Powerlifting is a sport of pure strength. But there’s more to it than just being strong; you need to be fast too for sport. Powerlifters are often asked if their training makes them slower on the field or court as there is a notion that lifting weights makes them slower.
So does powerlifting make you slower? Powerlifting-style training can improve your ability to run faster or move quickly to a certain extent. This is because strength training can increase force production and develop tendon stiffness so you can move more efficiently. However, competitive powerlifters are usually slower than other athletes.
In this article, we will go through how powerlifting can make you faster, how powerlifting can make you slower, and how you can incorporate powerlifting training in a way that is not detrimental to your athletic ability.
How Does Powerlifting Make You Faster?
Firstly, we need to understand that powerlifting training is a specific form of heavy strength training.
Heavy strength training is focused on improving our muscle’s ability to produce force, i.e. lifting as much weight as possible for 1 rep.
In addition, powerlifting is also focused on improving our ability to produce force in specific movements: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Not any other movements.
So what happens when we lift heavy weights in powerlifting?
After a weight training session, we stress our muscles, which triggers a response from our bodies to make changes (so long as we fuel our bodies well and recover).
The changes that happen are:
- Improved technique in the exercise or movement
- Better coordination within our body
- Better voluntary muscle activation
- Developed muscle and tendon properties
So how does this affect our speed in sport?
With regards to the lower body, powerlifting can strengthen our hip and knee musculature, which includes our quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
In particular, powerlifting biases the hip musculature a bit more since the low bar squat is used.
In addition, strength training leads to better motor unit recruitment (a motor unit is a nerve cell connected to muscle fibers). Better motor unit recruitment can improve strength at fast movements. Although, explosive lifting is going to be more effective than heavy lifting for creating this quality (we’ll discuss this more later)
One more thing…
Tendons attach muscles to bone and tendon stiffness also occurs from heavy lifting.
When a muscle contracts, the tendons stretch. When this happens, it impedes the speed at which the whole muscle-tendon unit contracts. So we actually need the tendon to be stiff, not stretchy.
When tendons stiffness improves (through strength training), this improves the speed at which the whole muscle-tendon unit contracts. The faster you can contract a muscle, the faster you can move.
How Does Powerlifting Make You Slower?
Heavy lifting can also cause a shift from type IIX to type IIA muscle fibers, which is not good for strength at high speeds.
Type IIX muscle fibers are very fast muscle fibers whereas type IIA muscle fibers are moderately fast muscle fibers.
Developed muscle and tendon properties consist of desirable and undesirable effects for sport.
A bigger muscle can lead to a stronger muscle, and there is a level of strength needed to propel your body on the field. However, if muscles are too big, it negatively affects how quickly muscles contract.
So there is a fine balance, which we’ll discuss later.
Quick note: Another important athletic quality for athletes is jump performance. We looked at the research to see if certain exercises improve jumping abilities:
- Do Squats Improve Jump Performance?
- Do Hip Thrusts Improve Jump Performance?
- Do Deadlifts Improve Jump Performance?
Who Can Benefit From Powerlifting For Speed?
So we know what powerlifting or strength training can make you faster or slower, but the big question is, who will actually benefit from powerlifting to improve speed and not get slower?
Here are some people who will benefit from powerlifting to improve speed:
- Novice athletes
- Young athletes
- Athletes who have never done strength and conditioning
- Athletes in the off-season
- Athletes who are weak in their sport standard
5 Things To Consider So Powerlifting Won’t Make You Slow?
So powerlifting is a double edge sword as it can make you faster or slower depending on how you implement it within your training regime.
Here are five things to remember in order to get the most out of powerlifting to get faster:
- Perform the power lifts explosively
- Do not train to failure
- Do not build up too much fatigue
- Incorporate other training modalities
- Include calf training
- Strength standard for your sport
1. Perform the Power Lifts Explosively
Performing the power lifts explosively means to execute with maximal intent so that the barbell moves as fast as possible. This is relevant to both concentric and eccentric portions of the lift when the muscle is shortening and lengthening.
This is important because when you perform the power lifts explosively, you encourage quick voluntary contraction of the motor units in your muscle bellies. This is important for improving the rate of force development.
2. Do Not Train to Failure
Training to failure involves training to having little to no more repetitions in reserve during given sets. When you perform repetitions to or close to failure, the final repetitions become increasingly slow and you essentially perform low velocity lifting.
A 2018 study demonstrated that training to failure can even hinder your sporting performance qualities including vertical jump and rate of force development, which are important qualities for being fast.
So what we can learn from this is in order for powerlifting not to make you slower, you should keep repetition speed as high as possible and avoid performing slow repetitions by being close to failure.
3. Do Not Build up Too Much Fatigue
When we talk about fatigue, we are really referring to training induced decreased ability for muscle to generate force. Fatigue can occur in different parts of your body from your nervous system to the muscles. Different training modalities can lead to different more fatigue in different parts of your body.
When you are fatigued and you reduce your muscular performance, you reduce how much force your muscles can produce during quick movements.
So what you need to consider is the training stress accumulated from sports training as well as powerlifting training. This is naturally a difficult concept to monitor as the way you measure and monitor powerlifting training is going to be different to other sports training. There are concepts such as session RPE as a universal way of measuring stress from different physical activity.
Session RPE = (Time spent on an activity) x (Session difficulty RPE out of 10)
You want to make sure that you can manage the stress of the total amount of training that you do so that you do not build up too much fatigue.
4. Incorporate Other Training Modalities
Yes, resistance training including powerlifting type exercises has been shown to improve your rate of force development and therefore speed up to a certain extent. The training you do in powerlifting can complement the more specific and relevant training modalities that will lead you to move fast in your sport.
For this reason, it is important to corporate other training modalities that develop your speed and rate of force development such as Olympic weightlifting and plyometric training. The Olympic lifts also include lifting heavy weights but more explosively. Plyometric training involves doing explosive movements with just your bodyweight.
For more information, check out whether powerlifters should do Olympic weightlifting.
5. Include Calf Training
The problem with powerlifting is that it is very biased towards developing your hip and knee musculature, which includes the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the glutes and the adductors.
When you are moving about on a field or in a court depending on your sport, you are most likely going to be running or sprinting in a “triple extension” manner. This means extending through your hips, knees and ankles.
Powerlifting does not stimulate your calf muscles much and therefore can be a relative weakness, especially if you have done powerlifting for a while and neglected calf training.
What you can do is first perform training just to develop muscle and work capacity in your calves in isolation. Then you can progressively move on to compound movements that involve the calf musculature, for example, squat jumps, power cleans, high pulls etc.
Strength Standard For Your Sport
Depending on what other sports you do, you will find that there will be a strength standard that you need that will make you good at your sport and a certain amount of strength that will help your speed. Getting stronger beyond a certain standard can render diminishing returns in an attempt to be stronger.
The thing you need to think about is how you incorporate powerlifting training as well as considering the quality and quantity of the training you do outside of powerlifting.
Powerlifting can improve your speed in general to a certain extent but it can also make you slower beyond a certain point.
It is therefore wise to monitor the powerlifting training you are doing and monitoring your speed to see its relationship.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com