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The Right Number of Repetitions in the Gym

Firstly lets look at how to perform repetitions correctly and then we will look at how to cycle them correctly. A full range repetition should be taken through the complete range of joint movement in a slow controlled manner, if the weight is so heavy so you have to jerk it bounce or swing it to get it to the top of the movement, it is too heavy and your form will be compromised.

I advocate an eight-second repetition with a three second lifting (positive) movement and a five second lowering (negative) movement. I believe this to be a safe and productive exercise speed when performing each exercise through a full range of motion, accentuate the lifting part of the movement slowly and smoothly for each repetition to the count of three.

Don’t pause in the contracted position but lower the resistance slowly and smoothly to the count of five. Maintain a normal breathing pattern throughout the whole movement exhale on the lift and inhale on the release. Avoid locking joints when lifting weights; always keep a slight bend in the arms and legs.

Fast and jerky movements should be avoided at all times as they place undue stress on the muscle and connective tissue substantially increasing the likelihood of injury. Examples of this are: arching the back and bouncing the bar off the chest in the Bench Press, bending forward under squats and using any sort of momentum for any other exercise. These will work counter to your goals so be aware and eliminate them from your program.

If you are not sure about the speed of the movement move slower, never faster, do not sacrifice form for the sake of more repetitions. The slower speed is safer also because you can stop at any point in the movement range. There are also advantages to training with slower movement speeds. These include:

  • A longer period of muscle tension
  • A higher level of muscle force
  • A lower risk of tissue trauma and injury
The development of lean muscle and strength go hand in hand, therefore a exercise session will have to be designed so that when your strength improves, then you will also be increasing your useful lean muscle also. Changes in repetitions and weight throughout a bodybuilding training cycle is an effective way to maintain progress over time and avoid training plateaus i.e. when you fall into a slump in terms of your inability to gain strength and muscle.

Activation of muscle fiber types is dependant upon the levels of tension experienced in the muscle and feedback provided from the muscle sensory organs. So the number of repetitions per set has to be changed throughout a strength training cycle. The higher the repetitions for a strength training exercise, the more the slow twitch muscle fibers are affected. These are the muscle fibers that promote endurance.

Moving further down the scale, the lower repetition range will activate the fast twitch muscle fibers (strength muscle fibers) and increase strength and grow lean muscle. For strength training the stimulus must be below 20 repetitions as to have an effect on the phosphate energy system and to activate the fast twitch fibers. The resistance must also be progressively increasing for the number of repetitions performed to achieve your training goals.

The number of repetitions per set of exercises can then be adjusted between say 15 and 8 over a ten-week strength training cycle. From these adjustments, as you move from week one to week ten, the absolute intensity of the exercise increases (the weight used for the exercises increases) thus promoting more functional muscle growth.

The closer your strength training cycle progresses towards the end of the cycle, the lower you’ll find the repetitions will become and the weight will become heavier also. This will have an effect of increasing your lean functional muscle and hence elevate your metabolism for fat loss. For gains in strength and muscle size, long rest periods must be used to replenish the phosphate energy system for the maximum performance in the next exercise.

Slow controlled contractions are also recommended for controlled tension on the muscle and safety. When you reach a point where you’re using exercises with heavy weights (free weights, like the bench press), have a helper or spotter handy who will give you support on the last few reps. Alternatively, you can use machines where no spotter is necessary.

In conclusion, by performing and cycling your repetitions correctly you will be one step ahead of the pack in attaining your exercise and strength training goals.


Gary Matthews is the author of the popular fitness eBooks Maximum Weight Loss and Maximum Weight Gain.