Slow Versus Fast Pulls: Why is the Deadlift a Slow Pull and the Olympic Lifts Fast Pulls?

Posted on 25 May 2010 21:36

BY Eric Troy

What makes a "pull" slow or fast. Is it a choice? After all we can do speed deadlifts. So does that make the deadlift a fast pull?

These questions come up because most strength trainees have been trained in the slow lifts but not the fast Olympic lifts. The information they have received about the fast lifts is from those who "dabble" in them. Alternatively they receive information from those who only dabble in strength in general…but that is another subject.

When I wrote Clean Style Deadlift versus Powerlifting Deadlift I was talking about something very specific. Yet many readers have come to that page simply looking to find out if the deadlift is a slow lift or fast lift. Now, I'll bet that some of my readers will say, duuuhhh, it's a slow lift. Self-evident, right? If it were self-evident then people wouldn't invent "clean style deadlifts"!

Lifting activities can be loosely separated into two categories. Maximum force activities and maximum power activities. The powerlifting lifts: the deadlift, squat, and bench press, are maximum force activities. They don't actually require much "power" but instead rely on absolute force production with little importance as to the speed with which that force is applied. The Olympic lifts, the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, are the actual power activities where the greatest amount of force must be exerted in a limited time.

What differentiates a "slow" lift from a fast one is acceleration. More accurately it is rate of force development. With the fast Olympic lifts, the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, the emphasis is on as much force as possible as QUICKLY as possible. That is the fast or quick part. With the slow lifts like the deadlift and the squat, the emphasis is on as much force as possible, period, regardless of time and it really doesn't matter how quickly the bar goes up, in the long run, as long as it does go up.

We may see big strength feats as being powerful but power has a more specific definition in physics. Power is the product of force times the speed with which that force is applied. It can also be expressed as the rate at which physical work is performed. But let's back up a bit.

What is Mechanical Power?

When we move a bar we are performing muscular work on the bar. Specifically we are applying a force to move or "displace" the bar a certain distance. Work has nothing to do with the amount of time it takes to displace the bar. Whether we perform a deadlift or a Snatch lift we are doing work and it looks like this:

work = Force x distance or w = F x D

Power is the RATE at which that work is performed. A measurement of mechanical power, then, incorporates TIME. So since during the Snatch lift we are moving the bar a greater distance in a much shorter time, it is a more powerful movement and the basic equation looks like this:


The name of the game for the Olympic lifts is acceleration. As much force as possible must be exerted as early as possible in order for momentum to carry the bar while the lifter gets underneath it. As I pointed out in Clean Style Deadlift versus Powerlifting Deadlift this makes the requirements of the Olympic lifts much different than for the slow lifts. The slow lifts however are not really "slow" they are just not fast, if you catch my drift. The bar moves at slow velocities in comparison to the Olympic lifts.

So the Olympic lifts are the true "power" lifts and the lifts of the Powerlifting, like the deadlift, are maximal strength, or maximal force lifts. They have nothing to do with maximizing power, which is about optimizing force and velocity. Power can be measured and expressed at Watts or Horsepower. Just to bring this home then: In Powerlifting, peak power may be somewhere between 350 to 900 watts (.5 to 1.2 hp). But in Olympic lifting peak power may be as great as 4000 watts. That's up to 5.4 horsepower![1] You getting this?

Maximum Strength (or Force) Lifts

We have popularly taken to referring to the deadlift as a slow lift in order to compare it to the Clean or Snatch but it is more correct to refer to the deadlift as a maximum force lift versus a maximum power lift, as I did at the outset. If the weight on the bar is light enough the deadlift may be performed very quickly, thus being more 'powerful'.

However, no matter how hard you try you can never apply maximum force to a lightly loaded bar! This is essentially what we are dealing with when training for absolute strength. When someone tells you that you only need to ever use, for example, 75% of maximum load to get strong, they are going against the very nature of absolute strength development. You can never "train" for absolute force production without actually "applying" maximum force.

