By Carlon Colker, M.D., F.A.C.N. Flex
Often overlooked is the essence of maintaining the optimal repetition pace needed to maximally stimulate big muscle gains. In more than three decades of training, this hardened gym rat has seen countless fools fall easy victim to the trap of choosing a repetition pace that stimulates only minor muscle growth. Typically these guys may even push themselves hard for years, but still not make the eye-popping gains. It’s not because of the poor genetics they so often blame, but simply because they pause too long between repetitions, thus unloading the muscles and reducing necessary training intensity. Remember that the key to a successful muscle-gaining workout is to challenge the muscle in a way that it becomes so uncomfortable it has to hypertrophy and grow to accommodate the workload. The more comfortable you make it for the muscles, the less they grow. The tendency to pause between repetitions stems first and foremost from failing to resist a powerful natural tendency—wanting to give working muscles a break within the set. It’s a powerful survival instinct that I teach bodybuilders to resist. One must over-come this compunction to temporarily pause and unload the muscle (that is, give it a rest, however fleeting) in order to get extra repetitions or hoist slightly more weight. The brief rest between repetitions, or “hitch” as I call it, also reflects a conscious or subconscious desire to preserve strength and unnecessarily protract the workout as well as compensate for an inability to control and/or properly handle a weight that is too heavy. Either way, the hitch is one of the worst enemies of building maximal muscle gains.
If you’re in the gym to build muscle, then the muscles have to work. Again, the limits of how much weight you can lift need not and should not be tested. Leave that dangerous and inevitably losing battle to the powerlifters. You are not there to preserve and conserve muscle energy by taking long, counterproductive pauses between repetitions just to ensure you do one extra repetition, jiggling up a few more pounds. Hitching does nothing more than unload the muscle and reduce the intensity muscles are subjected to. If your goal is to make the muscles grow, then the technique employed should be the complete opposite. Instead, when you set foot in the gym, your aim should be to make the workload as taxing and unrelenting as possible for the muscle you’re training. Again, massive muscular growth simply has no reason to occur unless the muscle is subjected to a stress beyond what can be regulated or beyond that to which it has become accustomed. Hitching goes completely against the logic of building in maximum intensity and workload.
Instead, you must find the strength within yourself to avoid the hitch. No matter how hard it gets, perform your reps smoothly and rhythmically with a machinelike cadence and never, ever stop a repetition within a set. Don’t let yourself pause to take a few breaths and gather more energy. Leave that for your between-set rest interval. Never lose sight of your mission, which is to blast the muscle with such ferocity that it is forced to accommodate the load by growing more for next time—and you can’t do that by hitching your reps. In the beginning it may astonish you just how much you are hitching. Most of us make such a habit of it that it becomes a subconscious move, and we have to really make a concerted effort to pay attention. So for many, catching and working through the hitch is a great deal of mental work at first. If you find that you are hitching all over the place, you may get discouraged when attempting to get rid of it simply because the muscles will feel so weak when they experience the true workload. Guys who have always trained with a pause but are now trying to get rid of it will sometimes experience a big short-term drop in strength. They feel like sissies. But there in is the proof that the muscles are experiencing the true force of the weight, sparing you the load but in the process making you weaker and smaller than you should be, all because you’re hitching.
There are, however, a couple of additional nuances to keep in mind. These, at first glance, might be considered exceptions to hitching, yet they are not. The first is the application of a key training philosophy I learned from my friend and personal bodybuilding mentor of many years, the father of our publication, Joe Weider. One of his bodybuilding teachings is the Weider Peak Contraction Principle. Basically, what Joe personally taught me was to heighten the intensity of a set and maximize the strain on the muscle being trained by contracting and squeezing that particular muscle at the very apex of the repetition and “holding” for a few seconds before transitioning to the next rep. If you apply this very useful principle, which has been a mainstay of my own workouts for many years, take solace in the fact that this is most certainly not a hitch. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The hitch involves a transient unloading and resting of the muscle being trained rather than a peak contraction, which actually heightens the intensity and workload by maximizing muscular contraction. For example, imagine two guys next to each other doing dumbbell incline presses, one hitching his reps while the other is applying the Weider Peak Contraction Principle. While they may both be spending equal time at the apex of the repetition, one need only look at their faces at the top of the repetition to know who is hitching and thus getting the rest and who is applying the Weider Principle by working so hard they are cringing and trembling in pain!
Another advanced bodybuilding technique I employ that might be confused with hitching is the “mini-set,” a technique I use to further heighten training intensity when working large muscle groups. This technique requires a grouping of nonhitched reps that allow a bodybuilder to compose himself mid-set, take a breath, and regroup. While this approach permits a very brief pause, I allow it only if the intensity is at a fever pitch, and only on large-scale leg and back motions like squats or bent over barbell rows. It’s a very short pause and is never followed by only a single repetition. Instead, repetition grouping must be at least two nonhitched reps at a time. For example, when I training some of the top professional bodybuilders with whom I work on squats, the last set can be so brutally intense that I permit them a structured pause to regroup; otherwise, physical collapse may occur prior to reaching maximum workload intensity. In one case, I regularly worked a guy up to 495 pounds for 10 reps (deep full squats, no belt or wraps, of course). I’d have him do five reps, take a regrouping pause to breathe, followed by three repetitions and a short pause, and then two final painful reps.
