In the Olympic Weightlifting community, bar speed is essential to the very nature of the movements. As an athlete, this idea has been reinforced by many top tier coaches Olympic Weightlifting coaches I’ve had to honor of working with like Bob Takano (Takano Athletics-Pasadena, CA), Greg Everett (Catalyst Athletics-Sunnyvale, CA), and Glenn Pendlay (formerly of Cal Strength, but just took over for Team Muscle Driver USA in SC) during training sessions with them. The Snatch, Clean, and Jerk all rely on a fast, forceful jumping motion to initiate the momentum necessary to successfully complete the respective movement with any respectable weight on the bar. So it goes without saying that the faster you can move the bar, the more power you’re able to generate, which all things being equal means you can put more weight overhead.
Oftentimes the concept of bar speed is easier understood with Olympic Weightlifting because it’s vitally essential to the execution of the lifts. Other times, however, the concept of lifting speed seems to get lost when Power lifts or assistance lifts are performed, especially at submaximal loads. Perhaps it’s because as coaches we typically prioritize technique and form before emphasizing speed, and it’s true that movements like the Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Bench Press can all be successfully performed at excruciatingly slow speeds (as many of you may have experienced, and I’ll get to in a second). Since CrossFit enjoys discussing ways to maximize power output, let’s discuss two ways to do just that. A quick physics refresher for you (sorry in advance for the equations): Power=(Force x Distance)/Time, which can also be expressed Power=(Mass x Acceleration x Distance)/Time. Stay with me, we got the confusing part out of the way ;). In order to maximize power in our lifts we can either increase mass (lift heavier loads) or decrease the time it takes to perform the work (move the bar faster). So in order to maximize our power output when lifting lighter weights (like in warm-up sets) we need to strive to lift the bar as rapidly as possible while maintaining proper body mechanics and lifting technique. Let me clarify that this principal is best applied only to the concentric portion of the lift (the lifting) and not the eccentric portion (the lowering). Dan John puts it simply in this post, “Down slow, up fast.” That being said, as the weight on the bar increases you’ll notice the speed slow down, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be exerting any less force. It just means that once you reach near maximal loads (90% of 1RM and above) the bar just isn’t going to be moving all that quickly no matter how hard you may try.
Increasing the speed of your lifts also serves to maximize motor unit recruitment. Motor units consist of not only the muscle fibers themselves but the neurons that excite or contract those fibers. Just as there are different types of muscle fibers (think slow twitch vs. fast twitch) there are different types of motor neurons, namely different sizes. Smaller motor neurons attached to smaller muscle fibers are activated first because it doesn’t take as much excitation from your nervous system. The way we really fire-up our large motor neurons and larger muscle fibers is to lift heavier loads or lift lighter loads faster (look familiar?). Chad Waterbury wrote an excellent 3-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on his website as well as this T-Nation article on how lifting speed maximizes motor unit recruitment and a lot of the amazing benefits that go along with it. Just know that the more motor units recruited equals more force production, better recruitment efficiency, and the more adaptation you’re body will go through getting stronger and leaner. Keep in mind that the concept of lifting lighter weights fast will also help you get the most out of your warm-up sets or back off days which goes along with my Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) post.
Finally, if you didn’t need another reason to move the bar faster, Dan John believes it helps the lifter maintain their focus on the bar. Less distraction, more speed, and more power. Gotta love that.
Overhead Squat 3-3-3
8 Ring Dips
30 Double Unders