Bang For Your LS Buck

10 Smart Spending Strategies for Building Your Next LS Engine

By Barry Kluczyk – Photography by the Author

A few years ago, a colleague of ours spent more than a few bucks to elevate the performance of his LS1-powered fourth-gen Camaro SS. It was a bolt-on extravaganza, with long-tube headers, a snazzy-looking intake manifold upgrade, and a larger throttle body, along with a cold-air intake and more. The engine looked great under the hood and sounded even better through the headers.

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LS camshaft
The right camshaft makes all the difference in an LS engine by unlocking its optimal airflow capability. The heads have the capacity and a higher-lift/longer-duration camshaft gives it to them. It’s the most cost-effective performance upgrade and should be the foundation for future enhancements.

On the chassis dyno and with proper tuning, power to the tires definitely increased, but the gain wasn’t dramatic. Worse, the car’s crisp street performance was dulled like your mom’s old caravan down a cylinder or two. To put it nicely, it was a dog, particularly at low rpm, where what little torque the LS1 made down there all but evaporated.

This Article Might be Helpful as well: Engine Wiring for LS Engine Swaps

swaping a camshaft
It’s generally pretty easy to swap a camshaft, even with the engine in the vehicle (after the radiator is removed). After removing the pushrods, the original cam can be spun to lock the lifters in place. Then it’s simply a matter of removal and replacement.

It’s all because our buddy took the traditional bolt-on approach to building horsepower—the things we all grew up reading about when people were trying to coax an extra 25 hp out of a smog-laden two-barrel small-block. Opening up the restrictive intake and exhaust systems were the keys to make 275 hp back then, but it’s the total opposite with an LS engine.

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LS1 valvespring upgrade

A hotter cam is going to increase valvespring pressure, and the stock springs simply won’t be up to the task. When swapping the cam, match it with a corresponding spring upgrade. It’s a must.In fact, it’s downright detrimental in many cases, because airflow is already an LS’ advantage and the engineers did an excellent job balancing the intake airflow and exhaust to deliver a pretty optional package from the factory. Those traditional bolt-on moves, then, generally deliver less effectiveness for the money and often work against street driveability.

Upgraded Rocker Arm
Upgrading or replacing the factory rocker arms is a smart idea when also swapping the camshaft. Replacement sets range anywhere from about $150-$550, but it’s necessary to prevent common trunnion bearing failure.

The key to building significant power in an LS and doing it more cost-effectively is to start on the inside with the camshaft and work your way out to the traditional bolt-ons. They’ll support and augment a cam upgrade, but they’re largely ineffectual without it. We’ve put together a list of 10 common and often necessary upgrades to build more power and support it.

Interested in Seeing More ACP: 427 LS Power That Looks Like Vintage 409 in 1961 Bubble Top Impala

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Comp Cams’ Trunnion Upgrade kit
An alternative to replacing the rocker arms is upgrading them with Comp Cams’ Trunnion Upgrade kit, for around $200. It includes locked housings that cage the trunnion bearings’ needles, preventing the housings from “walking” out of the trunnions under high loads.

We’ve listed them generally in order of importance, starting with the camshaft, but the keyword with all of them and your next LS build is strategy. In other words: Think before you spend.

You’ll be horsepower and dollars ahead in the long run.

LS pushrod upgrade

A pushrod upgrade is another smart move when upgrading the cam, springs, and rockers. Hardened pushrods with thicker walls of at least 0.080 inch will provide the strength required for higher rpm capability and the resulting higher valvespring pressure.

