In order to really move well you should be able to perform activities at a variety of speeds. Most sports are played at high speeds, so being able to go fast is obviously important. What I think gets overlooked is the value of really slowing down sometimes, and going “uncomfortably slow” during your practice. Going slow, really slow, painfully slow can really teach you a lot about the movement you are practicing and how proficient you really are at it. On top of that, being able to effectively decelerate is helpful in injury prevention, so you literally need to practice “slowing down” to get good at it.
One analogy I have been playing with is thinking about your muscles like gears. People who are really strong or good at a movement have their gears sync very well throughout the entire range of motion of their lift or movement. People who are more novice often have their gears “slip” throughout the motion. When I am practicing my slow speed training this is what I am visualizing: are my “gears syncing” correctly as my muscles lengthen and shorten, and are they able to do that smoothly and consistently throughout the full range of motion? Most of the time if I am struggling with something I end up finding spots in the motion where my gears start to slip, and I end up not being able to control my speed and have to catch myself. The “slip” may be the prime mover, or it may be a bracing/stabilizing muscle, but regardless, going slow allows me to really pay attention to that and feel it, which is the first step in getting better at it.
One movement we see this on a lot is a basic squat. We use barbell squats quite a bit in our Strength & Conditioning classes here at Industrial Strength, but we view that exercise as a privilege, not a right. If someone can’t safely and consistently hit parallel or greater depth (with all the other basic form markers as well), then we have them practice other variations of squatting until they can get there.
One thing we see a lot from the people that have trouble hitting parallel is that when they try to achieve depth they have to “dive bomb” their squat. They have no ability to go slow or display control at end range of motion, even with a bodyweight squat. For clarification, an experienced lifter who does have control/ownership over the full ROM may choose to dive bomb his/her squats as a personal choice – BUT, it needs to be a choice, NOT the only option! Back to the people who have trouble hitting depth – many of them have been trying it this way for years before coming to us. Our first thing we work on is to have them SLOW DOWN. If we go back to the analogy of gears, basically as they start their descent their gears are syncing well, but as they get closer to parallel the gears completely slip, resulting in them having no tension or control. It essentially turns into a free fall, which of course is not the goal. So, one of the projects we work on for this person is to slow them down and help them “keep their gears in sync.”
Another good example of this is when I first trained for a one arm one leg push up (OAOLPU). I had good success achieving this quickly because I really focused on control and linkage from the very beginning. I focused on keeping my muscles “on” the whole way down and up, rather than trying to drop fast then spring out of the bottom. This, more than anything else I have ever done, is what really taught me to contract my lats and use them during presses. Up until then I had always been thoroughly confused about how the lats were a pressing muscle, but once I got the hang of my OAOLPU it made all the sense in the world.
So, how then do you apply this type of training? There are, of course, many different ways. Generally I like to think of it as skill work. My strongest recommendation is to be able to “own” the full ROM of an exercise with control before you start doing it quickly. If you can’t get to a deep squat with good alignment with no additional weight, then trying to dive bomb a squat with a heavy barbell is probably going to catch up to you sooner rather than later. First, work on the skill of the deep squat, keeping your gears synced the whole time, then once you are good at that, then you can load it. Taking your arms overhead is another good example. If you can’t get your arms overhead with straight elbows and good alignment then why would you add speed and force to it with jerks? Make sure you can own the position slowly with control first, then once that is established you can train to add weight, speed, reps, etc. To come full circle, speed definitely is very important for athleticism, so once you have great ownership over a movement or position, then by all means add speed and power to it. Just make sure you’re not trying to shoot a canon out of a canoe.
As far as the specifics of sets, reps, tempo, etc that is a bit out of the scope of this article, but I will offer some general advice. When you are training a skill, which this is, make sure you avoid fatigue and practice frequently. When I was doing my OAOLPU training I practiced 1-3 reps at a time, 5-10 times per day. I also tried to go really slow, 10 seconds down and 10 seconds up. This style of training allowed my muscles to stay fresh, my mind to stay fresh (there is no room for zoning out with this kind of training) and for each rep to build off the one before it, rather than being hindered from fatigue from the preceding rep. Many people call this “greasing the groove” style training (many sets of low reps throughout the day), which I first heard from Pavel Tsatsouline. If you are interested in more in depth information about how this works I suggest looking up his body of work.
The other big thing to keep in mind with this is that your body can only get really good as so many skills at the same time. I think the “right” number is probably 1-3 of these types of skills at once so that you can really have good focus on a singular goal. If you try to do this with every exercise that you do I bet your focus will not be where you need it to be, and you will not get the progress you’re hoping for. Start with one exercise, try it for a week or two, then evaluate if you want to try it with something else too. You can try it to improve a movement you already do (squat), learn a new skill (OAOLPU) or pick one of each.
Thanks for reading and please share your feedback with how your training goes!
– Tony Gracia | Co-Founder / Head Coach @industrialstrengthgym