Speed of Movement During Exercise – Does it Matter?

Working out at the gym can be confusing for many, and there are so many opinions out there. As a health and fitness professional, I often see people in exercise classes and on the gym floor using extremely light weights and moving their limbs at rapid speed.

Are they getting a great workout? Do fast repetitions build muscles and make you stronger? These questions encouraged me to tackle this subject. Today, we will discuss the speed of movement during exercise, how it can impact your desired results, and some other variables to consider when working out.

Speed of movement during exercise depends on individual fitness goals, and reaching momentary fatigue is key. Fast/high volume lower load (0.5s-8.0s/rep) has advantage for muscle growth. If the focus is greater strength, you want slow/low volume higher load (>8.0s/rep).

Speed of movement during exercise is just one element of designing an effective and individualized exercise program to meet desired fitness goals. Other factors such as the number of sets, how many repetitions, the frequency of training, and duration play a crucial role, as well. We will explore some of these important variables below to help assure you are getting the most bang for your fitness buck.

Key Terminology

Let’s define some key terms that you may want to come back to during your read.

Speed: The rate at which something is able to move or operate.

Momentum: The impetus gained by a moving object. The force with which a body moves. The product of its mass and velocity (F=MA).

Isometric Exercise: Exercise that involves muscular contraction without movement of the individual parts of the body. A plank would be an example of an isometric exercise.

Isotonic Exercise: Exercise that involves maintaining constant tension on a muscle as the muscle changes length. This can occur with either a concentric (shortening) or eccentric (lengthening) contraction. An example would be a bicep curl.

Concentric (positive) Contraction: The shortening of a muscle against a resistive force. An example would be the upward-lifting phase of a bicep curl.

Eccentric (negative) Contraction: The lengthening of a muscle while producing force. This usually takes place as the muscle returns from the shortened (concentric) position back to its lengthened state.

The velocity of Contraction: The speed at which a muscle changes length during a contraction.

Time Under Tension: the amount of time a muscle spends under load.

One Rep Max: The maximum possible weight a person can lift for one repetition. A safer way of determining the one rep max is called submaximal estimation; however, it may underestimate the actual 1RM.

Momentum

We often hear people talk about momentum when it comes to strength training, and they will say that momentum should not be used when lifting weights. Taken literally, this statement would suggest all workouts should be isometric – without any movement at all.  

When we discuss the speed of movement during exercise, we are speaking of speed in the truest definition. We don’t want to confuse speed with momentum.

Speed is the rate at which something is moving (I.e., repetitions per minute). Momentum is the strength or force that is gained by motion itself and is the product of a body’s mass and its velocity.

When it comes to exercise and momentum, there are three factors to consider: the mass force production of the exerciser, the weight of the object being moved, and the speed/velocity of movement.

I’m sure you have witnessed suboptimal use of momentum in action at the gym. It’s that person who arches their back as they struggle to do those last few scaption shoulder raises, or the person in the body conditioning class who effortlessly lifts-and-lowers extremely light dumbbells with rapid-fire speed.

* A trainers rule of thumb: if the dumbbell weighs less than your bag of groceries, you may want to consider increasing the weight.

Unless you live in a city like New York, where you have to pack and carry a week’s worth of groceries by hand to your doorstep. In this case, you may need a massage more than your next workout! Living in NYC is an endurance sport!

During weight training, momentum can be disadvantageous, and potentially injurious. It can reduce the effectiveness of the work being done by recruiting other muscles to take over, and it can lead to unnecessary chronic wear and tear of the ligaments and joints.

Cue – Time Under Tension

What exactly is time under tension, and how does it play out with exercise?

Time under tension (TUT) is the amount of time a muscle spends under a given load. When used effectively, it can help to increase the metabolic response, and can ultimately lead to greater muscle growth. A common school of thought is a lifter needs between 60-90 seconds of TUT if the ultimate goal is hypertrophy (greater muscle size).

Time under tension has multiple factors to take into consideration to utilize this technique effectively and efficiently: load intensity (the size of weight used), load volume (how many times you lift/lower the weight), the speed/timing of each repetition, the total amount of time under tension per set, and perhaps the most important factor – the attainment of momentary fatigue/muscle failure at the end of a given set.

One sure-fire way to minimize excess use of momentum is to place a greater focus on time under tension during your reps and sets. This can be accomplished by choosing a weight that will make it necessary to slow down the speed of movement during exercise.

This does not necessarily mean exercising with slow movements, it just means using enough of a load that you are not swinging the arms around like a bird during your set.

