Is speed important to a bodybuilder? Most will tell you no, that its muscle mass and aesthetic proportions that win contests. Is speed important to a powerlifter? Most of these athletes will answer in the negative as well, explaining that speed is just not an overriding factor in this sport.
What these athletes don't realize, however, is that speed can be a great asset in both of their sports. Although speed is not a requirement in the performance of either sport, training for speed (that is, training with low weights for high repetitions) helps to develop the fast-twitch muscle fibers. And these fibers are often sorely neglected by both bodybuilders and powerlifters, despite the fact that underdeveloped fast-twitch fibers are clearly detrimental to both definition and strength.
It is primarily the fast-twitch fibers upon which we depend when beginning a weight training movement. After a few seconds, however, the slow-twitch fibers begin to take over. A primary reason for this is that the fast-twitch fibers' energy supply is simply used up after those first few seconds of lifting.
Another reason is that fast-twitch fibers are specifically designed for quick, explosive movements such as those required when first starting a lift. Indeed, they get their name from the fact that they can generate maximal muscle contraction in less than half the time that it takes a slow-twitch fiber to generate the same force.
Why then does a bodybuilder need to periodically work fast-twitch fibers? One reason is because the bodybuilder who works only on slow-twitch movements is not going to maximally develop either mass or definition. The bodybuilder who neglects fast-twitch fibers, then, will unknowingly end up with an incomplete muscularity.
Why does a powerlifter need to work fast-twitch fibers periodically? One reason is that fast-twitch fibers can be trained to act as slow-twitch fibers. This can be quite beneficial to the power-lifter, who generally believes that the number of muscles in his body is fixed and immutable. Recruiting new muscles from within the body? What a revolutionary idea!
Speed training also provides variety for bodybuilders and powerlifters, which is one key to successful muscle development. It is well known that if you do only one type of workout, your body gets too comfortable, and improvements slow almost to a halt.
I do not recommend switching over exclusively to speed training, of course. Bodybuilders and powerlifters must always build a strong base of muscularity on their slow-twitch work, and only then supplement their workouts with speed work.
The following are some of the more common methods of speed training:
• Fast and explosive repetitions
This technique involves explosively lifting a light to moderate weight. This is usually performed with a single lift, although it can be repeated for up to 10 reps. To do this with a squat on a particular weight, you must hold the bottom position for about two seconds, and then explode upward. When done correctly, this forces all of the muscle fibers, fast- and slow-twitch alike, to fire at the same time.
Fast and explosive repetitions can also be done on specialized equipment. For example, the CAM III chest press machine (which facilitates a bench-press movement in a seated position) forces the lift to be performed in a single direction, allows a safe return to the initial position and efficiently readies you for a second explosive movement.
To perform a bench press on this machine, you should set the resistance, ready yourself for the lift and then push away as fast and as explosively as possible. Of course, the speed of the movement is directly affected by how much weight you are lifting. When the end position is reached, the handles are forced hack to the initial position. Then, the moment the handles reach the chest again, push back once more as fast and as explosively as possible.
• Quick movement reversals
This is similar to fast and explosive repetitions, except that with this technique you do not explode from a stationary position. Start with a slow lift with resistance that is 30%-50% of maximum. Slowly lower the weight to your chest. Then, only when the weight finally hits the bottom position, explode with as fast a rep as you can.
Movement reversals can be improved if you drop the barbell a little faster for the last three to six inches before hitting the explosive lift. When the motion has concluded, come to a complete stop and repeat.
• The hit (shock) method
This technique forces you to handle more resistance than your muscles would normally allow. To do this on your legs, for example, you could jump down from a height, and then jump up as fast and as high as possible. If you have never done exercises such as these, you should start off with mild hit techniques, such as hopping on one or both legs while holding dumbbells in your hands or a barbell on your shoulders.
You can get the same effect by catching and throwing a medicine ball with your feet while lying on your back. Medicine balls are also useful for building up the arms in this manner. For variation on the arms, switch off between overhead, sidearm and underhand motions.
Speed training is also good for steroid users. (Although I strongly recommend against using steroids, I realize that they are a fact of life in strength sports.) Speed training can help you regain the elasticity and resiliency in your muscles that steroid use can decrease. Speed training will put the bounce back into your lifts, and thus help prevent injury.