June 22 2010 The Rep (Under a Looking Glass)
By Iron Addict
Copyright 2009, RedPointFitness.com
The lowly rep gets taken for granted all too often in our quest for ever increasing size and strength. It is the basic unit of work that makes up weight training. Done correctly for the right number, the results are staggering. Done improperly, each rep you do can potentially injure you and not only NOT contribute to your results, but hinder them. While we are all different, here are some generalities about rep speed and numbers.
When people spend time doing low reps, like 1-4 reps, they are generally focusing on the strength component. Yes, some people build great size doing reps this low, but for most people the time under tension (TUT) is too low to significantly contribute to size gains. What? Don’t strength gains = size gains? Well, yes and no. Strength gains using a rep range that is high enough to keep the muscle loaded long enough to stimulate mass gains are what you are looking for, but when you are only putting the muscle under a load lasting from 3-15 seconds you are primarily training the neural system to become more efficient at “firing” the signal that tells your muscles to contract. These high loads also help stimulate ligament and tendon growth.
In bodybuilding circles, low reps are generally thought of as 5-8 reps. This rep range works very well for strength, and size is also built as long as the reps aren’t done too “fast.” This means that the weight is controlled throughout the complete rep, (i.e., it isn’t heaved up, and then allowed to drop during the descent). Like all things bodybuilding/weight training related, some people respond better than others to this rep range, some people build incredible size doing 5-8 reps, and for others, mostly strength is built. This has a lot to do with muscle fiber composition unique to the individual (slow twitch vs. fast twitch), but can also have a lot to do with how the individual rep is performed. More on this to follow….
Reps from the 8-15 range are what is traditionally used in bodybuilding to focus on size at the expense of strength. It is the range most often used by people doing “volume” training, and training for the pump. Because the time under tension is increased, this range works very well to help accrue mass. As we will see in a minute any rep range other than very low reps can all be very effective at stimulating size goals dependent on how they are performed.
Most trainees do not do high reps that start at 15 and go up to 50 or even more. This is a shame because depending on how they are completed they can be absolutely the best way to go for some muscle groups, for some people. Legs especially respond well to higher reps, as do some people’s muscle groups that have primarily slow twitch fibers.
Now that rep ranges have been generically defined, what is the best way to do a rep, and how many reps should a trainee perform for optimal results? Big question! And one that can’t be answered with a blanket statement, but here are some guidelines. First, rep speed: look around you in the gym and you will see people practically throwing the weights and others lifting slowly and controlled. If you take a look at the people throwing them and doing their lifts in a very fast, uncontrolled fashion, one thing you will usually find as a commonality with these people is that they are usually SMALL guys! Why is this? A few things come into play here. One of the biggest reasons is that the eccentric portion (lowering the weight) of the lift is the part of the lift that is primarily responsible for muscle hypertrophy. The eccentric portion of the lift is the part that is responsible for the muscle “damage” that occurs during training, and this is one of the reasons your body adapts to the training load by “super-compensating,” (i.e., getting bigger and stronger as it repairs the “damage” you have done). Guys that throw the weight up and allow it to drop are TOTALLY cheating themselves out of the portion of the lift that is most responsible for the growth they are trying to accomplish. They are also not exposing their muscles to sufficient time under tension for optimal growth. Doing a set of 8 with a ½ second positive and ½ second negative exposes the target muscle with about a total of 12 seconds loading by the time you take into account the short pause at the top and bottom portion of the movement. Remember that:
Weight x distance x speed = work completed
With this in mind it becomes abundantly clear that all reps are NOT created equally!
Now do that same 8 rep set with a 2 second positive and 2 second negative and you have about 32 seconds of loading, and a set that takes about 45-60 seconds to perform (counting pauses). NOW you have something that will effectively load the muscle, and keep it loaded for long enough to increase both size and strength. This is an almost perfect speed for most trainees and is a still fast enough to use serious weight, yet still slow enough to load the muscles long enough for effective hypertrophy training. Is 2 seconds up, 2 seconds down the perfect way to perform a rep? Not at all, but it does work very well for many people. For pure strength training, a slightly faster positive portion can be performed while keeping the negative around 2 or 3 seconds and will yield great results. Of course you need to keep in mind the range of motion of whatever exercise you are doing will somewhat determine how long a rep takes. A calf raise has a MUCH shorter range of motion than say a deadlift, so again all lifts are not done at exactly the same cadence.
