A complete guide to maximum strength development
In Part I and Part II of this series, Dave covered the first four keys of his strength development system: coaching, teamwork, conditioning and strength itself. In this segment, he'll take an in-depth look at the speed portion of the Westside program.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Give this article a read even if you don't have any interest in powerlifting! Dave gives some great tips about how to overcome weaknesses or sticking points in the squat, deadlift, and bench press that should aid the bodybuilder or athlete in general.]
The speed day (dynamic effort day) is designed to make the lifter faster. If you were to do a vertical jump, would you try to jump slowly? If so, how high would you go? What would happen if you were to try and jump fast and apply more force? You'd go much higher, of course!
Training for maximal strength has to have a speed element to it or you won't be training to the fullest potential. There are some lifters who are stronger than they are fast and others who are faster than they are strong. You have to train both elements regardless of where you fall. This way you can harness your strength and bring up your weakness.
There are two days of the week devoted to training for speed. The first is for the bench press and the second is for the squat and deadlift. There are a few different movements that can be rotated for the speed work. These include:
1) Parallel Box Squats The benefits of this exercise are numerous. It develops eccentric and concentric power by breaking the eccentric-concentric chain. Box squats are a form of overload and isolation. The box squat is the best way to teach proper form on the squat because it's easy to sit way back while pushing your knees out.
To take the barbell out of the rack, the hands must first be evenly placed on the bar. Secure the bar on the back where it feels the most comfortable. To lift the bar out of the rack, one must push evenly with the legs, arch the back, push your abs out against the belt, and lift the chest up while driving the head back. A high chest will ensure the bar rests as far back as possible. Slide one foot back, then the other, to assume a position to squat.
Set your feet up in a wide stance position. Point your toes straight ahead or slightly outward. Also, keep your elbows pulled under the bar. When you're ready for the descent, make sure to keep the same arched back position. Pull your shoulders together and push your abs out. To begin the descent, push your hips back first. As you sit back, push your knees out to the sides to ensure maximum hip involvement. Once you reach the box, you need to sit on it and release the hip flexors. Keep the back arched and abs pushed out while driving your knees out to the side.
To begin the ascent, push out on the belt, arch the back as much as possible, and drive the head, chest, and shoulders to the rear. If you push with the legs first, your buttocks will rise first, forcing the bar over the knees (as in a good morning) which causes stress to the lower back and knees and diminishes the power of the squat.
First, it takes stress off the shoulders. You have to always keep in mind how much shoulder work you really do. When you squat, your shoulders are held in an isometric contraction with max weight. Your shoulders are worked on all bench movements as well. The cambered and safety bar offer a much needed break to allow the shoulders to recover.
The second benefit of this bar is related to the one above. Because your arms are held lower, you're taking much of the stress out of the upper back and placing it on the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
If you choose to do a band cycle with this bar, the way you attach the bands will have to change. If the bands were to attach the traditional way where you choke at the bottom, there would never be tension at the bottom of this bar because the plates are held fourteen inches lower. You can solve this by pulling the band around the plates while still choked at the bottom.
1) Speed Pulls Speed deadlifting can be trained with either the conventional or sumo method of pulling. The speed pulls are usually completed right after the speed or dynamic squats (yes, on the same day). Most lifters prefer to use 40-50 percent for 6 to 10 sets of one rep with 20-45 second rest periods.
1) Speed Benches The bench press should be performed with the shoulder blades pulled together and driven into the bench, elbows tucked. The bar should hit you in the lower chest area. The bar must be pushed in a straight line, not back over the face. The total time taken for all three reps should be no longer than 3 to 3.5 seconds per set. This style of speed training is the staple method with this program and should be used most of the time.
There are many different cycles that should be rotated for the box squat and most depend on the level and experience of the lifter. Many of the cycles will incorporate the use of bands and chains to help take the training to another level. For more information on this, I'd suggest reading my Accommodating Resistance article.
Beginner Cycles A beginner is someone who's never trained this way before, has a ton of muscle that needs to be built (ya cant flex bone!), or has technique problems that need to be addressed. For these lifters, I've outlined two different training cycles for the squat and two for the bench press and deadlift.
Some key notes to remember:
Squat Cycle 1
This is designed for the total beginner or lifter who has to address form and technique issues with the squat.
This cycle is designed for those who've been lifting for some time but are new to the box squat and this style of training.
Bench Cycle 1
This is designed for the total beginner or lifter who needs to address form and technique issues.
This is designed for those who have training experience but are still new to the system.
Deadlift Cycle 1
This is designed for the total beginner who needs to address form and technique issues.
This is designed for those who have gym experience but are still new to this system.
These training cycles are intended for those who've been training for many years and have developed a good training base. These lifters will also have some previous experience with this style of training. There are many different training cycles that can be used for a variety of reasons, ranging from basic conditioning to competition training.
