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Does rep tempo matter?

Hey bro, do you even lift?

Do factors like intensity; progressive overload, volume etc interest you? Perhaps changing up rep tempo could be a strategy worth considering…

We’ve all seen those infographics; walk for an hour and you’ll burn (insert scientifically proven number here) calories, run for an hour (insert slightly larger scientifically proven number here) calories.

Science tells us that the speed at which we move provides various outcomes.
So the question at hand is at what speed should we lift to achieve maximal “gains” in the gym.

Now for all those just starting off it is important to be aware that the initial gains achieved from resistance training have resulted due to superior neural activation during the contraction of muscles (YAWN) – basically your body having never been exposed to these movements before will see a rapid improvement in muscle strength and size. You may have heard of these being referred to as “newbie gains”.

However your nervous system will acclimatise and when it does it could be useful to understand more about the different stages of lifting and how to optimise your time spent in the gym.

Breaking down the phases of a lift

Each lift is predominantly generated by three phases:

  • The Eccentric – here the muscle is conracting while lengthening. Such as during the downward movement during a squat or bench press.
  • The Isometric – At this phase the muscle is tense and contracting however the joint isn’t actually moving so the force you’re exerting equates to the force of the load itself. An example could be when holding at the bottom of a squat, between shifting from the eccentric to concentric phase.
  • The Concentric – The shortening of the muscle. An example could be the raising of the weight during a bicep curl.

Most strength training programmes seem to focus on the eccentric phase on the lift with hypertrophy and endurance being the most common goals. Maintining the muscle under tension for a longer period of time will result in growth.

Tempo is often expressed as 3:1:1, this simply highlights means 3 seconds will be applied to the eccentric, 1 second to the isometric and 1 second to the concentric.

The Time Under Tension (TUT) during the eccentric will help to create muscle growth however there are other goals that can be achieved and therefore other timings that can be applied to achieve said goals.
One thing to remember is that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is generally linked to the eccentric phase of the lift so if you’re sore – don’t let that negatively affect your training programme. Just bare that in mind before deciding lifting isn’t for you!

Recommended Exercise Tempos Based Upon Resistance Training Goals

Reference:  NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, 3rd edition (2008)

As can be deducted from the table above, improving your hulk-like maximal strength requires an explosive movement to recruit more motor units. The weight is unlikely to be moving at lightning speed but exerting as much force as possible to generate more momentum equals an increase in mass velocity, also known as more “gains”.

So is rep tempo actually important?

When performing a lift, there plenty you can do to confuse yourself but for those of you that want a simple answer to the question above;

  • If muscle size is your goal then slow your rep tempo down to increase the time spent under tension on the specific muscle you’re targetting.
  • If you’re focused on improving strength and power then focus on executing the lift as fast as possible whlist maintaining form as slowing down your lift will make you feel like you’re slogging however you may not actually be working hard enough to stimulate muscle growth.
  • If you’re new to lifting then just focus on getting to the gym and maintaining good form, and don’t be intimidated to ask questions to the on-duty trainer – it’s their job to help, and we’ve all been in the same position!

In the words of the ultimate gains king – Arnold explained that ‘weights are just a means to an end. How well you contract the muscles is what training is all about’.
Decide what your goals are and the muscles you want to build, establish a mind muscle connection and there is no doubt you will achieve your lifting goals!

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