Over the last few years, I've talked a lot about the importance of lifting fast. I've thrown around some research, I've given anecdotes, and I've spent time in seminars doing a lot of hand waving and chaotic laser pointing, all to demonstrate that you'll recruit more motor units when you lift explosively, and this will better serve your workouts.
Heck, I've even offered up TC's home, complete with freshly imported European princesses, for those who could prove otherwise.
Nevertheless, there's still work to be done. So, I've outlined three more reasons why you should perform explosive lifts in the gym. If this list can't convince you to include at least a bit of fast lifting in your routine, you might want to seek professional help to discuss why you're avoiding maximum success.
Reason #1 – You'll Burn More Fat
I'm about to discuss some groundbreaking research with regard to explosive contractions and energy expenditure. But before I do that, let me explain why the research in question really is worth getting excited about.
Ever since commercial gyms, like Bally's and 24 Hour Fitness, became popular, people have been training with slow tempos. The reasons are numerous, but at the top of the list is that noticeable "muscle burn" feeling that people get when they lift slowly for long, drawn out sets.
This burning sensation makes people feel good. It makes them feel like they really worked their muscles. And if muscles feel like they're burning, that means fat loss is just around the corner, right? Heck, that's probably how the terms "burn" and "fat loss" got associated with each other.
Eventually, exercise physiologists pointed to increased lactate levels from the "muscle burn" as being a catalyst for fat loss. The theory goes like this:
Training with a lot of slow reps and long sets releases high amounts of lactate. That lactate, in turn, is purported to increase the production of growth hormone. The increased level of growth hormone induces fat burning and muscle growth – the two key effects that have made Growth hormone a household name.
The lactate and Growth hormone connection is nothing new. It's been mentioned by everyone from Christian Thibaudeau and Don Alessi to Charles Poliquin and Paul Chek.
Indeed, quite a few experts have pointed to the relationship between high levels of lactate and the subsequent fat burning from Growth hormone as being the primary goal of an effective fat loss training plan. (I was as guilty of this as any.)
Science Says, "Lift Fast!"
This brings me to a recent study where two human performance laboratories analyzed the effects of explosive lifting versus slow contractions, with regard to energy expenditure. (1)
The researchers looked at three different training protocols, but I'm going to focus on only two. Why? Because the two protocols perfectly mirror each other, except for one variable: the speed of the lift.
Here are the parameters the two groups followed:
Load: 60% of one-rep max (1RM)
Rest: 90 seconds
Tempo: two seconds down, two seconds up (This tempo is referred to as 202.)
Load: 60% of 1RM
Rest: 90 seconds
Tempo: two seconds down, lift as fast as possible (20X)
The research team demonstrated that the explosive group had a higher rate of energy expenditure during and after the workouts, compared to the slow group.
Here's a statement from the paper:
"... Explosive concentric muscle contractions may be more effective than slow contractions for enhancing energy-expenditure responses for weight loss when using resistance exercise."
So if you' re trying to lose fat, it makes scientific sense to lift explosively. This is exactly what I've seen with my clients.
Years ago, when I started training my clients to lift loads as fast as possible, I observed three things.
• They got stronger.
• They got bigger.
• They lost fat more quickly than they did with slower tempos.
These performance and body composition changes, of course, really piqued my interest. In fact, the observations with my clients in the weight room are what led me to pursue a graduate degree in neurophysiology.
When you look at what limited exercise-based research there is, between lifting speed and motor unit recruitment, it made sense that faster lifts would lead to better results in the gym, regardless of your goal.
But there was one big problem – pertinent research to support what I was saying was nowhere to be found. That's why this recent study was such a breath of fresh air. It's the first of its kind. No other research team has ever used exactly the same parameters to compare slow and explosive contractions.
Should We Still Care About Lactate?
There's another element of this study that will surely leave body composition coaches scratching their head, and it brings us back to the lactate and fat burning relationship.
These researchers compared blood lactate levels between the slow and explosive groups immediately after exercise and at various post-workout time intervals. Guess what?
The slow contraction group produced significantly higher levels of lactate, yet the total energy expenditure (during the workout and at 5, 10, and 15 minutes post-workout) was significantly greater for the explosive group. The total oxidative energy expenditure and anaerobic energy expenditure were also significantly greater for the explosive group.
This research demonstrates that explosive lifts are better for fat burning even though lower levels of lactate were produced. That's some exciting research!