This means training without the use of chains, bands, or any other devices. This phase is used by many lifters for a variety of different reasons. Some lifters like to use this phase pretty much all year around. (I did this for eight years before we even had bands and chains and made great gains.) Other lifters like this to be the first phase after a meet to get back into the flow of training.
The regular band phase is the one band phase that's used more than any other. This is the key band phase. The band selection depends on the strength of the lifter. A lifter who squats under 450 to 500 pounds will use a light band; 501-700 pounds will use an average band; 701 and up will use a strong band.
This is a killer phase that'll usually only last one or two weeks at the most. For this phase you basically jack up the band tension as high as you can tolerate. A great place to start is 2.5 times the band you normally use. For example, if your regular band cycle is an average-rated band, you'd then use two average bands and one light for this cycle. You may also work up to a heavy single after your five sets have been completed.
This phase has been great for most of the lifters I know who squat over 700 pounds! It's intended for the advanced lifter, not the novice or beginner. This phase is used when trying to peak for a meet. Extra bands are added to the bar. The bands used for this cycle would be an average and light band for those who squat 500 to 800 pounds, and a blue and pink for those who squat 800 and above.
At this point the lifter would de-load for the meet. To do this, the lighter band is removed. The recommended bands used for this phase are the same as the regular band phase detailed above.
The chain cycle uses the exact same loading as the straight weight cycle as the chains are de-loaded at the bottom and only add resistance to the top of the movement. The chains should be loaded with a support chain that holds the weighted chains to ensure the chain is de-loaded. If the chains attached to the top of the bar are dropped straight to the ground, most of the weight of the chain would stay on the bar.
Recommended Chain Weight
This phase is a killer three week phase intended to get you into shape very fast. The rest periods are the key to this phase.
The bench training cycles for this group are pretty basic and percentage-based with a flat wave. A flat wave is a wave where you try to get faster each week while using the same percentage.
The best bands to use for bench speed training are the mini bands. Place one end of the band on the bar. Pull the band down and under a dumbbell and then pull the band back up to the bar again. This is called a "double mini band." By using one dumbbell you can expect 70 to 80 pounds of tension at the top and 30 to 40 at the bottom of the motion. This is plenty for all those who bench under 450 pounds.
If you bench over 450, you'll want to use two dumbbells on each side to increased the spread distance of the band at the bottom. This will increase the tension to 100-110 pounds at the top and 50-60 in the bottom position.
Note: The bands are not figured into the percentage.
The chains should be set up so half of the chain is on the floor while the weight is in the rack. The weight of the chain will depend on how much you bench. If you bench under 300 pounds, a total of 50-60 pounds of chain should be used. If you bench between 300 and 500, 80-90 pounds of chain should be used. If you bench 500 and up, 120-130 pounds of chain should be used.
Note: The chains are not figured into the percent.
There are also several alternative cycles that many lifters have been using with great success. There are too many to mention in this text, but some of the methods include:
There's really no need to go into cycles with this one. The most popular way to cycle the speed deadlift is to use a percentage around 50% and pull 5 to 8 singles. The key here is form and speed. You may also do these with the use of bands or chains to increase the work at the top end.
When can I use the other speed movements and what phases can I use them with?
You can use the safety squat bar, buffalo bar, or cambered squat bar for any of the squat cycles listed above. I know of one lifter who'll only use a squat bar the last three weeks before the meet and he squats over a grand! He spends the rest of the time using the safety squat bar. He feels this allows his shoulders to rest, thereby allowing him to put more into bench training.
For the bench press you could use the cambered bench bar or fat bar in place of the regular bar to change up the muscle firing pattern. There are many lifters who use the fat bar for all bench training and then only use the regular bar at the meet.
Are all the percentages set in stone?
No way! The percentages are only guidelines. If the weight feels way to light then use more weight; if it feels too heavy then lower it some. Percentages can only help you to find a starting point.
The problem with percentages is they're all based on one rep maxes. You may or may not be as strong as or stronger than you were when you did your 1RM. I'll say if you're having problems getting stronger then the first thing you should do is lower the percentage! Yes, I said lower. This will bring more speed back into the training. Speed is very important for many lifters and can make a big difference in their training.
For example, what would you think if I told you my best pin lockout on the bench for pin 13 is 455 pounds? Pin 13 is a four inch push for me. It pretty much says I cant lock out 500 pounds. So how did I bench 600? The speed from the bottom carried the bar through to the top! I'm a speed lifter, not a strength lifter. Max effort lifts are equal to lifters who total 400 pounds less than I do. This tells me I have to get stronger on max effort work while at the same time harnessing my speed.
