In Part I of this two-installment series, I outlined the reasons why I’m not a fan of tempo prescriptions. Now it’s time to take a closer look at the smallest functional unit of training parameters: the repetition. If you build your repetition quality, you’ll reap more gains from your workouts. That’s definitely a good thing!
The rep is probably the oldest element of all exercise variables. This is because old-time lifters often focused on nothing more than increasing the number of reps with each set, or reaching a target rep number with a particular load. It really was as simple as that. Hell, they didn’t even think about tempo. As you now know from Part I, the fact that they weren’t thinking about tempo allowed them to develop higher levels of force.
Now it’s time for me to make you think about new ways to perform more effective reps!
Breaking Down Your Rep
Before addressing the ways that a repetition can be improved, it’s first necessary to breakdown the rep into its components. The repetition can be separated into three primary phases:
Phases of Muscle Contraction
1. Eccentric – The phase that consists of the muscle lengthening against resistance (aka the negative).
2. Stretch/Reversal – The phase where the muscle contraction is reversed that embodies the stretch-shortening cycle.
3. Concentric – The phase that consists of the muscle shortening against resistance (the lifting part.)
Therefore, in order to reap the most benefit of any repetition, each phase should be catered to your intended goal(s).
Methods to Maximize Each Repetition Phase
Eccentric Phase: This phase of contraction is best associated with myofibrillar damage and subsequent delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Anyone who’s embarked on a program that mandated slow eccentrics definitely knows what I’m talking about.
Out of all forms of muscle contraction, the eccentric phase is the most widely researched. While I’m not here to review all pertinent research regarding eccentrics, I will tell you that no one questions the notion that eccentric-accentuated training regimes result in huge amounts of soreness/stiffness.
Oftentimes, this soreness deludes trainees into thinking that it must be the most beneficial phase to build size/strength. My empirical evidence shows otherwise. Two of the more interesting observations I’ve made over the years are:
1. Slow eccentric-accentuated training does not induce more hypertrophy than medium-paced (controlled) contractions.
2. Strength gains in the eccentric phase don’t effectively transfer to the concentric phase of contraction.
Based on these two points, I don’t recommend slow eccentrics for size or strength. But slow eccentrics aren’t useless; they’re just overrated. If you accentuate the negative phase, you’ll induce prodigious levels of soreness/stiffness that’ll effectively keep you out of the gym for an extended period of time. But if you want the fastest results, you best find a way to make frequent trips to the gym during the week.
Successful training programs aim to control fatigue. Slow eccentrics accumulate fatigue faster than any other phase of contraction. Therefore, eccentric-accentuated training should be minimized or avoided.
So, the eccentric phase of your rep should consist of a controlled contraction that lasts no longer than 2 seconds. Generally speaking, a 1 second eccentric works well for shorter range of movements (bench press, rows, and dips), while a 2 second eccentric works well for longer range of motion movements (squats and deadlifts).
But these values represent the higher end of my training prescriptions. Oftentimes, I’ll have my clients perform the eccentric phase even faster. In any case, you shouldn’t count the duration of the phase. If you do, you’ll lose strength. Stay focused on moving the load!
I must make it clear that I do consider the eccentric phase to be necessary for maximum size and strength gains. Indeed, a 1-2s eccentric contraction is enough to reap the benefits that the phase has to offer. But what I don’t recommend are eccentric-accentuated parameters that involve excessively long lengthening contractions (4s, 5s, 6s, etc).
After all, if the eccentric phase was as “magical” as many coaches claim, then negative-only training regimes would develop high levels of size/strength – but they don’t. Therefore, you shouldn’t eradicate the eccentric phase; but you should minimize it in order to control fatigue.
Eccentric Phase Bottom Line: Limit the duration of eccentric contractions to 2 seconds when training for size/strength. But don’t count, just control!
Stretch/Reversal Phase: This phase of contraction is best associated with the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). The SSC is a combination of eccentric and concentric contractions that converge to form this extremely complex phase of action.
One of the most important elements within this phase is the transfer of stored elastic energy to the concentric contraction. Indeed, it appears that the stored energy within the eccentrically-stretched muscle-tendon complex transfers into more powerful concentric contractions.
This is precisely the reason why you squat down and reverse quickly when attempting a max vertical jump. If you squatted down and held the position for 5 seconds, you’d dissipate this stored energy and your max vertical jump would suffer. But, if you seek strength and size, there’s a place for both SSC-accentuating and SSC-dissipating types of contractions.
SSC-accentuated training takes advantage of the SSC by allowing you to develop higher levels of force during concentric contractions. In addition, it appears that SSC training helps stiffen the muscle-tendon complex, thus allowing more stored elastic energy to transfer to the concentric contraction. Athletes respond especially well to this type of training since most sports mandate quick reversal muscle contractions (think of a tennis player, football player, basketball player, etc).
