Rep speed is the rate at which you move the weight in a full repetition. Rep speed is relative, as short-stroke exercises (like biceps curls) will always take less time to perform, relatively speaking, than long-stroke exercises (like squats, deadlifts and bench presses).
Taking 2 or 3 seconds to perform the descent in a barbell squat is very different from doing the same in the biceps curl. So when you experiment with different rep speeds always keep things in perspective with regards to the specific exercise that you’re about to perform. There are some exercises that can only be done with fast, explosive movements, like power cleans and the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk). You cannot perform these properly with very slow reps – other than for learning form and practicing it with no weight on the bar.
And in deadlifts it would be foolish to use a slow rep speed in the descent because that would increase the risk of lower-back injury.
Simply Shredded states a full repetition consists of three phases.
- The concentric contraction phase (lifting the weight, positive part of the rep).
- The isometric contraction phase (mid-point, pause).
- The eccentric contraction phase (lowering the weight, negative part of the rep).
Strength coach Charles Poliquin popularized the concept of rep tempo by denominating the speed in each rep phase with a number. For example, a 3-2-1 rep tempo would mean that you lift the weight in three seconds, hold it for two seconds and then take one second to lower it. The idea behind this concept was that different combinations speed during each part of a rep would produce different results.
The problem with this method is that just changing the rep speed is not what will get you bigger and stronger. It’s a fancy (and very distracting) way to change the flavor of your workout but it’s not going to make much of a difference in your personal training progress. It’s also quite hard to measure your progress if you constantly keep changing all kinds of variables.
Apart from that it’s a very unpracticalway of working out. When you’re doing a hard set you’re already counting the number of reps. And you are focusing on lifting with correct form. The last thing you need is to add unnecessary confusion by counting the rep tempo during every rep.
So What Is The Best Rep Speed?
Much more important than rep speed per se is correct lifting form. Always educate yourself about how to perform an exercise correctly. Always aim for a controlled rep speed and always maintain good form during each rep, no matter how light or heavy you lift and no matter how many reps you aim to do in a set.
A controlled rep speed means that the lifting and lowering parts of the rep should take about 1 or 2 seconds to perform, depending on whether the exercise is short-stroke or long-stroke. Feel free to add a short pause at the mid-point or at the end of a rep but keep in mind that any additional isometric tension will consume energy that you may rather invest in increased weight on the bar or more reps instead.
If you want to build muscular size and strength you must lift weights that are challenging, but not so heavy that you would be unable to lift them with good form. Such weights will slow you down anyway due to the force of gravity. During a set of really heavy squats, it may take you up to 3 seconds to perform the ascent.
Always lower the bar in a smooth and controlled fashion, never drop the weight. But during the ascent, lift forcefully, explosively and aggressively while always maintaing good form. If you want to further increase intensity during a set, a simple, practical way is to slow down during the negative part of your reps, like “fighting the bar” during the descent.
You can also do static isometric holds or you can do whole sets that emphasize negative reps. Don’t do this in complex full-body lifts like squats and deadlifts though. And don’t abuse negative reps because that can lead to to overtraining and injury of the muscles involved.