On Bar Speed
“It just can’t be that simple, Tiff.”
“Well, think about it.”
Okay, so I did. The proceeding little dialogue was from my living room a few days ago. I have been battling this hip injury for a few years and I discovered that two things keep me pain free: a tiny little stretch and avoiding beer. It’s not science, certainly, but it is true…for me. The discussion actually began when my wife, Tiffini, had discovered that adding a small amount of Iodine, in the form of a supplement, had changed her figure in a few weeks.
She had been dieting hard, training hard and living lean for a while and had been frustrated by the lack of progress. In fact, things were going the opposite way. Her doctor suggested, in passing, that a minor problem she was having with her skin “might” be helped with iodine. Within days, the skin issue cleared, but she and I also noticed “less than subtle” body composition changes. She told me: “It just can’t be that simple.”
My hip pain is being “cured” by about a minute of stretching and avoiding beer. My wife has had a “game changing” experience from simply adding about a nickel’s worth of supplements to her diet.
“It can’t be that easy” is also something that has been changing my athlete’s training for the last few years. Although I disagree with the test, my football players have to do this “thing” where they need to bench press a weight for as many times as possible. The NFL makes a big deal of it with the annual Combine as the rookies bench press 225 for reps. It’s not a contest and it probably has little value. It has been around longer than people can remember as Dick Notmeyer used to have us do it as a fun diversion and most of us got into the 23-25 rep range with 225 weighing just over 200.
The “value” of the test is questionable, but there is a million dollar insight from attempting it. Not long ago, I offered Steve Friedes this advice as he had taken a bet with a friend about benching body weight for the most reps:
“One thing I would do: test yourself for the 15 with something light like 135 or whatever. Get an idea of when you slow down and try to do this test a few times (over a week or so) with the goal of pushing the “slow down” rep higher and higher. It’s a trick I learned doing high reps squats and it works on the bench, too. Once you bench 135 with no slow down, you go a little higher and just see if it still remains true.
With this test, now you have an idea about whether it is strength or muscular endurance or whatever term one should use (out of my league here now). For me, I slow down on 135 ish at the same rep as 225 as my issue isn’t the weight on the bar, so to speak…”
A few years ago, I had this same blinding insight when Wil Heffernan assessed me at a little gathering in Draper, Utah. He asked me to do as many push ups as I could do in sixty seconds. Being a thrower, I exploded through. Now, follow along: I finished with 57 reps, but I swear I did 55 in the first thirty seconds. That’s a thrower: an amazing burst of energy that quickly dies.
And, that is good!
For a thrower!
For someone who makes their living in the backcountry or in endurance events, my fiber fallout at thirty seconds might be life threatening. For a thrower, it is jolly good and pass the fried chicken, please.
Honestly, watching bar speed has been forgotten for at least a few decades. True, there are devices now that measure the bar speed, but most of us can either “feel” it with the bar or certainly see it as a partner or coach.
An underrated tool at the Russian Kettlebell Certification is the Team Leader can stop the performance of any test at any time due to something as simple as “poor technique.” “Stop the test…STOP the test” might seem cruel when someone has done 90 reps of 100 for the test, but life and limb are much harder to repair than a fragile ego. The quality of reps are important, perhaps the most important, aspect of correct use of kettlebells.
But, speed? The speed of the bar or weight is also a quality issue. A quick point: this is an issue of training. Certainly no Olympic lifter is going to judge a max Clean and Jerk with this idea, but, it must be noted, that this same lifter can gleam wonderful insights from simply assessing the speed of auxiliaries like the front squat or any pull.
Bar speed can be instructive. If you train with the same tempo all the time as many strength writers suggest, there may be some benefits. However, at the same time, you might be missing some graphic insights into the way you are wired and how you are improving (or not). Now, the performance of any lift should follow this exacting plan:
Down slow, up fast.
Write that on your hand and remember it!
Now, begin to leave your “inner eye” open on your perceived rep speed. I found that early in my career, I slowed up at around three reps. So, I thought for myself that magically “three” was the perfect rep for me. (And it rhymes.) Later, I found that I made far better progress with higher reps in the squat and pulls (eight and ten reps) in terms of hypertrophy and, surprisingly, joint health. I still “slowed” at three, however.
So, I began to simply focus on that third rep. I attempted to consciously attack rep three. Now, when you are heading for eight, it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to focus on a later rep. I picked up two interesting insights. First, when I was younger AND when I had begun to just do triples, my mind was “racking” the bar on the third rep. In other words, I wasn’t exploding out of the bottom or squeezing the rep…my mind was walking the weight back into the rack for the next rest period. It was NOT a cascading of hormones and waste products in my system, it was simple mental laziness that was causing much of my issue. Second, and this is something I have shared with many fine athletes: not every rep is going to be the best and brightest and most wonderful and amazing. In a set of eight, you may have three total reps where things are perfect. But, you might have five gems. Simply, become aware of rep speed seemed to clue me in on all the other aspects of my training rep. In a two-hour workout, a single rep takes up far less than a single percent of the time, but all of the reps added together are the workout!
And, by the way, we are simply checking the “perception” of speed. I don’t see the need for any devices or measures, although I have certainly used some in the past. I found that a stop watch or even those wonderful little clips that test the bar speed simply match the “feeling” that I had from the attempt.
So, how do you use it? Like I told Steve, you can use fairly light weights to assess that slow down. Over a period of perhaps three weeks, you could easily test that slow down rep over a series of light warm ups and deload sets. With this information, you can now make a judgement: if on a “serious” set, like your bodyweight bench press for reps, you find your reps slowing at the same spot as a fairly light warm up, then, you are like me! That’s neither good or bad honestly, but it indicates that if you want to increase your reps at one of these tests, you are going to have to add some endurance training into your barbell work. Don’t go crazy, but it means you will need to add some time with higher reps.
If, like almost everyone I have tested outside of throwers, your bar speed slows earlier, you simply need to get stronger to increase your reps.
You might be wondering: what’s the value to all of this? Well, three things:
1. Bar speed is a great mental thought for any lifter any time. If all one focused on (for most lifts, not all) was “Down slow, Up fast,” one’s training would improve.
2. Understanding where one slows down in any given rep scheme actually gives some insights into the overall training. If you match this information with your goals, you probably will find your goals easier to attain.
3. Finally, focusing on bar speed is going to keep your mind on the bar. Seriously, I have had crazy things gone on in the gym during a set and I never even noticed it because I was focusing on keep the bar “flying.” I’m not thinking about rest periods, water, television, girls or whatever…just on the bar!
It’s just that simple.