Best Reps for Hypertrophy and Sport-Specific Purposes

We often hear in the industry that one should perform a rep as explosively as possible on each repetition. This methodology has been recommended by authors who write articles for the purposes of both hypertrophy and sport-specific training.

The theory is that by maximizing “explosiveness” one will fully activate the high-threshold motor units (HTMU’s) which will lead to the largest rates of hypertrophy and rate of force development (RFD).

In truth, there’s not much evidence that proves that explosive lifting improves sport performance over controlled lifting. In fact, Bruce-Low and Smith wrote an entire paper on this topic. I highly recommend you check it out so I’ll provide you with a link to the article.

Furthermore, the findings of Hay et al., who measured joint torque in three males while performing biceps curls, also seem to support this view. Hay et al. found that with short duration lifts (< 2 s) very little joint torque was required to move the weight through most of the range of motion (ROM), as after the beginning of the movement the weight continued to move under its own momentum. Therefore, fast movements do not provide as much muscle tension as slow movements through most of the ROM, suggesting that faster repetitions, such as those performed with ‘explosive’ exercises may not produce optimal strength increases through a muscle’s full ROM.

This would apply to hypertrophy as well, various muscles involved in the initial stages of the lift may be stressed very well during explosive movements while other muscles involved at the conclusion of the lift may not be stressed very well.

It has been shown that isometric protocols are “range specific” meaning that they only work really well for a certain range of movement, not the entire movement. From the research above we see that various speeds of repetitions are “range specific” as well.

Finally, EMG data shows that certain exercises fully stress various muscles at different portions of lifts as well. For example, a squat shows more glute activation at the bottom of the movement whereas a hip thrust shows more glute activation at the top of the movement. For this reason, I call the squat a “stretch-position” exercises and a hip thrust a “contracted-position” exercise.

Contrary to popular opinion, the same muscles aren’t active in the same proportions throughout a movement, and different portions of muscles get worked through different ranges as well. In Supertraining, Siff explains the popular, yet erroneous view that:

• The same movement is always produced by the same muscles
• The same muscles always produce the same movement
• The same muscles are dominant throughout the full range of movement
• Muscles only act as active tissues
• Muscles only act as movers or stabilizers
• Muscles are the only important tissues which control movement

These misconceptions simply are not true. Some muscles don’t kick in until leverages and length-tension relationships change during a lift and are also impacted by directional load vectors. This is especially true of compound movements and movements involving the hip joint. As a matter of fact, some muscles can have opposing roles throughout a range of motion. This is called the “inversion of muscular action.” A prime example is the adductors; they are hip extensors when the hips are flexed and hip flexors when the hips are extended.

So if you want to maximize hypertrophy and/or the transfer of strength training to sport, you must consider which “range” the muscles are being stressed per each exercise and type of repetition. In sport-specific training, it’s not just about “the movements;” it’s about muscles, joint angles, load vectors, energy systems, transfer through other areas of the body, etc.

In sports you power through movements such as a sprint stride or jump so you need to be strong and powerful in all ranges.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each type of repetition and exercise. I’ll list just some of the pros and cons to a variety of common types of repetitions:

Benefits of explosive lifting: increased strength in stretched position, best method for starting strength, best method for rate of force development, possibly more tissue damage due to increased stress in stretched position – good for hypertrophy in muscles initiating the movement

Drawbacks of explosive lifting: deceleration up top in contracted position, not so good for finishing strength, not good at producing constant tension which may be critical for hypertrophy

Benefits of controlled lifting: increased strength throughout entire range of motion, no “assistance” from high momentum which requires considerable muscular tension at all ranges, more “constant-tension” which would lead to occlusion and hypoxia – great for hypertrophy

Drawbacks of controlled lifting: slow movement speed, submaximal acceleration

Benefits of accommodating resistance (bands and chains): acceleration, good method for finishing strength

Drawbacks of accommodating resistance (bands and chains): submaximal stress in stretched position compared to straight weight, less stable, doesn’t truly match the “strength curve”

Benefits of weight releasers: accentuated eccentrics

Drawbacks of weight releasers: only works for one repetition

Benefits of isometrics: can improve any specific area of a particular lift

Drawbacks of isometrics: range specific; doesn’t transfer well to other ranges, may interfere with elasticity and power production

Benefits of eccentrics: great for agility, deceleration, and hypertrophy

Drawbacks of eccentrics: extreme soreness, doesn’t always transfer perfectly to concentric strength, sometimes requires spotter

Benefits of ballistics: great for rate of force development and reactivity/elasticity

Drawbacks of ballistics: not good for hypertrophy or max strength

Benefits of concentric-only exercises (ex: sled pushes): reduced soreness

Drawbacks of concentric-only exercises (ex: sled pushes): no eccentric phase, suboptimal for hypertrophy

