“[I]f you want to really build strength and muscle, you need to crush each rep as explosively as you can with perfect form. Lower the weight under control, but always lift each rep with maximal effort like you’re trying to blast it through the roof.”
This is a direct quote from a past article I wrote. What I’m about to write flies directly in the face of this previous statement. In fact, it’s completely contradictory.
Do I still believe the previous statement to be true? Of course.
Is the previous statement true all the time? Nope.
Here’s the deal: in order to be a truly well-rounded lifter (that’s big and strong and skilled in various barbell exercises), sometimes you gotta slow things down.
I’m talking about tempo, and today I’m writing about why manipulating lifting tempo (i.e. not always flinging weights around with reckless abandon) can solve a lot of problems for a lot of lifters. I’ll give three specific reasons why lifting weights slower will make you bigger and stronger while improving your lifting technique.
First, let’s define tempo. Tempo is simply the amount of time (in seconds) assigned to each portion of the lift. Most exercises have an eccentric phase (lowering/lengthening, i.e. the “negative”), concentric phase (raising/shortening, i.e. the “positive”), a switching phase between eccentric and concentric, and another switching phase before the next rep. The amount of time spent performing each portion of each rep can drastically alter the effect of an exercise.
For example, let’s look at the bench press:
- Eccentric: lowering the bar to the chest
- Switching phase #1: how long the bar stays on the chest
- Concentric: pressing the bar up to lockout
- Switching phase #2: how long the bar remains locked out before you begin the next rep
Tempo is written as a series of numbers for each phase. So a bench press with a “3010” tempo means:
- Take 3 seconds to lower the bar to the chest
- Don’t pause on the chest (i.e. immediately press it back up “touch-and-go” style)
- Take 1 second to press the bar to lockout (i.e. quickly)
- Don’t pause before beginning the next rep (i.e. immediately start lowering the bar down to the chest again)
Some coaches always write the first number as the eccentric, but for certain lifts that begin with a concentric movement (like a row or a pull-up), I like to write the concentric first. So a pull-up with a 1221 tempo means:
- Take 1 second to pull yourself up to the bar
- Pause for 2 seconds at the top of the rep
- Take 2 seconds to lower yourself down
- Pause 1 second at the bottom before you begin the next rep
Make sense? If not, that’s OK. The main point of this article is that the common recommendation to always lift weights as fast as possible (specifically the concentric phase) is not always the right answer.
WHY I’VE CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT TEMPO
I was first introduced to lifting tempo during my internship at Xceleration Sports Training in Deer Park, NY, where we used a lot of methods popularized by Charles Poliquin. A firm believer in tempo training, Poliquin always assigned tempo to every exercise. Eccentrics were heavily emphasized, sometimes to the point where athletes were doing eccentric-only exercises. For example, you might do a really heavy biceps curl (heavier than you could do by yourself) where you lower down the weight very slowly (as long as 10 seconds) and have a workout partner help you back to the top of each rep. These are called forced reps and have been used by bodybuilders for decades to build muscle.
I was always skeptical of tempo training because I’d been taught that bar speed was everything. If you try to move a heavy weight slowly, it ain’t going anywhere. I believed that your intent should always be to lift as fast as possible during the concentric phase because that’s what powerlifters do, and they’re the strongest people on the planet.
***NOTE*** Let me just say, to be sure nobody misunderstands me, if you’re trying to lift as much weight as possible, you’d better try to lift that weight as fast as humanly possible. This has not changed and will never change. Now, let’s carry on…
Then my professors in grad school taught us that training to failure with a slow tempo is the best way to get bigger and stronger because lifting to concentric failure ensures maximal recruitment of all muscle fiber types (slow-twitch and fast-twitch). This is technically true and has been proven by Henneman’s Size Principle, one of the fundamental understandings of exercise science that states that muscle fibers are recruited in sequential order from smallest to largest. But I worked primarily with athletes and powerlifters, who need to be fast (or at least try to be fast), so moving slow on purpose seemed counter-intuitive. I continued to resist.
But once I started to understand the way the body’s energy systems work, the way the nervous system works and the many ways in which muscular hypertrophy occur (read about that here), I saw the light: bar speed is just one of many factors that determines how big and strong you get.
Always lifting fast is like taking the same route to work every single day, even though you know traffic is going to suck. Taking the highway may be the shortest distance mileage-wise and have the fastest speed limit, but if you know there’s going to be traffic or construction on a certain day, you’re better off taking backroads. Sure, the speed limit may be slower and you may travel a longer distance, but you’ll get where you need to go in a more efficient manner.
OK, now let’s get to the point – three reasons why you should lift slower:
1. MORE METABOLIC STRESS
Perhaps the most reliable way to make your muscles grow bigger is with metabolic stress, which is the build-up of all the leftover crap from using ATP (your body’s main energy source). It’s the nasty, burning stuff that Arnold gushes about in the movie Pumping Iron. Seriously, more often than not, the “pump” is a sign that you’re on the right track.
Here’s what happens: you lift a weight over and over, which requires ATP for energy. When you burn energy to lift that weight, you get waste products that create the burning sensation which makes it difficult to keep lifting. You also trap blood in the muscles, and that blood is unable to return to the heart, creating the “tightness” that you feel. Research has concluded that this is pretty important for getting jacked.
This “burning” will eventually inhibit muscle contraction, causing your muscles to fail to lift the weight. As long as you fail because of the burning (i.e. metabolic stress) and not because the weight’s so damn heavy from the get-go (i.e. mechanical stress) or because you’re out of position (i.e. nervous system stress, leading to poor technique). So basically, you build muscle without having to use heavy weight, beat up your joints or risk injury because you’re lifting with bad form. Sounds like a pretty good deal.
