Conversations with Phil Learney

I had some down time today and found myself perusing (great word) the Facebooks when I saw a status by Phil Learney Strength Coach and Educator.  He uploaded a video of himself deadlifting 180kgs + 20kg chains for speed work. As some of you may know who are up to date with recent happenings in the strength community, or saw my blog entry on this topic recently entitled “Since when did critical thinking lose it’s place in strength training”, the topic of speed work has been a heated topic of debate recently. I decided to ask Phil’s opinion on this topic and he was kind enough to reply to me. It was good to see a guy of Phil’s calibre take the time to reply, answer my questions and offer his opinions.

So here’s how it went..

Me Thoughts on Mike Tuchscherer’s article on speed work recently published on JTS Phil Learney Strength Coach / Educator ?

Phil Interesting article but when you consider that speed work has been used successfully, even crossing over into the rationale as to why plyometrics work for decades. 
He also references his experience as opposed to what is actually happening across the board. He correctly explains that force = mass x acceleration which at all times you’re looking at the peak of both for a specific athlete. The question could be asked that perhaps he wasn’t using the correct weight to capitalise on ‘his’ force production?

If you pertain it to throwing a tennis ball, for many a heavier ball will be easier to throw faster and for a greater distance, when it gets too heavy though the results diminish. 

Utilising something such as a tendo unit can show us when force peaks and when it tails off, sadly the numbers given to us with speed work 50-65% 1RM are irrelevant for many as they pull faster when its either slightly heavier or slightly lighter. I pull faster at a heavier % therefore my force peaks. If I go into traditional parameters it doesn’t.

I think a LOT of Qs to be asked regarding the hypothesised statement.

Me I think that’s his main issue with speed work; in order to capitalise on optimal force production you need to be lifting at an 8+RPE in his initial findings. And although his data is only collected from himself (in terms of using a tendo, I know he has and does train many elite powerlifters competing around the world who are winning and turning heads), as you say I think it does raise a lot of questions to investigate further.

The reaction from a large portion of the strength community was “How dare you question Westside” which to me showed a real lack of critical thinking which ironically is exactly what places like Westside and others who have popularised training methods are built on. I personally think speed work has been proved very successful with geared lifters undoubtedly (maybe its place is most beneficial in regulating CNS fatigue with regards to a weekly plan), but has it proved successful with raw lifters? Just my opinion but I’m not so sure, especially when looking at the IPF records.

Phil  When you consider Olympic lifting and the force generated to start a pull its interesting that most high level Olympic lifters drill technique and speed as a priority in the build up to a comp. Those same lifters could all give most PLifters a run for their money in most lifts yet don’t train at the %s he is suggesting essential to reach maximal force

Me As you say in the build up to the competition speed and technique may take priority, but I think it’s important not to forget the overwhelming bulk of their yearly training plan does not consist of this specific type of training. Whether they’re training Bulgarian style, adhering to Prilepins chart ideas etc, they’re chasing higher and higher sub max and max weights daily.

I personally found Chad Wesley Smiths’ comments regarding this article on speed as quite eye-opening. Not quoted word for word but he essentially made clear – Non of the very best raw lifters in the world ever have, or currently do, train ‘the Westside way’ of which speed work is an integral part of that.

Fair play for replying by the way Phil. Great to see a coach take the time to answer and discuss questions. Thanks

Phil The emphasis still remains on speed though as without acceleration a lifter would never achieve the inertia to move the bar over distance and in the manner an olympic lifter would need to complete a lift. Remember also that the westside ‘system’ is merely a template which is commercially available. Most lifters at westside don’t follow the model as it becomes individualised to weaknesses and mechanical work.

Ive always found great crossover in speed work on particularly deadlift as training at maximal or near maximal % it is very easy to inhibit neurally due to weight ‘anticipation’. This is evident when you see someone technically change their lift (hips raise for example) in a deadlift in simple anticpation and the switch over to dominant mechanics. Speed work is merely a way to recruit HTMUs without the load impacting lower % technical work in my opinion.

A raw lifter cannot train at high % week in week out and often in a lift such as a DL many improve by stepping away from the lift and working on mechanical weaknesses. Working at lower %s is the emphasis ALWAYS to move the bar with maximal velocity? Yes it is, therefore by default are we actually just labelling something as ‘speed work’ when we could actually say its technical work with emphasis on maximal velocity?

Me Very true in terms of the Westside system, I often think people misinterpret Westside as a template rather than a system as you say.

I’d totally agree with you Phil if we could say – a) That training with the aim of maximum velocity made any difference to the amount of force production I can recruit when it comes to lifting that 1 rep max attempt at the meet. And b) That lifting sub max weight at ‘speed work’ percentages of 50%-75% actually had any ‘technical work’ carry over to max weights. These are the questions Mike is asking and has provided initial evidence to the contrary, which obviously needs more investigation as you say.

Mike argues in his reason #2 in that article that technique is not challenged in these lower %’s, and I agree with him on that. If you’re anything other than a beginner learning how to squat/bench/dead, will lifting 8-12 sets of 2 at 65% really help you to work out technical issues you’re having at max and sub max weights? I’m not so sure, weaknesses and technical issues won’t arise and won’t be challenged to improve in my opinion.

Very true on not being able to lift at high %’s week in week out (another reason Mike advocates training with respect to RPE’s and not chasing %’s) but he isn’t saying that really. When there was a big storm on social media over this, he followed that article up with this, where he went into more detail with his opinion on his arguments

Phil A beginner working at 65% may effectively work in my opinion as it drills technique and repetition whilst challenging it towards the end as fatigue kicks in both physically and neurally. A more experienced lifter I firmly believe needs to aim higher than this % in most cases to get the same response as when true strength comes into alignment with technical limits it then becomes effective. You also cannot IMO work of RMs when a lifter has less than at least 3+ years lifting experience (a very generalised time scale I know) but neural capacity and HTMU recruitment takes time to learn and illicit (obviously based on recruitment, rate coding and synchronisation), someone with insufficient motor control you may NEVER get to this level. I think Mike stating it’s wrong and doesn’t work is the same as someone saying westside is right and DOES work. 

What works for one doesn’t always work for another otherwise we would have the ‘gold’ standard of how to come about strength. Where the Chinese right or the Russians? A question that there is evidence to support both.

Me I think some degree of chasing that ‘gold standard’ of strength is possible in terms of developing for example, the most efficient and effective way of developing maximum force production (across the population of the strength community). I think the concept of what Mike is questioning and challenging is the science part of training when people say it’s ‘a science as well as an art’. Especially when testing his arguments can be quantified as he showed with a tendo. Saying that it’s balancing the two, and I agree wholeheartedly with your above comment.

For more information on Phil, I encourage you to join his Facebook page. On a daily basis he’s pumping out lots of great, honest information on a range of health and fitness topics.

He also has a website here

Strong Body. Strong Mind.

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