Benefits of stretched-position exercises: improved starting power

Benefits of contracted-position exercises: improved finishing power

Benefits of eccentric quasi-isometrics: great for simultaneous mobility and stability, great for starting strength

Drawbacks of eccentric quasi-isometrics: not very good for hypertrophy or max strength

Benefits of partials: good for hypertrophy & strength & variety, uniquely stimulates the CNS and connective tissue in a manner that lighter full-range movements can’t

Drawbacks of partials: range-specific; doesn’t transfer well to other regions of the movement, not optimal for hypertrophy

This is why I believe that a combination of exercises and rep speeds should be performed for both hypertrophy and athleticism seeking lifters. One simply cannot get optimal development from only one method. Certain exercises lend themselves better to explosive reps while certain movements lend themselves better to controlled reps. One should have variety in one’s training in regards to both exercise selection as well as types of repetitions in order to maximally strengthen all ranges of motion if one’s goal is to develop the biggest muscles possible or the most powerful muscles possible.

References

Bruce-Low, S. et al. “Explosive Exercises in Sport Training: A Critical Review.” J Exer Phys Online. 10(1) (Feb 2007): 21-33.

Hay JG, Andrews JG, Vaughan CL. “Effects of lifting rate on elbow torques exerted during arm curl exercises.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 1983;15:63-71.

Siff, Mel. Supertraining. 5th Ed. Supertraining Institute, 2003: 194.

14 Comments

  • Roy Hanratty says:

    Bret,

    You said that “some muscles can have opposing roles throughout a range of motion. This is called the “inversion of muscular action.” A prime example is the adductors; they are hip extensors when the hips are flexed and hip flexors when the hips are extended.”

    When you say some muscles can have opposing actions throughout a ROM, are you referring to the same muscle, or different muscles when you used the adductor example. I am familiar with the adductor magnus having a function as a hip extensor and some of the other muscles in the adductor group being hip flexors depending upon the point in the ROM.

    But then you have a muscle like the piriformis, which if I am not mistaken, changes function depending upon the degree of hip flexion, in this case being the same muscle changing function, as opposed to one muscle of a group of muscles sharing a similar functional ability.

  • Roy,

    I don’t think I worded my statement very well. The literature is all over the place in regards to the adductors, but we know that at least some of them, if not all of them, aid in hip extension when the thigh is flexed significantly forward (as in the case of a max speed sprint or a full squat). These same muscles aid in hip flexion when the thigh is extended. So depending on the action and the joint angle, adductors are both extensors and flexors (and adductors).

    The hamstring part of the adductor magnus functions like a hamstring and is innervated by the same nerve as the hamstrings. It’s a huge hip extensor which also may neutralize the abduction component of the gluteus maximus during extension (another theory that is all over the place in the literature).

    The same can be said of many muscles and parts within muscles that act on the hip, such as the pyriformis like you mentioned and all of the gluteal muscles.

    Hope that made more sense!

    Bret

  • Good stuff man!

    I know the literature is not up to speed (ahahaha) on this per say, but I think trying to think about doing a rep slower is not the best use of “mental resources”

    Hypertrophy can be triggered by all sorts of stuff, with some lit showing as low as 30% 1 RM!

    Novel exercises and overload I think are by far the best for hypertrophy. If I were to pick one type of overload, I would go for volume. There are studies to show that 1 set is not as good as 3-5, but it gets murky after that. Like all things, there will be a dose response curve; but it is hard to argue that more quality reps (which is not often done) will make you weaker and smaller.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

    • Thanks Mike! I agree that we shouldn’t try to perform a rep “slow” per se; but there are certain lifts that people will “fling” the weight up and not use any lockout muscles (hip thrusts, bench press, inverted rows, pull ups to name a few). I don’t think that we should lift so explosively that we put less stress on these lockout muscles…glutes, triceps, mid traps, rhomboids, etc.

      The exception would be with bodybuilders who train those muscles with different lifts. I’ve seen plenty of bodybuilders (Branch Warren, Ronnie Coleman, etc.) avoid locking out to keep constant tension on the pecs or quads, but they aren’t trying to train the triceps during exercises like bench press and incline press; they’ll isolate the triceps with different exercises.

      As far as the multiple set/single set argument goes, I’d agree (anecdotal evidence) but interestingly there was a new study this year that showed that single set protocols are more effective for the upper body than the lower body. So if one were to just do one-set per exercise, it appears that it would be more effective to do that for the upper body and not the lower body.

