Should You Use Fast or Slow Rep Tempo for Maximal Gains?

Should You Use Fast or Slow Rep Tempo for Maximal Gains?
Does rep tempo have an effect on your gains? If so, which is better, fast tempo or slow tempo? Read this article to find out everything about rep tempo!

Let’s say you attend the gym on a regular basis.

You have progressive overload, volume, frequency, intensity, exercise selection/order, and rest-intervals in check.

Would adjusting your repetition tempo be advantageous to your gains?

Only if its 5%, it could be worth it if you are after maximal gains, right?

This article will outline just that.

Keep reading and start utilizing the best rep tempo today!

The 3 Factors for Muscle Growth

First, I would like to say mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damageare are what most evidence states as the factors resulting in muscle growth1.

Mechanical tension is, however, believed to be the most important mechanism of muscle growth. In other words, progressive overload can be said to be the most important factor.

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What’s more, research has shown that both a more powerlifting (3RM) style of training can cause equal amount of muscle growth as the well-known higher rep bodybuilder training, at least over 8 weeks2, even though the metabolic stress and time under tension in the bodybuilder routine is higher than the powerlifter routine.

Related: Build Your Lagging Chest with the 1/4 Rep Pump Out Method

That said, determining what is more efficient is another topic. The time taken to complete the bodybuilder routine was about 25% of the time taken to complete the powerlifter routine, and lasted only ~20min. The subjects most likely had more to give but since the volume had to be equated they were unable to perform more.

When volume is equated, the two programs may be equally as effective, but if using a higher rep range means more volume can be performed, this would be superior in the long run.

Many papers have shown that muscle growth can happen both with low-rep/high-load and high-rep/low-load3. With perhaps a slightly larger advantage over higher loads >65% 1RM.

“TUT should be X sec” for each set, is therefore likely overrated. However, varying the tempo may be a good way to induce additional metabolic stress. But, is there an optimal tempo recommendation for high and low-reps?

What is tempo?

Repetition tempo is the time you use to complete each repetition, concentric, this includes the contraction of the muscle and the eccentric part of the lift which includes the negative part of the repetition4.

Tempo is often written as 1-0-2, which indicates that the lift takes 1 second on the concentric part, no pause at the top of the movement, and 2 secs on the eccentric part.

M&S Athlete Performing Bent Over Dumbbell Row

Super slow, slow, or fast tempo?

Some swear by using slow tempo while others lift as explosive as possible. We all know that bodybuilders emphasize more controlled repetitions. However, it’s no secret that if you lift super slow, you can’t handle as high of a load as when performing a faster lift5, nor can you perform as many repetitions5,6.

Super-slow repetitions (10-20 sec per rep) seem to be worse than more traditional speed for both strength and hypertrophy7–11. The faster the tempo, the more load that can be used, therefore more mechanical tension.

However, this means a shorter time under tension and less metabolic stress. Slower tempo, on the other hand, decreases mechanical tension, but increases time under tension and subsequent metabolic stress.

So, one can manipulate the tempo to increase the metabolic stress, which is another stimulus for muscle growth. But, slow tempo also lowers the total work you can do at a given intensity, compared to a faster tempo12. So, would a higher mechanical tension and more work lead to better results than more metabolic stress and time under tension?

An observant reader may have thought that when you lift a heavy weight, you don’t lift with a very high tempo. It’s not exactly a slow tempo, but it’s not as fast as one could lift with a relatively light weight. It's therefore important to differentiate the actual tempo on the bar and the intent one has to move the bar.

To manage a heavy lift one needs to have an intent of moving the bar quickly. If not, there is a higher chance of losing the rep. Don’t believe me? Just try to complete a slow-rep with the same 1RM as you did with a fast lift - good luck.

Also, more strength is developed during faster tempo with higher load2,13–15, and we know there is a high correlation between strength and muscle mass16. More strength equals more weight on the bar in all different intensity conditions.

One study showed that a repetition performed with 1 sec eccentric, no rest at the bottom, and maximal concentric contraction produced significantly greater power and reps in bench press compared to 5 different tempo conditions17.

We can see some interesting outcomes in the study by Tanimoto and Ishhi (2006). The duration of this study was 12 weeks and had three different groups. Two of these groups performed 50% of their 1RM, with the one employing a very slow tempo (7 sec per rep), and the other employing a normal tempo (2 sec per rep).

