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Powerlift Assistance Exercises:
Speed Work

by Gary F. Zeolla

Researchers at the College of New Jersey recently discovered that adding a jump squat to your workout can boost strength by as much as 13 percent in 5 weeks. In the study, men who did jump squats twice a week during the last third of a 15-week program improved their standard barbell squats by an average of 66 pounds. "The jump squat trains your muscles for explosive power, a stimulus for gains that traditional lifting doesn't provide," says lead study author Jay Hoffman, PhD. Try adding the move to your routine" (Men's Health magazine. May 2006, p.52).

Speed work (or explosive work) is not done very often by those who lift weights. In fact, later in the same issue of Men's Health, the following factoid is given, "9 - percentage of men who incorporate explosive training into their workouts" (p.166).

However, as the above quote indicates, speed work can be very beneficial to strength gains. And speed work can be even more beneficial to those whose sporting activities involve the use of speed, which just about every sport does, such as baseball, football, and track events. And speed work can be very helpful in increasing one's jumping ability. Therefore, it would benefit basketball players, field athletes and the like. Plus, speed work is a form of high-intensity cardiovascular work, similar to performing wind-sprints.

But how are the movements performed? There are various movements that can be done. These different exercises will be described in this article.

Performing Jump Squats

Men's Health describes the performance of jump squats as follows:

Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, and hold a pair of light dumbbells at your sides. Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then bend forward slightly at the hips so your shoulders move in front of your feet. Push off of the floor explosively to jump straight up as high as possible. Land with your knees soft and immediately sink down into your next squat.

The plan: Do four sets of five repetitions in weeks 1 and 3, and four sets of eight reps in weeks 2 and 4 (May 2006, p.166).

Jump squats can also be done with a light barbell, which is how I do them. The only difficulty is trying to hold the bar down to keep it from flying up off of the shoulders. But then I read on a website somewhere that if the bar isn't coming up off of your shoulders, you're not doing them correctly.

However, there is a risk of injury doing jump squats. First and most obviously, you could twist an ankle. Second, you could pull a muscle. And third, long-term, they are hard on the knees. But to lessen the risk of the first, you just need to be careful and really concentrate while doing them. And wear sneakers with a heel, as the heel will help with balance. On the second, be sure you are warmed up before doing them. On the third, again, wear good sneakers, and only do them occasionally, not every week year-round.

On the sets x reps, Westside Barbell is a major powerlifting center. And their standard "speed day" involves doing eight sets of three reps (8x3), with less than a minute rest between sets. But this is always done on a day separate from their "max effort" day. In other words, the speed work is the primary thing done on the day they're done. The reps are kept low as this more approximates the powerlifter's goal of a 1RM (one rep max).

But many other powerlifters (myself included) do their speed work after their regular lifts. In that case, 3-4 sets is about right. Specifically, I do one warm-up set followed by three work sets. But I follow Westside's lead in taking less than a minute rest between sets.

As for reps, since I only do three sets, and since I do jump squats during my "off-season," I do six reps. But for in-season training on speed work, I'll drop to 3-5 reps. But as the quote from Men's Health indicates above, for general sports and fitness work, somewhat higher reps (5-8) might be better.

Video of jump squats

Video of conv jump deadlifts

Jump Deadlifts/ Clean-Shrugs

Similar to jump squats is "jump deadlifts." These are done the same way as jump squats but with holding the bar in deadlift position and taking a deadlift stance. But a few points need to be noted in doing them.

First, it is best to use an overhand grip with both hands rather than the "alternate grip" that most powerlifters use on deadlifts (one hand overhand, one underhand). With an alternate grip, the bicep on the arm in the underhand position gets jerked around, and a pulled muscle could result. But this shouldn't be problem in the overhand position.

Second, if you use enough weight, you'll only jump a few inches off the ground. This is true for jump squats as well. In fact, most likely, both lifts are safer if you use more weight and jump lower than if you use less weight and jump higher. There's less risk of twisting an ankle or a pulling a muscle with a lower jump.

Third, even if you use a sumo stance for your competitive deadlifts, it is better to do these with a conv. stance, as it is difficult to do them with a wide stance.

Fourth, the first time I did jump deadlifts, I was using my toes/ calves too much. But with practice, I learned to push up more from my heels like on regular deadlifts. The idea on each rep is to drop down as much as possible, then explode up, using your entire lower body.

Fifth, even if you wear wrestling or similar shoes without a heel for regular deadlifts, you should wear sneakers with a heel for jump deadlifts. You need the heel to cushion the landing and for balance.

But how much weight should be used? Not much. For my first workout doing the jump deadlifts, I did a warm-up set with just the bar, then added a pair of 25s for a total of 95 pounds. That seemed about right. After a couple of weeks, I was up to using 115. For comparison, I deadlifted 400 at my last contest, so we're talking about using about one-quarter of your 1RM.

