If you want to get stronger, get big arms and punchy pecs, how quickly should you lift? There is a benefit to lifting the best dumbbell or the best barbell fast, and a different benefit to lifting them slow. But never mind that: which approach to lifting is the best? And by that, we mean the most effective at helping you build muscle fast.
Well guess what? Sports science researchers at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo have conducted a 12-week long test to find out exactly that, using their cheif weapon: science.
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The research, originally published in July 2016 in the International Journal of Applied Exercise Physiology, was quite aptly named "Resistance training with slow speed of movement is better for hypertrophy and muscle strength gains than fast speed of movement." The title totally gives it away! But read on, nonetheless.
Yep, they found that a slow movement speed when lifting weights resulted in better gains.
So perhaps the more important question is, how much better?
To find out, researchers recruited 12 "well-trained adults" and divided them into two groups: fast speed (FS) and low speed (SS). Muscle hypertrophy was measured by an ultrasound examination of the cross-sectional area of the brachial biceps muscle. Muscular strength was verified by a 1 RM test.
To clarify, muscle hypertrophy is a state when muscle cells expand in response to resistance training. Fun fact: muscular people have the same amount of muscle cells as the non-muscular variety, but the former group's cells are larger which makes them stronger and bigger-looking overall.
'1 RM' refers to 'one rep max', an amount of weight you can lift once before you experience muscle failure. Understably, your '1RM' weight is going to be way more than the weights you use for your 8-12 rep sets. If you don't know how much your one rep max is, there are numerous '1 rep max calculators' found online to check this.
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Back to the research. The 12 people involved trained twice a week for 12 weeks and performed 3 sets of 8 repetitions maximum, so reps were at the bottom of the muscle hypertrophy range. Participants performed the Scott curl exercise, an isolating movement that concentrates on the biceps. there was a 2-minute rest interval between sets.
The 'fast speed' group lifted and lowered the weight for the same amount of time (one second each) whilst the 'slow speed' group lifted the weights for one second and lowered them for three seconds. Admittedly, the biceps of the SS group was 'under tension' for way longer, especially in the eccentric (negative or in this case, lowering) phase.
The researchers concluded by stating that "the results show us the superiority of SS to improve hypertrophy and muscle strength. The improved hypertrophy in SS group could be explained by a longer time under tension, especially with a slower eccentric phase. It causes higher muscular tension...leading to greater muscle damage. This promotes greater activation of satellite cells, which are related to muscle hypertrophy".
Slower lifting speed = bigger gains. Simple as that.
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We would like to note that the sample size was relatively low and although the results are statistically significant, this doesn't mean they are universal. All participants were presumably male and between the age of 20-35, not a good cross section of the world population.
Nevertheless, it is worth experimenting with different techniques in the gym and including slower eccentric movements during lifts, at least some of the time. Fast, explosive movements shouldn't shunned either as they can provide variety and a different muscle stimuli which on the long term might result in more noticeable gains.
We found this research over at T-Nation.