I’m sure you’ve heard it all, “high reps, low weight,” “Lift Heavy!” “Increase your intensity,” “Slow down the reps.” With all of this conflicting advice its pretty difficult to know what to do.
Well I decided to get to the bottom of this. The Latest research conducted by Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., CSCS, points to the answer: It doesn’t really matter.
When your goal is to build muscle, it is best to slow down to a pace where you can really focus on isolating and contracting the muscle you’re trying to work. Schoenfeld and coauthor Bret Contreas, CSCS, described it like this, “strategy involves visualizing the target muscle and consciously directing neural drive to the muscle during exercise performance.”
Basically, what they are saying is if you’re doing a calf raise you are going to envision your calf muscle squeezing, and focus all your attention to your calf while lifting. Once you’re able to do this you can try to speed it up a little bit, as long as you can stay focused. I guess there is something to be said for those mean old gym folks who don’t want to talk, and just focus on their workout – its actually helping them get better results!
That technique is only good when you’re working on one muscle at a time. If you’re doing compound exercises that require multijoint movement (think powerlifting: squat, deadlift, bench press, or Olympic lifts), then keeping focused on only one of the muscles involved is a terrible idea. With complex movements, and when you are trying to lift your max weight, the focus needs to be shifted to completing the movement as quickly as possible.
Having said that, there is something else to keep in mind: technique first then weight. Almost all the studies say that. You need to be able to perform the movement properly, like second nature, before you start trying to max out or pick up the pace. This will help you avoid injury. The best way to do this is to hire a professional to watch you and give rep-by-rep feedback. Maybe not forever, but at least until you get the hang of it.