SSC-dissipation training is intended to offset the stored elastic potential that transfers during the SSC. Why would you want to minimize the SSC? First off, powerlifters must be able to briefly hold a squat or bench press at the point of reversal. Therefore, if they don’t strengthen this specific phase of contraction, they’ll be unable to reverse the movement once the lift signal is given. If you constantly blast through the reversal phase, you’ll be unable to hold the load for 1-2 seconds during a powerlifting competition.
Second, bodybuilders can benefit from dissipating the SSC in order to recruit more motor units. Once the stored elastic energy has dissipated, the muscles must work harder to lift the load.
Certain stubborn muscle groups such as the calves are extremely efficient at storing potential energy during the reversal contraction phase. So, if you want to build bigger calves, you must force them to work harder and not “cheat” with this stored energy. Therefore, it’s often recommended to hold a calf stretch for 5 seconds before performing a concentric contraction.
Obviously, this information isn’t limited to calves. In order to force the muscles to work harder during any exercise, it’s recommended that certain phases of your micro- or mesocycle should focus on dissipating the stored elastic energy during the SSC. For most muscle groups, a 2-3 second hold is sufficient to dissipate the stored elastic energy (calves require more time to dissipate the energy due to the Achilles tendon). If you incorporate these static holds into your program, you’ll build more muscle. In addition, it provides a nice change of pace during training.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to perform this hold without counting (and you all know what I think of counting during a muscle contraction). Therefore, I suggest you count the intended hold duration for the first rep, and then use your own judgment with each subsequent repetition. You’d be better off focusing your neural processes on “holding the hold” instead of losing strength while attempting to have each hold last for a precise duration.
During the times when you must count, I suggest you count forward, not backward. The reason? It’s much easier to count forward since we’ve done it so many times. Therefore, the amount of additional “higher computation” that’s necessary is negligible.
For example, if I want my clients to hold the stretch position for three seconds, I’ll have them count 1..2..3 before yelling the word “up”! The addition of the word “up” has a powerful psychological effect on lifting the load. In fact, when I attempt a maximal set, I’ll forcibly say “up” to myself immediately before I lift the load.
Stretch/Reversal Phase Bottom Line: Alternate between periods of fast reversal muscle contractions, and 2-5 second holds. When you must count, count forward.
Concentric Phase: This phase of contraction is associated with shortening of the muscle fibers. I consider the concentric (lifting) phase to be the most important phase of contraction.
Why? First, it’s naturally the weakest phase of contraction. It’s been demonstrated that athletes can perform eccentric contractions with up to 160% of their 1RM, while even higher numbers have been demonstrated with isometric contractions.
Second, the concentric phase is the most difficult phase to strengthen. Isometric contractions usually induce the fastest rate of strength improvement (even though the strength enhancement doesn’t transfer into the entire phase of contraction), and the negative phase also appears to develop faster than the concentric phase.
If you want to enhance size and/or strength, you must train your weakness. In reference to the entire repetition, the concentric phase is the weakness, so we must make a diligent effort to enhance it. After all, how many times have you heard a powerlifter say, “I could lift it; I just couldn’t lower it!”
I can sum up my position on the concentric phase with one statement: lift as fast as possible while maintaining control. If you seek size/strength, that’s absolutely all you need to understand about the concentric phase. Any speed less than “as fast as possible” creates a level of force that’s lower than your neural/muscular systems are capable of developing at that moment.
Lifting slowly to build muscle and strength is akin to driving 20mph in an effort to become a better NASCAR driver. Except for periods of rehabilitation and motor reprogramming, lift as fast as possible!
Concentric Phase Bottom Line: Unless you’re in physical therapy or have joint problems, perform the concentric phase as fast as possible while maintaining perfect form and control.
1. With loads larger than 85% of 1RM, it’s extremely difficult to perform the concentric phase with a fast tempo. What’s important is the effort to move the load as fast as possible. Even though the actual speed will be slow, the effort to move the load should be fast.
2. Isometric holds during the reversal phase of the contraction shouldn’t be performed during every workout. You should take advantage of both SSC training methods (accentuation and dissipation). Therefore, if you train your chest twice per week, one workout could consist of fast reversals while the other could consist of 2-5 second holds.
3. This information isn’t a free ticket to use poor form! My colleague Alwyn Cosgrove has recommended tempo prescriptions for those who have poor form. I agree. But I’m assuming that T-Nation readers already have proper form and understand the importance of it.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the repetition. I want to reiterate my original point in writing these articles: counting repetition phases is focusing on the minutia of training. All you really need to understand is that you should control the lowering, hold the stretch phase a few seconds every other workout or every other week, and lift as fast as possible.
You know why a cop asks you to count backwards while standing on one foot during a sobriety test? Because it’s more difficult to perform motor tasks when your mind is distracted by counting. It’s true! Therefore, why would you do the same during your workout?
Lift heavy and lift fast, and leave the counting to the drunkards!