Find Your Optimal Speed for Lifting Weights

Tony Bonvechio
by Tony Bonvechio
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Find Your Optimal Speed for Lifting Weights

How fast or slow you lift weights can impact your strength and muscle gains in a big way. Every workout program focuses on sets and repetitions, but the speed at which you lift is important, too. Depending on your goals, there’s a rep speed that’s best for you.

WHAT THE LIFTERS SAY

If you ask the buffest people in the gym what to do, you may get different answers.

The bodybuilder will say, “Lift nice and slow so you feel the muscles burning. That’s how you build muscle.”

The powerlifter will say, “Lift every rep as fast as possible so you can lift more weight.”

In a way, they’re both right. Based on their individual experience, different rep speeds can produce good results. But what does the research say?

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS

If you were looking for a definitive answer, well, research actually supports both methods. It just depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you want bigger muscles, then slower rep speeds may be the way to go according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Applied Exercise Physiology. This study confirms what the bodybuilder says: The subjects that took four seconds to lower the weight (the eccentric phase) built about 10% more muscle and got about 13% stronger over a 12-week exercise program than subjects who took only one second to lower the weight. This resulted in more time under tension, which means the muscles were stressed for a longer period of time each set.

However, both groups moved the weight the same speed on the way up (the concentric phase), so we can’t make any conclusions about how fast you should be lifting the weight up, only lowering the weight down.

If you want stronger muscles, A 2014 study in the European Journal of Sports Science confirms what the powerlifter says. Lifting the weight as fast as possible on the way up, as opposed to lifting the weight slowly, makes you stronger. Subjects got about 18% stronger on the bench press when they moved the load as fast as possible, versus 9% stronger when they moved the weight at half-speed. That’s simple physics: Force equals mass times acceleration, so to produce more force, lift as fast as you can.

Essentially, if you want to build lean muscle, moving the weight slowly on the way down will help. If you want to get stronger, it doesn’t matter how slowly you lower the weight, as long as you lift it back up quickly. In both cases, lifting the weight up fast, rather than slowly, may be the best option.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLES: THE SQUAT

To build more muscle to tone your quads, hamstrings and glutes:

  • Lower the weight down slowly (about 4 seconds) until your hips are lower than your knees.
  • Stand up as quickly as you’re comfortable (preferably about 1 second).
  • Perform as many reps as possible until you’re about 1 rep shy of failure.
  • Perform 2–3 sets total.

To build strength so you can squat more weight:

  • Lower the weight at a moderate speed (about 2–3 seconds).
  • Stand up as quickly as possible (preferably about 1 second).
  • Perform as many reps as possible until can you no longer lift the weight quickly.
  • Perform 3–4 sets of 5 reps.

OBEY THE SPEED LIMIT

How fast you lift weights depends on your goals. Slow reps and fast reps both work, but choose your rep speed based on whether you’d rather gain muscle or get stronger. Or use them both during different workouts to get the best of both worlds.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio
Tony Bonvechio

Tony Bonvechio (@bonvecstrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA, and a personal trainer in Providence, RI. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at bonvecstrength.com.

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