By Andrew Carruthers, Editor-In-Chief. Photography by Naco Rautenbach
Rep structure, timing and form are the foundation for proper weight lifting technique. Before you cast any shade on an article that talks about one of the most basic and fundamental elements of our training, namely repetitions, you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to not only perform decent reps, but also don’t change up their reps during training. Knowing the difference between the different types of reps could single handedly ramp up your training and physique more than ever.
In case you have forgotten.
The rep (repetition) is the fundamental element of any weight lifting programme and can therefore be considered one of the most important factors in bodybuilding. Forget the weights, nutrition and supplementation – if the rep is not executed correctly there will be no adaptive response, no increase in strength and, most importantly, no growth. So, when you consider all of the reps you do in a month, often ranging in the thousands, its makes sense to understand this most basic, yet extremely important element of bodybuilding.
The rep is defined as a single cycle of lifting a weight in a controlled manner, using the correct form and technique for a specific exercise. One or more reps are executed consecutively to complete a set. For something so basic you wouldn’t think that there are too many elements to consider when executing a rep. However, a proper rep has many components, such as structure, timing or tempo, composition, form and function.
Before you start a specific exercise, your weight training programme would have defined exactly how many reps are required for that specific set, but it normally doesn’t indicate what the timing or tempo of those reps should be, or define why that specific rep structure is required. Also, if you’re sticking to the amount of reps written down on a piece of paper and you stop at the given rep count, then you also need to evaluate your level of understanding on rep ranges or weight you are selecting. If you find yourself doing more reps than the suggested rep range, then you’re not adding enough weight. If you can only do less, then you’re probably selecting a weight that is too light. Rep ranges are a guide, not the gospel, so pay attention to your own capabilities and adjust the weight you’re using accordingly.
From a rep structure point of view, the number of reps you complete in a set is governed by the training principles of adaptation. Low reps will elicit a different response to higher reps, for instance, as these rep structures target different energy, neural and metabolic pathways.
Understanding Rep Ranges
A low rep range, considered to be between 1-5 reps, is normally used to increase strength and power and generally triggers neurological adaptations, as more muscle fibres are recruited to execute these short duration, high intensity, often forceful reps. The rep range that best targets muscle hypertrophy and structural adaptations is the 6-12 rep range, which is obviously the range that bodybuilding-based programmes should use. When we get into the 13+ rep range we start eliciting metabolic and cellular adaptive responses, like improving lactate thresholds and glycolysis.
From a mechanical perspective, a rep consists of three distinct phases, which includes the concentric, transition and eccentric phases. The concentric phase is the phase where the muscle contracts (shortens) when lifting or pulling the weight. The transition phase is the mid-point of the rep and is generally considered to be the peak point of the contraction. During the transition period it is important to achieve peak contraction by pausing and squeezing the muscle, as this incorporates more muscle fibres by maintaining tension on the muscle in the peak contraction phase. This is then followed by the eccentric or lengthening phase used to return the weight to the starting position. The eccentric phase also involves muscle contractions, but this is generally in the form of the antagonist muscles contracting to return the agonist (exercise initiating) muscle to its resting position in a controlled manner.
Breathing during your rep is also an important consideration. The best technique is to exhale on the concentric phase, which is the phase where the greatest force is exerted, and inhale on the eccentric phase.
Timing or Tempo
The other key element of a rep is the timing or tempo. Many bodybuilders fail to give this important element the focus and consideration it needs. Tempo simply refers to the rate at which you lift or pull the weights. The most commonly used tempo, popularised by strength trainers such as Australian Ian King and Canadian Charles Poliquin, normally uses three or sometimes four numbers. These numbers denote the pace for each phase of the rep, namely the time (in seconds) taken to perform the concentric, transition and eccentric phases.
An example of this tempo is a timing of 2:1:2, which means that the concentric phases should take two seconds to complete, with a one second pause during the transition phase, followed by a two second eccentric phase. When a fourth number is used, for example 1:2:1:2, it generally refers to the pause at the bottom of the movement (i.e. not the transition phase). An example of this would be the time spent with the bar in the air (starting position), above your chest, during a bench press.
By using a specific tempo you can better target energy systems and muscular adaptations, by increasing the amount of time your muscle spends under tension, as well as limit the amount of swinging and momentum used in your lifting technique. This further assists in recruiting more muscle fibres in each rep, which will ultimately build bigger muscles. As such, tempo is a key factor of your training programme and should not be ignored as it can deliver great results. Also remember that performing the same tempo week in and week out allows your body to adapt to your training and resist change in the muscle. So what’s the secret? Use a variety of different tempos for different sets. You’ll find that the influence this has on the pump during training will also be to your advantage.
Having considered all of these elements you should then be able to execute a perfect rep, and can then start including more advanced rep variations to your programme. These different types of reps include:
A forced rep is executed after momentary muscular failure, where your spotter provides the lifter with the minimum amount of assistance required to get the weight past the moment of inertia or the ‘sticking point’ of the exercise. This allows the trainer to increase their training volume and time under tension, without sacrificing form and risking injury.
This type of rep is normally done when no spotter is around, but therefore increases the risk of injury. A cheat rep uses momentum to drive the weight past the moment of inertia, allowing the trainer to squeeze out a few more reps in a set. This type of rep should be limited and only done if the lifter is experienced and uses the technique for the right reasons. Although risky, cheating can become one of your most valued allies in your quest for size. It allows you to be able to take rep ranges to a whole new level and also forces your body to grow due to intensity.
Having worked to failure in a set the lifter will rack the weight and take a very short break, before performing another repetition. This process can be repeated a number of times to maximise the effectiveness of this form of training, which includes improving metabolic pathways, such as the ATP half life cycle and deliver improved muscle pumps (increase the flow of blood to the working muscle).
This is similar to rest-pause reps, only the reps are performed using less weight each time as weights are removed for each consecutive rep.
Negative reps focus on the eccentric phase of the rep by increasing the time under tension during this phase. A spotter will normally assist the lifter on the concentric phase, to get the weight up and the lifter then uses muscle tension and resistance to slowly lower the weight. This technique causes the greatest amount of micro-trauma to muscle tissue, so should not be used very often.
Partial reps are done when only a portion of the entire exercise movement is executed. The reason for doing this would be to elicit a greater muscular adaptive response by using heavier weights than you can lift when using a full range of motion and proper form. Use this technique when you fail during a full range of movement set and go straight into partial reps for maximum overload on the muscle.
By mixing partial reps into a set of full range of motion reps you can increase the intensity and volume of your training. The partial reps can be performed at any stage of the exercise set, but are normally done at the end to squeeze out additional reps.
Mixing up your sets, rep ranges and tempos are of vital importance to making sure that you are constantly stressing your body a multitude of different ways. A muscle is comprised of many different fibres for this exact reason, so if you want to make sure you do the maximum to the muscle you’re working, then you need to train a multitude of different ways in one session to maximise fibre breakdown.