Speed is a fundamental skill for any martial art or contact sport.
Few things give you a greater advantage than getting there first. Who cares how big your opponent is or how hard he hits if you can get in, land a blow, and get away before he can make contact? If you play soccer, how much do your opponent’s fancy fake-outs matter if you can just get to the ball first and stay ahead?
So let’s take a look at what speed really is according to your body, and then we’ll iron out the best way to get more of it.
What Exactly is Happening When Your Body Gets Faster?
Whenever your body is involved with any kind of high force production, it recruits the muscle fibers that are built specifically for that job – what many people call “fast twitch” fibers. These fibers don’t kick in until a massive explosion of force is required. They’re not turned on when you’re walking around or doing the dishes. They’re not even turned on if you’re doing something moderately strenuous, like jogging or carrying boxes of books. They’re your emergency, 911 muscle fibers. If you’re in the savanna being chased by a lion, you’re using your fast twitch fibers.
So, if you want to gain speed, your very first requirement is getting those emergency fibers turned on.
Why Jumping Right to Max Speeds May Not Help You
So you might be thinking, “ok great. So I’ll just go as fast as I can for as long as I can, and I’ll get faster.” In an ideal world, that would work. After all, that’s what the SAID principle teaches: you get what you put in. Want to be fast? Train fast.
But getting safely to the point where you can explode with maximum speeds usually requires a little more nuance and precision. It’s not always wise to try and engineer an artificial emergency by throwing yourself right into maximum intensity workouts. In fact, doing that might do just the opposite! Here's why ...
Your body has several very powerful sources of automatic inhibition that operate below the level of consciousness. These inhibitors are there to protect you, but they can sometimes be a little over-protective, like an anxious parent who wants to keep their kid in an antiseptic bubble. You have to coax these sources of inhibition to relax by reprogramming them.
At a certain threshold of intensity, determined by your nervous system, something called the Golgi Tendon Organ will unconsciously force your working muscles to lessen their contractions as a last ditch effort to protect it from damage. If you don’t re-program it, it can automatically prevent you from reaching your potential.
To persuade your GTO to calm down, you need to coax it steadily, a step at a time; convince it that this new, more intense training environment is safe.
Your brain also has another trick up it's sleeve: it can recruit what are called antagonistic muscles to slow you down. These are the muscles that produce force in the opposite direction of the forces you're currently producing. Muscles that push are usually antagonistic to muscles that pull, for example. If your brain decides that what you're doing is going to break something, it will unconsciously put the brakes on what you're doing by creating an opposing force. It's kinda like draining a 9 volt battery by plugging it into another 9 volt battery. Twice the energy, twice the waste.
Just so you can understand how strong these forces of inhibition can be, let me tell you about one of the greatest examples of this I’ve ever come across:
How To Make a Fit, Muscular, Well Rested Football Player Fail to Lift 10 Lbs One Time
Once, a football player was tricked by a trainer into thinking that a 10lb paper weight was 400lbs. He said he couldn’t lift it. When he lifted with all his conscious might, guess what happened? Nothing. That little 10lb paper weight stayed put.
How? When a device measured his muscular output, it showed that whenever his biceps and back started pulling, his triceps and chest started pushing just as hard. But he didn’t do any of this on purpose. He wasn’t even aware of it. All of that flexed muscle in his arms and torso just felt like extra effort to him.
And it was extra effort! Twice as much energy expenditure just to net at zero output. That’s a serious case of physical self-sabotage, but who knows how many of us are doing that in smaller ways when we train and compete? Antagonist muscles are nothing to sneeze at.
If you want to be at your best, if you want to go faster than you’ve ever gone before, your whole body has to be congruent with the goal—consciously and unconsciously. That means your brain has to give it the green light, and it will only do that when it doesn’t feel like part of you is about to break.
The Solution to Speed Inhibitors: Build Your Strength Base First
To re-program your inhibitors, you need build a solid strength base before focusing on serious increases in your speed. Moving safely at high speed requires the unconscious mastery of movement patterns, which you can only acquire with precision by going slowly at first.
But how could going slowly ever produce greater speed? Because speed and strength recruit the same fast twitch muscle fibers reserved for high force production. Training slow and heavy gives you the capacity for speed by improving the same fibers and the fuel system you’ll use for speed. Heavy loads trigger that same emergency state and increase your potential for far greater speeds.
Once you have that strength base, your speed is ready to be born, with nothing in its way.
So now, with that huge and important caveat in place, I feel ready to say that only high speed training will compel your nervous system to recalibrate itself for speed. Once you have that strength base and an unconscious mastery of your movement patterns, it’s time to cash in on it with high speed training. So now, let’s look at exactly how to do that.
What Speed Training Looks Like
Whatever exercises or movement patterns you choose to train, you need to do them in very short highly intense bursts, as fast as you can, for between 8 – 12 seconds. Then you need 3 minutes of rest between sets.