In a recent post about specificity I brought up that specificity is about more than just mechanical considerations. Controversy still rages about whether the power clean helps the deadlift being that they are mechanically different. Well they are also different in terms of velocity and force production. During the power clean or full clean there is a compromise between force and speed. You maximize one at the expense of the other. This is because there is an inverse relationship between the amount of force a muscle can produce and the velocity of muscular shortening. There is therefore an optimal speed of contraction that results in optimal power and this tends to be around one-third of the maximum isometric force.

Since the deadlift is a maximum force lift, it stands to reason that activities requiring the production of maximal force will be more 'specific' to it.

Okay, So what is Force?

Training for maximal strength is essentially training to exert maximum muscular force. So what is force? The easiest way to think of a force is as a simple push or pull. When you push or pull on a barbell or other implement you are exerting a force. The pull of the Earth's gravity on an object is a force. Friction is a force. To be more precise, then, a force is something that causes or tends to cause a change in the motion or the shape of an object.

When you attempt to deadlift a heavy barbell you are exerting a pulling force on the barbell. That force has a magnitude, a direction, and a point of application. By applying the force you are attempting to change the state of motion of the barbell. If your force is too weak, the barbell will not move. There is a greater force acting against your effort. In this case it is the weight of the barbell or the inertia of the barbell. The weight is the downward force of the Earth's gravity acting on the weight, which is proportional to its mass. The inertia of the object is it's tendency to maintain its state of motion, whether moving or not. Inertia is easy to understand. The more massive an object is the more it tends to maintain its present state of motion. A 300 lb barbell has a lot of inertia. Now imagine a 300 lb linebacker running at you full-tilt. To stop him, you'd have to overcome his inertia. In either case, you must change the state of motion of the object or body.

The failure to move a heavy weighted implement, such as our barbell, is a source of confusion for strength trainees. This is because the application of force is thought of as the actual result of the force or more specifically, its effect. Most strength training articles concerning force simply relate the classic Newtonian law F = ma, which translates to force equals mass times acceleration where m is the mass of an object in grams or kilograms, and a is the amount of change in velocity in meters per second squared, i.e. acceleration. However although this is usually reported as the absolute definition of force it is really a relationship or a means to measure the effect of force which is the resultant acceleration of an object. This is great for physics and mechanical laws but for defining force it makes force itself a mere abstraction that grows out of the change of an object's velocity. This view of force, despite it's precision, doesn't really help us train for strength as the effort we exert against a weight is NOT an abstraction.

Even if your barbell does not move your application of force to it creates a tendency for it to move. If a friend also grabbed on to lend a hand, the barbell might move. The absolute force being applied to the bar increases. Our goal, then, in training for maximal strength is to increase our ability to exert muscular force, plain and simple.

Some Technical Notes

  • The symbol for force is F.
  • The pound is a unit of force. However, the SI unit1 of force is the Newton, named after Isaac Newton and abbreviated as N.
  • A newton of force is the force required to accelerate a 1 kg mass 1 m/s/s which is written in mathematical terms as: 1.0 N = (1.0 kg)(1.0 m/s/s). One newton equals 0.225 lb of force and one pound equals 4.448 N.
  • Force must be considered in terms of it's point of application, its direction or "line of action", and whether is pushes or pulls. Since a force has magnitude (size) and direction it is a type of vector. A vector is represented by an arrow on a free body diagram. The length of the arrow represents the size of the vector, the orientation represents direction, and one end of the arrow represents its point of application. Other vector quantities are weight, pressure and torque.
  • For the purposes of strength training we are not concerned with a force that deforms, or changes the shape, of another object. Instead, we are concerned with forces that either start, stop, speed up, slow down, or change the direction of an object. Since deformation is ignored or assumed not to occur this is called rigid-body mechanics.

Fast or Slow Tempo Has Nothing to do With This

Before I conclude I should quickly point out that when I say "fast" versus "slow" lifts here I am not speaking of tempo. Tempo is more a bodybuilding concern and it is really about purposely slowing down (or speeding up relative to the other direction) the positive (concentric) or negative (eccentric) portion of a lift and pausing at the bottom and perhaps at the top. The purpose of altering the tempo of lifting in bodybuilding is to increase time under tension (TUT).

