Physical Culture

Experiments in Rep Speed and Volume

David Henry, Professional Bodybuilder and DoggCrap Adherent

For over six months I have been utilizing a “HIT Canon” rep speed ranging from 3-4 seconds on both the positive and negative portions of the repetition.  I spent about the last month practicing a Negative emphasized rep speed where I performed my normal 3-4 second positive followed by a 10 second negative, as recommended by Drew Baye.  I really enjoyed this protocol and the feeling after completing a HIT session was amazing.  Complete exhaustion would set in and would feel like I had been hit by a truck, but in the best manner possible…as hard as that concept is to imagine.

I noticed though, that although my strength was increasing steadily at a fantastic rate (using 5-10 lbs of extra weight on every session, with two sessions per week), size increases were extremely conservative.  Almost nonexistent.  Obviously, as I’ve posted before, you can’t expect to continue to put on slabs of muscle indefinitely, and the further you progress as you train the less you can expect to gain per month.  In previous experiments with overfeeding I’ve found that I get fat but don’t add much muscle.  However, a couple bits of info led me to question whether or not I may have been too forgiving with my expectations in terms of size gain.

First, this article on T-Nation titled, “Exercise Form Doesn’t Matter.”  To summarize, the author personally trained an individual and was a stickler for absolutely spot on perfect form.  The individual never quite excelled at his training.  The author lost track of the individual for a bit, and when he met him again after a while, was astounded by the increase in lean mass the individual displayed.  The author attributes it to months of horrid form.  The theory being that the body responds to the increased weight being used, regardless of the less than picture-perfect form being displayed.  This may sound like blasphemy, but keep in mind no one is saying sloppy form is safe.  Absolutely strict form is the only way to make training anywhere close to safe (keeping in mind of course that ANYTHING can happen when you step outside of the safety or your home), but one can perhaps take from this article that perhaps taking some calculated risks may pay dividends, just like in the stock market.

The second was a Q&A with professional bodybuilder Branch Warren wherein a reader asked Branch’s opinion on his rep cadence.  Branch opined that if you’re counting seconds during a rep you’re probably over-thinking.  Lift heavy weights and eat and you’ll grow.  All the people he sees in the gym who obsess over the minutia and work on charts and spreadsheets are the smallest people.  This statement was eerily familiar to the observation TC made in the article above.  Note:  I’m a gym nerd who obsessively tries to calculate everything out…and though I’m very happy with my body and I’m very lean, no one would ever mistake me for a massive muscular beast.

Now…kneejerk reaction:  Branch is a genetically gifted mass monster.  The biggest guys in the gym could be big because of what they’re doing, yes, or it may be that they’re that big IN SPITE of what they’re doing.  I do believe that the routines practiced by the genetic elite (high volume splits) aren’t best suited for the genetically average.  I know from years of experience that strength increases are simply unreliable using these programs, and progressive training is an absolute necessity for positive results.  But are we going perhaps too far in the other direction and throwing the baby out with the bathwater by emphasizing super strict form with slow rep cadences?  Furthermore, might a bit more volume also net me some muscle gain?

Rep Speed

The reasons to regulate rep speed, in my opinion, are twofold:

