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Rep Speed: The Secret To Perpetual Progress

March 24, 2011 10:00 AM

Rep Speed

I have to admit something right up front here – I’m stubborn. Like a mule sometimes, just ask my wife. And my old weightlifting coach, Alfonso Duran. Like you, I am always looking for the next big secret in strength training. Is it "Rest-Pause?" How about Wave Loading? Implementing the Series? Drop sets? Super sets? What? What is it? Would somebody please just tell me – NOW??!!
Unfortunately, there’s one thing and one thing only that’s really the "secret" to lifting big weights. Some coaches, like my weightlifting coach, Alfonso Duran, Chad Waterbury and Christian Thibadeau, have been talking about it and alluding to it for years. And if you guessed autoregulation you’d be mostly right.
All the world’s greatest lifters know this and most of them – the really great ones practice it. Here it is –
When your bar/bell/body speed (rep speed) no longer remains constant – or slows down, you’re done.
Maybe with that set. Maybe with that exercise. Maybe with that training session.
I first learned this in 1996-1997 when training with my coach, Alfonso. He stressed – no wait, he was emphatic – when the speed of my bar dropped, I terminated the set. Sometimes he let me keep going. Sometimes not. Sometimes the training session was over.
I remember a particular time when I squatted 415lbs for 13 reps. Not a big deal. Not until you realize that I had pre-exhausted my legs with leg extensions, leg curls, and supra-maximal rest-pause sets on the leg press with close to 1000lbs. (Hey, I thought I had small, weak legs, so we did a specialization cycle...) So I was a little tired. But I remember the weight just flew up – until the 13th rep. That one slowed down. Alfonso stopped me. I remember protesting – "But Al – I’ve got 20!" I yelled with the bar still on my back.
"You don’t need to do 20 today. You’re strong enough," he said.
Since then, I have had my fair share of injuries – lower back and two really good hip ones that have kept me from achieving my full potential in my chosen sport and still affect me today. Why?
Because I failed to heed Alfonso’s instruction… I had to be a tough guy – push it to the limit – grind out those extra reps. (Because that’s where the growth is, right? Uh – no.) And what did those reps get me? Frustration. And hopefully at this point in life, wisdom.
Before we go any further, I think I should point out that I am also a big advocate of the school of "Lift Heavy and Lift Fast." If you watch me lift something, I’m definitely not a grinder. I always attempt to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. Why waste time, right? It has always seemed intuitive to me and is probably one of the reasons I gravitated to Olympic lifting and later kettlebells.
I’m an intuitive guy by nature. I go with what I think or feel is right. And as it turns out, there’s an overwhelming amount of science that indicates that in order to get as strong (and as big, if you’re interested) as possible, you should lift as heavy as possible and as fast as possible. (The aforementioned coaches Chad Waterbury and Christian Thibadeau have written at length about this for the last couple of years, so I refer you to their work for more information.)
[Of course, there are caveats – like learning a new movement or performing correctives or work of that nature. We learn movements in the following sequence – from fast (uncontrolled and unstable) to slow (controlled and unstable) to fast (controlled and stable). But for the purposes of the rest of this article, we are going to be discussing strength training in the context of performance above basic function and out of the category of rehabilitation (which I also acknowledge as performance, but it is with the end of restoring function).]
That brings us to a very valuable question:
Why Is Rep Speed Important?
In simplest terms, it’s an indicator.
It tells us what’s going on with our set and what’s about to happen.
As rep speed decreases due to fatigue, your body stops recruiting the high-threshold motor units (the ones responsible for maximums – maximum strength and maximum speed) and starts relying on the smaller ones to complete the job (the endurance fibers) – which incidentally, if you think about it, is why it becomes so hard to get those last reps of that particular set (wrong guys doing the wrong job). Therefore:
Rep speed is an indicator of nervous system performance [and lack of performance – fatigue].
This is true for the set you are currently performing and the sets your about to perform, and especially true for the particular exercise you’re performing.
Rep speed then will tell you when you should stop your set – when the bar speed slows.
Rep speed will tell you if you should continue that exercise. Can’t maintain the bar speed over subsequent sets? Move on.