LS heads
Don’t spend on a set of heads unless the airflow through the engine is targeted to increase dramatically. Stock LS heads are already very good and typically won’t max out their airflow capability, even with a hotter cam. And without a cam upgrade or displacement increase, a set of heads will work against performance in the low- and midranges.
Supercharged LS
It’s not that performance heads don’t deliver, but for the investment, their effectiveness is best realized with a power adder or significant displacement increase—something that’s going to result in a dramatic airflow increase.
intake manifold swap
An intake manifold swap is an easy bolt-on, but not recommended for otherwise-stock engines. Generally, airflow velocity will decrease, resulting in an erosion of low- and midrange power. An aftermarket intake can easily cost more than $1,000, making the investment advisable for an engine targeted for life on the strip at high rpm.
larger throttle body for LS
The same advice goes for a larger throttle body. For most applications with, say, a camshaft upgrade, a larger throttle body isn’t typically necessary—and low-speed driveability may suffer.
Higher-flow fuel injectors for LS
Higher-rate fuel injectors are required only when other enhancements and the projected power output with them dictate the need for more fuel. The formula for that is: Projected Horsepower x 0.5 ÷ 8 (cylinders) ÷ 0.9 (duty cycle). Compare that with the flow rate of the stock injectors and you’ll know if your mods will require higher-flow injectors.
LS exhaust manifolds
Like many other elements of a factory LS assembly, the exhaust manifolds flow pretty well, especially the LS7 manifolds. Upgrading to headers may only return an incremental power increase against the investment for them—but the corresponding performance sound may just be worth the price for many enthusiasts.
LS Forged pistons
Forged pistons aren’t really necessary in your LS, unless you’re building for boost. Even the 6-8 pounds of boost with bolt-on blower kits will do just fine with the stock, cast pistons.
LS crankshaft
Similarly, the stock crankshaft is pretty stout for most bolt-on–type increases, including a camshaft upgrade. Again, however, if you’re aiming for bigger boost than what’s delivered in bolt-on blower systems, a forged crankshaft is a wise idea.
LS stroker crankshaft
Forged or not, a stroker crankshaft can be an excellent complement to a camshaft and heads, bringing a displacement increase that makes the most of the added airflow capability of them. One of the most popular is stroking a 6.2L engine to 415 ci by replacing the stock 3.62-inch crank with a 4.00-inch version.
LS high-capacity oil pump
A higher-revving LS engine will likely need a higher-capacity oil pump. They are inexpensive and relatively easy to install, making them a smart, cost-effective upgrade that won’t enhance horsepower but support the engine’s greater performance.
LS oil squirters
Although installing oil squirters used to be a custom procedure, there are kits available to make it an easier procedure. It involves installing oil jets at the bottom of each cylinder and feeding them through taps in the main journals.
  1. Camshaft

If you do nothing else to your LS engine, cam it. Hands down, it’s the most cost-effective upgrade to be made to an otherwise-stock engine or one intended for additional performance upgrades. Believe us, it makes all the difference—like, upwards of 100 hp in some cases. Seriously. It’s all thanks to the cylinder heads, which crave airflow, whether the early cathedral port–style or later rectangular-port versions. The more air the better and that’s exactly what a bigger cam, with more than 0.500-inch lift and complementing longer duration will deliver. If there’s a downside to a cam swap, it’s that the greater horsepower typically comes at the expense of low-rpm torque—something that LS engines don’t have in abundance in the first place. But if you don’t mind giving up a few pound-feet for perhaps an extra 100 hp, cam your LS and don’t look back. Don’t forget the correspondingly upgraded valvesprings, either.

  1. Rocker Arms

There aren’t many weak points with an LS engine, but the factory rocker arms are one of them. The problem lies in the trunnion and complementing needle-style, low-friction, trunnion bearing. The trunnion can press on the bearing at high-rpm/high valvespring pressure, and when that happens, one or both sides of the bearing housing can be forced out and the needles will literally spill into the cylinder head. It’s not too much of a problem on a stock engine, but a camshaft-and-spring upgrade will typically bring the greater pressure on the rocker arm trunnions that will induce the bearing failure. There are aftermarket upgrade kits from Comp Cams that help prevent the problem, but it’s not a bad idea to replace the rocker arms altogether with stronger units when doing a cam-and-spring swap. It’s cheap insurance.

  1. Pushrods

While we’re talking about the valvetrain, it’s not a bad idea to upgrade the pushrods to complement an upgraded camshaft, springs, and rocker arms. The cam upgrade will enhance the engine’s rev capability and extend the rpm range, so you’ll want a correspondingly stronger set of pushrods to ensure the valvetrain’s strength, stability, and durability at those higher revs. The stock pushrods have 0.075-inch walls, so go with at least an 0.080-inch wall thickness on the replacement ones. You’ll be in a set for $150 or less. One more thing: It’s important to maintain the proper preload with the pushrods against the rocker arms. Decking the heads or using thicker head gaskets to gain a little compression will alter the valvetrain geometry enough that you’ll probably have to change the length of the pushrods, too. Take that into account when ordering them.

