I think it’s a safe bet that at least 50% of bodybuilders are making one little mistake that, in effect, is making most or all of their workouts a waste of time. In the words of Vincent in Pulp Fiction, “That’s a bold statement,” but I think we can back it up. It all has to do with something called the stretch shortening cycle, and if you’re taking advantage of this little phenomenon, then you’re really putting a crimp in your efforts to build muscle.
Ever notice that some guys, when they work out, piston the weights up and down as if they were human jackhammers? Hell, even baboons, who mount their mates, copulate, and ejaculate in 1.8 seconds don’t make pelvic thrusts nearly as quickly as most of us do reps of bench presses.
However, if you’ve ever looked at one of my workouts, you’ve no doubt seen a little column over to the right that reads tempo. It usually looks something like 3111, and it has nothing to do with what number you have to dial if you want to save 10% on your long distance bill.
Instead, the 3 refers to the number of seconds it should take to lower the weight, while the second number refers to the pause you should take before attempting to lift the weight. You can probably guess that the third number has to do with the speed with which you should lift the weight, and the fourth number, when it’s used, refers to the pause you should take before starting the next rep. Easy enough.
The father of this numbering system, or at least the uncle, is Australian super coach Ian King. I call him the uncle of this practice because Ian doesn’t take full credit for the numbering system. Instead, he lists Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden as the first to attach numbers to training programs.
However, Ian was the first to recognize the role of tempo, or speed of movement, in what’s known as the stretch shortening cycle.
Now, unless you’re some sort of physiology student, strength coach, or all-round smarty-pants, you probably don’t know what the stretch shortening cycle is. Okay, the old, outdated term for this phenomenon is plyometrics, and maybe you know what that word means, or maybe you don’t. If you fully understand it, bear with me for a minute. If you don’t, then please read the next couple of paragraphs carefully.
As an example, walking employs the stretch shortening cycle. When your foot hits the ground, the quads go through an eccentric (shortening) cycle, an isometric cycle, and then a concentric (lengthening) cycle. If the transition from eccentric to isometric to concentric is performed quickly, the resultant concentric contraction is a lot more powerful than if no eccentric action was performed.
Confused? That’s okay. I confused the hell out of myself. Try this one. Stand up. Now bend at the knees and hips as if you were going to jump, only, don’t jump. Hold that bent-knee and bent-hip position for 3 to 5 seconds. Now jump. Not too impressive, right? Your local NBA team isn’t missing anything. However, if you stand up, and then bend your knees and hips very quickly and without pausing, spring upwards, you no doubt got at least close to knocking that can of corn off the top shelf. What you experienced was increased athletic ability as a result of the stretch shortening cycle.
The phenomenon isn’t completely understood, but at least part (20 to 30%) of the added athletic ability has to with elastic energy (Bosco, 1987).
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