A variant of jump deadlifts is clean-shrugs. The difference with clean-shrugs is your feet do not leave the floor. You raise the bar quickly off of the floor, and then come up on your toes and purposely shrug your shoulders, keeping the arms as straight as possible throughout. Either would work for explosive work.

Explosive Push-ups

For working the upper body and as assistance for bench presses, explosive push-ups are a good speed exercise. The idea here is simple. You do push-ups as normal, except you push up hard enough so that your hands come off of the floor. You then "catch" yourself on the way down. There are two ways to do these to be sure you are exploding up on each rep.

The first is to do "clap" push-ups. When you hands come off the floor, you clap once then quickly put them back in push-up position. In order to have time to do the clap, you have to really push yourself up into the air. So the clap ensures that you explode up on each rep.

Another method would be what I like to call "Rocky" push-ups. These are from the first Rocky movie where Rocky did one-arm push-ups, alternating arms in a quick fashion. Specifically, you push-up with one hand while holding the other hand behind your back. Then while you are in the air, quickly alternate arms and do another rep. By putting one arm behind your back, it forces you to push up hard into the air so you have time to switch arms. For a good demonstration of these, watch the movie! If you haven't seen it, it is an excellent movie and worth watching anyway.

In any case, done either way, explosive push-ups really pump up the chest and work well for explosive/ speed work. For more on explosive push-ups, see the following Web page: How to increase your bench press by doing push ups.

Video of clap push-ups

The Olympic Lifts

Olympic weightlifters perform the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. Both of these are explosive movements. However, the skill level is very high on both of these exercises, so much so that I won't even attempt to describe them in writing. Basically, I would say you should only do these movements if you have someone who knows what they are doing coaching you on their proper execution. Otherwise, you could easily end up hurting yourself. But with such a coach, these exercises would be excellent ways to develop explosiveness.

Chain and Band Work

All three powerlifts (squat, bench press and deadlift), can be done in a speed fashion. The idea here is simple, you keep the weights light and do the lifts as normal but in a very rapid fashion. However, where the problem comes in is at the top of each lift.

On squats, if you squat up fast, you most likely will end up doing jump squats, with your feet coming up off of the floor and the bar off of your back. The only way to avoid this would be to purposely slow down near the top of the lift. But then half of your effort will spent slowing down rather than exploding. A similar situation would exist with deadlifts. On benches, if you push the bar up in a rapid fashion, it will "jerk" your arms at the top, possibly leading to joint problems. But a way to avoid these problems would be utilize chains and bands.

The use and set-up of chains and bands is described at Chains and Bands, so I won't repeat all the details here. But basically, on chains, the idea is to hang heavy chains from the bar. They should be set up in such a way so that at the bottom of the lift, most of the chain is on the floor. Then as you raise the bar, the chains come off of the floor and gradually add weight to the bar.

With bands, the bands are wrapped around the bar and then held to the floor in some fashion (by wrapping them around heavy dumbbells or on hooks on a power rack or a platform designed for this purpose). The bands should be set so that they are almost in a relaxed position at the bottom. Then as the bar is raised, the bands begin to stretch and gradually add resistance to the bar.

Reverse bands are set up in an opposite fashion but give the same effect. The bands are looped around the top of a power rack and then around the bar. In this case, in the bottom position, the bands are stretched out, but as the bar is raised they relax. The bands "lift" the bar at the bottom but then less and less as the bar is raised, so in essence the weight gets heavier as it is raised.

There are pictures of these various set-ups posted on this website that will make the set-ups clearer. The pages are listed at Powerlift Assistance Exercises. But whichever method issued, the effect is the same. The resistance is less at the bottom of the lift and greater at the top.

Where this relates to speed work is simple. With the resistance being lower at the bottom of the lift, you can really "explode" out of the bottom. You then try to maintain your speed as much as possible throughout the movement. But with the resistance getting greater as you go up, you'll inevitably slow your ascent. So by the time you get to the top, the resistance will have slowed you down so there will not be any "jerking" at the top, and the potential problems described above will be avoided.

In sum, speed squats, benches, and deadlifts can be performed using chains, bands, and reverse bands. You could also do overhead presses, rows, and other exercises with chains and bands. The sets, reps, and rest periods should be similar as for jump squats and deadlifts and explosive push-ups. Keep the reps rather low and the rest periods between sets short.

As for weight, it is generally recommended to use about half of what you can do for your 1RM. So if you can squat 400 pounds, you would use 200 pounds for your speed work. But note, this 200 includes the weight of the chains or the amount of resistance the bands add. The latter can be hard to gauge, but with a little experience you get a feel for how much resistance the bands are adding.

