The Importance of Being Fast and Learning from the Past

Written by: Kevin Cann


The force-velocity curve is a major piece of the curriculum in both undergrad and grad school in this field.  I have been coaching for about 15 years now.  The majority of that time was spent coaching high school athletes.


I was also fortunate enough to intern at Harvard University and got an opportunity to learn how they do things with their division 1 athletes.  Interestingly enough I moved away from this as I got more and more experience coaching powerlifting.


I moved away from this while calling my lifters athletes, and strength a skill.  Even though I looked at them as athletes and the development of strength as a skill, I got away from training them like they were athletes.


In my defense, I didn’t totally neglect these aspects of training.  I assumed that the warmups leading up to the top sets would be enough to develop these other athletic qualities.  Also, the first few reps of a set of 5 are in the lower intensity zones where velocity should be higher.  The problem with that is that the athlete is not focused well on those warmups.  They are using them to tune-up to hit something big and the first few reps are no more than a means to an end.


We got very strong doing this.  Totals were going through the roof by doing near max sets on a daily basis.  However, I was noticing that we were getting slower. This has not had a negative effect on us yet, but I think it might in the long run.


We were very focused on absolute strength.  Load up the weight and fight for a very hard top set.  Absolute strength is what we are striving for at the end of the day. So why not train it more often?


The intensity of the training and the atmosphere must be discussed here as well.  A group straining together and pushing each other with their actions and words definitely contributes to the increases in strength that we have seen.


When I worked with Sheiko, the majority of the work was done between 75% to 85% of 1RM with sets between 2 to 6 reps.  This is what is known as speed-strength.  Basically, speed-strength is the ability to produce force in the shortest time possible.


Absolute strength can go up from training in these zones.  The word “strength” is a part of speed-strength.  I have mentioned this in podcasts and posts in the past about Eastern Europeans and their belief on sticking points.


Some will argue that the sticking point is the inability of the lifter to coordinate the muscles and produce force fast enough.  They try to train in the absence of a sticking point.  I did this for 3 years and my total went up at each competition that I did.  It definitely can work.


Maximal power occurs at intermediate velocities when lifting moderate weights.  This is the 75% to 85% of 1RM for 2-6 repetitions.  These seems to be a pretty decent sweet spot for training.


However, it relies on very small increases in total incrementally over time.  Who is to say that we could not have lifted that 5-10lbs at our last test if we had a better ability to strain?  What I saw with my lifters is that this style of training did not teach the lifters how to strain, and they would get very nervous with heavier weights.


To learn how to strain, the lifters need to train at close to maximal weights/maximal weights.  This is not done for sets of 3 or 5, but singles. A maximal single elicits the greatest neurological response to move the most weight.


It is very difficult to have a system like the Russians within the American culture.  American lifters want it all now and lack the patience to be successful with it.  They also get into this sport later in life.  They have a smaller window to attempt to do the best they can within the sport.


A 20 year old Russian has most likely been training for 10 years.  A 20 year old American has most likely never picked up a barbell before. This changes how the coach needs to organize and structure training.


I went from doing a program emphasizing speed-strength to one emphasizing absolute strength.  Technique was a bit better, and speed of lifts were better with the speed-strength, but our ability to strain and to lift maximally was better with a greater emphasis on absolute strength.


There is a 3rdcomponent of training that is emphasized in sports programs and that is ballistic action.  To achieve the fastest speeds possible the lifter needs to use very light weights. Weights between 30% and 40% of 1RM.


I did some of this style of training with Sheiko on a 4thbench day.  I did not feel that I got anything out of it.  It was just too light.  Also, the barbell has to decelerate because the velocity at lockout is zero.


I am not too sure a lifter can train this with straight weight.  In a strength and conditioning program, this is where plyometrics are used. An athlete can just jump as high as they can without having to stop at a given position. Medball stuff enters the picture here as well.


I want to make well-rounded lifters.  We train in many different positions.  We alter foot positions, bar positions, and grip.  This is a start, but we can be much more well-rounded athletes.  We can be strong and fast.  At some point I think you have to do both, or a plateau is inevitable.  We may have avoided the plateaus by making the change from one to the other.


Absolute strength develops the ability to produce maximal force.  Speed-strength develops the ability to produce maximal force more quickly. Being fast and strong is required to push the bar through the sticking points of the lifts.  It is not an either or.


I have some lifters that I need to speed up, and I have some lifters that I need to slow down.  When I analyze the lifts, I always look at technique. I have never really looked at their strength qualities before.  Are they fast, slow, etc?


All the tempo work and pause work that we did worked well, because we were coming off of a long period of focusing on speed-strength.  We were fast but needed to slow down.  We slowed down and got stronger.  Now, we need to speed up again.


We will focus on all of these aspects, being strong at all angles, and developing all strength qualities within our programs moving forward. Finding balance and continuing to learn along the way.


I am still new at coaching this sport.  I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.  Many out there will speak in absolutes about what works and what does not. I feel this is very true within the raw lifting circles.


Raw lifting has been around for a very short time, and we seem to have forgotten about all of the things that older lifters figured out before us.  I got sucked into this trap.  A community of lifters and coaches with less than 5 years of experience leading the way.


Putting down the lessons from the past due to equipment or drugs.  Those things need to be taken into consideration for sure but shouldn’t lead to a discarding of those lessons the pioneers have taught us.  Let us be real for a minute, drug tested does not mean drug free.


The days of Westside conjugate style training are not dead.  They are forgotten and pushed aside for inexperienced lifters and coaches, that are too smart for their own good.  I can say that because I was one of them.


That style of training has been around for over 40 years.  There is a list of lifters that have done that style of training for over 2 decades.  This comp lift only DUP craze has been around for less than 10 years.


It is the same pre-packaged periodization stuff we have been spoon-fed since the 70s.  The science is not conclusive that it is better than linear periodization.  Lots of studies show no difference in performance, and others show DUP is a bit better.


In the end these are all short-term studies.  The long term studies have been done through trial and error from those that have come before us.  Don’t let their messages fall on deaf ears.  Louie talked a lot about the issues he had with typical periodization.  People will hate on him, but jump on sharing Kiely’s articles referencing the same issues.


Progress occurs from building off of those lessons from those before us.   There are some improvements to be made to that style of training.  Changes need to be made because most lifters we coach have jobs and have different backgrounds.  I made the mistake of ignoring those messages instead of using them to improve upon.


Since I have expanded my circle beyond that typical crowd, I have learned a lot more and it has been a serious gut check to my thinking.  But each gut check moment is an opportunity for our team to get stronger. Looking forward to many more.

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