An Analysis Of Rep Speed And Rhythm

Have you ever wondered why the speed and rhythm of your reps on a given exercise experience changes over time, and even within a single set? Here are some of my thoughts and analysis of the rep speed and rhythm – an oft-underlooked set of indicators in both strength and skill training amongst amateurs and self-taught individuals.

Rep Speed And Rhythm As An Indicator

The speed and rhythm at which you complete repetitions of a given exercise can be an indicator of your mastery of the particular drill, as well as your prevailing strength levels.

Strength-Intensive Drills

When we are talking about exercises which taxes your strength more than your skill e.g. classic strength-builders such as pull ups, incline pull ups, push ups and dips, drills in which the skill component should not present a challenge equal to that of the strength component, here is how you can interpret your rep speed and rhythm:

If you have been training with the given exercise regularly for some time, you may notice that the first few reps that you do in a set experience a sort of a “bounce”. This is because you have built up more than sufficient strength to do multiple repetitions, and when you are fresh your strength shows – the excess amount that is being exerted causes you to “bounce” on the first few reps.

After this initial stage when you are fresh and raring to go, you should settle into a quick and easy rhythm. This is because your body is instinctively efficient, and “bouncing” on your reps represent a waste of your strength and energy. Thus the body will settle into a steady rhythm for the rep range in which you have acquired sufficient strength through your training. This is the part of the set when the reps feel “smooth” and relatively effortless – strength-wise, this is your comfort zone.

As you progress further through your set you will find your rhythm on the reps starting to slow. This is because you are approaching a strength endurance threshold. This is where you have the strength to keep going, but what strength you have left is insufficient to maintain the smooth and steady rhythm that your body prefers. As you push the set to failure you will notice your range of motion on your reps diminishing as your strength flags and finally fails. Your bodyline may start to get broken up towards the last few reps, or half-reps e.g. piking at the hips in a pull up and sagging at the lower back in a push up.

Take note that when your rhythm starts to slow, your rep speed may or may not do the same. Your rep speed will only slow most noticeably when you feel that your range of motion is being taxed i.e. when you feel that it is increasingly difficult to maintain the original range of motion in your reps that your started the set with.

Skill-Intensive Drills

When we are talking about exercises which taxes your skill (tension and coordination) more than your strength e.g. things involving an element of balance such as handstand push ups, drills in which the skill component presents a greater challenge than the strength component, here is how you can interpret your rep speed:

When you are starting out on a new drill such as the classic handstand push ups, your reps may be fast and relatively uncontrolled, and you may “speed” your way through the skill using a combination of momentum and luck. The use of force from kicking the legs and/or jerking of the torso may be evident as you are struggling to coordinate the exertion of your strength in the demanding position.

When you get better at the drill, your reps will become slower and relatively controlled. Every part of the range of motion of your reps will be more or less under your control, and you are able to “power” your way through a rep smoothly. This is in contrast to the previous stage, where your reps may be fast, but may also suffer from jerky start-and-stops within the range of motion as you struggle with the control and coordination of the skill-intensive drill.

When you have mastered the drill to a certain level, you will find it possible to execute your reps fast and relatively controlled. Your control and coordination have reached sufficient levels such that there is nothing much inhibiting the speed of your exertion. This is the point in the handstand push up where you feel about as confident as performing the inverted pressing as you do your normal face-the-ground push ups. You will be able to go fast without fear, knowing that you are in control all the way. This is akin to the part in a strength-intensive drill where you attain a quick and easy rhythm.

Comparing The Two

If we were to compare the rep speeds in the strength-intensive and skill-intensive drills, I’d say that when these drills are performed in a single maximal set, the rep speed patterns should appear as that described for the strength-intensive drills. However, this only holds when the comparative skill-intensive drill has been practised and refined to a point where it has become no more than another strength-builder to the practitioner. Indeed, even the strength-intensive drills start out as being skill-intensive to the new learner – it’s just that the level of control and coordination that is required for these exercises can be achieved with relative ease.

The rep speed pattern that is evidenced during the course of practice and pursuit of a skill-intensive drill will appear in the reverse order of that which is exhibited in a single maximal set of strength-intensive drill. The fast and uncontrolled jerking will come first in the skill as it does at the end of a maximal training set, before settling into a smooth and steady rhythm after some practice, as in the middle of a training set. Finally the rep speed will become fast and controlled, much like the “bounce” that is often experienced at the start of a strength-training set.

Do note that for skill-intensive drills there may come a point in time when you are able to execute every rep quickly and smoothly, but when you are as-yet unable to link them all together in a similarly swift and steady rhythm. This represents the penultimate step to true mastery, which is the control over both the rhythm of the reps, as well as the rep speed.

So what can I do with this knowledge?

Nothing much for skills training, cos in that specific arena your rep speed is determined by your level of control and coordination, which is, ironically, beyond your control at each individual time-point analysis, until such time as you have mastered the skill to the extent that it becomes just another strength move.

On the other hand, when you are doing multi-set training for a strength exercise, use the rep speed as it is meant to be used – as an indicator. Be able to identify the different stages of rep speed within a single set, and you can record down the rep ranges that fall into these stages, which can be of help in measuring your training progress and for setting your training goals.

For instance, if you are aiming to do more pull ups in the future than you are currently capable of, push every training set to the point where your rep speed and rhythm start to slow. Carry on in this manner until your range of motion starts to decrease as well. Now here comes the important part – DO NOT jerk your body to retain the original range of motion. Instead, keeping your reps as smooth as you can, continue performing half-reps, going up only as high as your strength will allow. This will prevent unnecessary exposure to the risk of injury, while stressing the body’s adaptive  mechanisms into giving you more strength, more quickly.

When you are fresh in a set the reps will start off smoothly, and towards the end of the set you may feel something like a time-lapse delay before your body kick-starts every rep. This is actually what causes the rhythm to slow as your strength gets increasingly taxed. As you push the boundaries (safely!) during your training you will find that the smooth and steady rhythm at or near the start of your set gets extended over a greater rep range. This is a sure sign that you are experiencing improvements in terms of strength endurance – you are able to exert strength at the same level over a greater number of repetitions, of a given exercise, in a single set.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, unless you are already a master in the exercise, you can’t really influence your rep speed and rhythm in a skill-intensive drill.

Fortunately, you can influence your rep speed and rhythm to some extent on exercises that are strength-intensive.

For strength training (or more accurately strength endurance training), attempt to keep your rep speed constant. When you feel as if your body is “grinding” through the rep, it’s time to call it quits for that set in particular. While stressing the adaptive mechanism is good, we don’t want to stress it to the point of breakdown.

So unless you have supreme confidence in the strength and tenacity of your muscles and joints, and paramount faith in your healing and recovery abilities, please do not keep your body to the grindstone. Cut the set when you are “grinding” out the reps, and can your training for the day when you start a new set with the same “grinding”.

Similarly, do not kip or jerk unnecessarily to attain a range of motion that is swiftly getting out of the reach of your strength. Drop to half- or even quarter-reps, and keep stressing your body. Safely.

Remember, rep speed and rhythm for strength-intensive drills are first and foremost, among other things, indicators of your prevailing strength levels. Play if safe and keep everything strength-led – do not employ unnecessary momentum in your movement that may strain the muscles and joints beyond their current capacity. Use your rep speed and rhythm as a training guide, sort of like a speedometer when you’re driving a car.

So treat your training like driving. Unless you’re a lunatic, you’ll want to drive fast, but drive safely. Which means keeping everything under control. Stick to this philosophy, and your body (and your car, if you have one) will thank you for it. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

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