  • Joe says:

    Hey Bret, this and your elitefts article were two fantastic articles. THis one especially made my think. I know what you were trying to say though about stuff like the adductors and such. Different movements will call the same muscles to do different functions. Looking back, I was wondering, what would be the best type of lifting for someone just trying to gain muscle and athleticism at the same time? I saw your comments on Jeffrey Cubos website about the core. Really good stuff. Could the pull up thing explain why gymnasts have incredible abs and in my opinion probably the greatest amount of core strength and stability among any type of athlete?

  • For all around hypertrophy and athleticism I’d say a hybrid of controlled and explosive lifting…meaning lift explosively but not to the point where you fling the weight up and fail to use the lockout muscles.

    It certainly could! Although they use their core during tons of activities.

    Thanks Joe!

  • Greig says:

    Bret,

    A THOUSAND THANKYOUS for what you have created for those who religiously read t-nation.

    As a hard gainer, I struggle just to build muscle much less decipher from a long laundry list of exercises as to which of those will build muscle the best.

    You have taken the guess work, to a large degree, out of my quest to add 10 pounds of muscle to this frame. Now I
    am confident I will be able to achieve this in a shorter amount of time.

    My hat off to you,brother!

    Thanks again!

    Regards,
    Greig

  • Thank you Greig! Much appreciated!!!

  • Elliot Stern says:

    What’s up Bret,

    I gained a lot of knowledge from your book. The difficult thing is applying it to training.

    I use Joe Defranco’s template which is basically westside barbell’s conjugate system for athletes.

    There is 1 max effort leg day per week. I saw your templates in your book and I got a good idea of how I should change Joe’s program.

    I want your feedback on the max effort leg day I created.

    I don’t want to add too much volume but I also want to hit everything. Here is what I have written up for the max effort lower body day:

    By the way, this is the conjugate system so I switch exercises every 3 weeks. For example, I will always do a Straight leg horizontal loaded exercise. I will do 45-degree back raises for 2 weeks. Then, for the next 2 weeks, I will do Reverse Hyperextensions, etc.

    1) Straight leg horizontal load- 3×7-12 stop before failure

    • 45-degree back raises
    • Reverse hyperextensions
    • Reverse Hyper on a Glute Hammy Machine
    • good mornings with resistance bands positioned vertically

    2) Squat exercises- 3×3-5 stop before failure

    • full squat
    • box squat
    • lunge

    3) Bent leg hip extensions 2×3-5 Leave 1 in the tank
    • pull through
    • hip thrusts
    • pendulum quadruped hip extension

    4) Hamstring exercises 3×4-6 Leave 1 in the tank

    • glute ham raise on machine
    • glute ham raise on floor

    How can I improve this?

  • Elliot –

    Great post. Here’s what I’d suggest:

    1) Do the quad dominant movement first in the workout
    2) Work in a deadlift variation unless it’s problematic for you

    That’s all! I think you’ve created a great program.

    Thanks!

    Bret

  • Ad says:

    Hey Bret, I enjoy reading your articles on T-Nation and your comments on strengthcoach. Just got onto your website today. Keep up the good work.

  • Thank you Ad! Much appreciated. I will certainly try!

  • wayne says:

    Hi there,

    Journal of Exercise Physiologyonline.
    STEWART BRUCE-LOW1, DAVE SMITH2.

    Was wondering how they came to the conclusion that the difficulty decreased, when repetition cadence decreased ??? As in below ???

    As if the subjects say did 8 reps at 1/1, but only say 5 at 2/2, that would mean the opposite of what you suggest, as 8 x 1/1 = 16 seconds, and 5 x 2/2 = 20 seconds, thus making the difficulty of the exercise increased not decrease as repetition cadence decreased !!!

    They found that subjects could complete fewer repetitions when performing two-second concentric and two-second eccentric muscle actions than when performing fast, self-paced repetitions, and that they could complete even fewer repetitions when performing two second concentric and four-second eccentric contractions. Therefore, the difficulty of the exercise decreased as repetition cadence decreased.

    Wayne

    • Wayne,

      You make some great points. However, don’t just think about what is more difficult or about time under tension (TUT), think about what muscles are doing the job. For example, if I do explosive hip thrusts and fling myself up, I can use mostly hamstring to accelerate myself to the top without ever using much glute to lockout. Another example is if I explode up for a bench press with my pecs, lats, and front delts and my triceps don’t have to do much work to lock the weight out. Different percentages of muscles are activated at various joint angles. So the body may be better at using momentum to perform more reps, but when you consider which muscles are doing the majority of work and which regions of accentuated force production occur, it makes more sense. You don’t want any weak spots in a particular range of motion. This was the point I was trying to make; not what is more difficult (faster or slower rep cadences).

      As for the researchers conclusions, I think they’re considering total reps performed, not TUT. Hope this answers your question. Great post!

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