It's widely known that resistance exercise has many benefits including fat loss, muscle growth, increased strength, improved cardiovascular health, and reduced risk for disease and death. This is why if you walk into any health club you will likely see many people engaging in resistance exercise. You'll see a myriad of different exercises being performed but one thing is likely to be in common amongst most exercisers... their repetition duration and speed. This is likely because they are unaware of the role rep speed and duration has on the effectiveness of their workouts. This article will aim to shed light on why slowing down your reps can actually increase your results!
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The Goal of Resistance Exercise
Before getting into the detail of why having a slow repetition pace is vital in getting the most out of your workout it is important to take a step back and think about why you are engaging in resistance exercise in the first place. The goal of resistance training is to put tension on the muscle group you are targeting. The result from that tension is the recruitment and breakdown of muscle fibers starting with the smallest and weakest muscle fibers at the beginning of the set progressing to the largest and strongest fibers as the set is prolonged and becomes more intense. This concept of how muscle is recruited is called Henneman's Size Principle. In order for your body to receive the benefits from resistance training it's important that you are using as much muscle fiber as possible during the exercise. To make this happen it is imperative that there is constant tension on the targeted muscle group. When you stop putting tension on the muscle it will start to recover which will allow you to use those same muscle fibers again before having to recruit larger and stronger muscle fibers. In order to fatigue all the muscle fibers in the musculature you are targeting (again this is the primary goal of resistance exercise) on an exercise it's important to make sure your muscle is under tension through the entire set.
Slow Repetitions Allows For More Muscle Fiber Recruitment
Now that you understand that the goal of resistance training is to break down as much muscle fiber as possible and the way to do that is to keep the targeted muscle under constant tension we can think about the role repetition speed plays in keeping your muscle under tension. If you look at many people who participate in resistance training you'll see that they are focused on how many reps they can perform so they tend to perform reps that take less than 2 seconds to complete. Remember your body responds not to how many reps are performed but rather how much muscle tissue is recruited and ultimately broken down in the workout and then repaired after the workout. Just performing a lot of reps doesn't matter if they are fast because you are allowing gravity and momentum to get involved and help you lift and lower the weight. When this happens you lose tension on the targeted muscle group which as you learned earlier will stop the continuous recruitment of larger and stronger fibers. To maximize the effectiveness of each exercise it's important that you try to minimize the help of gravity and momentum to make that happen.
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Ways To Eliminate Momentum and Gravity
There are a few things that you can do to minimize the role gravity and momentum are playing in your resistance training. First, choose a weight that you can control. So many exercisers are more worried about the amount of weight they are using rather than choosing a weight that they can control and ultimately perform effective repetitions with. After you've chosen the proper weight the next thing to focus on is the start of the repetition. You want to start each rep as slow as you can and when you change direction from pushing/pulling to lowering the weight you want to be as slow as possible. These two areas of each exercise are called transitions. You're transitioning from moving in one direction to another, this is where you have the biggest opportunity to let gravity and momentum get involved. If you transition slow you'll be in control of the weight and only your muscles will be lifting and lowering the weight allowing for constant tension throughout the set. One other point of focus to minimize the help of momentum and gravity is to do a full second pause in the contracted position. This pause will allow you to completely stop the weight and in turn stop any momentum that was built by pushing/pulling the weight. There are a few exercises you don't want to pause on like chest press, overhead press, and leg press because on those exercises you would be pausing with your arms or knees in a locked out position which would put your joints under tension rather than the target muscle. On these exercises just focus on the slow transitions to eliminate gravity and momentum. For the majority of other exercises a full second pause can be really beneficial to keeping your muscle under tension to allow for deeper muscle fiber recruitment.
Slower Repetitions Will Keep You Safe
While the primary goal of strength training is to put tension on the musculature to elicit a desired adaptation the goal of exercise in general is to improve your quality of life not hinder it. If you get injured while exercising it is not improving your quality of life it's hindering it and therefore it's not really exercise. By moving slow in your resistance training workouts you are minimizing any potential for your muscle to not be under tension which also means you are eliminating any potential for your joints to be under tension. The large majority of resistance training injuries happen because the joint gives out rather than the muscle. You muscle can handle a lot of tension, that is their job, but your joints cannot handle a lot of tension. By doing fast "explosive" exercises you are putting your joints and ligaments under a lot of stress and putting yourself at a greater risk of injury during your exercise or outside of your exercise.
In order to really understand the injury risk associated with explosive style weight lifting it's important to look at some of the research on this topic. A meta-analysis by Southampton Solent University titled "Explosive Exercise in Sports Training, A Critical Review" the risks of explosive weight training were outlined. The authors state "injuries to the wrist, elbow and shoulder were commonplace when individuals performed fast, Olympic-style lifting." In addition it was observed that from their 3,132 subject cohort there were 390 cases (22.7%) of lumbar spondylolysis resulting from fast weightlifting. This was in experienced professional weight lifters meaning they were well versed in the proper technique of the exercises but were still at a very high risk of lumbar injury. Lifting at fast speeds greatly increases the shear forces on the lumbar region and can lead to spondylolysis. Other studies have found that up to 44% of professional Olympic weight lifters had spondylolysis compared to 5% of the normal population. In a study of weight training injuries in football players, Risser et al. found that 60% of their sample who performed Olympic-style lifts suffered from low back problems, compared to only 14.3% of athletes who did not perform such movements. Researchers Konig and Biener noted that 68% of their sample of Olympic lifters had suffered an injury as a result of their weight lifting, and 10% of these required at least 4 weeks’ recovery before being able to return to lifting weights. Granhed and Morelli also found that 46% of retired weight lifters had physical problems caused by their lifting. Bryzcki even cites the case of an experienced athlete who fractured both of his wrists when attempting a power clean. It is clear the risk of doing fast "explosive" movements when weight lifting is dangerous even for the most experienced weight lifters. In order to be able to engage in strength training long term it's vital that you are using slow and controlled speeds during your exercise!
So How Slow Should You Perform The Exercises?
After reading this you should be ready to start moving slower during your resistance training but how fast is too fast? Can you move too slow? The good news is as long as you are eliminated momentum and gravity the speed at which you move is really variable. Some weight lifters like to use the "Super Slow" methodology which calls for the pushing/pulling (concentric contraction) to last for 10 seconds and the lowering (eccentric contraction) to also be 10 seconds. In this case one repetition would last 20 seconds, this is on the extreme end of slow movement speeds but is very effective at learning how to implement slow repetitions into your workouts. For most people a repetitio duration that lasts about 6 seconds is safe, effective, and efficient. This would mean you are pushing/pulling the weight in 3 seconds and then lowering the weight in 3 seconds and being particularly slow on the transition phase of the movement as well as pausing for 1 full second depending on the exercise. Try different pacing to see what you like the most some other options are push in 3 seconds lower in 10 seconds, pull in 3 seconds hold for 10 seconds and lower in 10 seconds. The possibilities are endless as long as you are moving slow enough to stay safe and keep constant tension on your muscle!
Exercises should be performed at a repetition duration that maintains muscular tension throughout the entire range of motion.
Olympic lifting, plyometric and ballistic exercises remove tension from the muscle and apply greater forces through joints and associated tissues causing a greater potential for injury.
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