The Strength Training Rep Dissected and Explained

The basic building block of strength training is the individual repetition.

If you perform each rep the way I describe here, you will never have to worry about injury. Also, this approach to lifting will insure that you get maximum muscle definition not just on the muscle being worked, but over your entire body. Performing each rep properly makes all the difference in the world when it comes to looking sleek and defined.
people tanning on a yacht
[You have probably noticed by now that I don’t include a lot of sweaty people in spandex lifting weights. I’d rather chose inspiring photos like people sun bathing on the bow of a Mega-Yacht. My blog is just trying to make the Internet a more attractive place.]

Fake Strength Versus Real Strength

Who do you think is stronger, someone who can bench press 275 pounds for 5 reps using a slow pace -or- someone who can lift the weight for 5 reps at a fast pace? I am much more impressed with someone who has complete control of a weight during the entire lift and lifts the weight in a slow manner.

In fact, the biggest problem with ballistic and explosive lifting is that you are asking for injury. The other problem is that you are building more tendon strength than actual muscle strength.

The third problem is that you aren’t generating enough muscle tension to really get the maximum return out of every rep.

Explosive Lifting…Using Your Tendons Like a Rubber Band

Want to know why you see many people explode the weights out of the bottom of a bench press? Well they are taking advantage of the stretch at created in the muscle and tendon at the bottom of the lift.

Just like stretching a rubber band, they are using this force created to assist them in lifting that weight. They can use that stretch combined with a strong push to basically sling that weight up. This way of lifting is asking for a bad injury.

Also, it is kind of like “fool’s gold”…it isn’t true strength.

Take Momentum Out of The Equation for Long Term Benefit

The ironic thing about lifting weights at a fast pace is that it limits the amount of strength you can gain. Make no mistake about it, when you are a beginner at strength training you will make fast progress when you lift the weights in a ballistic fashion.

The big problem that happens is that you quickly reach a sticking point.

The amount of weight you lift is largely limited by tendon strength. As mentioned before, it is also asking for a muscle tear.

Take One Step Back to Take 3 Steps Forward

If you are lifting in a fast and explosive manner, I recommend that you stop. I want you to slow it down to get stronger and more defined in the long run. At first you are going to lose a bit of strength, but if you think about it…that isn’t true strength anyway.

The strength you lose now will come back as you learn to lift weights properly. Then you will surpass your previous strength levels.

The Skill of Generating Tension in the Muscle

Strength is largely determined by your ability to generate tension in a muscle. The harder you can contract a muscle the better strength you can demonstrate in that muscle.

Did you know that you can contract a muscle much harder if you also contract the muscles surrounding it? I learned about this principle called “Irradiation” from Soviet Special Forces Trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline.

Here is how he explains it.

  1. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist.
  2. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight as fist as possible and squeezing.
  3. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist.
  4. This is called “irradiation”…what is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle.

How to Become a Master at Generating Tension

Here is the craziest thing about the principle of Irradiation.

You can actually create stronger contractions in a muscle by flexing a bigger chain of surrounding muscles.

Take that bicep example above. Try contracting you bicep as hard as possible but this time don’t only squeeze your fist, but contract your pecs and abs as hard as possible as well. Did you notice a difference? After a while you will become a master at irradiation to reach high levels of strength.

Irradiation Develops Muscle Definition Over Your Entire Body

Imagine flexing your Abs hard every time you do curls, bench press, dips, etc.

You are actually increasing your ability to contract your abs hard, while getting stronger in these lifts. All of these tension generating sets are going to create an outstanding level of definition, provided your body fat is low enough.

I started doing this 10 years ago and the first thing I noticed was that my arms had a crazy degree of definition, next came the abs, and after that all the muscles in my torso stood out. Every rep is working many more muscles than before.

You Can’t Use the Principal of Irradiation While Lifting Quickly

That fast explosive way of lifting, doesn’t give you time to generate tension. The only tension generated is right at the bottom when the weight gets reversed quickly. It takes about 2-3 seconds to really generate a lot of tension in the muscle.

Using the bench press as an example, I recommend taking 2-3 seconds to lower the weight before lifting the weight back up. I’ll break down an ideal rep on the bench press in detail.

  1. Lift the bar off the rack and lock out your arms and prepare to lower.
  2. Squeeze the bar hard increasing the tension as you lower it.
  3. Feel the tension work its way down your forearms past your elbow.
  4. The harder you squeeze the bar the further this tension travels down your arm.
  5. At the same time you are doing this you are contracting your pecs shoulders and upper arms as hard as possible.
  6. At the bottom of the lift contract your abs hard while slowly blowing out.
  7. By the time you reach the bottom of the lift your entire upper body should be rock hard.
  8. Now purse your lips and blow out slowly as you lift the weight. You will be able to keep your abs flexed hard by pursing your lips as you let out the air.
  9. The more tension you generate the lighter the weight will feel when you slowly lift the weight back up.
  10. The better you get at building tension and enlisting help from surrounding muscles, the stronger you will become.

