Today I want to talk about rep speed or, as it’s often referred to in strength training circles, tempo. I am aiming this post to the casual exerciser — if you work out with weights 2-3 times per week and pretty much do the same 3 sets of 12-15 reps, then I’m talking to you.
Tempo refers to the speed of the reps. They are often written in training journals as 3 numbers in succession, as in: 311. The first number (3) refers to the eccentric phase of the movement. This is the lengthening of the movement. The eccentric phase on the bench press would be the lowering of the bar to the chest. On the squat, it’s the lowering of the body’s center of gravity to the floor. On the lat pull down or seated row, it’s when the bar or handle moves AWAY from the body.
The second number (1) refers to the end of the eccentric and beginning of the concentric. I call this the bottom of the movement. This would be the bar’s lowest point (either directly on the chest or just short of it, depending on shoulder flexibility). The third number is the concentric, or shortening/contracting of the muscle. This would be when the bar is pushed away on the bench press, the way up on the squat, and the way toward the body on the lat pull / seated row.
Changing of tempos and time under load (TUL) in the pro athlete arena is well documented and widely written about. The bottom line is, you want to vary tempos and TULs at different phases of the training program in order to avert adaptation and continue to progress in the form of strength and speed gains.
While I have trained athletes, my main focus is the average, everyday person (male and female) who want to get in the best shape of his/her life. Many of these high profile studies don’t translate well to the population of people that are lucky to get 3 workouts in a week. So, I borrow and steal a few tricks here and there when it’s appropriate to do so.
Here goes: I want you to lift FASTER. That’s right. THROW the weights ON THE CONCENTRIC phase of the movement. The eccentric is to be slower and more controlled. You may need to lighten the weights a bit to get comfortable with this. Check this out: I GUARANTEE YOU WILL SEE RESULTS IF YOU FOCUS ON GOING AS FAST AS YOU CAN ON THE CONCENTRIC PHASE OF THE MOVEMENT! Accelerate up. Let’s hear the weights rattle on the bar because you are generating that much force.
Obviously, you won’t be doing this if you’ve never lifted weights before. But if you are not a complete beginner, try it. Try the 3-1-1 tempo. 3 seconds down (controlled eccentric), pause, then EXPLODE on the concentric (it’s written as 1 second, but just go as fast as you can from the bottom to the top of the movement). Push the weights faster. It totally works.
I’ve heard people say this explosive training utilizes the fast-twitch fibers (explosive strength) more than the slow-twitch (endurance) fibers but this is not exactly true. There really is no fine, dividing line between fast and slow twitch fibers. Basically, your muscles take on the percentage of slow to fast twitch fibers according to how you train. If you train for fast reps, you are forcing a greater percentage of your muscle fibers to behave as fast twitch fibers. If all you do is jog at 5.0 on the treadmill for 45 minutes, then a greater percentage of your fibers will be slow twitch. Would you rather look like a marathon runner or a sprinter? I’ll take the sprinter any day.
If you are a more advanced lifter and athlete, we’d be talking about periodizing, changing your tempos and reps schemes periodically. But, as I said, I’m talking to the average exerciser who just wants to lose a few pounds of body fat and look and feel better in those favorite jeans. You may not be an athlete, but train like one!
I also find training faster on the concentric phase to be more functional (a very popular word in the fitness lexicon these days. Functional is good:). If you are playing football and you are trying to push the defender away from you, you are not going to perform this action in a slow and controlled manner. No! You are going to push the guy away from you with as much force and velocity as you can generate. Okay, maybe you’re not playing weekend warrior football on Sundays, but you get the idea. You want to train your body as you’d use it. You want your body to be able to perform faster and more efficiently.
I know there are schools of thought out there that have you lifting in super slow tempos. I just don’t buy it for the average exerciser. As I said, there may be a time in a period of an athlete’s program when that’d be appropriate, but not for my 3 time a weekers. It is WAY more taxing to generate greater velocities and you will burn more calories than by training the traditional slower rep speed. It’ll also stimulate the release of growth hormone and testosterone in the body (have no fear ladies, testosterone is the magic hormone that will help you lose fat).
So, go ahead! Lift faster (on the concentric phase). It’s the single best thing you can do in the short term to tone up. Try it. Let me know how it goes.