  • For safety, to reduce the degree of forces our joints and tendons are forced to deal with
  • For efficacy, eliminating momentum from the movement and forcing our muscles to work during the entire rep
As far as safety is concerned, I think slow or even SuperSlow reps have their place with certain populations (I might have an obese or elderly client stick to SuperSlow, and I might have an out of shape client use a slow rep cadence such as 4/4 or 5/5).  I think, though, that the concept of safety is at times overstated for the healthy, young, athletic population.  If you’re in good health without nagging injuries, and you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, I don’t think a fast rep speed is too irresponsible a task to undertake, as long as it serves a purpose.  If a fast rep nets you any kind of advantage in terms of strength or size, I think it should be a call on the part of the trainee on how much risk they’re willing to take on.  I also believe certain people are simply injury prone, and that this might be genetic.  I have never had a problem with injuries, even in my younger days when I’d use absolutely atrocious form and dangerous exercises.
As far as efficacy goes, I wonder what is more important:  the muscle fiber recruitment from an explosive lift, or the more steady fiber recruitment from a slower rep speed.  The argument is that half the rep is spent decelerating the bar during an explosive lift, and that a slow rep produces greater average fiber recruitment when one looks at recruitment throughout the rep range.  I buy this, and agree this makes logical sense.  I can also see, logically, that with a heavy enough weight, one can concentrate on moving the bar as quickly as possible, yet not be able to impart much momentum into the movement due to sheer weight.  If I utilize a weight where a 1-2 second positive is the fastest I’m capable of, I can’t imagine I’m doing much decelerating.  If I wanted to throw that weight, I believe I’d be hard pressed to.  I’m referring only to performing an (attempted) quick positive.  Obviously a slow negative is simply choosing to work less hard during the lowering of the weight.  But I fail to see the drawback of using a heavy weight with a fast(ish) positive and a controlled 3 second negative.  HIT trainer and owner of High Intensity Chicago, Dan Geraci states in this podcast that he feels if you are capable of performing a slow positive, you’re more than likely using too light a weight.  Sounds logical enough, at least when talking about intelligent, strong, athletic, motivated trainees.
Volume
Obviously 99% of the training population utilizes what would be called a “volume” routine.  3 x 10 is the format almost everyone is familiar with, usually performing 2-3 exercises per muscle group.  On the absolute opposite end of the spectrum lies the “HIT Purist’s” routine, with one set to failure performed of each exercise, generally in the 8-10 rep range.  30 reps per exercise * 3 exercises = 90 total reps for, say, chest.  I would actually only perform 8-10, period.
Switching to a low volume, but high intensity format has been a boon for me.  I’m constantly increasing in strength while not spending all of my life in the gym.  In other words, I have been experiencing greater results with less time invested!  Even in the world of hgih volume, one can safely state that although professional bodybuilders are spending less time in the gym than the twice-per-day marathon sessions popular in the 70s and 80s, modern bodybuilders are larger than their predecessors.  One could argue that even for the chemical-assisted genetically elite, a reduction in volume is ameliorative.
However, some HIT advocates do perform more than just one set to failure.  Some of the original Nautilus stuff included two sets per exercise.  Martin Berkhan and Keith Norris also utilize more than one work-set while adhering to the recovery-focus of the HIT philosophy.  If one set effectively stimulates a strength response (as I have proved week after week, at least in an N=1 manner), why would the subsequent sets be necessary?  I don’t know necessarily that they are necessary, but I am currently testing a theory involving sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
As most advanced trainers are aware, human muscular hypertrophy can be generally defined as a combination of myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.  Myofibrillar corresponds to an increase in the contractile tissue in the muscle, increasing muscular strength and adding some size.  Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy involves an increase in sarcoplasmic fluid resulting in an increase in size but not in an accompanying increase in contractile strength.  Most people equate sarcoplasmic with bodybuilders and myofibrillar with powerlifters and athletes.  I’ve heard rumblings that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can indeed increase performance just as an increase in fat can increase strength by adding leverage to joints, etc.  I find it hard to believe that the body will ever add completely superfluous tissue in response to exercise.  Keep in mind though, that muscle hypertrophy is rarely all one or the other, and one should not expect to get a lot bigger without also getting stronger.  One can read more on the subject in  Zatsiorsky.
I’m wondering if my concentration on 8-10 reps this entire time has shifted my gains primarily to the strength-centric myofibrillar hypertrophy.  Even on a 3×5 strength based program, one is performing 15 reps.  Strength increases have never been a problem on this program, but size has.  I’m not saying I’m heading back to several exercises and 4×12 reps, but I have looked at adding a second set on certain exercises, and simply increasing my single-set rep range on others.
The problem with simply performing a larger number of reps on a single set is that one must use a weight light enough to accomplish that many reps.  Generally, when one performs multiple sets one rests a minute or two between sets because otherwise the weight would be too great to accomplish all of the volume.  Using a light enough weight to perform 20 reps on say, bench press, would usually not be heavy enough to spark strength/size gains optimally.  Therefore I’ve decided to go the “DoggCrapp”  route, albeit with a few tweaks of my own.  DC training is HIT, even if its creator refuses to identify it as such.  The trainee performs a single set for each exercise with two “rest-pause” mini sets after reaching failure.  If I perform 10 reps of bench press and reach failure, rest 15 seconds and perform 3 reps, rest 15 seconds, and perform a final 2 reps, I have accomplished a total volume of 15 reps, but I have used a weight that would be far too heavy to perform 15 reps with.  DC’s creator does not advocate rest pause for back-thickness exercises or quad exercises due to risk of injury.  I’ve decided to modify his recommendations and perform Martin Berkhan-style Reverse Pyramids for these exercises.
Anyway, that is my current experiment and I look forward to seeing what changes these adjustments net me.  What are your thoughts?
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3 thoughts on “Experiments in Rep Speed and Volume

