It's easy to focus on advanced training principles but it's just as easy to look past the basics. This is something I see all the time – guys talking about advanced concepts but who have no idea of basic principles.
One great example is recovery. I often hear guys talking about working out 6-7 days a week, often 2 hours long, but they miss the basic concept of the importance of recovery. More is not better and you don't grow from training for hours on end, 7 days a week. Growth happens when you recover.
I tend to deal more with simple topics in my articles because I see so many mistakes which lead to burn out and guys giving up training, even though I myself focus heavily on very advanced topics in my own training. One seemingly simple area that gets overlooked by new guys – and sometimes the advanced ones - is the rep. This is the very foundation of training, your workout consists of a series of reps broken up by rest breaks. That being said, performing a rep in a manner that allows you to get the most you can out of it makes sense.
Performing an effective repetition is more than just simply lifting the bar up and down. At it's most basic, to properly perform a repetition, you need to understand the exercise, you need to keep your form tight and precise and you need to perform the rep so that the muscle or muscles affected do 100% of the work. If you cannot feel the exercise in the muscle you are training, most likely you don't have that connection with your muscles yet or your form is wrong or your rep performance is wrong.
Performing the rep the wrong way will limit the stress you place on the working muscles. One of the most common errors in this case is simply performing the rep in a sloppy, fast manner to the point that momentum takes over and robs you of all potential benefit. You have to use a speed that lets you work the muscle to the maximum. Rep tempo and rep performance come into play here: how will I actually perform this rep?
There are actually several ways to perform a rep:
Explosive up/slow down – an explosive concentric (or, raising the weight) portion of the rep is good for strength. Slow and controlled on the eccentric (or, lowering) takes advantage of negative emphasis. This is actually one of the more common ways to do a rep. Not surprisingly, it's very popular with Olympic lifters and athletes trying to develop explosive power.
Does this type of training work for that purpose? The school of thought is split on this topic, but there's also a line of reasoning that suggests the explosive portion will recruit more fibers and there is a line of reasoning dating back to Arthur Jones that suggests the most critical part of a rep is the negative portion.
Slow and controlled up, pause and squeeze, slow and controlled down, full and complete range of motion – this is another common style of rep performance, performing a nice, controlled rep, no jerking or momentum, at the top you pause and squeeze the muscle hard and slowly lower the weight. This does not work on all exercises but is great for movements such as leg extensions, or any exercise where you're getting tension at the top of the movement.
The hold and squeeze idea is really a static hold, except a static hold is not limited to just the top of certain exercises and can be held for as long as you can handle it before continuing with the rep. The idea of a complete range of motion allows you to work the muscle through it's entire functional range of movement, again, this is good unless any aspect of the rep takes tension off the muscle, such as barbell (or EZ bar) curls, in this case the top segment of the rep loses all tension so here it makes sense to do a partial rep instead. This is a common “bodybuilding” method of rep performance and there are a lot of people who only do there reps in this manner.
Controlled up and down with no pausing, like a piston – this approach allows for a continual tension on the muscle, there's no relief at all until you end the set. This is a variation of the above method and does require controlled the speed to keep the muscles, not momentum, doing all the work.
Super slow reps – maybe not the big thing it once was but the idea here is to perform the rep very slowly, as in 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down.
Partial range reps – in this case, I mean reps that work the middle of the range, no locking out at the top or stretch at that bottom. Many top pros train this way, the claim is it's easier on the joints. However, this can include X reps, a popular type of very short, partial reps done in the “semi stretch” part of a rep typically at the end of a set. Having said that, the X rep concept, brought to us by Iron Man magazine, has spawned a ton of variations on the basic concept.
This list is not all inclusive but we see several examples of rep performance.
Then, there's rep speed or tempo, for example, how long is slow and controlled? Tempo answers that question.
Tempo – the speed of the rep, typically shown as 3 or 4 numbers, such as in this example:
- 3 Eccentric contraction, or lowering the weight, negative phase
- 0 Stretch position
- 2 Concentric contraction, or raising the weight, positive phase
- 0 Contracted position
So in this case, you take 2 seconds to lift the weight to the top and 3 seconds to lower it, with no pauses. This is a common tempo in bodybuilding, and it's considered to be a moderately slow repetition.
Of course, there are ways to take a basic rep and add intensity to make the exercise harder, such as:
Negative emphasis – research has shown that there is a lot of benefit to emphasizing the lowering of the weight as opposed to just letting it drop. Negative emphasis means you fight the bar on the way down. The Arthur Jones concept was to do just negatives with a weight that's about 20% heavier than you use for a normal rep. As well, you can do negative only reps at the end of a set. This is a common high intensity approach, typically as part of a group of extended set techniques designed to take one set to failure and well beyond.
1 and ½ reps – perform one full rep, followed by a half a rep, this counts as one rep. This was an Arnold favorite.
21's – 7 half reps from full stretch to half way, 7 reps from half way to the top, 7 full reps. Another Arnold favorite, used mainly on arms.
Static holds - mentioned above, pick a spot anywhere along the range of the rep, or pick more than one spot and hold for a predetermined count.
Burns or partials – at the end of a set when you can't get another rep, you can do very short reps to keep the set going. By short, I mean 1-2 inches.
Having looked at different rep techniques, let's take a look at some other rep performance theories:
Time under Tension, or TUT - yet another “best way to train” theory but in reality, a good principle to employ as part of a rotating schedule of programs.
Remember, there is no one best way to train, everything works... for a while, then it's time to change. It's true some things work better than others but what works best will vary from individual to individual. The idea here is to keep the set going for at least 30 seconds and as long as 70 seconds, with the thinking being that longer TUT sets allow for muscle building, not as much strength or power.
These are just some examples of what can go into the performance of a rep. Yet it's not so much all the techniques, as I said earlier, it's the quality of the rep that counts. Once you understand the various points presented here, you still have to be able to perform a rep in a precise manner that allows the muscles to do all the work. Again, no momentum, no just dropping the weight from the top position.
I feel we sometimes get so caught up in all the various finer points of bodybuilding that we take the actual workout – the actual performance of a rep - for granted and stop thinking about it. I've seen that happen in my own training. So I had to step back and reconsider the importance of the rep.
Concentration and focus - two key requirements to proper rep performance. Now, when I train, I make sure I'm monitoring every aspect of my rep performance, from the actual rep to my form and the working muscles. If I feel anything is out of whack, I adjust.
Now, remember, you have to choose the style of rep you want to do and of course it makes sense to mix up rep styles as you would any other aspect of training, but ultimately, one of the best things you can do for your workout is to simply focus on how you do the rep. If you reps are wrong, it doesn't matter what else you do – you will have missed the one seemingly small thing that has arguably the biggest impact on your results.