To maximize TUT, three things must be taken into consideration: a proper and effective range of motion, the length of time the muscle is kept under stress during a given set of exercises, and reaching momentary fatigue at the end of the set.

Utilizing an optimal range of motion is essential to maintain muscular time under tension. For example, when performing a bicep curl, it is best to maintain a slight angle of the arm and forearm at the bottom of the movement, as well as an approximately 30-degree angle at the top of your curl. This will ensure the muscle fibers are engaged throughout the entire set. 

Time Under Tension – In Practical Terms

Let’s take a bench press as an example. To make it simple, we’ll assign a 10 rep set.

Our muscle hypertrophy equation is: Volume = (# of sets to momentary fatigue) x ( # repetitions) x (weight lifted)

We start with 3 sec. eccentric / 3 sec. concentric rep. This set of ten exercises will give you a total TUT of 60 seconds for the entire set.

A 2012 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning did a study on “the implications of hypertrophy training” regarding high and low-velocity resistance loading equated by volume. This study compared high load/low velocity – 70% of one-rep max and three sets of twelve versus low load/high velocity – 35% of one-rep max and six sets of twelve. LLHV protocol may offer an equal if not better training stimulus for muscular adaptation than the HLLV protocol, because of the greater time under tension, power, force, and work output when the total volume of the exercise is equated.

Not All Muscle Is Created Equal

Let’s talk fiber. I’m not talking dietary fiber . . . but while we are at it, why not take a moment to prepare a healthy Morning Grains Bowl and we’ll begin!

Tick – Tock – Tick – Tock – Tick – Tock . . . 

OK, we are back. Let’s discuss muscle fibers.

Let’s geek-out on a few new words? Why not.

Motor Unit:  The combination of skeletal muscle fibers and the nerve that innervates/supplies those fibers of the muscle. 

Slow Twitch – Fatigue Resistant (Type I) Muscle Fibers: The fibers within the muscle that are geared towards long-term endurance activities. They can withstand long periods of exercise, and don’t fatigue easily.

These fibers are often called “red fibers” because they contain more blood-carrying myoglobin, which is why they have a darker red appearance. Due to their mitochondria content, they are considered aerobic (use oxygen to create adenosine triphosphate ATP). ATP is the fuel source for muscle contraction.

Fast Twitch (Type II) Muscle Fibers: Fast-twitch muscles have a greater and faster force production, and are important for power activities that require intense power in a short amount of time, such as powerlifting and sprinting.

Fast-twitch fibers are divided into two categories:

Type IIa (oxidative-glycolytic/fatigue-resistant) can use both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.

Type IIb (fast glycolytic) – Fast Fatigue (able to produce great force, but fatigue very quickly, due to their limited availability of ATP stored within the cell.  

Image source: Very Well Fit

Henneman’s Size Principle

The Henneman’s Size Principle states that muscle fiber recruitment happens in a specific order, from the smallest to the largest. The slowest, more fatigue-resistant slow-twitch muscles are recruited first, then the fast-twitch fatigue resistant, followed by the fast-twitch fast fatigue fibers.

The lower the demand (i.e., light resistance, faster velocity) = lesser recruitment of fibers. The higher the demand (i.e., heavy resistance, naturally slower velocity) = greater recruitment of fibers. This means that the body will require an excessive load to recruit the largest overall number of muscle fiber types. In essence, the more motor units we recruit – fast and slow – the more total size and strength we will achieve. 

The velocity or speed of movement is not as critical when seeking hypertrophy, or increased muscle mass. Creating momentary muscle fatigue, or working to failure, is one of the most important objectives when the ultimate goal is hypertrophy.

Whether you are lifting light or heavy, fast velocity or slow, it is paramount to focus on working to the point of conscious muscular fatigue, where further repetitions would be exceedingly challenging. This will ultimately help create an overload on a larger group of skeletal muscle fibers.

Concentric / Eccentric Movements and Exercise Velocity

When it comes to working out, there are three types of movements/contractions to consider: concentric (the shortening of a muscle under load), eccentric (the lengthening of a muscle under load) and isometric (maintain muscular tension without movement).

The eccentric portion, or lengthening phase of an exercise, has always been touted as the most important part of the movement. A study published in 2019 issue of Frontiers of Physiology found that eccentric contraction velocity had no impact on muscle hypertrophy, “as long as time under tension is matched between conditions and the load magnitude and range of motion are similar.” They also found a correlation between muscle gain and maximum muscle power; and that the combination of time under tension, the magnitude of load, and range of motion may be the main contributions to muscle adaptation after eccentric training. 

