Reps: How To Do Them Properly
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What a boring-ass blog-post topic.” But it’s a topic I feel needs to be addressed because some people just don’t seem to have a clue what they’re doing. Or maybe I just feel that way because I’m so OCD and incredibly analytic that I see and think about things that most people never do. But I promise I will do my best to make this worth your time.
Go to a public gym and watch 10 different people perform a set of 10 reps. You may see speed reps, grinder reps, death reps, pump reps and everything in between. But what style provides the best results?
Like everything else, it depends on a number of factors. Grinder reps are those reps that the HIT crowd is a big fan of. Every rep goes up slowly and painfully and is a fight to the death. There is nothing fast or smooth about it. Grinder reps are also characterized by a lot of locking out, rest-pausing and just overall grinding. It can be argued that locking out your reps is good for your joints. Over time, however, locking out may just grind your joints to powder for a variety of reasons I will get to. Locking out your squats is definitely better for VMO development. Locking out on each rep and pausing ever so briefly also allows you to use more weight. This may be a good thing for many of you. Or it may be a bad thing. It really depends on your goals, what you are training for and how you want to feel 25 years from today.
When I talk about pump reps I am referring to what you see most successful, intelligent bodybuilders do. If you watch Ronnie Coleman do a set of incline dumbbell presses on YouTube you will see what I’m talking about. The sets all look safe, clean and smooth. There is no rest-pausing or locking out; the reps continue in a piston-like fashion until the set ends. He goes heavy as hell, but there is none of that silly screaming and shaking that the HIT’ers love, nor is there any dangerous breakdown of form that the dweebs love (elbows flaring, hips lifting or rotating, etc.). Pump reps are fast yet controlled, heavy yet non-joint-destructive, and the range of motion is always slightly limited. This is a good thing. Despite what your favorite personal trainer told you, it’s not healthy for your shoulders to bring the dumbbells down below the bench when doing flat or incline dumbbell presses. Full range of motion for the pecs would include bringing your arms all the way together behind your back and then crossing them over each other in front of your body. Obviously that would be impossible with any exercise. Like the Red Sox winning another World Series (sorry to my readers from Boston, I joke, I joke). Not happening. So forget about this mythical concept and stay safe.
Failure on a set of grinder reps is a whole lot different than a set of pump reps. Like I said, you will have used more weight and you will have paused and locked out each rep. Failure comes when you are very close to getting injured or your CNS is completely fried. This is great for your ego. It may be great for short-term strength gains as well. But this is the worst style of reps you can do if you still want to be able to train 25 years from now. And in the long term, this style of training will lead to burnout and less impressive strength gains.
When you hit failure on pump reps it’s more due to the feeling of rigor mortis setting in, the accumulative fatigue, lactic-acid buildup, oxygen deficit, etc. This is far, far safer in the long term. You won’t lift as much weight on your sets today but you will probably be stronger five to 10 years from now because you won’t have experienced so many injuries or burnout. It could even be argued that this style of training is more sport-specific because it will help improve your lactic acid tolerance. That’s debatable but I’m throwing it out there, kinda in the same fashion as Baba Booey’s (or Fla Fla Flow Hi's, to hardcore Stern fans) first pitch at the Mets game. On your really hard sets, at most you might want to lock out one or two reps at the very end to catch your breath and get another one. I don’t think it’s necessary but sometimes it’s fun to do in the heat of battle. Just don’t make a habit of doing it if you want be in the game for the long haul.
Now, before I go any further I need to point out that I’m talking about assistance work here. If you’re working up to a three- to five-rep max on some kind of press, squat or deadlift, then by all means, lock out each rep if you want to. On heavy squats, that would actually be safer. It will allow you to reset the proper position at the top of each rep and quickly go through your mental checklist of what you need to do before descending into the next rep. That is a must for safety. But for mindless exercises like one-arm rows and dumbbell presses, pump reps will always be safer.
Finally, we have speed reps. It’s been stated by a few intelligent strength coaches that if you are an athlete training for speed and explosiveness, you should stop all of your sets when the rep speed slows down. This is a very valid argument. If you asked me to, I could tell you why this is 100 percent correct and you should do it 100 percent of the time. But it’s also hard to qualify unless you have a skilled coach watching each of your sets. It’s even harder to do in a group setting, when you are training 10 to 20 athletes. And most importantly, it’s just not as much fun. Athletes love to compete. It’s, umm... why they’re athletes. That means they will compete in everything they do a la Michael Jordan. The weight room will be no different. So if Johnny does a set of eight with the 120’s I can guarantee you that when his training partner and teammate grabs those bells he has a goal of nine reps set in his mind before he even begins the set. And as a coach or trainer you can’t tell him to drop the weights or end his set because the weight is moving too slowly. That creates a crappy atmosphere.
That’s not to say you can’t compete with speed reps, but you have to get creative. Maybe instead of reps you do timed sets of 20 seconds. The reps are all done as fast as possible with perfect form. The goal is to get more reps in 20 seconds. Guys can try to beat each other and beat their PR’s from week to week. Now, that’s a great way to make speed reps effective and fun. I highly recommend you give it a try.
So how should you do your reps? I advise that you always use compensatory acceleration and try to explode the concentric or lifting portion of the exercise as fast as humanly possible. Imagine that there is a piece of wood at your sticking point that you must drive the weight through, like Bruce Lee punching through a brick. If you hit the wood slowly it will never break and you’ll be stuck. You have to explode through it. Never, ever lower the weights slowly for some kind of timed count. That’s nonsense and reserved for Internet strength coaches who have never trained anyone. Lower it under control but consciously use the stretch reflex instead of trying to negate it. That’s more natural and will make you more explosive and athletic.
For the most part I recommend more of a pump style on most assistance exercises. This will keep you a lot safer and in the game a lot longer. The last rep should look exactly like the first rep of a set, albeit slightly slower. But the form can never be allowed to deteriorate. Never fail mid-rep, but stop one or two shy of failure. Beginners should train to failure. That’s because you have to learn what hard work is and know what failure actually is before you can stop a rep or two shy of it. These guys should also lock out each rep at the top very briefly just so that they know what “textbook form” is before they start modifying it.
Everyone else should pump 'em out, hard and fast.
Jason Ferruggia is a renowned fitness expert based out of Santa Monica, CA. He's trained hundreds of clients and been featured in various media outlets during his 18-year career. Find more of his content on his website and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.