People focus on reps. People focus on types of exercises. People will even talk a lot about form and technique. But the quality of the movement extends beyond all of these.
People will report reps to me as if anyone should care. What was the QUALITY of each rep? What was the range of motion? What was the time under tension? What was the degree to which you could connect with the intended muscles?
Reps are A way to describe a performance. It is our jargon for moving a resistance down and up or up and down, from a start position through resistance to a certain distance and back to that start position. But someone can make an exercise easier and less effective BY PERFORMING MORE REPS, even with the exact same exercise with the exact same resistance, IF the range of motion is less, the activation of intended muscles is less, and the tempo is faster.
Imagine someone squats with 100lbs on his back. He takes 5 seconds to descend into a full rock bottom squat (approximately 135 degrees knee flexion). He pauses for 3 seconds. He ascends over the course of 4 seconds. ONE REP. Full range. He can feel the hips and glute muscles working intently and intentionally. Quality. 12 seconds time under tension for a single rep.
In a few months, imagine, he reports back 200lb back squats for 10 reps. Sounds good, right? But then we discover he doesn’t achieve more than 45 degrees knee flexion, and tempo is now .5/0/.5. Garbage quality. The entire set of 10 reps takes less time than the single rep used to. Time under tension is AT LEAST 2 seconds less than it was; and he never interfaces with the myofibril landscape to stimulate progress. He doesn’t feel his glutes working. He isn’t intentional with hips. He’s regressed, become weaker, and I can guarantee he can’t even manage 100lbs in the full squat anymore.
This happens. I have observed it many times. People will speed up and shorten range and REDUCE engagement in order to create the impression that more was done. But it’s actually far less. People will attend group classes where a set of an exercise could be multiple minutes. They pause longer in low effort positions (knees locked or elbows locked). They shorten the amount of joint angle used. They REDUCE the overall work performed, all the while claiming they’ve done more.
The human animal is an energy conservation machine. So it will literally do anything in order to exert less effort. This includes completing more reps or doing more of anything in order to APPEAR to be doing more, when, in fact, the effort and work performed is less. It is to satisfy the mind’s desired belief to be improving. I’ve seen the phenomenon with people in running or endurance programming. I’ve seen it with people in their own strength programs. I’ve fallen prey to it in my own lifts.
In order to combat it, we need to periodically complete super slow reps. Especially power athletes, especially explosive athletes, especially people like me who are wired for more of the max strength tempos, we must from time to time train outrageously lengthy reps. For some clients, I’ve insisted they complete a 10 count on the descent and another on the ascent. Usually, we’ll pick a weight that’s 25-50% of what they’ve been doing. But it almost doesn’t matter at the beginning, because they soon discover there are all sorts of muscles and fibers and tissues and feedback they’ve perhaps never had before. We begin to strengthen sections of the movement they’ve always used momentum to avoid or shortened range of motion to avoid. And people will realize that they are being much more effective and working HARDER than ever before simply by implementing intentionality, slowing down, getting in touch with quality.
You can integrate this into an existing program within the midst of a single set here and there. Or you can completely overhaul your full program by making every set like this.
Simply grab a weigh or hop on a machine or set up for a body weight exercise; take the extra time and care to think about and feel which muscles or area of the body must be involved; and begin the movement, counting, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” taking note the intended muscles are still intentional and the movement is quality, then begin to return to start position, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Don’t even both counting reps. This is more than enough mental bandwidth. It could be 2. It could be 5. But just keep the intention and the quality.