Written By: Kevin Cann
One of the things that has been ingrained into me since day 1 of my brief powerlifting career is that every rep should look the same. That means that when I squat with 50% of my 1RM it should be executed at the same speed as 100% of my 1RM.
This can run counterintuitive to the old adage that you should “move light weights as if they are heavy and heavy weights as if they are light.” The idea behind this saying is to encourage you to move fast with lighter weights because that is your intention with heavier weights, to move fast.
Moving fast with lighter weights has been shown to develop favorable motor unit recruitment, and also muscle fiber development for lifting heavy weights. This is why speed work is so popular in Westside Barbell templates. This is also why you see lighter and more explosive lifts in programs written for field and court athletes. Exercises like the Olympic lifts and medicine ball work are used to develop these qualities.
I am not saying that this thinking is wrong. If I did I would be an idiot, as there are many elite lifters who utilize this thinking. Research is pretty clear that it works as well. I am just going to introduce a different way of thinking. The focus in the above way of thinking is strength. When we are focusing on technique first, some things need to change.
I am not saying that we put getting stronger on the backburner. That would not work well for a strength athlete since the name of the game is lifting more weight. Moving light weights fast is not the only way to develop beneficial motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber type. Moving weights with maximal intent also provides us with the same outcomes.
As long as we do enough work with heavier weights we will develop the appropriate motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber type to put our best efforts out there on the platform. The problem we can run into when we treat light weights as if they are heavy is with our technique.
When we move light weights fast, our bar path can change drastically. With lighter weights on the squat, the bar will pop off of our back as we accelerate the bar to lockout. This will not happen with heavier weights, and over time may even lead to injury. On the deadlift, the bar can end up bouncing off of our thighs and getting pushed away from us. This also will not happen under heavier weights, and can increase injury risk. On the bench press, lifters tend to lose shoulder position in an attempt to accelerate the weight.
We want to prepare ourselves for that max effort attempt. This means we should be training the same motor pattern that we will use under maximal loads. This doesn’t mean that we do not want to practice accelerating weight. This is an important aspect to lifting heavier. The faster we can get that bar moving, the better chance we have of getting it past that sticking point in the lift.
One way we can work on accelerating weight while not sacrificing changes in technique is with accommodating resistance such as bands and chains. The accommodating resistance deloads at the bottom portion of the lift and increases in tension or weight through the concentric action. This increase in weight or tension requires the lifter to keep accelerating the weight to lockout. This is one way we can train maximal intent without crushing the athlete.
We can’t just lift heavy all of the time because we would not be able to fully recover. Bands and chains help us overload the top of the lift while decreasing weight at the bottom. This makes it easier to recover from. However, we need to strengthen the bottom portions of the lift as well.
One way that we can do that without increasing weight on the bar is with pauses. Pauses in the lift increase our time under tension. Increasing time under tension is a popular element used by bodybuilders to build bigger muscles. We can utilize pauses in the big 3 lifts to gain these hypertrophic properties while building strength in the weak spots of the lift.
When we pause in the lift at the weak positions, our tissues need to hold that position and then accelerate the weight from a dead stop. This helps to make us strong through the weak spots while building up tissue tolerance in these positions to make us more resilient to injury. To hold this position for 2-5 seconds and then be forced to accelerate the weight is another way in which we train intent.
We can also use pin squats at the squat sticking point, a board press, and blocks to deadlift off of at the sticking point with heavier weights. This forces the tissue to hold positions at heavier loads, making it more resilient to injury, and also forces the lifter to apply maximal intent to the weight to get it moving, developing the necessary motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber type without sacrificing technique.
Lastly, it requires the lifter to expend a lot of energy if they put 100% effort into lighter weights. Meet day is long, and saving energy for that third attempt deadlift is crucial to smashing PRs. There are some nice benefits to not creating max tension under lighter weights as well.
When we brace we affect our neural response. We should be able to squat to depth with an empty bar without the need to hold our breath. You will be surprised at how many people cannot accomplish a bodyweight squat to depth without holding their breath. When we hold our breath we elicit a response from our sympathetic nervous system. If we brace hard for everything we do, then we can run into a situation where our sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. This can make recovery much more difficult, and it can actually alter our range of motion and increase our injury risk. This is why breathing through mobility work is very important, it changes our neural responses. We want to brace accordingly to the weight that we need to lift.
Applying these concepts mentioned above has led to lots of improvement in technique with myself as well as with clients. The goal in training is to make every rep look the same. That means executed with the same speed and bar path as our maximal effort attempts would be executed. If we pause, we approach the pause with the same speed we would if we were not pausing, and we attempt to lock it out at the same rate as well.
Moving lighter weights more quickly is effective at increasing strength, but may hinder technique. We can achieve those same motor unit and muscle fiber changes by applying maximal intent to weights. This is different than movement velocity. Ways that we can teach the lifter to achieve this without just lifting heavy all of the time is by using accommodating resistance, pauses, and dead stop starts from the weak spots of the lifts. This also comes with a benefit of making our tissues stronger in these positions to make us more resilient to injuries.
This is not to say that moving light weights fast is not productive. It surely is, but this is just another take where technique is placed as the most important aspect of training.