More importantly, rep speed will tell you if you should be doing that particular exercise when you selected it.
A great example is no more evident than with the Olympic lifts or heavy kettlebell ballistics. The weight just doesn’t move as fast is it normally does. The speed of the rep is slower than normal, which is to say, slower than the previous ones in that set and the previous sets. Your body is still tired – your CNS is still fatigued. Pick another exercise or do some active recovery work.
Yes, it’s true – you may feel like you’re cheating yourself. You won’t have that "worked out" feeling. You may even leave your training session fresher than normal. But that’s ok. That’s one of the keys to making progress. Old Time Strongmen advocated training this way. They never trained to fatigue and doing otherwise was called "training on the nerve" and advocated staying away from it.
Let’s take a closer look at the reasons you want to keep your rep speed constant (and high). Let’s also agree right now that anything other than fast, high quality reps we’ll call grinding reps. (Not to be confused with the category of lifts called "grinds*.")
*[In the RKC, we make the distinction between two types of lifts – slower, controlled traditional lifts, such as the Press and the Squat. These fall into the category called "Grinds." They are called such because they are not ballistic, which is coincidentally the other category – "Ballistics." Ballistics are explosive movements such as the Swing, Clean, and Snatch. So for the purpose of this article "grinding reps" means performing any reps whose speed has dropped, not performing "Grinds."]
When you grind out your reps in each set, you end up doing several negative things:
1. Degrade Your Technique.
Coming from an Olympic lifting background, this was very evident. Because the Olympic lifts are so technical, your reps have got to be spot on or the bar doesn’t do what it’s supposed to and you miss your lift. Perform too many reps in a set, technique degrades. Perform too many sets (especially with the wrong load) and technique degrades. Choose the wrong load, technique degrades or miss the lift entirely. It’s much easier to cheat and alter your form with traditional strength training exercises. The feedback with Olympic lifting is almost immediate.
With kettlebells and other exercises, it’s easier to get away with technical infractions due to grinding reps. (And yes, you can grind your reps with kettlebell ballistics like the Swing and Snatch.)
When you grind out your reps, you alter (and I would argue – sacrifice) your technique. Bar or bell path changes as the motor units that you were using to perform the exercise fatigue. Body mechanics alter as other motor units and recruitment patterns change (many times for the worse).
You are no longer performing your technique specific to that exercise, but rather something else, that serves no real purpose for you achieving your goal other than to make you feel like the extra work you are doing is actually making a difference, and therefore must be valuable.
2. You Run Out Of Energy.
We’ve both been there: You’re mid-set, the reps slow down, and then you’re gassed. What’s going on?
You just experienced a shift in energy system demands. Your body tried to move (unsuccessfully) from using one energy system to another.
Why’d this happen? Because you changed your motor unit recruitment patterns. You just moved from large strong motor units to smaller ones.
Why? Because the bigger ones have higher thresholds, (require more load to contract), and have lower contraction periods (fatigue faster) than the smaller ones.
Therefore your body is trying to create energy from other energetic pathways. [It’s beyond the scope of this article, but your body has three primary systems with which it creates and uses energy. Rep ranges and loads reflect these particular energy systems.]
For example, you are used to doing 5 rep sets on your kettlebell grinds. Your body adapts and you successfully get stronger. Then you read about the importance of higher reps to put on some muscular size to push up your strength. So you switch to sets of 10. Around rep number 8, it feels like bell suddenly stops. This is the point where this occurs.
3. You Start To Put Your Body In An Emergency State
An extreme form of this is best illustrated with marathon running. It is the perfect example of grinding reps. Many people don’t know this, but the marathon world is littered with stories of people who cross the finish line with fecal matter in their shorts and down their legs (along with urine). And yes, I know it sounds gross, but it is an extreme example of your body perceiving it’s in an emergency state. In that extreme state, all your body cares about is preserving the brain and the heart – the circulatory and nervous systems. It virtually shuts down all other systems. (Another little known fact is that often when people die, their bodies’ eject waste material. Little coincidence then that the first person to run a marathon died. But I digress...)