It is Hard to Do More Than 5 Reps in This Manner

One of the reasons I recommend 3-5 reps is that it is tough to do more than this while keeping the quality of each rep. Also, make sure that each rep is almost a separate entity.

What I mean by that is pause a second in between each rep and let the tension out for a second. Then grip the bar and begin building tension for the next rep.

The reason you “pause and reset” a bit is that you will be unable to effectively generate maximum tension for the entire set. You need to rest a second let your nervous system recharge and get ready for the next quality rep.

This is much different than those “pumping” non-stop bodybuilding sets you see 80% of gym members doing.

39 thoughts on “The Strength Training Rep Dissected and Explained”

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  2. hi rusty,
    great post – one question: i’ve read both this article and your one on explosive press ups. are you saying basically that there are 2 ways to train for strength with low reps: 1. balllistic movements with very light weights 2. slow steady movements controlling the weight with far higher weight? i can see its bad to train ballistically with high weights as this will cause injury but then is it bad to do explosive push ups because this would be using tendons as elastic bands wouldn’t it??

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  4. If speaking only of sloppy form and bad technique then slow, controlled reps are great things.

    This bashing of the idea of increasing strength in tendons and ligaments is an incorrect emphasis, IMO.

    You WANT the strongest, thickest, density-intense tendons and ligaments you can build. You want ’em like steel cables. This is true power and not only the apperance of strength.

    You bypass the tendons and only develop the muscles you are asking for injuries all day long.

    Tendon strength is fundamental strength. Building it is not lazy, or cheating or incorrect–it is foundational. Double the size of your biceps = by pretty. Double the size of the tendons and ligaments in your wrist = superhero.

  5. i wonder that when we do bicep curls is i possible to flex you triceps as well? i mean i can do it at the top and bottom the movement but when am raising the dumbbell it wont flex. the pec and abs are different though. i flex them throughout the movement.

    so is it possible to flex the opposite muscle of the muscle that you are working on?

  6. hi, i am a newbie in this thing and i just came across your site. i have some question:
    1st of all i am quite poor and so i just bought a (not a set) dumbbell. i used for my biceps, and i do push ups for triceps.

    after reading your article i learned that high rep cannot make muscle permenent:

    So can I do this?:

    I normally lift 12rep with the dumbbells, can i just slower the rep and make it between 2-5, same with the push ups……..

    just curious can some one help me out

  7. two questions rusty: you recommend brad pilons eat stop eat which means fast for two days 24 hours straight per week. i dont know if you personally follow this approach. but i am doing it for a while now and it is really tough to eat strict (low carb or less frequently for example) on your eating days (this is what you recommend in most of your posts and comments, or isn`t it?) i
    i am not sure which fitness guru i should believe: rusty moore or brad pilon! 😉 seriously, you guys have very different philosophies and that confuses me a bit because i read the blogs from both of you. personally i like your workout tips like strength training with low rep and especially your advice to hit cardio hard more than brads point of view. but as far as eating goes i wonder if brad pilon would make the eating style you promote responsible for people getting “Obsessive compulsive eaters”? i want to get a slim and toned body but i dont wanna get anorexic or get a social outsider by thinking about food and clean eating all day long! how can i juggle BOTH of your philosophies, rusty!?

  8. Performing your reps slow really takes a lot of concentration; it should to get that high tension. Sometimes it helps if you can find a way to loose yourself in the task. Try closing your eyes while you perform each repetition; for myself at least, I find I can focus better on the muscle and tension itself this way. It’s just a little way to prevent distraction and keep on top of the task at hand–your not exercising to train your eyes afterall anyways.

    It’s all focus, and willpower; don’t rush yourself.

  9. Rusty,
    I have to admit I have been reading your blog for a while now and I always thought the slow rep was b/s; however, I finally tried it and wow I haven’t had a workout like that in a months. Keep up the good work man.

  10. Hey Rusty,
    After seeing the doctor, he suggested that I stay off my leg for another 3-4 weeks to let my achiles heal 🙁 Yep I messed that one up. Can you, or anyone here, suggest any ways I can apply myself cardio-wise that doesn’t involve heavy legwork?

    I was thinking of the rowing machine, but I’m not wanting to build my upper body anymore and I’m kind of afraid that using this as my only means of cardio for near a month with put me askew with the rest of my upper body strength training routine!?

    People have suggested swimming, yes that’s a possability, but with time restraints, swimming can take away a lot of time from the rest of my routine/life, plus I hate the water :/ And for some reason they decided to make the pool some dumb artistic shape at my gym so swimming laps is about as easy as navigating in the dark…. God I miss running.

    Anywho, that’s my story. Lately I’ve just been adding more and more puships at different variations (burpe’s i’m not allowed to do at this time).

    A message to all: Don’t push yourself too hard, hurting yourself is not worth it.

