A key training component, no matter your training goal, is training tempo: the speed at which you move the object or your body. Nearly all exercises/movements have 3 phases:
- Eccentric (muscle lengthening)
- Isometric (muscle contracted at contracted position)
- Concentric (muscle shortening)
Example: The Bench Press
I’m sure many of you don’t think about tempo. I didn’t for a very long time. Until I become injured. Being injured gives you a new perspective on the important of all training principals. For most of us, we move a weight for a certain number of sets and reps. If we’ve performed enough “volume of work” then our muscles should respond to this stimulation and become bigger, stronger, and more powerful. This is absolutely TRUE. If you want to change a muscles size or performance you need to get enough volume to stimulate change. However, tempo is the all important variable in determining 1) how strong/big/powerful you may become and 2) training injuries.
So, is it best to go slow or fast when moving weight? Well, as always, it depends.
NOTE: Just to be CLEAR when I say “training slow or fast” I’m not referring to the speed of the overall workout. I’m referring to the speed of the exercise itself.
WHO SHOULD BE TRAINING FAST
For almost all forms of speed training (i.e. Olympic Lifts, plyometrics, sprints), athletes are the primary candidates. Training any exercise in a fast manner, as long as it’s sport transferable, is necessary to increase athletic ability on the field. This is why you won’t see many professional athletes or Olympians doing bodybuilder routines.
Bodybuilders can, and do, use some speed work in their routines. However, more than 70-80% of their routines are mostly “all show, no go.” Why? Bodybuilders are training for size and aesthetics, not performance. Bodybuilders goals are to increase muscle sarcoplasm. Sarcoplasm is the fluid within a muscle fiber that gives it size.
Yes, speed work can enhance the amount of sarcoplasm within a muscle fiber but it doesn’t necessarily increase a muscles myofibril thickness (pictured above). The myofibrils are what make an athlete strong and powerful. That’s why bodybuilders will look really strong compared to, let’s say, an Olympic lifter, but the Olympic lifters strength/power will be much higher pound-for-pound or overall.
Another advantage to speed training is the low amount of volume of work needed to improve performance. Let’s say a bodybuilder routine requires 4 sets of 12-15 reps to stimulate muscle size. An Olympic lifter routine might require more sets (6-7) but only 1-3 reps per set. The bodybuilder routine requires up to 60 reps to stimulate adaptation to its muscles while the Oly lifter only requires up to 21 reps. There is a catch. The Oly lifter will tax his/her nervous system to a greater degree than the bodybuilder. That means the Oly lifter will only be able to train a certain movement 1-2x a week while the bodybuilder has to train the same movements 3-4x a week. Some might see this as a bonus but if you like going to the gym daily this will be problematic.
WHO SHOULD BE TRAINING SLOW
Pretty much, everyone else. When I say “slow” I don’t mean like a turtle. An example of performing an exercise slowly would be executing the eccentric portion of the exercise for 2-4 seconds, pausing for 1 second at the isometric phase, and then moving the weight in 1 second on the concentric phase. There are several advantages to moving the weight in this manner.
First, you’re able to control the movement better and recruit more muscle fibers. If you move too fast, and don’t have good neuromuscular control, you will bypass some muscles and they will remain weak. This can lead to overdeveloped and underdeveloped muscles and that always leads to physical pain down the road.
Second, moving a weight in a controlled manner enables your connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) to steadily absorb the weight being applied to it. When connective tissues suffer you’ll begin to feel joint pain. If connective tissue becomes damaged then training comes to a screeching halt. Connective tissue has no blood flow, unlike muscle, so when it’s ruptured or torn it takes significantly longer to heal.
Third, steady, controlled movements increase muscle size (via sarcoplasm). If you’re goal is to look bigger (guys) or more toned (ladies) then you want to focus on slow, steady tempos.
Finally, slow tempos are less taxing on the nervous system. This means you’ll have energy to focus on future training sessions and train more frequently. Training more often creates more stimulation for the body to build muscle and burn fat.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO
If your goal is sports performance I would break up your training cycles with 70-80% speed focus (Oly lifts, plyometrics, sprints) and 20-30% slow focus. You can add them into the works on the same day. For example, you perform 5-7 sets of 1-3 reps of power cleans followed by 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps of back squats. If your goal is size or aesthetics then flip the numbers and only do speed work with lifts you are familiar with such as bench press using 30-50% of your 1RM.
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!