  1. Interesting post dude, I’ve just stumbled across your blog for the first time. I literally follow the exact same blogs as you do…Drew Baye’s blog, Martin Berkhan’s Leangains etc. I was thinking perhaps all of the ‘smallest’ people in gyms who obsess over rep speed/tempo, body alignment and work out charts do this to some how find the missing piece of the jigsaw that will enable them to add the muscular size they so wish for, failing to realize they may not have the genetic potential to be as big as the mass monsters. My opinion is that you have to taken into consideration the equipment you’re using when looking at rep speed, but always err on the slow side as opposed to moving ‘explosively’. For example, would it be optimal to use a 5/5 rep tempo on a cable row that has less than optimal resistance curves? I think no, as you would hit sticking points far too frequently, which would feel like small hills to get over. You may actually rob yourself of a few more productive reps/more time under tension. On the other hand, a 5/5 cadence may work very well with if performing a row with a Nautilus machine. I certainly feel more muscle activation performing my sets at a rep speed involving a 2-3 second lifting phase and a 3-4 lowering phase and wouldn’t go any faster for the sake of moving more weight with added momentum.

    On the issue of volume, Drew Baye posted as very good post on training volume that got me thinking. He pointed out that some HIT routines, like the BBS Big Five, actually involve more time under tension than multiple set bodybuilding routines, meaning HIT isn’t necessarily low volume. So if you’re performing your sets in typical HIT fashion, adding another set dramatically increases the volume of work you’re performing, even if its only one set. I’ve always struggled with the one set to failure protocol on some exercises, hence why i deviate sometimes and use reverse pyramid training. I think varying the training system you use (as long as it sill focuses on intensity) has some good psychological benefits. What kind of training system are you using at the moment?

    Lastly, what do you think of T-nation? Lot of bullsh*t on there if you ask me! Thanks.

    • Thanks Callum, I hope you continue to enjoy the blog. I just need to get into the habit of updating more often!

      As far as the rep speed/cadence thing, I think slow makes sense when we’re talking negatives, and I think super fast explosive concentrics should be avoided since most of the ROM is spent coasting or decelerating. I think, though, that there is a happy medium between the two. A legit 1-2 second positive, for instance, is slow enough that its tough to say momentum is really helping, yet one definitely has to work harder to move a given weight quicker rather than slower? I noticed when I went back to quicker (but not explosive) movements, I was weaker rather than stronger. Since then I’ve focused on slightly faster concentrics while still moving at a speed where I could easily reverse at any point along the path.

      I agree on sticking with the well engineered machines as much as possible. I’m lucky in that my gym has a pretty good compliment of Nautilus machines that I love using. I noticed the “LifeFitness” leg press I had been using just didn’t provide me the workout that the free weight leg press sled did even using the same weight/reps. I’m thinking the friction in the machine is making the negative portion much easier providing me less to resist against.

      I found that Drew Baye post really interesting! One thing I wonder though, is that our total TUT may be much greater, but we’re using a single weight for the entire time. A traditional bodybuilder breaks up their total TUT between sets and adjusts the weights to provide a challenge. There are a lot of variables, its tough to compare the two methods head-to-head. I’m still a proponent and fanboy of HIT though. Just like I expected, my brief foray into high volume beat me down. I enjoyed it, but I’m back to a basic HIT program with the “Negative Emphasized” cadence that Drew talked about on his blog. I’m doing roughly 2 seconds on the positive and 10 seconds on the negative and shooting for 3-5 reps for the upper body and 6-10 on the lower body.

      T-Nation can occasionally have some good info! You have to know enough to discard the BS from the good stuff, and you have to know enough to not fall for the marketing. But I like reading it just because it opens up my mind to concepts outside the whole HIT mindset. You have to wade through the BS to find the gems, but there are occasional gems I think.

  2. Yeah I think you’re spot on about T-nation, a lot of crap over their but they do have some good information/ideas too. I really like Nate Miyaki’s articles on nutrition on T-nation, I think you might too based on my understanding of your view points. I often visit Lyle McDonald’s website, he is pretty far removed from HIT training and Paleo eating but does produce some very good points regarding weight training and nutrition, I assume you must of heard of him.

    You’re lucky that the gym you use has Nautilus machines, over in the UK they are seldom seen in commercial gyms! I too had to use a Life Fitness leg press and I think my leg development suffered from it! You’re right, the negative portion is far too easy (which most likely reduced the amount of microtrauma my legs received during the set) and the ROM available too you without rounding your lower back is horrendous. I’ve now found my squatting groove again and have access to a hammer strength leg press.

    I would say HIT training is my ‘base camp’ and like you, I like to experiment with other sensible training methodologies. I think multiple set training systems have a benefit when performing exercises with a heavy skill base requirement, like squatting and deadlifting, as long as your careful with the volume.

    Keep posting buddy.

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