This is an age old question which personal trainers get asked a lot. People assume that proof of strength is to load up the weight onto the heaviest setting and grunt your way through one rep quickly. Not necessarily...!
Let's face it, we've all seen those people who stomp around the gym slamming the weights down or making noises as they complete a small number of heavy reps at lightning speed! To the untrained eye, this might seem impressive but the thing is, a lot of the time, their form is rubbish! We should add - never feel intimidated by or in competition with others. Remember; your fitness is your own and your body is different to everybody else's.
For us, it's about choosing a sensible selection of focussed exercises built around your fitness goals and choosing a weight to go with it. You should always aim for control over the entire rep to achieve optimum form and range of movement (ROM). It's no good if you are able to contract the muscle fast with a heavy weight and then drop it to the floor! The lowering phase (eccentric) is just as important for muscle growth as the concentric (lifting) part.
Perhaps it's a good time to say that in order to grow your muscles, there are 3 important things to consider :
- Mechanical Tension - this is the tension applied to the muscle through load
- Metabolic Stress - this is the time that the tension is applied until fatigue
- Muscle Damage - (the good kind) - your muscle fibres need to damage in order to rebuild and grow stronger. The mechanical tension and metabolic stress create it and it's a constant repair process within the body.
Let's start with Mechanical Tension.
It's long been argued that muscle tension is the most important factor for muscle growth hence the focus we put on weights/load. It's almost become a status symbol - "how much can you lift?". The answer should be "what I can perform the fullest range of movement with". Many studies have shown that muscle growth occurs with both a 'low rep/heavy load' and 'high rep/low load' regime. So which one is better? It will depend on your goals. Some people want outright strength, others want a shredded physique. This is the difference between power-lifters and bodybuilders. Power-lifters tend to have more body fat and can lift very heavy weights whereas bodybuilders focus on how the weight is lifted and from what angle. The resulting bodybuilder body appears stronger due to developing sharper contours but they are not actually as strong as power-lifters.
The next thing to consider is the Metabolic Stress of your muscles which begs the question: Slow or Fast Tempo?
In terms of speed of your rep as mentioned up top, it's about control and form over yanking the weights around quickly. A good guide used by many PTs is the 1-0-2 rule. Using a bicep curl as an example, you would take 1 second to perform the concentric lift (the curl), pause at the top of the move (0) and then lower the weight (eccentric) over 2 seconds. This results in 3 seconds of metabolic stress under tension as opposed to 1 second using the 'lift and drop' technique! Using this guide for a variety of muscle groups (compound v.s isolation) at differing intensities (high, low etc.), and angles (incline, decline etc.) will work well.
It's worth adding that you don't always need weights either. A great deal of fantastic physiques come from calisthenics and bodyweight exercises alone. The idea is that by putting your body in different positions, you can generate lots of the magic tension without even lifting a weight. You'll be amazed what you can achieve with no equipment other than you and your natural surroundings - press-ups for example can be used as a simple and effective way to hit your pectoral muscles with tension from different angles. The standard press-up will hit the mid-chest and elevated/decline positions will hit your upper/lower pecs helping you develop the all-round chest.
At WHEY AHEAD® HQ we believe in balance. Balance in our organic nutrition and exercise for holistic health & fitness. If you feel you've plateaued a bit with your regular gym routine recently, shake things up and drop the weights down and increase your reps. Don't worry - you won't lose muscle as a result, you might actually gain some! Periods of training at lower intensities to failure reps will result in higher metabolic stress which is great for muscle growth. The key is not to focus on either Mechanical Tension or Metabolic Stress in isolation. We need both and we need variety to keep our muscles guessing and growing!