The point is, a series of chemical processes occur that send signals to your brain that things are not going as well as they should. Another recent example of this was a video I watched of a HIT workout where a young man finishes an all-out set of deadlifts, collapses, vomits into a bucket between his legs, and then passes out to the cheers of his colleagues.
On a more scientific level, grinding reps can negatively affect the HPA Axis (Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis), which is a major part of the body’s neuroendocrine system and affects everything from stress regulation, to immune system function, to sexual function and is responsible for the adaptation to [training] stress.
On the simplest of levels, grinding causes too much adrenaline to be released, which in turn causes too much CNS arousal, which in turn causes an increase in cortisol levels. Cortisol is fine and well needed to decrease inflammation, but too much of it interferes with glucose uptake and regulation and therefore, insulin secretion and regulation. Long story short, grinding reps can make you fat and depress your immune system, making you sick. (And decrease sexual function.)
Takeaway point: Grinding reps make you weak, fat, and sick. Don’t do them.
So that’s the bad stuff – the major reasons to keep your rep speed high and consistent.
How then do you apply this information?
Again, since kettlebell work is split into two major categories – Grinds for strength (Squats, Presses, Get Ups, etc) and Ballistics for strength-endurance/conditioning (Swings, Snatches, Clean and Jerks, etc.) let’s take a closer look at practical ways of how to apply our new approach to our kettlebell lifting.
1. Strength Work.
Are you more of an explosive lifter or more of a grinder? In other words, are you like me and move your weights quickly, or are you more like a traditional powerlifter and move your weights at a slower tempo? For our purposes, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s consistent. Your last rep of each set should be moved at the same speed as the first one. If the speed drops, stop where you are. When you start the next set, the reps should be at the same pace as the first few reps of the previous set. If they’re not, time to move on. Move on to another exercise, preferably less technical, and if those reps feel slower than normal, time to call it a day.
This form of strength training is actually more productive. It will allow you to increase your training frequency because your body will be able to recover faster from the training stress. Increased training frequency leads to faster gains in strength and other forms of adaptation. Remember Professor V. Zatsiorsky’s words of wisdom on achieving maximum strength levels, "Train as often as possible, as heavy as possible, as fresh as possible."
2. Strength-endurance / Speed-endurance work
One of the great things about kettlebell training is the ability to rapidly train strength-endurance and speed-endurance. These two abilities are arguably the most important abilities for daily life.
We do that of course through kettlebell ballistics. The problem with many kettlebell trainees ballistic programs is that they are locked into a prescribed number of reps or sets or time periods and when they get tired, their reps start to grind – so they lose the fluid nature of the movement. This is most noticeable with too much shoulder, arm, and facial tension during these exercises. Instead, they should view these guidelines as maximums – boundaries not to be crossed.
A good way to train kettlebell ballistics is with a multiple sets approach (obviously) with and a couple of restrictions, or limits, placed on the sets to ensure reps and sets of the highest quality –
1)Use a time period in which to train, like 20 minutes or so, similar to Charles Staley’s EDT.
2)Focus on overall number of reps completed in the time period.
3)Pick a rep range to work within – 10-15 and perform all reps within that range.
4)Accelerate the weights as fast as possible using correct form.
5)When speed decreases or form breaks terminate the set. If it’s within your specified rep range, you’re fine. If it’s outside your specified rep range, you’re done.
6)Do this for the allotted time period, seeking to increase the volume of work in the allotted time period every subsequent training session.
Take Home Points
Rep speed is important. It is in my estimation the most important indicator for making progress in training. Every time I have violated that indicator I have paid for it in the long term either by becoming overtrained or sustaining an injury. Keeping your rep speed constant relative to yourself (and some coaches, such as Duran, Waterbury, and Thibadeau would argue as fast as possible) is the secret to perpetual progress in strength and conditioning. Enforce your own high quality reps by monitoring their speed, and more importantly, their lack of speed, during your training and you have the greatest possibility of making non-stop, injury-free progress.
Geoff Neupert, CSCS, Master RKC, has 18 years experience in the fitness industry and over 20,000 hours of one-on-one personal training. He is a former Division 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach and is the author of Kettlebell Muscle. He loves kettlebells because they remind him of his favorite sport - Olympic Weightlifting. He can be found at his blog