Speed and tension in slow lifts

Pay enough attention to people at the gym and you will eventually hear all kinds of different cues as how it relates to speed and tension when lifting heavy weights. Go fast! Lower slowly! Explode up! Stay tight! There are some valuable guidelines to use but they might not be what your fellow lifters are telling you.

First let’s talk about what strength is. The more muscle fibers you recruit the more force is produced by the muscle. The determening factor for how many muscle fibers are recruited are the amount of motor neurons firing. The relationship between neurons and muscle fibers is what’s called motor units. We will get back to the details surrounding this at a later point. For now all you need to know is that the more motor units that are recruited, the more force is produced.

There’s a long prevailing idea known as hyperirradiation, which certainly needs to be questioned, but the consenus of the principle appears to be right: tension is contagious and if you tense other muscle than only those directly involved more force can be produced. In a more layman’s term this essentially means that if you “stay tight” you will be stronger. There are other factors surrounding it when expressing power, for instance how certain actions can prevent dynamic movement, but when it comes to a heavy squat or bench press “stay tight” is a pretty good suggestion. In our example here “stay tight” thus means recruit more motor units. Fair point.

The term “stay tight” typically refers to the eccentric phase as new cues are often suggested when standing up from said squat, such as “fast”. Or my favorite “up”. I doubt anyone would think about anything but standing up in the bottom of a maximal squat so I assume the energetic yell regardless of the word is what actually helps. But I digress. Most people will agree that trying to stand up faster will help when lifting maximal weights. Dr. Fred Hatfield famously stated that no one can lift a heavy weight slow. It might sound counterintuitive but essentially he’s right. It’s not that weight can’t move slow (it likely will) but rather that the intention is to move it fast.

So far we know that “staying tight” on the way down and going up “fast” is a good idea. But what about the speed on the way down? This is usually where people differ, although they shouldn’t. I think the reason people actually differ here is that, unlike the moving up fast part, they’re not thinking about intent. Let me begin to explain by a simple statement: the faster you go down, the faster you will come up.

Some might argue this but it’s true regardless of the person and regardless of the day. Some people who have noticed the same thing describe it through basic physics (kinetic energy), others through physiological functions (stretch reflex). Louie Simmons have made the following comparison: we know that depth jumps work (jumping down from a box and immediately jumping up as soon as you land on the floor) and increase force production, so why would anyone lower a barbell slowly? Indeed.

In other words, if you squat down fast, the rate at which you come up will be faster. There are however some fine print in regards to this idea. In the slow lifts (squat and bench press for example, as opposed to the snatch or clean) tension is more important than speed. The faster you go down, the more likely you’re to lose tension and if that happens you’re likely dead in the water if it’s a heavy weight. In the squat you might see someone drop down really fast and lose all the tightness in the lower back. Don’t try it, take my word for it. In that case it doesn’t matter if your legs are firing up with more speed because you will lean over into an ugly bent back good morning (let’s call it a bad morning) and risk missing the lift. Therefore we need to change our simple statement a tiny bit: go down as fast as you can while still being able to maintain tension.

How can we ensure that the speed down is optimal for your ability to maintain tension? There are actually voluntary actions that help with this. In the squat you can think about “pulling yourself down”. It’s a concept almost impossible to communicate in words but try to imagine it next time you squat. In the bench press it’s easier. You need to pull the bar to the chest as if you’re doing a row. Many will say that you should meet the bar with the chest but if you think about it, actively pulling with the back will make the chest puff up.

Try it now! Stand up straight as if you were doing a standing bench press and bring your hands to chest level without thinking about any kind of pulling. Now do the same but actively pull with the back. See and feel the difference?

This accomplishes two things: first it creates more tension (stay tight) and second it actually regulates the speed if done properly. For some that might mean the bar goes faster, for others it will go slower. Don’t think too much about it, instead focus on performing that motion with a speed you can while maintaining tension. The idea is to not simply yield to gravity but to actually control the weight.

TL;DR

In the slow lifts tension is the most important thing. Maintain it or perish under the weight. Don’t let gravity do the work, actively lower the barbell, not by intentionally going slow but by pulling at a speed at which you’re able to maintain tension. The faster you go down while being able to maintain tension the faster you will move on the way up. Lift with full speed and acceleration on the way up.

Good luck.

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