M&S Female Athlete Performing Barbell Lunges

The third group performed 80% of their 1RM, while employing a normal tempo. The slow tempo 50% group, along with the 80% group, both trained until failure, while the normal tempo 50% group work-matched the slow tempo group – meaning they did the same number of reps.

After 12 months, the same muscle growth was seen in the slow-sped 50% group and the 80% group, whereas the 50% normal speed had no change.

The fact that both the high and low intensity groups had comparable growth agrees with previous literature on training intensity, where low-intensity has shown to be almost as good as high intensity, as long as the low-intensity groups trained to failure2.

The fact that Tanimoto and Ishhi used different tempos suggests the speed of your reps may not matter for muscle growth as long as low-intensity training is performed to failure.

Failure can be reached with fast tempo but this might take a lot of reps to achieve, so if you prefer fewer reps, you likely need to use slower tempo, as the study by Tanimoto and Ishhi suggests14. Or use blood flow restriction – which is a topic for another day.

Related: Band Resisted Deadlifts - Build Explosive Power

Furthermore, Schuenke et al. (2012) is a study of 6-weeks duration, with 3 groups, performing 6-10RM for 14 sec per rep, lifting 40-60% 1RM. The second performed 6-10RM with normal speed and 80-85% 1RM, and the third group performed 20-30RM at normal speed with 40-60% 1RM.

Normal speed was defined as being 1-2 second concentric and eccentric contraction. The high-intensity normal speed group resulted in the greatest overall muscle fiber growth compared with the other groups. The slow-speed group outperformed the other low-intensity group that performed with normal speed.

So in this study, time-under tension per rep beat work at an equivalent training intensity with a normal speed.

A recent study from Brazil showed slightly more increases in muscle strength and muscle gain after 12 weeks using slow versus fast tempo18. Both groups performed 3 sets of 8 reps maximum. The slow group performed the reps with 1 sec in the concentric phase, 0 sec at the top, 4 secs in the eccentric part, and 0 sec at the bottom.

The fast group performed 1 sec in the concentric phase, 0 in at the top, 1 sec in the eccentric phase and 0 sec at the bottom. These results could be due to longer time under tension.

M&S Athlete Performing Barbell Rows

However, as researcher Brad Schoenfeld wrote about the study, this could have been due to the eccentric part being too fast in the fast group, especially since the muscle group trained was biceps, hence gravity did most of the work in the eccentric part of the lift.

Moral of the story? Control the tempo, do not let gravity do the job.

What tempo should you follow?

Schoenfeld et al (2015) did a review and meta-analysis in 2015 about repetition duration and muscle hypertrophy. It’s worth mentioning that most of the studies included had different intensity of load between groups, which begs the question as to whether it was really was the tempo or the intensity that made the differences, or lack of differences.

This isn't bias, this is how research works, you control all variables possible except one, in this case tempo, to see if it makes any meaningful differences. Moreover, as per my knowledge, there is not much research that compares the same intensity with different tempos.

As stated earlier, another problem then arises with regards to controlling for volume, since the high tempo likely will perform more reps thus more volume which will be another confounder.

Related: 5 Reasons To Add Eccentric Training To Your Routine

What else? The lower intensity studies could have a higher training volume, which may outweigh any benefits of faster tempo. Recent evidence however, as noted previously, doesn’t seem to support that training intensity matters that much, if trained to failure.

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To control for all variables therefore makes it very difficult since there are many variables to take into account and tempo doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list of the hierarchy. I would therefore not spend too much time pondering over exactly how many seconds one should use in order to reap the best results.

Either way, some recommendations are important. The paper by Schoenfeld et al (2015) came to the conclusion that training at very slow tempo >10 sec per reps is likely inferior and that 0.5 – 8 sec per rep showed similar hypertrophic outcomes.

Conclusion

In closing, training with a fast tempo, and at least the intent to move the weight quickly, allows you to lift a heavier weight and develop more muscle strength.

This again will influence the weight you have on the bar in all kinds of intensities used. However, it is important to have control over the repetition to have optimal form and make sure that it’s not only gravity that works the eccentric part of the movement.

Periodization is likely the key here. Periods with lower intensities and lower risk of injuries trained to failure with or without slow-tempo (whatever you prefer) for high metabolic stress will likely not be detrimental to your gains.

references
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  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G, Alvar BA. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res Natl Strength Cond Assoc. 2014 Apr 7.
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;0(0):1–10.
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  11. Jr H. Muscular adaptations to slow-speed versus traditional resistance training protocols. Ohio University; 2009
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