Speed Strength Training—To be Fast, You Need to be Strong First!

Sep 22 09:43 2011 Alex Miller Print This Article

Many of the strongest athletes are also very fast.  Beginners may misunderstand this and try to develop speed first when they should actually develop some strength and muscle first.

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To explain Speed Strength Training it is first necessary to explain the nature of strength.  There are many people who are naturally strong but for most of us, strength is a learned skill in which we have to condition our central nervous system and motor units to become stronger by using resistance training.  By the same token, most of us have to learn how to be fast. Strength and conditioning experts have touted for years that speed and strength are interrelated.  Take a strong athlete and make him faster and he will get stronger.   The question is, what kind of protocol do you use to make the athlete faster?  The closer a training exercise is to an actual sporting movement, the greater the chances of realizing the positive training results.  In football, when you want a tackle to be able to pull or push an opponent to the ground, you wouldn’t have him lifting very light weights slowly to failure, would you?  The answer has something to do with fast twitch versus slow twitch muscle fibers, the components of speed strength and what kind of exercises are utilized in strength speed training.

 Difference between Fast Twitch and Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers:  A Generalization

Fast twitch muscle fibers can develop tension and contract about two to three times as fast as slow twitch muscle fibers.   They have less ability to store oxygen than the slow twitch and so they fatigue much more quickly.  The fast twitch fibers are white in color.  The slow twitch fibers have iron and oxygen binding proteins called myoglobin which gives them a red pigment.  Roughly speaking, myoglobin is to muscle what hemoglobin is to blood.

Simply put, in a chicken, the legs are the dark (red) meat with slow twitch fibers and the breast (pectorals) are the white meat with fast twitch fibers.

 The Importance of Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers in Fast Action Sports

For fast action sports that require strength, the most important thing to know about fast twitch muscle fibers is that they split molecules of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in a muscle very quickly.  ATP transports chemical energy within cells.  It’s the energy source for muscle contractions.  If an athlete can increase the amount of fast twitch muscle fibers and increase the rate of contraction of those fibers, he can be stronger in his athletic performance.  In physics, the formula for power is Force (strength) x velocity.  Muscular speed is sometimes both internal and external.  There is a speed of muscular contraction or tension (internal) and a speed of external movement.  Clenching your fist or contracting your abdominal muscles bracing for a punch are both examples of internal isometric contraction with no external movement.

 Components of Speed Strength

Speed strength can be broken down into three parts:

Starting Strength:  This is the force first produced in the first split second of a muscular contraction.  Think of the exact instant a sprinter starts to push off the starting block.  This involves alertness and acting at the exact moment when the impulse is needed.

Explosive Strength:  The maximum rate at which force is maintained during a movement.  Think of a sprinter using all their continuous strength to push off the block and accelerate.  Think of a running back plowing through a defensive line dragging a couple of tackles behind him.  He just keeps moving.

Reactive Strength:  Also called reversal strength when a muscle group first stretches and then rapidly contracts as in jumping.  Plyometric training is employed for this component.  There is a moment when the stretching itself activates a stretch or myotatic reflex that actually contracts the muscle.  Then there is a turn around when the muscle group starts to shorten.  The small amount of time taken to change the movement polarity is called the coupling time.  The athlete is drilled over and over to reduce the coupling time.

Speed Strength Training Versus Super Slow Workouts

This subject is only mentioned here because there are some personal fitness trainers out there who believe that training with lighter weights doing a slow rep cadence somehow contributes to the firing of fast twitch fibers that a shot putter needs to bolt that ball of iron across a field.

Many studies have been done with speed training versus very slow training.   Most testing renders redundant, ambiguous or inconclusive findings.  There are usually too many variables to prove anything.  The best assessment is to say that studies have shown that speed strength is speed specific.  This simply means that you should lift slowly if you want to get better at doing things slowly and train lifting fast if you want to improve your strength when moving fast.  Experienced strength coaches, for instance, would never train a sprinter, boxer or football player in a very slow fashion.  Endurance training and speed don’t mix.

Exercises and Training Used in Speed Strength Training

Strength and conditioning coaches have been using the Olympic lifts such as the clean and jerk and snatch for years to develop greater speed and reflexes in their athletes.  Jumping and plyometrics are also used.  Many believe that the secret connection between speed and strength are plyometrics.  Plyometrics are frequently used in speed and agility programs.  Whenever you perform an exercise in such a way that a muscle group is stretched and then explosively contracted, that is a plyometric.

In the world of powerlifting, light weights of about 60% of 1 rep maximum are moved very quickly for exercises such as bench presses and box squats to develop the components of speed strength.  Quick bursts of two to three reps for eight to ten sets are performed with little more than thirty seconds rest in between sets.  The secret is to push that light amount of weight just as hard and fast as you would if you were pushing your maximum for one rep.  The velocity of the bar is the key to generating maximal force production.

A Final Word

Plyometrics require a person to first be strong enough to do them.  Many personal trainers will refuse to have their client do plyometrics or any speed training with weights until they can prove themselves to be quite strong (such as being able to squat one and a half times your body weight).  If you do them, warm up a lot first to get the blood flowing well to joints you will be using.

Basically any type of exercise that can be converted into a plyometric can be used to ultimately increase the amount of fast twitch muscle fibers and turn slow athletes into quicker examples of sporting excellence.  It is important to use only those plyometrics exercises that closely simulate the actual movements in your sport—only then will the Speed Strength Training have any relevance.


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Alex Miller
Alex Miller

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