  11. Yavor i totally agree on your choice of exercises for the back, according to body types.

    Steven Anderson i Love rings, they’re really hard, but so good to develop back and strength

    Rusty have you heard about Lance coming back to competition next year, i just got really happy about it, i’m a huge fan of Lance in every way, his a Life Champion and an example in every possible way you can think of, and his return represents also a very important fight, once again his going to help a lot of people that’s for sure.

  12. Rusty,

    Great post, and you’re absolutely right!

    Strength is mainly the ability to create maximum tension in your muscles, basically training your muscles to contract harder.

    In fact, I’ve heard that when people get electrocuted it fires off all the “contracting neurons” (not sure the technical name)… and overloads the safety mechanisms your body has in place to keep you from contracting your muscles too hard…to such a degree that the person’s muscle’s contract so hard they break bones!

    That’s why you see some guys with “wiry strength”–they just know how to get more horsepower out of their smaller engines — they understand maximum tension = maximum strength.


  13. Great article and an even better discussion…

    Here’s my 2 cents.

    Personally, I rarely train in the manner that Rusty is advocating.

    Why? Because that method is not designed to develop my body in the manner that I want.

    This doesn’t make Rusty’s approach wrong. Just not right for me, right now.

    Ignoring any genetic tendencies towards muscle fiber type, muscle and tendon physiology, etc., our muscles will adapt to the type of training that we expose them to.

    Want muscles to perform as quickly as possible. Train in a way to develop neuro-muscular efficiency, muscle firing speed and maximize the elasticity in your tendons. But also be aware that this type of training may expose you to a greater danger of tendon injury.

    This doesn’t make it wrong. Just different.

    Decide what YOU want out of your training program – Body composition, strength, power, speed, endurance, joint mobility, reduced chance of injury, re-hab, pre-hab, flexibility….

    Then organize your training around those goals.

    Keep up the good work Rusty

  14. 3ller,

    for a full development of the back, I’d do a few different exercises. My choice would depend on my proportions, the waist to shoulder ratio more specifically.

    1. If you have wide shoulders and small waist, the exercises of choice would be some kind of barbell rows and shrugs.

    2. If you have wide shoulders and wide waist, the exercise would be shoulder width grip pullups and barbell shrugs.

    3. If you have narrow shoulders and narrow waist, the exercsies should be pullups and barbell rows (no shrugs)

    4. If you have narrow shoulders and wide waist, the exercise of choice would be pullups.

  15. hey rusty, is there any benefit of working opposite body parts in a session?

    Also whats the best back exercise. nothing too big…i’m 17. (bdyweight or with weights)

  16. hey Rusty, fast reps recruit more muscle fibers. also, slow reps have their place, they work the slow twitch muscle fibers and the fast twitch muscle fibers are more capable of muscle growth and power. also, take a look at sprinters versus marathon runners. catch my drift, speed is the way to go. i dont think anyone should neglect the slow twitch muscle fibers neither tho. also, there was a study down comparing fast vs. slow reps and which one burns more calories, fast reps won. read this good article written by chad waterbury.

    here is a lil something he wrote.

    Muscle physiologists have discovered an important law of motor unit recruitment: the faster the tempo, the greater the recruitment of motor units. This is important because the more motor units you recruit, the greater the strength and muscle gains you’ll achieve.

    The benefits of fast training are:

    1. Improved High-Threshold Motor Unit Recruitment

    Quicker high-threshold motor unit recruitment occurs with super-fast tempos since you improve the recruitment of the motor units that have the most potential for growth. What I’m referring to are the fast-fatigable (FF) fast-twitch motor units that possess Type IIB muscle fibers. These motor units are capable of inducing huge amounts of strength and hypertrophy increases.

    2. Improved Rate Coding

    Rate coding is also enhanced with fast training. This relates to a change in discharge frequency of motor units with faster tempos. In other words, the firing rate increases with increases in speed (power) production.

    3. Enhanced Synchronization of Motor Units

    The last scientific element improved with fast training is enhanced synchronization of motor units. As you increase the frequency of fast training sessions, motor units improve their synchronous activation during maximal voluntary efforts. This leads to more strength and enhanced neuromuscular efficiency.

    The three aforementioned variables (recruitment, rate coding and synchronization) all work in concert to enhance intramuscular coordination. But I’m not finished yet! A few more advantages of fast training are:

    4. Improved Intermuscular Coordination

    When you apply maximal effort to a load (attempt to lift it as fast as possible), you’re improving your body’s ability to maximally activate many different muscle groups simultaneously. This coordinated effort enhances intermuscular coordination which, in turn, improves your strength levels.

    5. Altered Muscle Fiber Characteristics

    With a consistent execution of fast training speeds, the skeletal muscle and nervous system adapt by converting many slow-twitch (Type I) muscle fibers to fast-twitch (Type IIA and IIB) characteristics. This is another perfect example of the specific adaptations to imposed demand (SAID) principle.

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