With this article we would like to give you a taste of what you are about to learn at Programming Demystified, a new seminar with Pavel, Fabio, and Hector, this October in Phoenix, AZ or in your living room.
Over a century ago Ivan Lebedev, a big name in strength training in imperial Russia, suggested selecting the lifting speed based on one’s temperament: a slower one for the easily excitable, a fast one for the melancholics and the phlegmatics, a medium one for the sanguine.1 His instructions seemed to aim at fixing one’s “malfunctions” in a pseudo-Ayurvedic manner more than on maximizing the weight lifted.
No joke, should you explode your deadlifts and military presses, “grind” them, or both?
Ideally, both. When training for strength, some Soviet specialists advocated varying the lifting speed as far back as the 1940s and 1950s.2 Nevertheless, slow to medium became the Soviet party line for strength training,3 in spite of the pioneering 1970s experiment by Slava Lelikov.4 In the USSR his paper got the attention of Olympic weightlifting coaches but not the general strength establishment. In contrast, Western strength coaches fell in love with speed variability and some, including Charles Poliquin, made a great use of it.
Coaches usually talk about varying the “tempo,” but it is a misnomer. The tempo refers to the cadence, or reps per minute. If the cadence is fast, so is the speed; under other conditions one has nothing to do with the other. For instance, you could do an explosive single rep on the minute. The speed would be high and the tempo low. Lelikov’s study design and his terminology are partly responsible for the confusion. He paired faster speeds with higher tempos and vice versa. Still, it remains a groundbreaking study.
Before running his subjects through experimental protocols with different speeds that would become known worldwide, the researcher clocked Olympic weightlifters of all levels, from beginners to world class, and all weight classes, back squatting with 80% 1RM at their comfortable speed and rhythm. It turned out that lifters squatting at a “medium” speed (0.5m/sec; 2.5sec to complete a rep, eccentric plus concentric) consistently cleaned the clocks in the snatch and the clean-and-jerk of those whose squats were “slow” (0.4m/sec; 3sec) or “fast” (0.6m/sec; 2sec).
In his first experiment, the scientist had low level weightlifters squat with 80% 1RM x 3/5 (reps/sets) three times a week for four months. Their squat maxes were retested every five weeks to recalibrate the training weights.
Different groups used “fast”, “medium”, and “slow” speeds corresponding to 0.6, 0.5, and 0.4m/sec. It must be stressed that the “slow” in this experiment, 0.4m/sec, was not bodybuilders’ “super slow.” This “slow” was simply not being in a hurry—not artificially slowing down. Earlier, Soviet scientists had concluded that artificially slowing down a strength exercise recruits antagonistic muscles. This teaches the athlete to “put the brakes on” and negatively affects his maximal lifts.5
Of the above three speeds, the medium group made the best squat strength gains, 21%. The fast and slow groups were far behind, with 12% and 13%.
The happy medium group also beat the other two in the snatch, the clean-and-jerk, and the standing vertical jump gains.
The researcher stated that he had confirmed the conclusion of the many earlier studies, some dating back to the early XX century,6 that the medium speed was best for strength development.
Looking at the rate of improvement at different points of the experiment, Lelikov observed that in the fast and slow groups the gains flatlined after fifteen training sessions or five weeks, while the medium group kept improving twice as long before plateauing. Based on that, the scientist recommended that athletes stay with the medium speed no longer than thirty sessions and half as many for other speeds.
Lelikov’s second experiment was ten weeks, or thirty training sessions, long. A single group of subjects similar to the ones in the first experiment trained with the same load parameters, 80% x 3/5 squats three times a week, but they varied the lifting speed from session to session: Monday—fast, Wednesday—medium, Friday—slow. After ten weeks their squats improved by 22%—compared to the best gains in the previous experiment, 21% achieved in fifteen weeks. Speed variability made them just as strong in half the time.
When the author consolidated the results of the two experiments in a table comparing gains in ten weeks of training, the data were especially dramatic:
The paper was translated into English and the rest is history. “[Speed] variability is a factor reducing the organism’s habituation to loads,” pronounced Prof. Arkady Vorobyev. Soviet weightlifters started varying the speed in exercises in which it could be varied: clean and snatch pulls, squats, presses. The elite put up 60% of their volume at a medium speed. Slow exercises were done no more than once or twice in seven to ten days at the end of a training session. To avoid negative transfer, the slow speed was used only in assistance exercises.7
There are numerous tactics for speed variability in strength training. As seen from Lelikov’s work, changes can be made frequently, within a week, or after some weeks and months.
At StrongFirst we classify concentric lifting speeds as follows:
- “Fast”—as fast as possible without jerking. Use compensatory acceleration training (CAT).
- “Medium”—a comfortable, confident speed, corresponding to a first attempt in a powerlifting competition.
- “Slow”—the speed of a hard-fought PR single.
We respect coaches who prescribe the exact duration of each lifting phase in seconds, e.g., “4010,” but prefer simplicity. For example, here is how we vary lifting speeds in the Plan StrongTM based algorithm 1118 with a roll of a die if the day’s weights do not exceed 85%:
And if you are a minimalist who chooses to keep it simpler yet and to stick to one lifting speed, make it medium. Soviet coaches called it “comfortable.”8
You will be in a good company. The strongest Soviet weightlifters in Lelikov’s study chose the medium speed for their squats. Canadian sprint coach extraordinaire Charlie Francis was happy with Ben Johnson’s 0.5m/sec squats and was not compelled to speed them up to 0.6 or more.9 And in a modern day survey of seventeen top Russian powerlifting coaches, over 40% did not bother with any type of speed-strength exercises.10
Get ready for heavy learning.
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1 Lebedev, 1912
2 Ozolin, 1949; Vasiliev, 1954
3 Platonov, 2004
4 Lelikov, 1975
5 Zatsiorsky, 1966.
6 Skotak, 1906; Schtoltz, 1909; Pfeifer, 1913; Monogarov, 1957, 1959; Yablonsky, 1969, and others
7 Vorobyev, 1981
8 Plotkin et al., 1983
9 Francis, cited in Horrigan, 1990
10 Suleymanov & Sychev, 2016