Progressive resistance, as we know provides the initial stimuli that is required to create the platform for our muscles to grow. Training in this manner consists of several key ingredients, these being; a form of resistance, methods of lifting this resistance, rest intervals between lifts and of course a series of sets and repetitions to overload the muscles. It is the fundamental ‘repping’ of these weights that is the focus of this article. This is often an area that attracts considerable debate. How fast should we rep and for how many are two frequently asked questions among bodybuilders / athletes alike. It is these two concepts that this article wishes to address. As with most things in bodybuilding the answer to these questions are inevitably subjective, as the old adage applies of ‘what works for one may not necessarily work for another.’ However throughout the years there seems to have emerged a general consensus of opinion that effective repping is all about proper technique, using deliberate and controlled movements, throughout a full range of motion. Although even this approach can be questioned with regard to ‘partial’ and ‘cheat’ reps, both of which designed to take the muscles to absolute failure.
So, bearing all this in mind how do we approach this very ‘grey’ issue with the intent of furthering our progress? With regard to the speed of repetitions, I believe we must put things into perspective. As bodybuilders we are not concerned with how fast a weight can be lifted, nor should we be too fussed with the maximum amount of weight that can be moved from A to B. We should concern ourselves more with how we can effectively overload our muscles from as many angles as possible, safely as possible. This in my opinion is very important. One of the keys to progressive resistance training is to get the blood to the working muscles as quickly as possible and keep it there for the duration of time spent training that individual muscle group. I prefer to warm the muscles up using slow deliberate contractions, remember the issue of safety. Warming the muscles up in this manner is much less of a hazard, allowing the joints to secrete more synoval fluid as well as helping prepare the body for exercise with an increase of blood flow.
Although an effective speed for working sets requires a different outlook. This is where things get can get a little more complicated. On the one-hand you need to appreciate the value of staying injury free whilst at the same time working at a rate that allows the maximum amount of weight that can be handled with correct form over a series of 6-12 repetitions. The emphasis here is on control. You must always be in control of the weight, never let the weight to control you. As a rule of thumb I prepare for my final two working sets wanting to rep as fast as possible, adhering to proper technique etc. Such is the weight that the barbell/dumbbell may appear to be raised slowly. It is for these two sets that I also require the assistance of a ‘spotting partner’ to help ensure optimum breakdown in a safer environment. The previous sets, if I decide to structure my training in this fashion, are all in preparation for these all important final two attempts. I believe from my years experience in this sport that this is a very effective strategy, one in which can be applied to all muscles regardless of size and geography.
This leads us nicely to the second part of this article which attempts to clarify and take further the debate concerning the amount of repetitions we should consider using. It goes without saying that in order to increase the size of the muscle fibres (hypertrophy) they must first of all be fatigued. The greater the amount of fibres fatigued, the greater the level of growth. It is often assumed that the heavier the weight the better inasmuch as adding sheer muscle mass. Of course to a certain extent this is true, but the key here is to select a strategy that will employ and work as many fibres as possible. It is without doubt that a rep range of 6-12 is seen to be the most efficient in this respect. However, some muscles seem to respond faster to 6 reps per set as opposed to others which are shown to develop greater under working sets of 12. How can this be so? The answer to this becomes clear when you take a closer look at the two broad types of muscle fibres and their distribution around the body. This is really all us bodybuilders need to know regarding this topic.
These two types can be referred to as Slow Twitch or Type I fibres and Fast Twitch or Type II fibres. In short, slow twitch muscle fibres are ideally built for endurance. They are comparatively weaker and smaller than the more powerful fast twitch muscle fibres which are larger, more powerful and much better suited for short sharp bursts of activity. It may be worth noting that all muscles comprise of both these types but the distribution is uneven from muscle to muscle. Infact, the ratio of slow twitch to fast twitch varies from one person to another which helps explain why some athletes are better suited to running long distances as opposed to short ones such as sprints. However we all share one common trait with regard to muscle fibre distribution. That is the fact that the lower body has significantly more slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibres than the upper body. The underlying reason to this is simple, we are on our feet a great deal of time. With every step our calves rep our entire body weight, our quads, hamstrings and glutes also are significantly recruited during the most basic of activities such as walking or running. Imagine if these fibres were to ‘burn out’ and fatigue rapidly, it would almost be like walking on our hands.
It is for these nature intended reasons that the muscles of the lower body respond greater under higher rep ranges, due to the fundamental need to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibres. Low rep ranges are of course very efficient in breaking down the more powerful fast twitch fibres but fail to adequately stress the more endurance orientated slow twitch variety. I typically aim for between 8-15 reps for lower body movements, maybe throwing in a set of 4 for a final set of squats and finishing the occasional set of leg extensions with up to 20 repetitions. This is in stark contrast to the muscles of the upper body which after warming up I feel is better to work them with 4-8’s due to the muscles fibre composition. Within these rep ranges, to further complicate things I often finish off working sets with a couple of high intensity repetition techniques, usually ‘cheat reps’ and ‘partial’ reps. These are highly effective at fatiguing muscle fibres and ensuring optimum muscle breakdown. Both concepts are pretty much self-explanatory and are well worth experimenting with. Just be sure to be careful when cheat repping as staying injury free is invaluable to the bodybuilder.
In conclusion then, this article has attempted to discuss and evaluate the significance and importance of effective repping. As previously mentioned this is often a hotly contended issue, especially with regard to the speed and quantity of what represents the ‘grass roots’ of our workouts. I hope I have also stressed the need for proper technique, using deliberate and controlled movements, throughout a full range of motion. It is also necessary to add that this also applies for both the concentric and negative aspects of a repetition. I accept that these are only my opinions and as already stated the sheer subjectivity of this sport leaves my thoughts and views open to criticism. I have merely intended to raise these issues to help simplify what is a grey and often complicated issue for beginners. For the more advanced bodybuilders out there I suppose it helps bring thoughts from the back of your mind to the front which can also bring about dividends. I suppose a renewed interest is often needed in such fundamental aspects of bodybuilding, as such things can often be taken for granted at the expense of our progress. It is with this thought that I have decided to finish this debate and thank you for your time.