Fast twitch fibers under maximal stimulation burn ATP/CP – the highest grade fuel source your muscles have. That stuff can burn out in as little as 8 seconds, and will almost never last more than 20 seconds without a break. Then it takes about 3 minutes for your body to refill your ATP/CP tank.
When ATP/CP burns out in speed training, you don’t fail, you just slow down, passing through what trainers call force decrement. You don’t want to reach that point. It’s OK to approach force decrement, but you want to cut your sets so short that you never pass through it. Leave a little left in the tank.
Getting exhausted, “powering through it,” none of that stuff improves your maximum speed. The only thing that makes you faster is actually going faster, mechanically. Merely trying to go faster when you’re tired doesn’t stimulate your nerves to coordinate new patterns. Training in a fatigued state is a metabolic challenge. Speed needs to challenge your nervous system.
Don’t confuse speed training with the exhausting, explosive routines in programs like p90X Insanity. That stuff may get you in good shape, but in speed training, you have prevent central fatigue and cardiovascular exhaustion. Leave the explosive cardio for a different day. You don’t want any major muscle fatigue and you need to be fully recovered from previous workouts when you work on your speed.
How Many Sets Should You Do?
With sets that short, plan on doing a lot of them. And with that much rest time, also consider, cautiously, whether you’d like to superset that movement with another movement that involves a totally different part of your body. (Supersets are when you do a different exercise right after an initial exercise, and then rotate again until all your desired sets are complete.)
Here’s a quick rule of thumb for whether you should use a superset: if it’s a full-body movement, like sprinting, don’t superset. If you’re doing more isolated movements involving only one or two joints, then go ahead and superset.
If you choose to superset, split your 3 minute rest period into two 90 second ones, like this:
- Exercise 1: 90 seconds rest
- Exercise 2: 90 seconds rest
- Exercise 1: 90 seconds rest
- Exercise 2: 90 seconds rest
Also make sure you’re not using the same muscle groups in each exercise. If exercise 1 is pushing, exercise 2 should be pulling, etc.
How many sets you do depends on the kind of exercise you’re doing. If you’re doing compound or complex movements that use most of your body, consider doing about ten sets, and not including that many exercises in your routine.
If you’re doing more isolated work, do supersets and shoot for 5 sets each, and plan on doing more exercises throughout in your routine.
What Sort of Exercises Can You Train For Speed?
As usual, this depends on your goals. Any movement pattern can be trained for speed, and you can speed train with body weight or with resistance. If you use weights, keep them light. Also, stick to free weights, particularly dumbbells, since most machines have an awkward catch at high speeds, and because free weights require a lot more stabilization and permit free movement. All good things for your nervous system.
Example: Increasing Your Punching Speed
If you want to work on how fast you can punch, you have a couple of choices. One is simply to follow the protocol and do as many punches as you can in 10-12 seconds. Another is to add some light resistance. But if you do this, you need to make sure you’re creating resistance in the right direction.
You don’t want the dumbbells pulling your punch down, which is what they’d do if you stayed standing. You want them creating resistance in the direction of your desired movement. Since punches move forward, you need gravity to pull those dumbbells against that forward motion. So change your relationship to gravity by laying down on a bench and punching straight up in the air with light dumbbells in your hand.
NOTE: Since laying down doesn’t integrate that punching movement with your lower body, be sure to make time to re-integrate your new speed on your feet and in position without weights.
How to Measure Your Speed
To measure your speed, you’re going to need a stopwatch. (It can be a little finicky starting and stopping these on time if you don’t have a partner, but it’s possible.)
You measure your speed in one of two ways:
- Moving the same distance in less time
- Moving further in the same amount of time
If you’re running, then your distance will be an actual length, like a football field. But distance can also mean repeating a movement, like a punch, kick, lunge, squat, press, etc, for an increasing number of times.
But “number of times” gets tricky, because repetitions of a movement are easy to cheat. A hundred years is a hundred yards – either you make it to the end or you don’t. But what about 25 punches? If your punches start out with optimal retractions and full extensions, don’t start cheating by throwing a bunch of wussy half punches just to get your numbers up. Likewise, if you’re trying to do speed squats, don’t start out going ass-to-grass and then trim them until you’re only doing shallow knee bends by the end.
Now, you can choose your desired joint angle for anything. If your goal is fast half punches or fast half squats, fine. But do them all that way, so that your distance variable actually means something. The whole point here is to be consistent.
What to Write Down
Let’s say you’re doing ten second bursts. If you’re doing repetitions, you record how many reps you can do in those ten seconds. In subsequent sets, you try and do more in the same 10 seconds. If you’re running on a field with measurements, record your distance and keep trying to beat it. If you don’t have a lined field or track, use your own marker—like a cone.
In Conclusion ...
And that about does it! Just remember, build your strength base first, only speed train on fully recovered days, and make sure you give your nervous system time to recover and recalibrate between workouts. Best of luck!