The take-home point is that, not only are explosive lifts good for building strength and muscle, but you'll also burn more fat than slower lifting.
Reason #2 – You'll Recruit More Muscle Groups
Imagine that you're holding a moderately-heavy dumbbell in your right hand. I tell you to curl it for a count of three, and you have to give me feedback based on what you feel throughout your entire body.
So, you curl it up slowly before lowering it back down. The task was a cinch, and you give me a look to say, "What in the hell was the purpose of that?" Don't fret, I'm getting to my point.
Next, I ask you to use the exact same dumbbell, but this time curl it up as fast as you possibly can. I mean, curl it up hard! But... before you do it... I ask you to really think about what you're feeling throughout your entire body.
So you get your mind ready, and then, bam! That sucker moves at top speed. Whenever I have my clients do this test, and I ask what feels different, most people respond, "I felt it more in my core, especially on the right side."
Before I explain what just happened, let me outline one more scenario to drive the point home. Let's say you're standing in line at the movies, when a little snot-nosed, Pilates-practicing kid decides to tug on your right arm so he can ask you for your girlfriend's digits. The tug didn't do much, it was just enough to get your attention.
Now let's say a big, hulking douchebag wearing Armani sunglasses wanted to get your attention for the same reason. Since he can obviously hold his own in the weight room, he gives your right arm more than a tug... he yanks it so hard that you fall over, spill your drink, and lose your girl.
What's the difference between these two scenarios? In the first case, the opposing force from the little kid was small so your core and lower body had no problem counteracting the force.
In the second situation, the tug was excessive so your core and lower body muscles weren't ready for the large opposing force. Because of this, you lost your balance and ended up licking his boots.
This analogy is what separates explosive contractions from slow contractions. When the opposing force is great (analogous to when you curl a dumbbell as fast as possible), your core, hip, and lower body muscles have to fire hard to stabilize your torso.
What's the take-home point in this case? Lifting explosively requires the recruitment of many additional muscles to stabilize your body. This builds total body stability and strength. The same type of strength that any badass dude should possess; one-trick (or one-lift) ponies need not apply.
There's no need to stand on a Bosu ball and look like a dweeb. Just lift fast! Also, be sure to incorporate single-limb exercises into your training plan in order to really reap the benefits of enhancing stability strength.
It's important to remember that your nervous and muscular systems can't maintain high levels of force for long, before they peter out. As a general rule, you should limit the duration of each set to 15 seconds or less.
By doing so, you'll maximize motor unit recruitment and you'll be able to train with heavier loads. Of course, there are exceptions. And that brings up the next point.
Reason #3 – You'll Build More Strength Endurance
Some people, especially athletes, should perform longer sets because they need to maintain their efforts for more 10 or 15 seconds. Basketball players, soccer players, wide receivers, and 400-meter sprinters are just a few examples. Keep in mind, though, that the positive correlation between lifting speed and motor unit recruitment doesn't change. Faster lifting is still more effective.
Let's say you're training a guy to run the 400-meter race. In most cases, this event will take around a minute to complete. So you have him perform squat and deadlift variations with sets that last approximately one minute, as a means of strength-specific training.
However, this is where trainers often fall short. Since the set is longer than normal, they allow (or even instruct) their athletes to lift with a slow, smooth pace. A much more effective option would be to perform each rep as fast as possible, even though endurance is the goal. This brings us three benefits.
First, you'll recruit more motor units with each repetition. Secondly, you'll be less likely to convert your intermediate (type IIa) fibers into the puny, type I endurance fibers. Third, you'll build more strength endurance instead of endurance strength.
The difference between strength endurance and endurance strength isn't just semantics. When training for the former, your primary objective is to build strength using endurance protocols; with endurance strength, your predominant focus is endurance without regard to how much strength you can build.
Marty Gallagher likes to refer to strength endurance as "sustained strength." This is the ability to maintain a high level of power for an extended period of time, and you simply can't build it by lifting slowly with light weights, no matter how much you "feel the burn."
Now you've learned three more reasons why you should consider incorporating explosive lifts into your training plan. Remember, though, that the actual speed of the lift is going to be relatively slow due to the heavy loads. It's the intent to move the weight fast that matters.
Instead of following a super-slow training protocol at your local YMCA, stick to training with the IMCA – intended maximum concentric acceleration.