Can speed be a modality to increase strength?

By Jesse Kepka
NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutrition Coach and Corrective Exercise Specialist

Usually when you get bored with your workouts, you can add in some spice by using kettlebells instead of dumbbells, or barbells, or tension bands. You can make anything a balance exercise by grabbing a foam pad or saucer. But let’s consider adding speed to the list.  Here’s why:

Most of our muscles are made up of two kinds of fibers, respectively: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. (Twitch is another word for contraction). If we don’t work on speed and power, we’re missing out on training the whole muscle! That’s just ridiculous. So heck yes, we can increase overall strength by training speed, training the whole muscle.

Slow-twitch muscles are named appropriately. They activate first and they move slowly for long periods of time. If you’re a long-distance runner, swimmer or cyclist, you probably have well-conditioned slow-twitch muscles. The muscles along our spine are a good example of these. They are postural and keep us upright throughout the day, whether we are sitting or standing. No bursts of energy needed there, but they are steady contractions.

Fast-twitch muscles will activate second, after the slow-twitch muscles are fatigued. They can create lots of energy and power quickly but will also tire quickly. Sprinting, punching, and jumping are activities that call on the fast-twitch muscles.

This exercise strategy is good for beginners, too

If you’re a beginner and not really up for sprints, you can still teach your brain to communicate with the fast-twitch muscles during your basic movements like squats, lunges, step-ups, pushups and presses (both chest and overhead). Use the “load and explode” mantra. For example, load yourself in the bottom of a squat, take a breath, and try to come out of the squat as quickly as you can while you exhale. Your feet aren’t necessarily coming off the ground, like a squat jump here. Same with a push-up. Come down to the bottom of the contraction, with your face near the floor, take another breathe, and exhale as you explode to a high plank. Again, your hands don’t need to come off the floor like a plyometric push-up.  

To clarify, you’re not trying to do as many reps as you can in a short amount of time – you’re trying to do one rep as quickly as you can, a few times. That’s a very big discrepancy.

If you feel like you plateaued in your training or get stuck somewhere as far as adding weight to lifts, try backing off for a bit and working on the same movements, but adding speed instead of weight. Every time our bodies adapt, it helps to switch things up, create a little shock here and there, and get back to it. Remember, you won’t need as many reps because these fast-twitch muscles fatigue quickly.

Fast-twitch it up guys, you won’t regret it! Think about your gains if you are using the entire muscle body – every fiber. It really makes me giddy just thinking about it.

Bonus: One of my favorite ways to work speed is to SLOW down a burpee. Crazy, right? If you break up the burpee into 3 separate but swift movements, it makes it way more fun. Start standing upright with your posture in check, as you would for any burpee. Inhale, then pull yourself down into a plank as quickly as possible on your exhale. Pause here. Inhale again, then hop into a low squat from your high plank as quickly as possible. Pause again in this squat. Inhale, then explode out of your squat into the vertical jump at the end of your burpee as quickly as possible. So. Much. Fun.

Tip shared by Jesse Kepka, NASM-certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and owner of Elevate Fitness. Jesse is a co-organizer for Priority Fit Camp. Each week, we publish a health and wellness tip that is shared at the Priority Fit Camp community workout. The free group class happens every Saturday at 7:50 a.m.  

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