Slow vs. Fast Reps for Weightlifting – Pros and Cons of Each

Think back to the first time you lifted weights.  Can you recall how fast you moved the weight?  I can.  What’s interesting is that most people in the gym automatically move weight at around the same speed unless focusing on doing slow or fast (explosive) reps.

Also, when I look back to after lifting for a few months, still more or less clueless (this was when I was 15 years old), I discovered that if I pushed weight super fast, I could lift more weight.  Once I started making strength gains, I was nuts about increasing my loads.  The problem with my crazy explosive lifting technique was that my lifting form was terrible.  I’d arch my back on bench, lean to forward squatting, cheat on BB curls, etc.

Finally, my trainer came to me and said I had to cool it on the explosive technique and return to proper form.  I listened to him and good thing I did.  I don’t think I would have made many gains lifting with sloppy and explosive technique.

There are several rep speeds (also referred to as lifting cadence) you can incorporate into your weightlifting.  I want to discuss the pros and cons of each.

Rep Speed in a Nutshell

Benefits

  • Slower = Pro: longer tension applied to muscle / Con: lift less weight
Excellent for isolating exercises such as bench press, cable exercises (fantastic for cable exercises), curls.  Not good for Olympic lifts because you really need to explode out with those lifts.
  • Faster = Pro: lift more weight / Con: less constant tension applied to muscle
Best for Olympic lifts and compound lifts.  Not very good for more isolating lifts such as cable exercises and weightlifting machines.

Duration

  • Normal:  2 to 3 second per direction. Total rep duration = 4 to 7 seconds
  • Fast:  1 to 2 seconds per direction. Total rep duration = 2 to 4 seeconds
  • Slow:  6 to 12 seconds per direction.  Total rep duration = 13 to 25 seconds

Rep Speed Patterns

1.  Normal lifting speed

This is lifting at about 2 to 3 seconds each direction for a total of a 4 to 7 second rep (extra second depending if you pause at top of lift).

This is the speed I use for most reps.

  • Benefits:  Moderate tension applied to target muscle plus moderate amount of weight lifted
  • Disadvantages:  Neither exemplary benefit of amount of weight lifted or applied tension

2.  Normal Up / Slow Down

This is called a negative rep.  Lift or pull at normal speed, but return weight at a slow speed so that you prolong the tension applied to your muscle.  The obvious advantage is your muscle is under tension longer.  The downside is that you’re using up energy that could otherwise be used to lift more weight and/or more reps.

The duration of the slow return can be 6 to 10 seconds.  The longer, the harder.  I tend to do my slow reps at about 6 to 7 seconds instead of longer like 10 to 12 seconds.

3.  Explosive Up / Fast Down

A high speed or explosive rep is approximately 1 second one direction.

I’m not into this style.  Sometimes you see a lifter blasting weight up and down.  Usually form goes out the window.  The one advantage is that more weight is lifted.  However, muscles don’t remain under much tension.

I might once in a while for rep variation do fast up and normal/slow down, but that’s about it.

Explosive speed reps are good for varying your workouts, lifting more weight, and targeting fast-twitch muscle fibers.

4.  Explosive Up / Slow Down

This is an interesting combination because you gain the benefits of explosively fast lifting such as lifting more weight, but you also gain the tension benefit of the slow return of the weight.  Moreover, this combination is good for maintaining lifting form.

In fact, any time you do explosive lifting, you want to pay extra attention to form because high-speed reps can result in sloppy lifting fast.

5.  Slow Up / Slow Down

These are brutal sets.  I’ve done them and the burn is incredible.  The huge downside is you don’t lift nearly as much weight.  If you switch to this type of workout from a normal lifting speed workout, you’ll have to reduce the amount of weight you lift, which isn’t always all that fun.

The upside is that the amount of tension you apply to your muscles is incredible.  Tension is a fundamental concept in Ben Pakulski’s MI40 workout program.

Also, slow up and slow down is difficult with Olympic lifts such as power cleans, deadlifts and squats.  Instead, I’d focus on using slow reps for more isolating types of lifts such as bench press, curls, cable exercises (cable exercises are great for slower reps).

Suggested approach

As with all things fitness and specifically when you want to build muscle, you want to vary your workouts, but spend the most time doing what works.

Generally, I prefer slower reps over faster reps … this is partly due to because I enjoy doing isolating exercises more than Olympic lists.  These days I’m not so concerned with cranking out high weight like I was 15 years ago (when I wanted to look cool in the gym).  I like slower reps over faster reps because the slower reps really give me a great burn, tax my muscles tremendously with each rep and I maintain excellent form.

That said, I do mostly normal reps … using slow and fast reps as a way to vary my workouts from time-to-time.

Other ways to vary your workouts: