back injury.

 

Designing a Program

While various speed training regimens call for relatively low volumes (sets x reps), they are usually targeted at certain sports-specific goals such as maximal velocity or strength speed (power) and not muscular hypertrophy. Your training volume as a bodybuilder should be about the same as for a regular routine. Within your routine, you can mix regular and speed training exercises. I do suggest, however, that for the first few times you use speed training techniques, you will stick with them for at least two weeks, because it takes some time to master the skills for correct execution of speed training exercises. As you progress, you will develop the “feel” for which exercises and which techniques work best for you, and the mastery of the best way to accelerate the weight for achieving best muscle growth goals.

It is best to utilize speed training in a cycle lasting no more than 2 weeks, during which you should attempt to work each bodypart from 2 to 4 times. After the cycle, take some time off from training – 3 to 6 days would be appropriate – before switching to your next cycle. You may notice an improved performance in the subsequent cycle resulting from the neuromuscular adaptations that occurred in the speed training cycle.

References

Baechle, T.R., “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning”, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 1994

Behm, D.G. and Sale, D.G., “Velocity Specificity of Resistance Training”. In Sports Med. 15(6): 374-388, 1993

Fleck, S. and Kraemer, W., “Designing Resistance Training Programs (2nd Ed)”, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 1997

Hatfield, F.C., “Power: A Scientific Approach”, Contemporary Books, Chicago, IL, 1989

Stone, M.H. and O’Bryant, H.S., “Weight Training: A Scientific Approach”, Burgess International, Minneapolis, MN, 1987

Stone, M.H. and Stone, M.E. “Training Principles: Evaluation of Modes and Methods of Resistance Training”, in Muscular Development, Dec. 1998

About Yuval Goldstein

Yuval Goldstein is a personal trainer working in Tel Aviv, Israel. He hopes to soon earn a government-sanctioned Gym Training Certificate from the American-Israel College for Fitness Education based in Tel Aviv. Yuval has studied advanced bodybuilding training with Wingeit luminary Yair Lahav. He started weight training after being designated "The Weakling of the Class" in elementary school, and that was some 21 years ago. He has been training ever since.