Velocity, in concert with other factors, appears to play a significant role in muscle power and hypertrophy. However, slow and controlled eccentric training that emphasizes longer periods of TUT can have other significant benefits such as reducing peak forces on the joints, and can help improve muscular imbalances in the elderly, and can be a beneficial training technique for athletes suffering tendinopathy.

Factoring In Your One-Rep Max

So, we have been discussing speed and exercise, what does a 1-rep max have to do with all of this?

We discussed how important momentary fatigue, or working to failure is when attempting to achieve your fitness goals. It is also important to try and complete each set within a designated period. This period is dependent on your objectives: Power, Strength, Hypertrophy, or Endurance.

To successfully fatigue within this specified period, we need to have a good idea of how much weight to use. Establishing a 1-rep max, or the absolute maximum amount of weight you could safely lift in one repetition is important.

Let’s explore some ways to establish your 1-RM for a beginner, intermediate and advanced lifter.

* It is highly recommended that a qualified and trained fitness professional work with you during these tests to assure proper form and technique are observed, and safety protocols are taken into consideration. Also, you should be cleared by a medical professional to assure there are no contraindications.

We will use the wonderful work established by Jake Boly, CSCS to help guide us through the process.

Finding Your 1-RM – Beginner

If you have been going to the gym regularly for less than six months, this approach is the safest way to establish your estimated 1-RM. The below NSCA estimated 1-RM formula chart provides the recommendations established by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Warmup: (recommended rest period between sets is 3-4 minutes)

  • 10 repetitions using only the bar
  • 8 repetitions using what you consider to be a light load
  • 6 repetitions using a moderately heavy load
  • 5 repetitions with a slightly heavier load
  • 5 repetitions with increasingly heavier weight
  • 5 repetitions with a continued increase in load

Your final set should take you to momentary fatigue, where you feel lifting one more time will significantly take you beyond your comfort zone. Try to complete this series in 5-6 sets. Once you have established your near-maximum load for 5 repetitions, you use the following formula to establish your 1-RM.

(5-rep weight x 1.15 = estimated 1-RM)

If you have been working out for less than one or two months, you may want to follow the above protocol using a higher number of repetitions, to begin with. While this will not provide a 100% accurate 1-RM, it is a great benchmark for beginners to make sure they are on the right path, and getting the most effective results for their time spent at the gym.

Finding Your 1RM – Intermediate

If you have been attending the gym regularly for 6-18 months, you may want to use the protocol below to establish your 1-RM.  For intermediate and advanced lifters, you may want to refer to the Rate of Perceived Exertion chart below.

Below are two ways to determine your 1-RM for an intermediate lifter. For the gym-goer, who may have several months under their belt but may still not be as advanced as someone with prior athletic training, utilize the RPE scale above for determining your I-RM.  This protocol will start out similar to the beginners, with some modifications as you progress.

Warmup: (rest as necessary between sets to achieve desired weight the next round)

  • 10 repetitions with only the bar
  • 8 repetitions with 55% of 1-RM or 5 on the RPE scale
  • 6 repetitions with 65-70% of 1-RM or 7 on the RPE scale
  • 3 repetitions with 77% of 1-RM or 8 on the RPE scale
  • 3 repetitions with 87% of 1-RM or 8.5 on the RPE scale
  • 3 repetitions with 94% of 1-RM or 9 on the RPE scale
  • 3 repetitions with 95+% 1-RM or 10 on the RPE scale

Finding Your 1RM – Advanced

This technique is for the lifter who has more than 18 months of dedicated lifting experience under their belt. This lifter knows all the safety protocols, has mastered proper form and technique and understands each component of the compound movement utilized during their movements.

This lifter more than likely already has a good idea of what their 1-RM is but wants more accuracy. Also, they understand the advantages of utilizing a periodized approach to fitness and want to implement this additional knowledge into their well-structured periodized training program.

Warmup: (rest as necessary between sets to achieve desired weight the next round)

  • 10 repetitions with only the bar
  • 8 repetitions with 55% of 1-RM or 5 on the RPE scale
  • 6 repetitions with 65-70% of 1-RM or 7 on the RPE scale
  • 4 repetitions with 75% of 1-RM or 7.5 on the RPE scale
  • 3 repetitions with 80% of 1-RM or 8 on the RPE scale
  • 2 repetitions with 87% of 1-RM or 9 on the RPE scale
  • 1 repetition with 91-96% of 1-RM or 9 on the RPE scale
  • 1 repetition with 97-101% of 1-RM or 10 on the RPE scale
  • ** 1 repetition with 102+% 1-RM or 10 on the RPE scale (only if applicable)

*It is essential to have a trainer and/or a spotter present for these supramaximal fitness tests, and if you are new to this, make sure you have been cleared by a physician to assure your body does not have any pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions that would make these types of tests contraindicated. 

