Tortoise reps have a place in the training world but a limited one. For rehab and prehab you might be able to justify 4-5 second lowering AND lifting phases, but on compound moves?!
This will just make you slower, less explosive and less athletic. In other words: the only thing you’ll get good at is lifting weights s-l-o-w-l-y.
I was there some years ago now, probably about 6 or 7 actually. I couldn’t accelerate a barbell if you had an AK-47 held at my head. Even those explosive empty bar warm ups your powerlifting heroes do, seemed like light speed to me!
I’d warm up with the empty bar and still look like I was doing tempo training. I wasn’t. I was trying to move fast but had no speed. And how does someone who had always had an 11 second 100 metre sprint time (even as an out of shape kid), end up grinding out empty bar reps despite being able to still bench press loads more than the empty bar, albeit slowly?
The WRONG training style/intention
‘You get what you train’ is an age old saying and for great reason. Look into someone’s training history and you’ll see why they’re the way they are now. I was no exception. I was a twig after running off all my fat, muscle and organ coverage (I went from 100kg to 60kg in a few months), and wanted to build back up. So I dived into the world of hypertrophy and getting massive, and the in-thing at the time was time under tension (TUT) based training.
The premise that all reps aren’t equal and all that matters to your body isn’t rep count but rather the time frame of tension your muscles are exposed to.
So me (and many other friends at the time) would do our perfectly counted 4 second negative and our equally elegant 2 second positive, making sure we got the magic 6 seconds of tension per rep. 6 reps later we had 36 seconds of time under tension! We were on the way to being MAAAAASSSSIIIVVVEEEEEE…
Yet our weight didn’t change and our measurements didn’t either, HOW & WHY in the f*ck?!
Because we were over-emphasising a tiny part of a huge puzzle and the part we were emphasising was pretty irrelevant to us!
Back then I didn’t know what I know now and my naivety was endearing. But I now know how many other factors are pivotal for muscle growth far beyond the perfect time under tension figure.
Mechanical tension (load on the bar/muscles) for example. Developing the fast twitch muscle fibers (that have the greatest potential for growth) is another. Even feeling the right muscles working (mind-muscle-connection) is another still!
If these aren’t in anyway developed, trying to perfect your time-under-tension range is akin to putting go-faster tyres on a car with no engine or gearbox; it’s ridiculous.
But you only know what you ‘know’ and what your gurus tell you, right? And I bought into that TUT shit like a real cult follower aka sucker.
By doing these slow reps you’re training your body to move heavy weights slow and this is awful for strength development, even more so when you’ve got little to begin with!
Always training too heavy
Another misconception with power training is the necessity of heavy loads. The rationale goes something like: ‘if I can overcome as much resistance as possible in a squat, then surely I can jump crazy high without weight?!’
It isn’t quite so easy I’m afraid. As any power coach will tell you, speed is its own beast and needs be trained and harnessed as such. This is why the world’s smartest powerlifters will have speed days & speed blocks in their training; to teach them to accelerate the weights with maximum force/velocity.
When you’re always lifting near your max, there’s no way you can move the load fast and as a result, you get good at grinding reps – so good you can’t actually do a lighter weight at speed any more!
And then there’s the nervous system fatigue that becomes your world and the only thing you know, by training this way all the time. A tired nervous system is the biggest enemy to speed and high performance, hence why speed blocks are all about staying fresh, maximum velocity and little to no fatigue.
Undoing the damage
Before we go further we need to face up to a cold hard truth, and that is: there’s a genetic cap on how explosive you will ever be. But this doesn’t mean you can’t improve what you have if you train hard and smart.
An example coming to mind here is the success of Chris Barnard from OverTimeAthletes – which most of you will know as Elliott Hulse’s old right hand man from the good old Strength Camp videos. Chris went from a mid 30s (inch) vertical jump to a 44 inch vertical jump with smart and consistent training. Whereas I read the opinions of a few other coaches and they said your vertical jump is more or less pre-determined and therefore can’t be trained/improved.
Oh and he’s white…
Like any goal, it needs to take priority. You need to want to be faster and more explosive first and I mean REALLY want it. Not just say you do and still keep training aerobically with long runs, cardio workouts and crap loads of endurance based lifting.
That stuff needs to go for a while and your mindset needs to shift with it.
When you first get into fitness and training you think it needs to be hard or else it’s not worth anything, right? I was the exact same. I’d run on the treadmill and kill myself, then kill myself a bit more the next time and so on, and so on…
And this is a great mindset for a beginner but once engrained it can be hard to lose when you need to lose it. And one time you definitely need to lose it is when you’re trying to become faster/more explosive.
Fatigue is the enemy of speed yet countless times whenever I’m coaching and I’ll say I want 3 of your fastest reps, I’ll get them carrying on to 5 or 6 and slowing down to a snail’s pace. Yet again, the metric of fatigue is being wrongly used instead of the speed of the rep.
Fatigue is the enemy of speed.Tweet
Proper speed & explosive training is when you stop the sets or reps as soon as the speed drops. This is what guys like Chris Barnard & Cal Dietz will do with their athletes, as anything else is just accumulating unnecessary fatigue and training sub-maximal speed.
A mini blueprint
If you’re looking to restore and build new levels of power/speed, whether it be for a sport or just to shake things up and reinvent yourself & your training, here’s a few key factors to consider:
- Always train speed/power fresh (and by ‘fresh’ we mean fully recovered, not just at the start of a workout. There’s no point training speed & explosivity if your nervous system is shot)
- Keep reps low & stay away from fatigue; usually this is sets of no more than 3 reps (work duration <10 seconds)
- Monitor velocity/quality work from set to set as best possible (if your 100 metre time drops for example, stop the set and move on)
- Accept you will have to lift light(er) weights and focus on accelerating them as much as possible
- It will take a while for your bodyweight based movements to feel like they’re getting faster (box jumps, lunge jumps, explosive pull ups/muscle ups, push ups etc);but the intent is everything
- As you get more advanced with speed/power training you may find you need to dedicate an entire training block (2-4 weeks) to this physical attribute alone
- Avoid excessive cardio/aerobic work while trying to improve your speed (especially if you’re not naturally explosive) as this will pull your body in completely opposite directions & you’ll get neither
Like with anything, this is a spectrum/scope. You may not ‘need’ power but it certainly isn’t going to hurt you either. Even if you play recreational sports you can still benefit from upping your power and athleticism.
Further still, if you’re older (50+), you’ll find you’re gradually losing the capacity of your fast twitch muscle fibers. Applying the approaches we’ve looked at today will keep you fast and explosive for as long as possible and thus, defy the aging process.
Whenever I work with older clients I always factor in some form of power training to keep the fast twitch fibers sharp. This is always done sensibly and with moves their joints can handle and have been pre-conditioned for, though.
When we think anti-aging markers we think grip strength, mobility and balance but rarely do we consider power & explosivity. And now hopefully you value it as much as I do!
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