Try It: High-Velocity Training

Lifting heavy builds strength. Lifting light and fast builds power.

Share This Article

The prevailing thought about building strength says that you should lift heavy, eking out a few reps, taking a nice long rest and doing it all over again. But there’s an alternative: velocity-based training.

The idea is that moving lesser amounts of weight with greater speed will, over time, develop more power. And power is the key word.

“Typically, we associate strength with muscle mass or tone and, really, the correlation between size and muscle strength is not very strong,” says Paul Juris, Ed.D., chief science officer at the Cybex Research Institute. “This suggests there’s something else present that contributes to someone’s ability to apply force. Just because you can develop some tension in your muscles doesn’t mean you can accelerate an object.”

So power is about the intensity of exercise that can be sustained. What this means in relation to your workout is that being able to, say, deadlift twice your bodyweight—a sign of strength and what he means by “tension in your muscles”—is one thing. But there’s a separate metric of fitness—power—you might be missing out on.  

“Optimal power can be developed with as little as 30 percent to 35 percent of your maximum capacity, if you could move that load as fast as you can,” Juris says.

This technique works specifically on simple movements like dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell rows, leg presses and kettlebell swings. A complex movement like a snatch or a clean-and-jerk don’t work well because moving quickly through the reps will inevitably take its toll on technique.

So if your one rep max for dumbbell bench presses is 95 pounds, give the 30 ound weights a go.

There are a few advantages to this type of training:

By focusing on power, you’re also gaining strength. Let’s say you can do a dozen push-ups before fatigue sets in. Then, for a couple of weeks, you perform modified pushups (with your hands on a bench or rig), focusing on speed more than the number of reps you can complete. If you were to test again, you’re likely to get more than 12 push-ups, but you’d also be able to perform them more quickly and forcefully. That strength and power would translate to other push movements, such as thrusters.

High-velocity movements are more dynamic. When lifting heavy weights, gravity does half the work. Think about a heavy kettlebell swing. You hoist the weight to the high point on its path, then let the bell sink through your legs before swinging it up again. When you use a light weight and aim for speed, you need to control the kettlebell throughout the entire movement, actively stopping its trajectory at the top, pushing it through the bottom faster than gravity alone would take it, then driving it back up again. Translation: Counterintuitively, you do more work with less weight.

There’s a cognitive component to it. “When you move very quickly, you have to accelerate and control the deceleration [as noted above] and when you do that, it engages all of the opposing muscle groups in that action which is functionally and cognitively more beneficial,” Juris says. This aspect of high-velocity training has been studied and works particularly well among older exercisers.