  1. Cylinder Heads

We’re getting into real money here, as a set of ported factory heads or aftermarket castings can start around $800 and grow to perhaps $1,500, or more. A higher-flowing set of heads is useless without the complementing camshaft upgrade, so you’ll have to factor in the expenses for the cam, lifters, and springs, as well as the rocker arm and pushrod upgrades discussed above. Even then, the power potential of aftermarket heads may not return the sort of real-world results, mostly because the factory heads are pretty good and often support the greater airflow delivered with a hotter cam. So, before keying in your credit card number for that set of heads, pull back and look at the bigger picture of your performance goals. If they include more time on the strip than street, then yes, a set of heads and the right complementing camshaft is the way to go. But if you’re running a street car that sees only one or two passes down the 1320 a year, you’re better off and money ahead to stick with only a camshaft/valvetrain upgrade.

  1. Intake Manifold and Throttle Body

Yes, the boring black plastic factory intake manifolds leave a lot to be desired in the appearance department, but they’re not so bad in the airflow department. So, think long and hard before swapping a higher-flow manifold onto your LS. On a stock engine, it’s unnecessary and will provide only an incremental power bump, at best, at high rpm—while sacrificing low-rpm power and even driveability. The same goes for a big throttle body. In fact, even with a higher-flow intake manifold you probably don’t need to go nuts with a bigger-bore throttle body, unless you’re truly intending to spend most of the time on the strip. On a street car, it’s overkill. Invest in the manifold and throttle body only when you’re going for at least a cam-and-heads package. That way you’ll make the most of their capabilities.

  1. Fuel Injectors

You might get away with stock fuel injectors on an engine with a mild or moderate cam upgrade, but if you plan for more power, you’ll likely need to upsize the injectors, as well. Do it only when it’s necessary, based on project power increases, as like many of the items we’ve discussed in the story, too much can work against you with an LS engine. They’ll run you roughly $400-$500 a set, too. There’s a formula to follow for calculating injector size: Horsepower x 0.5 ÷ 8 ÷ 0.9. In the equation, horsepower is the projected horsepower of the engine, which is divided in half and divided again by the number of cylinders. After that, the number is divided by 0.9, or 90 percent of the injectors’ duty cycle. So, let’s take a naturally aspirated LS3 as an example. It’s rated at 430 hp and is fed by 42-pound injectors. We’re aiming for an even 500 hp with a moderate cam swap. Following the equation, 500 hp x 0.5 = 250, ÷ 8 = 31.25 and that ÷ 0.9 = 34.72, or a minimum of 34.7-pound injectors. That means with its stock set of 42-pound injectors, a larger set of injectors isn’t necessary. Also: If your horsepower calculation includes a supercharger, multiply by 0.6, and if it includes a turbo, multiply by 0.625.

  1. Headers

Exhaust headers work well on a moderately or more aggressively built naturally aspirated LS engine that’s revving higher, but on a largely stock engine, the incremental power gain—if any—isn’t really worth the expense to purchase them and the time to install them. That’s because the factory exhaust manifolds are pretty good in the first place. Besides that, long-tube headers work best at higher rpm and will likely cost torque at the low end of the tachometer. The same goes for an engine with forced induction, but if you do install a supercharger, track down a set of LS7 exhaust manifolds. They flow like gangbusters.

  1. Forged Rotating Assembly

Unless you’re going to pump more than about 8 pounds of boost into your LS engine, or more than a 100 shot of nitrous, you really don’t need to go through the time and expense of rebuilding the short-block with forged pistons or a forged crankshaft. The stock hypereutectic pistons and cast crankshaft are strong enough for just about all street and street/strip naturally aspirated combinations and lower-boost, bolt-on blower kits. But if you go as far as upgrading the rotating assembly, adding a mild stroker crankshaft can do wonders to further exploit the increased airflow capability of a hotter cam and heads.

  1. Oil Pump

In stock or moderately built condition, the stock LS oil pump is generally sufficient, but with the increased rev capability delivered by many of the mods discussed in this story, its efficiency in delivering sufficient oil flow can deteriorate beyond about 6,000 rpm—a condition known as cavitation, which means the pump pulls as much oil as it’s trying to push. There have also been a number of documented oil pump O-ring failures with the stock pump. Stronger, higher-capacity wet-sump pumps are inexpensive, typically costing less than $200. It’s a smart investment, especially if you plan to ramp up the engine’s output in the future.

  1. Oil Squirters

If you’re performing a rebuild or a ground-up assembly of an LS engine, one of the smartest moves is installing piston-cooling oil jets, commonly known as oil squirters. They douse the bottom of the pistons with engine oil, which helps lower temperatures and ultimately enhances overall performance and durability. Installation is more involved than common bolt-ons or upgraded replacement parts, such as the lifters, but if you’re taking the engine to a significantly higher performance threshold—especially with forced induction—it’s highly recommended by the builders we know.

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