There are other lifters who are strength lifters. They're very strong but very slow. What happens if you lift a weight slow? Very simple, it takes longer to lift the weight. The longer it takes to complete the lift, the stronger you'll have to get.
What do you do after the speed or dynamic movement?
You do whatever you need to do. I'd suggest you hit your weak point first. What if you don't know your weak point? First, you could find a good coach to help you out. Second, you can check the list below for help.
Weak at the top: In this situation, you stall out near the top of the lift, but don't fall forward or backward. This is one of the best problems to have as you've kept the proper squat form but just stalled out. There are no technical problems for this except not driving your hips forward. Usually this isn't the problem.
The first thing to do to fix this problem is to get stronger! This sounds simple and it is. Sometimes you don't have to look so hard for what your weaknesses are. I think too many people feel they're being held back by some secret weakness when in fact they just need to get the entire body stronger.
The second thing you can do is get faster. If you get fast enough, the momentum will bust you through the sticking point. The third thing you can do is to take a reality check. Is this your sticking point because you now own it? What I mean here is, do you always fail at this same spot? Have you always failed there? Have you engrained it in your mind that this is where you fail? If so, fix it!
Getting smashed at the bottom: There are many things that can cause this to happen. The first and most apparent problem is it was just too much weight. I know many of you are thinking, "Well, no crap!" but you'd be shocked at some of the e-mails and calls I get.
For example, I had one guy call because he got crushed with a 315 bench and couldn't figure out why. I later find out he barely made 275! It was simply too heavy for him!
This could also be improper set up from the start. If you don't start with a good arch and tight abs and then don't sit back, you'll sit straight down. You have to sit back into the squat to get the most out of your hamstrings, lower back, and hips. If you sit straight down you're forcing most of the weight onto the quads and allowing the bar to actually travel forward.
The third reason could be you're not forcing your knees out on the way down and keeping them forced out of the hole. This could be fixed with a simple verbal queue like "Knees out!" You may also need to do more hip work. Some great things for this are seated abductions with bands around the knees. We call them "knee-outs with the band." A second thing that'll help with this is wide stance low box squats with light weight and higher reps (around ten). Squat to the bottom position and then only raise half to one-forth of the way up, then go back down. This will keep the tension in the range of motion you're having your problem with.
A fourth reason you may miss in the hole is you're letting your chest drop on the way down. A fifth reason is that your hamstrings aren't strong enough to sit back on. I see this one all the time in the seminars we conduct. What happens is the lifter will sit back so far and then just drop. The strength is just not there to keep sitting back. To fix this, use a box height on speed day that you can sit back on and keep good form. Who cares if it's four inches high? Just do it! Then, over the next few weeks, lower the box half to one inch each week, but keep the form 100% correct.
You can also strengthen the hamstrings with glute ham raises, reverse hypers, good mornings, pull-throughs, and many other movements. This could be due to weak abs and lower back muscles. This is another reason why we all need more ab and back work.
Falling forward coming out of the hole: This is the king of missed squats. I see this one more than any other sticking point. This can happen for several reasons, many physical and many technical.
One technical reason is not rising with your chest first out of the bottom. You're rising with your hips first. When your hips flex first your chest will always go forward. You have to think of rising with your chest first and squatting the bar back, not up. If you have the bar driving back it'll travel in a straight line instead of going forward. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line and this is how the bar must travel.
You may also have allowed your head to drop down. Your body will always follow your head so you must keep your head back. Notice I didn't say up, but back. Watch the eyes of any great squatter as he rises out of the bottom. Through the blood clots you'll see his eyes are focused up and he's driving his neck back into the bar. Even the guys you think are looking down are still driving their head into their traps.
Now, why are these technical problems happening in the first place and how do you fix them? All technical problems should be corrected by learning what you're supposed to do and then perfecting it with the lighter weights. You should also use verbal queues. The best queues I've used for this one are "Head up!" or "Chest up!"
Falling forward may also be caused by weak abs and lower back. If your core isn't strong enough to transfer the flex from the lower body to the bar, then the body will have no choice but to collapse. The best movements for this are exercises that work both the abs and hip flexors (pulldown abs, leg raises, spread eagle sit-ups etc.) For the lower back, reverse hypers, back raises, and good mornings are ideal.
One last thing that can really help with this is to use a cambered squat bar for low box squats. The reason? If you don't rise with your chest first you'll have some very serious instability issues. This will only happen once and then you'll automatically figure out what to do.
The bottom line here is, no matter what weakness you have, act on them and fix them! This will take commitment and discipline. Basically, do what you gotta do because no one will do it for you!
Falling forward halfway up: This is probably the second most common problem or sticking point I see with the squat. What happens here is the lifter comes out of the hole strong and then about halfway up he begins to fall forward. This happens because he has great reversal strength out of the bottom but then, as he begins to hit the mid-point, he stalls. He cant continue to strain because the torso is beginning to die out and the force of the movement keeps the hips coming up, yet the upper body cant stay upright.
