Improving your muscle-building results doesn’t necessarily mean assembling a larger repertoire — adding more and more exercises to your toolbox until you’re hopelessly inundated. To accelerate your progress, you just need perfection — at least when it comes to your repetitions.
One repetition of an exercise consists of the following: a concentric (positive) contraction where your muscles shorten to move a load, an isometric (paused) contraction where you hold the weight in place, and an eccentric (negative) contraction where the muscles lengthen against resistance. An ideal repetition demands perfection in all three of these zones.
These simple, practical directives can help you perfect your reps from start to finish. Implement them and you could and draw big dividends from your current workout routine — starting right now.
Going Up: The Concentric Portion
There is a lot of confusion as to how to execute a proper concentric contraction when it comes to reps and poundage, and although some people argue that you have to lift heavy for fewer reps to incite change, others rally for lighter loads to failure. In truth, there is no magical rep range for maximizing muscle size, and according to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, lifting a lighter load to failure produces muscular gains similar to those produced by lifting a heavy load to failure.
Therefore, you can incorporate both kinds of sets into your programming so long as you reach muscular failure with each set. To keep things fresh, try using both techniques within the same workout, or alternate between them every other session.
Heavy Loads (1 to 5 reps)
When lifting a load that is heavy relative to your strength, focus on exploding into the concentric portion of each rep. In other words, rather than simply picking the weight up off the floor for a deadlift, get into position, take the slack out of the bar, then “rip” it off the ground as fast as you can without sacrificing technique. For a bench press, get into position, lower the bar, then drive it up off your chest as fast as you can. This technique — combined with the heavy load — improves strength and power, which over time allows you to lift more weight and therefore incur bigger gains.
Lighter Loads (6 to 20+ reps)
Hypertrophy is all about controlling the weight throughout the entire range of motion, so with that in mind, it is not advised to explode into the concentric portion with a lighter load, as you might actually lose control of your equipment.
For each lighter-load rep, take at least two full counts to move the weight to the peak contraction. This engages more fibers in the target muscles, and eliminates the use of momentum, which can divert work to other muscle groups.
Going Down: The Eccentric Portion
Your muscles are stronger during a negative, or eccentric, contraction of a lift, so if you let the weight come crashing down rather than harnessing that power, you’re losing out on some serious building potential — and putting yourself at risk for injury.
Go slow to grow
According to research, a slow, four-second eccentric contraction during biceps curls produced superior increases in growth than did a one-second eccentric action, because it increased the muscular time under tension.
Likely, you believe you’re already performing a slow eccentric contraction, but it’s probably not slow enough. Take this challenge: Set a timer nearby where you can see it. Lift the weight, then deliberately lower it for four to six full seconds. We bet it’s longer than you imagined.
Be a control freak
Although it might be tempting to lift super heavy to take advantage of the building benefits of eccentric contractions, listen up: An overly heavy weight can create forces that exceed the structural integrity of your joints, tendons and ligaments and could lead to serious injury such as sprains, strains and even tears. Rather than going super heavy, simply increase your time under tension (see above) to incite the same kind of growth without the risk.
THE CHEATING CAVEAT
Not all cheating is off limits. In fact, once you have the fundamentals down pat, there are some solid ways to cheat effectively. For instance, cheat reps that use non-targeted muscles to help lift a weight through the positive contraction increases your time under tension of that targeted muscle, and allows you to take advantage of the negative portion of the rep to boost your building potential.
In a dumbbell biceps curl, for example, once you have no more strict reps left in your tank, use your lower body — not your back, shoulders or arms — to cheat. Perform a quarter squat, making sure your spine and core are stable and strong, then quickly extend your legs and hips and use that momentum to help you lift the dumbbells through the concentric portion to the top, then slowly lower them for four to six seconds through the eccentric until you reach the bottom. Repeat until you can no longer maintain proper posture and/or form — then you’re done.
Hold It: Isometrics for Growth
A simple (but not easy) way to increase the difficulty of a move is to incorporate an isometric hold — pausing for roughly one to three seconds at the aspect of the exercise you find to be the most challenging. This will help improve strength and endurance in the moves and movement patterns you want to improve.
Where you perform the hold depends on the exercise you’re doing. For example, in a bench press or squat, holding at the bottom of the move proves the most difficult, whereas with a barbell or machine row the hardest part is at the peak contraction. For a standing move such as a biceps curl, an isometric hold in the middle of the range of motion, when your forearm is parallel to the floor, is brutal.
You can also add a longer isometric hold at the beginning or end of a set to increase your time under tension. For example, at the end of a set of pull-ups, you’d hold at the top of the range of motion (the contracted position) for up to 10 seconds. However, in a bench press — where the most difficult part is holding the bar just above your chest — the isometric hold would come at the beginning of a set for safety; at the end, you might be too fatigued to press the weight back up.
Lots of factors can prevent you from executing a perfect rep. Here are the top three offenders that happen every day in every gym in every country on the planet.
No. 1: Going too heavy
At any given time at a big-box gym, you’ll see at least one person seesawing during a biceps curl or lateral raise, throwing his or her back into each and every rep, clearly lifting with ego more than muscle. Although it might look “cool” to a newbie, to the rest of us, it is ludicrous.
When you lift too heavy, you reduce your time under mechanical tension because you’re forced to use momentum. You’re also unable to perform a controlled negative without compromising your joints and you use more muscles than you intended to target, reducing the accumulated pump (i.e., metabolic stress).
No. 2: Improper positioning and posture
When you lift weights, do you look like a droopy question mark, with stooped shoulders, a rounded spine and a lax core? This position puts you at risk for injury and reduces the effectiveness of a move.
NFL coaches have a saying that applies to strength training: “Stance, alignment, assignment.” Think of that when you prepare to execute a movement. First, make sure you’re standing, lying or sitting properly for your exercise. Next, check your spinal and body alignment from head to heels. Finally, being mindful of those first two checkpoints, go for it.
No. 3: Lifting without focus
These days there are endless things to distract you from your intention, whether it’s social media or socializing. But if you’re not connecting mentally as well as physically to the exercise you’re doing, you’re shortchanging your results. Research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal showed that mentally concentrating on the target musculature resulted in greater activation of that muscle group.
Deliberately focus on each and every rep you’re executing, and feel the muscle contracting in both directions. Wear headphones to tune out the gym kerfuffle, and extricate yourself from your phone, leaving it in the car or locker — Twitter can wait.