What about going slower to increase the TUT? Is this the way to go? For pure size gains I will state unequivocally YES! This is with the caveat that you have the mental fortitude to do this type of training. Here is why the average guy doesn’t do as well with 4-8 second eccentric reps:
1) They are forced to use weights that don’t stroke the ego. It’s hard for the guy that is benching 250 for 6 to drop it to 200 for 8 slow reps… it makes him look bad in front of the guys. (Never mind that if you did the math using the formula above you would see he was actually doing more work).
2) It HURTS doing reps this slow and the pain factor simply makes most people cave-in before getting their work in.
So what are some good ways to increase TUT? Well, you can increase the reps. This works fine except for the fact that it forces you to use a lighter weight, thus reducing the actual load imposed on the target muscle. You can just do more sets; this too increases the total overall time your muscles are loaded. The problem with this method is that once your training volume reaches a certain threshold you have entered the “city limits” of over-training where no growth is allowed! Alternatively, you can do intensity enhancing techniques such as drop sets, or rest/pauses that will, among other things, significantly increase your TUT. Drop sets work well for many people as they allow you to take a weight and do your full allotment of reps using a nice controlled rep speed, and then when you fail, instead of terminating the set, you immediately pick up a lighter weight and continue to do more reps. The downsides to this are:
1) That after the weight is dropped you are now lifting a lighter weight, thus the weight load perceived by your muscles is lower.
2) Too much beyond failure training tends to over-train many individuals.
My favorite way of increasing TUT, aside from slowing down rep speed is rest/pause. Rest pause is done by taking a weight you can get your target reps with, and then when failure is reached instead of racking the bar, you rest/breath long enough to get a couple more reps, then repeat the rest/breath sequence until your target reps are completed. Typically, the reps beyond failure are about equal to how many reps you got on the first portion of the set taken to failure. So if you got eight reps before hitting failure, you would then do 2 more, + 2 more, + 2 more, the 1 more making a total of 15 reps completed. One great feature of rest/pause is that the same heavy weight is used throughout the set. So you now took a weight you could only get 8 reps with, and instead of racking it, you rest ONLY long enough to keep the set going. The downside to rest/pause is that like any other “beyond failure” technique, a little goes a long way and over-training will result for many people that do too many sets like these. The classic 20 rep squat set is nothing more than a rest/pause set.
How many reps should you do? And how fast should you do them? I can’t tell you that because your goals and your body are unique to you and you alone. However, here are some general recommendations. I almost always recommend 5-8 reps for bench press. Why? Because every damn person I know wants a big bench, because for some reason when the average person asks how much you can lift they are rarely asking what you can squat or deadlift. For legs most people do best on higher reps. Again, this is not universal, but most folks build bigger wheels with higher reps. 10 reps as a minimum and as high as 50 works well. Do an all out set of 20 rest-pause squats or 30 rep leg presses as your leg workout until you add a couple hundred pounds to them and tell me your legs are not looking wicked. For arm work I like to have the trainee do some work with lower reps (these don’t necessarily have to be direct arm work either, heavy back work slams biceps just as heavy chest work slam triceps) and some higher reps to cover all bases. If you are only doing straight sets, the old scheme of doing one low (5-8) rep set and then doing a burnout set of 15-20 works well for many people. I like people to train abs HEAVY with reps in the 10-15 rep range because if you want a big squat and deadlift you gotta have STRONG abs.
Any muscles that you are able to train to failure, and then with minimal rest, (15-30 seconds) you are able to get 3-4 more reps with are usually prime candidates for high reps or EXTENDED rest/pause sets. As far as rep speed goes a 1-1/2-2 second positive and 2-3 second negative is a good speed for most lifts, for most people. A little faster is permissible on lower reps and a little slower sometimes for mid and higher reps work wonders for many folks. If you can successfully integrate 4-8 second negatives into your program you may be absolutely AMAZED at the growth it produces, and after a short time you will probably find you are now doing the same weights you were doing before at the higher cadence. To add precision to your sets get a cheap wristwatch with a second timer. Now when you do say a set of 10 reps time how long it took to perform these ten reps. Next week if you add weight and are now doing the set in less time did you really accrue strength? Probably not, all you did was decrease the loading by performing the movement faster. Not what you wanted! All in all, everyone needs to do a little bit of all rep speeds and ranges in the long run to see what works best for them. But you already knew that, huh?
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