This set was routinely followed by a final rep set using 315 pounds for an excruciating 20 reps divided into minisets of 10 reps, 5 reps, 3 reps, and finally 2 reps. In that case he experienced so much pre-fatigue that, had I not permitted the pause either under the max weight or the rep set, he would have collapsed prematurely under the weight, having never reached the needed prerequisite intensity to spur the extreme muscle growth. I don’t consider that hitching because it’s clearly a hunt for heightened intensity verses an indulgence of rest and avoidance of intensity. Think about it, try it, and see the difference yourself.
When Optimizing Rep Pace For Maximum Muscle Gains: Check Your Ego
As MMA legend and former UFC champ Randy Couture drilled into my head many years ago, check your ego at the door! The same advice holds true for bodybuilders looking to fix their rep pace to maximize muscle gains. That’s because you can expect that your weights will invariably come down with proper pacing. You simply have no choice, as the strain on the muscles increases in proportion to the intensity of the amplified workload. A drop in the poundage handled can definitely send a blow to the already fragile bodybuilder’s ego. Of course, confidence is easily restored when you see the resulting tremendous muscle growth. Eventually the weights come back up, but now with no injuries or pain because the muscles are bearing the weight, not the joints. All studies in which muscle hypertrophy occurs point to muscle-protein synthesis as the catalyst; however, current research does not support any greater increases in muscle-protein synthesis with heavier weights above 60%. A previous study showed that resistance exercise performed at 30% one-rep max (1RM) to failure (four sets) elevated protein synthesis to the same level as 90% 1RM to failure (four sets), demonstrating that perhaps loading at an absolute intensity of 70% 1RM may not be necessary to induce muscle hypertrophy. Muscle-protein synthesis has been shown to rise following acute blood-flow-restricted resistance exercise, further building a case for the accretion of muscle mass independent of external load. Metabolic stress may be more important than the external load for increasing muscle mass.
2 Watch Your Rest Proper rep pace means there is no hitch between reps, with just enough leeway to allow for maximum peak contraction, should you decide to apply this principle. At first training t his way will feel like a very great systemic drain, causing you to want to take longer between sets as you gasp for air, shake out the tight muscles, and wipe down the sweat. It’s instinct to stall. At first it will seem like you can’t help but take more rest between sets. This is your body looking for some other way to rest the working muscles since you took away the hitching. The problem is, this is another way your muscles are robbed of the needed workload intensity to spur big muscle hypertrophy, so it must be resisted and controlled. Be patient at first, and once you become better mentally conditioned you can reduce the rest interval significantly to the point that 90 seconds is plenty of recovery time. Remember, powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters take three to five minutes between sets, so the poundages are high but the metabolic stress is relatively low. Intense muscle actions temporarily decrease blood flow and thus oxygen availability, whereas muscle relaxation results in a rapid restoration of blood flow and oxygen. The reduced blood supply can cause “metabolic stress” with an increase in growth hormone (GH) secretion. One study measured muscle oxygenation and GH responses after low-rep strength protocols (four repetitions at 90% 1RM) and high-rep exercises (15 repetitions at 60% 1RM). The high-repetition exercise resulted in greater lactic acid (58% higher), reduced oxygenation, and greater GH response than that seen after low-rep training. The researchers speculated that the combination of lactic acid, reduced blood flow, and increased metabolic stress increased GH. So when you’re gasping for air between sets, you’re hurting but your body is cranking out a ton of GH.
3 Reduce Your Volume Eliminating hitching definitely influences the total volume output of your workout. By that I mean that the dramatic rise in training intensity will, by default, necessitate that you cut back on the number of total sets performed and/or the total amount of time you spend in the gym to avoid overtraining. When done properly, the added training intensity simply prevents you from performing too many sets or exercises. If you’re listening to your body—which you should be—you’ll hit the proverbial training wall hard, feel it, and stop. Basically, you get in the gym, hell breaks loose, then you get the heck out. Of course, being cognizant of total volume and adjusting it around your pump and muscle fatigue is a good thing because it helps prevent overtraining. Optimizing rep pace, like anything that raises training intensity, makes your training more productive and more efficient as long as you adjust the volume around it to prevent overtraining. One study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research monitored 29 experienced weightlifters. All did exercises four to five times a week, with a periodized routine using similar exercises and the same total weekly volume. The volume differences were low volume (1,923 repetitions), medium volume (2,481 repetitions), and high volume (3,030 repetitions). Once again the medium-volume group did better in strength gains than the low- or high-volume groups. I’m applying the same principles for muscle growth: You don’t want to do too few or too many sets—you want to find that happy medium.
References: Burd NA, et al, PLoS One, 2010;5. Nishimura A, et al, Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2010 Dec;5(4):497-508, González-Badillo JJ, et al, J Strength Cond Res., 2006 Feb;20(1):73-81.