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Sets and reps. How much weight you have on the bar. Your exercise selection. Rest times and what muscles you work on which days. We always look at these when planning training routines, but rarely look at tempo.

If lifting weights fast is so great, then why even bother with slow tempos? Surely there must be something in the notion of slow training, when you see how many bodybuilders lift weights in a controlled, almost leisurely manner.

Slower tempo training was popularized by bodybuilder and trainer Mike Mentzer in the 1980s. Mentzer believed that lifting slowly created a bigger stimulus, caused more muscle damage and therefore resulted in greater growth.

This is partly true. Where fast lifting leads to more functional myofibrillar hypertrophy, lifting slowly causes a different type of muscle gain – sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in the fluid levels within a muscle cell. Unlike myofibrillar growth, this doesn’t lead to maximal strength gains, but it does increase muscle size, provided your nutrition and recovery are also in order.

You’ll also notice that when lifting weights slowly, you can’t use nearly as much weight as lifting fast. This may appear detrimental, and certainly if you’re training for strength or sports, it will be, but if maximum muscle growth is your goal, it may actually be beneficial.

Lifting slowly, particularly on the eccentric portion of an exercise does cause more muscle breakdown than simply letting the weight drop down. The theory that many bodybuilders go by, and again, Mentzer was a big proponent of this, is that your muscles don’t actually know how much they’re lifting. They respond to a stimulus, not to a certain number of pounds or kilos. There’s no doubt that if you’ve got 250 pounds on a barbell when bench pressing, it’s much harder for your chest and triceps if you take five seconds to lower it and three to press it up than it is letting it drop to your chest then bouncing it back up again.

A safety argument also exists, with many claiming that lifting slowly is safer. Again, this isn’t wholly true, but there is something in it. For experienced athletes, lifting with speed and power is the way to go, but for newbie gym goers, lifting quickly may encourage poor form and while a super-slow tempo might not be the best idea, a controlled tempo is likely better than an explosive one.

Considerations

How fast you lift is dependent on your goals.

Training for sports, powerlifting or Olympic lifting? Forget lifting slowly altogether – you need to train your muscles and nervous system to lift quickly, and slow training can have negative effects.

Training for muscle growth or bodybuilding purposes? A mix of both is probably best. Stick with fast tempos and lower reps on your compound moves like squats and deadlifts, but throw in some slower tempo lifts, focusing particularly on the eccentric portion on your accessory exercises.

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