So you can have a fast or slow tempo but that has nothing to do with fast powerful lifts versus slower maximum force lifts. As an aside, such bodybuilding practices that are concerned with increasing the TUT of a lifting session are to me, a big waste of time since there is enough time under tension in a typical bodybuilding session and there is no reason to believe that artificially altering TUT at the expense of other parameters will be beneficial. But the typical bodybuilder will fight me tooth and nail on that, I know, and whole methods have sprung up around the concept of increased time under tension.

I bring this up because the typical question that may bring a trainee to this page is something like "Is it better to lift fast or slow?" and this article was not written to answer that question but for a quick and dirty answer:

The strength trainee should lift at a natural tempo and should never lift intentionally slow. The eccentric should be controlled and natural with no attempt to slow it down needlessly unless slowing down the eccentric is needed to learn the lift and master it. However, controlling the eccentric really means the same thing. Depending on the lift in order to control the eccentric you will naturally have to adapt the speed.

Will the Clean Lift (or Powerclean) Help Deadlift Strength?

This question comes up quite often and is part of the whole package. A more popular version of the question is whether the "Powerclean" will help the deadlift. A Powerclean is a clean lift without a full squat when the lifter is receiving the bar. The "power" part comes from the idea that you must exert more power to accelerate the bar upwards as you are not going as low down to get underneath it. A similar concept is the "power jerk" which is usually given the name push jerk (which is a nonsense name since there is always a push in the jerk). Anyway, the powerclean is the version of the clean that finds its way into more "strength training" programs as opposed to the full classic Clean, probably owing to the fact that it is a bit easier to master and is thought to mimic the range of motion of the deadlift a bit more.

Instead of discussing the Clean versus the Powerclean's carry-over to the deadlift we will discuss them both as if they are the same since for all intents and purposes, they are. Most of the time, when people try to decide how one exercise will "carry over" to another they consider the superficial appearance of the exercises which they think corresponds to the mechanics and force components of the movement. Not only does the superficial appearance of an exercise not always help us grasp the mechanics and forces involved it is but one of many considerations.

However, to start with, the Clean and the Deadlift are very different. The clean is a two-phase lift starting with a slow first lift off the floor which sets the lifter up for the fast second phase. The deadlift is a one-phase lift. From the floor to the hips in one movement. Yes, some lifters do the deadlift in a way that makes it look like it is a sequential lift rather than a simultaneous one. But even then it is still a one-phase lift. The needs of the Clean and the Deadlift are quite different.

But are there are aspects of each movement that could help prepare the lifter for aspects of the other? Yes, this could be true. This would be a way of cross-training. But the fact that the Clean could be considered cross-training for the Deadlift does not differentiate it from many other exercises. That is not what people mean when they ask whether the Clean will help with deadlift strength. They mean will the Clean transfer directly to the deadlift and by increasing one's Clean strength will there be a corresponding increase in one's deadlift weight. The answer is probably not. And if there were it could likely be attributed to other things in one's training program.

The other aspect is force components. The Clean is a "power" lift. This means that the emphasis is not just on total force but on acceleration or rate of force development. A lifter can never exert maximum force on a Clean. But the deadlift IS a maximum force activity. These lifts fall at very different places on the continuum.

By the same token if we consider whether increasing one's rate of force development, that is, his "explosiveness" and "speed", is valuable for the deadlift we could easily surmise that simply using speed deadlifts is a much better way to go that the Clean:

1. The mechanics are the same…it's the same exercise done fast

2. The lifter already is familiar with the movement…he does not have to devote resources to learning the very technical, by comparison, clean

3. The speed deadlift is MUCH more flexible in terms of progression and weight ranges. The lifter is not stuck with only one range of weight. He can choose for more emphasis to be on the acceleration end of things or for more emphasis to be on the total force end of things.

1. Knudson, Duane V. "Chapter Six: Linear Kinetics." Fundamentals of Biomechanics. New York: Springer, 2007. Print.

This page created 25 May 2010 21:36
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 00:32

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