Video of Speed Chain Squats

Video of Speed Chain Benches

Video of Speed Conv Reverse Band Deadlifts

My Plan

I only recently decided to incorporate speed work into my routine. For my "off-season" training (which lasts four weeks), I did jump squats, explosive push-ups, and jump deadlifts. I did them after the regular powerlifts rather than on a separate day. Now for my in-season training, I'm doing speed squats, benches, and deadlifts using chains or bands.

I'm doing them in this fashion as I don't use chains and bands during my off-season, so I wanted exercises that didn't require them at that time. But now during my in-season training, I use chains or bands for my first exercise of most workouts. Since I already have the chains or bands set-up, I can easily do my speed work with chains or bands immediately afterwards.

During my off-season, I did one warm-up set followed by 3x6 on the speed work. Now during my in-season, I'm doing 3x3-5. With less than a minute rest between sets, it takes all of five minutes to do all of the sets. That small time investment is worth the possible benefits. I haven't been doing speed work long enough to report any major improvements as a result. But it does wind me rather well, so at the very least it will increase my lung capacity.

If you haven't been including speed work in your training, it's worth a try. It just might provide the "spark" to help jump-start your workout progress. I would suggest starting with jump squats, explosive push-ups, and jump deadlifts. Then later, you can add speed work using chains and bands. The above page on chains and bands gives details on where they can be purchased.

March 2015 Update

The above article was written May 27, 2006. I had started the speed work about a month prior to that. I continued to do the the speed work until the end of 2007. I was lifting equipped with multi-ply gear throughout that time period. For the first few months I did the speed work for all three powerlifts, and all three lifts progressed very well. At a contest that Labor Day, I did very well, despite some gear issues, and won Best Lifter. I continued to do the speed work for all three lifts until the end of 2006. But then in 2007, for some reason that I do not remember now, I stopped doing the speed work for squats and deadlifts, but I continued to do it for benches, but in a different fashion. I did it as my primary exercise on Bench Assistance Day rather than after benches on Bench Day. At a contest that September, squats and deadlifts did not go well, but I set a PR on benches. I then did the speed work sporadically until the end of that year. At the beginning of 2008, I switched to training and competing raw and stopped the speed work altogether. I did so as my health was falling, and I was trying to keep my workouts as short as possible.

I noticed all of this while reviewing my workout logs from this time period. The point is; it seemed like the speed work was helping my equipped powerlifts, but since I never did it while lifting raw, I cannot say if it would be helpful for raw lifting or not. But with this track record for equipped lifting, it would be worthwhile to find out, so I will be incorporating speed work into my current routine. But I will make a couple of changes from the above article.

First, I will do three work sets of 7-8, 5-6, 3-4 reps. This way, I'll do all of the rep ranges mentioned in the article, but that will require changing the weights between each set, which will add to the workout time. But after I change the weights, I will rest just 30 seconds before setting up for my next set. Thus the total time between sets should still be less one minute. Also, I probably will not need the warm-up set mentioned in the article for at least some of the exercises since the first set is for 7-8 reps. As such, doing just the three work sets should still only take about five minutes.

Second, I am using an alterative weeks type of routine, doing the powerlifts with chains and bands Week A and the regular powerlifts Week B, so I will do speed work with chains and bands Week A, and then jump squats and deadlifts and explosive push-ups Week B.

I will post an update here once I see if such speed work is helpful for raw lifting or not.

May 2015 Update

After a couple of months of again doing speed work in the above mentioned manner, my training is going very well, and my weights on the raw powerlifts are progressing nicely. How much the speed work has to do with that, I cannot say. But with principle of "If it's not broke, don't fix it," I will continue to do the speed work. It only takes a few minutes and seems to be worth it.

June 2017 Update

I have continued to do speed work over the last couple of years, and my training is still progressing well. But again, I cannot say if the speed work has anything to do with that, but again, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." Also, my blood pressure is normally below 120/ 80 and my resting heart rate around 45 bpm. Not bad for someone in his mid-50s. And I think the speed work has as much to do with that as the cardio that I've been doing does. As such, I will keep doing the speed work, if just for my cardiovascular fitness.

I have been doing three sets x 6-7, 4-5, 2-3 reps, adding weight with each set, usually with one or two warmup sets. I've been doing speed squats, benches, and deadlifts with and without chains and bands, along with jump squats and deadlifts and clap push-ups. The concern with doing the powerlifts in a speed fashion without chains or bands of the bar coming up has not been a problem. And I have been doing the jump squats and deadlifts with both a close and a wide stance, depending on which I use for the preceding exercise.

Video of Speed Squats

Video of Speed Benches

Video of Speed WG Cambered Bar Rows

See also Speed Exercises Videos.

Speed Work. Copyright 2006, 2015, 2017 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site May 27, 2006.
It first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All email newsletter.
The Updates were added as indicated.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlift Assistance Exercises

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