Tempo Training – Speed of Movement

Like science, exercise choices and their benefits can often be anecdotal. As science continues to evolve, so does researcher bias. What works for one may not for another. The best way to figure things out is through personal experimentation to find out what works best for YOU.

Below we will discuss tempo training, which always opens the floor for great debate. You have one side of the room that thinks extreme slow lifting will bulk you up. Meanwhile, you have another side saying that bulking up is all in the power and speed.

And on the far far far side of the room, you have the man who only comes to the gym to use the sauna! 🙂

We discussed time under tension earlier, and it has been shown that increased time under tension can achieve greater muscle growth. So, it can also be argued that slow lifts with heavy weight will increase TUT, and result in greater hypertrophy.

Well, hold the phone! Let’s interview the other side of the room . . . 

If you lift at a faster tempo, you can ultimately perform more reps using heavier weights than can be used with slow lifting, which should lead to greater muscle mass. Who is right?

A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared “super slow” reps (using a 10 sec concentric and 4 sec eccentric) with faster reps (using a 1-2 second concentric/eccentric cycle) on the muscles of the lower extremity. 

The super-slow group had a near five-fold greater time under tension than the faster group, but only yielded an 11% increase in quadriceps muscle size compared to a 39% increase in the faster rep group. 

Another study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that chest activation was reduced by 36% during the bench press when using slow rep/light weight training (5 seconds concentric and 5 seconds eccentric 55% 1-RM) compared to faster tempos (as fast as possible with 85% 1-RM). Both groups were instructed to take their sets to failure. The conclusion was a slower set fails to recruit and stimulate the higher threshold Type II muscle fibers.

In general, faster repetitions lead to greater size. A 2016 meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues explored this concept in greater detail. The overall findings were that overall, faster tempos (in the range between 2 and 6 seconds per repetition) showed greater results for muscle growth, with greater results closer to 2 seconds. Anything beyond a total repetition range of 10 seconds showed suboptimal conditions for muscular hypertrophy.  

When performing these protocols, emphasis should be on the eccentric (lengthening) phase of the contraction. As research has shown that a greater emphasis on the eccentric phase not only results in greater muscle and strength gains. it also helps reduce the risk of injury.

When lifting loads closer to the 1-RM, it will be near impossible to increase speed. It is still recommended that you try to mentally control the eccentric phase, whenever applicable. 

Credit to Built With Science for providing the data for the Tempo Training portion of this post. 

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Let’s Put This All Together – Conclusion

As we can see, choosing a speed of movement during exercise has a lot of factors to take into consideration. No matter the goal, it is imperative that the concept of momentary failure is understood, and the ability to effectively maximize time under tension is practiced. These two concepts will be fundamental benchmarks for achieving success.

For advanced seasoned lifters, if the goal is to increase power, speed, and intramuscular coordination, the best approach is to keep the load closer to 95-100% 1-RM; keep the reps between 1 and 3, and the TUT will most likely fall between the 1-6 second range. It is important to rest between sets, taking between 3-5 minutes for recovery.  Keep in mind, the risk to reward ratio is high, and potential damage to muscle and joints can occur. This type of lifting is only recommended for experienced and well-trained lifters.

If the goal is to increase muscular strength, as well as size, we want to lift in the 85-95% 1-RM range; keep the reps in the 4-7 range, and TUT should fall somewhere between 6 and 20 seconds. The rest between sets should be between 1 1/2 and 2 minutes.

If hypertrophy is the goal, we will want to keep the percentage of 1-RM between 75-85%; repetitions should be between 8-12; and TUT in the 40-60 second range. The rest should be between 1 – 1/2 minutes. 

For the endurance athlete who wants to improve sports performance or a person who wants to prevent muscular atrophy, it is recommended to keep the weight somewhere between 65-80% of 1-RM; repetitions can fall in the 12+ range; and TUT somewhere between 70 and 100 seconds. Rest between sets can be anywhere between 20-60 seconds, or whenever you feel ready to go at it again. 

Fitness is never cookie-cutter, and it often takes trial and error to find what works best for you. This post was to give you some options to explore so you can get the most out of your time spent at the gym!

Thank you for reading.

Richard Lehman, LMT, CSCS

Compliment Your Body, LLC has been providing In-Home and Corporate / Event chair massage to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our company. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

Compliment Your Body has chosen  Food Bank For New York City as their 2019 and 2020 charity of choice. Every chair or table massage session for the remainder of 2019, and throughout 2020 will provide three meals to a New York City resident in need.

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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