To fix this he needs to make sure the time-under-tension on the max effort movement is specific to the time of the strain needed in competition. This will be around 3.0 to 4.0 seconds. Second, the ab work has to come up and be heavy. A third remedy for this problem is to do static work in the position at which you lose the lift. To do this, use a bar with a light weight (around 20%) and a band. Squat down to the spot you lose it at and hold for five seconds, then squat back up and hold at the top for five seconds. This would best be done with 3 to 5 sets of 5 reps. The good morning can also be used for this and may even be a better choice as there'll be more work on the torso when compared to the barbell squat.
One last solution for this problem is to use the safety squat bar for max effort work. The safety squat bar tries to toss you forward as you squat up because of the design of the bar. If the bar is trying to toss you forward, there's only one way to keep this from happening: you have to fight to keep the bar in position, thus developing those muscles.
Falling backwards: This is actually the best thing that could happen because you're squatting the bar back and all the strength is there. The only thing that really needs to be done here is technical. Just sit back more to allow the torso to lean in some. The lifter may also not be sitting back because of weakness in the hamstrings.
Knees coming in while squatting down: This is also a very common problem with beginners and intermediate lifters. This can happen for many reasons: weak hips, poor flexibility, or bad form. If the lifter has bad form all he needs is verbal queues of "Knees out!"
If this is a flexibility problem then the lifter should squat on a higher box at the point where he can keep the knees out. Over time the box height will come down as he gets more flexible. If this is a strength problem with the hips, then the same solutions as "getting smashed at the bottom" should be followed.
Missing at the top: If you miss at the top of the bench press it can be because of a missed groove or weak triceps. There are many ways to bring up your triceps listed earlier in this series.
Missing on the chest: This can also be caused by many problems. First, lack of reversal strength and speed. This is where the speed training comes in. If you have any type of explosive strength then you should never miss off your chest unless the weight is too heavy in the first place.
The second reason for missing off the chest can be a factor of weak starting strength after the press command. The bench shirt may also affect this as the tighter the shirt, the harder it is to get down, thus the harder it is to use reversal strength because the bar won't be able to come down as fast as without using a shirt. This means the lifter will pretty much be pressing from a dead stop. One of the best things for this is low pin presses with the bar just off the chest for max effort work or as a second movement for max sets of 3 or 5 reps. Make sure to pause on the pins for a second or two.
Missing off your chest can also be caused by weak lats, upper back, and rotator muscles: Think of these muscles as your launch pad. If you don't have a solid base to press off, you're firing from a weak foundation. A few other things to help strengthen the bottom of the bench are close grip inclines, dumbbell work, and push-ups.
Missing halfway up: This sticking point means the lifter is blasting the weight off the bottom very well and then dies a few inches off the chest. This can also be fixed with more bar speed as this will allow the lifter to bust through this sticking point.
This can also be caused by weak triceps. The best max effort exercises for this problem are mid-position pin presses, two board presses, and floor presses.
Bar flying off your chest and straight back into the rack: This is mostly a bench shirt issue. You either don't know how to use the shirt or you have a bad shirt. With a shirt you have to bring the bar low and not heave it off your chest. If you heave, the bar will fly back. You have to press the bar up off the chest and build speed as the bar leaves the chest. If your shirt is bad it'll also cause the bar to fly back.
This problem can also occur because your shoulders are stronger than the triceps. You're trying to get the load off the triceps and onto where you're the strongest and that's causing the problem. On the flip side, it can also be because your shoulders aren't strong enough to keep the bar in the right path.
Another technical reason this may happen: you aren't keeping your arms under the bar. This can happen if your wrists get folded back and the bar ends up being behind the forearm. If this happens, then the force isn't under the bar. These problems can all be fixed with proper coaching and training. Make sure your form is on and bring up the lockout power with specific triceps work and high board and high pin presses for max effort work.
Most all deadlift weak points will mimic the same muscle groups and patterns that are weak with the squat. So outside of technical issues, the squat will take care of the deadlift. The max effort deadlift training and speed deadlifts are intended to train the form of the deadlift, so double check your form and make sure you're keeping your shoulders behind the bar and keeping your body falling backward.
As you can see, most of the solutions to these problems are already being taken care of with the general guidelines presented earlier. The general template is intended to bring up the most general weaknesses with the hamstrings, lower back, hips, abs, and triceps. Just follow the basic guidelines, pay attention to what you're doing, and don't skip the key things you need to do.
Whew! That wraps up the speed portion of the eight keys. Next week in the fourth and final installment, I'll explore the last three components of the system: recovery, nutrition, and attitude. I'll also layout a complete nine week training program. Stay tuned!