Conventional wisdom says lift the weight up fast (to target fast-twitch fibers) and lower down slowly (to target slow-twitch fibers). But what if I told you the only thing that made sure you hit every muscle fiber possible was to lift until you couldn’t finish a rep? And what if I told you that lifting the weight up slowly made sure that you failed sooner with a safer, lighter weight?
Yes, lifting weights fast targets fast-twitch fibers.
But lifting weights fast is more a product of your nervous system, not the tension created by the muscles themselves. This is why new lifters get stronger before they get bigger – the nervous system adapts before the muscle.
No, you will NOT fully fatigue your fast-twitch fibers (the ones that grow bigger than slow-twitch fibers) if you lift as fast as possible because you will fail due to your nervous system being unable to coordinate your body into the proper position to finish the set.
Ultimately, it makes more sense to lift the weight slowly both on the way UP and DOWN if you want to maximize muscle growth. This is especially true for smaller muscle groups that logistically can’t handle heavy weight, like the biceps and rear delts. So go slow for mo’ grow.
2. IMPROVED TECHNIQUE DURING STICKING POINTS
If you have a nasty sticking point during one of your lifts, you have a few options to try to overcome it. You can get stronger. You can improve your technique. You can try to outrun your technique flaw with faster bar speed.
Guess which one of these three is a bad idea.
Trust me, I know. I tried to do that with my squat.
When I squat, sometimes my knees cave in. For a long time, I just tried to drop down into the bottom of the squat as fast as possible so I could bounce out of the hole and get past the sticking point where my knees caved. This was a poor long term solution and led me to miss a crucial squat attempt at my last meet.
What’s allowed me to work on my technique? Slowing down. Slower eccentrics. Pauses at various points during the lift (because not moving is as slow as it gets). Even going slow on the way up.
That’s because sticking points and technique errors are often due to a lack of tension (i.e. force) in a certain muscle group, and as I’ll explain in the next point, the slower you go, the more force you can produce. No tension in your hips during the squat? Your knees cave in. No tension in your upper back during the bench press? You lose your arch. No tension in your abs during the deadlift? Your back will round. See the pattern?
Of course, when it comes time to squat a 1-rep max in a competition, I’m going to lift as fast as possible. But for the purpose of training and building the lift, you need to be able to slow down and work on proper technique before you can execute at full speed. Just like trying to learn the guitar, you wouldn’t start with a blazing Eddie Van Halen solo on day one. You’d start slow with some simple blues licks and gradually build up speed.
3. GREATER FORCE PRODUCTION
The force-velocity curve states that as the speed of a muscle contraction increases, force decreases and vice versa. This is also known as the speed-strength continuum. Athletes need to be exposed to all parts of this curve during their training.
Why is that? Well, let’s look at two sprinters. One can move his limbs very fast, but can’t put much force into the ground when he runs. The other is tremendously strong, but his limbs move really slowly. Will either of them be good sprinters?
The answer is obvious. The first sprinter needs to work on the force end of the curve – he’s a Lamborghini with a 4-cylinder engine . The second sprinter needs to work on the speed end – he’s a Mac Truck stuck in second gear. And it’s the first guy who needs the advice in this article.
So why do slower reps allow for greater force production? It gets down to the nitty-gritty microscopic aspects of muscle contraction. We’ll keep this very simple so as not to get boring (plus this post is already long).
There are two types of muscle filaments, actin and myosin. In order for a muscle to contract, these filaments must link up in what’s called a cross-bridge (labeled “1” in the diagram to the left). The more cross-bridges that occur, the more force a muscle can produce. And when muscles contract really quickly, actin and myosin don’t have enough time to create lots of cross-bridges. This is an oversimplified explanation, but leads to a more important point.
Now, lifters who become adept at generating lots of force at low speeds will eventually learn a very important skill: how to recruit lots of muscle fibers really quickly. That’s the difference between great athletes and average ones – great athletes can ramp up to top speed and tap into their fast-twitch fibers much more quickly than the average ones. This is also known as Rate of Force Development (RFD) and is one of the most important factors in all power-based activities.
Another way to look at RFD is this: how fast can you take a stationary object (i.e. a barbell) and put as much effort as possible into it to make it go from point A to point B? When trying to move maximal weights, if you can’t get to your strong, powerful fast-twitch fibers quickly, you’re gonna gas out before you complete the lift. Therefore, you need good RFD.
But what does your RFD matters if you don’t have any “F”? It your force sucks, it doesn’t matter how fast you use it!
OK, I’ve made my point. If you don’t believe me by now, stop reading and go do P90x. Enjoy never being strong.
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for…
HOW AND WHEN TO LIFT SLOWLY
- The majority of accessory exercises, especially those NOT done with a barbell.
- The majority of single-joint exercises, like biceps curls, triceps extensions and hamstring curls.
- The majority of abdominal exercises. The abs work isometrically (i.e. not moving, which is pretty damn slow) during most lifts so train them accordingly.
- When targeting a specific weak point during your competition lifts (for example, squatting out of the hole slowly in order to keep the hips tense and knees out).
- When maximal hypertrophy is the main goal.
- When your joints need a break from heavy weight but you still need to fatigue your muscles.
The list could go on, but the point is the same – lifting fast is not a one-way ticket to becoming your biggest, strongest self. Employ strategic use of slower rep speeds to shatter sticking points, add muscle and become a better lifter.