by Jim Cordova

When I was a kid, I hated puzzles. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of putting one together fascinated me at first, but the moment all of the pieces were laid out before me, hundreds of them scattered about, my enthusiasm flew out the window! On the other hand, my cousin was a master at completing even the most advanced varieties. After getting her kicks, as I sat there with no clue where to start, she would sit down and begin by laying the foundation. She would grab a hold of a fundamental piece, such as a corner, and from there, all of the other pieces linked into place almost magically!

Formulating the ideal regimen, tailor made to sculpt your body into a masterpiece, will follow that same pattern. It only seems complex because there are so many variables that you must factor into the equation, all jumbled about before you. To lay the groundwork, you will want to begin by adhering to as many models as you can to establish order and strategize your training to the extreme. So, if you are puzzled as to what factors are involved in advancing your level of muscularity or hardness – with certainty – what follows will provide you with a fundamental piece of the big picture.

The majority of you reading this may already mix up your exercise selection and rep range, but how much consideration do you give to rep cadence (aka tempo)? Assuming a sound level of intensity, mixing up your tempo in orderly fashion just so happens to be one of the most effective techniques imaginable to shock the muscles and accelerate their overall development! Additionally, Time-Under-Tension (TUT) appears to influence the outcome of growth over refinement, arguably, even more so than rep range. After all, some of the most gargantuan bodybuilders on the planet have managed to build a level of muscle density unmatched by their rivals while strictly performing 15 or more reps per set!

Whether it is more beneficial to implement a slow or explosive rep scheme is often debated in the fitness realm, with both pros and cons offered for each style. Countless arguments have been devised in an attempt to persuade you to choose one over the other. Upon parting through the mass of confusion caused by this, what will be blatantly obvious is that incredible physiques have been built with strict adherence to each style!

An explosive tempo, while keeping constant tension and working to or near failure, is a sound way to attack your fast-twitch fibers. This style will subject the muscles to a heavier weight than would be used at a slower tempo, leading to a favorable hypertrophic response. Although constructive, this tempo equates to less TUT, which will not thoroughly fatigue slow-twitch endurance fiber. On the other hand, a slower tempo places the muscles under a longer TUT, exhausting slow-twitch fiber to a greater extent, while simultaneously subjecting fast-twitch fiber to a unique form of tension. The bottom line is that both styles will be needed to maximize your potential for growth and refinement!

While there is absolutely no such thing as the perfect tempo, there is a prime range that will allow for some control over the type of result that you seek. To shed some light as to why this is, consider the typical rep range most commonly recommended for muscular development. Although you could perform anywhere from one to a hundred reps per set, studies reveal that, in general, the greatest response will occur when working to or near failure within a 6-15 range. The outcome produced when failing at 6 reps on a consistent basis is quite distinct than what will occur when failing at 10, revealing that a difference of just a few reps will significantly influence muscular response. Likewise, there is an ideal tempo range and the extremes will differ by only a few seconds, where a slow vs. fast rep cadence will dictate whether a muscle develops more toward refinement or growth!

Growth: Pure hypertrophy; bulk.

Refinement: Separation, hardness, shape accentuation; overall aesthetic enhancement. (Visible upon reaching a low body-fat level, which is assumed whenever "refinement" is spoken of throughout this article)

Power Reps: This style of repetition is primarily for mass building. Although you must abide by the constant tension principle, this style pushes it to the max, just before reaching the point to where you rep out as hard as you can with raw power and no regard to feeling any sort of strong contraction in the working muscle; with near-plyometric-like force. This style is best suited to work the muscle throughout the strongest portion of its range-of-motion (ROM), coming nowhere close to lockout, and avoiding any type pausing or squeezing at the top of a rep. To ensure that you do not violate the constant-tension principle, slow down briefly to transition into the descent at the top of each rep.

Tension Reps: The primary goal is muscular refinement. Proper execution demands placing almost all focus into isolating the target muscle, going as heavy as you can while shooting for a strong contraction throughout each rep. It should feel almost as if you were flexing the muscles as you progress through the ascent. It is highly advantageous to work through the majority, if not the full ROM of each muscle, with this style. If combined with isolation tactics, a longer TUT will also enhance the division of a muscle from those that surround it, as will squeezing briefly at the top of each rep. Performed with a consistent tempo pattern, no other rep style could be more intense or painful, leading to a pump that is almost too much to bear!

Since the extremes of growth and refinement are divided by mere seconds, each style will lead to both outcomes to some extent. In other words, tension reps will stimulate hypertrophy and power reps will advance refinement. Even so, a few extra seconds adds up to subjecting the muscles to a much longer TUT throughout the duration of a set and especially over the course of an entire workout! This is true even when there is a vast difference in rep range selection (as shown below). This model is simply one of many tools and it must be combined with other strategies, each synchronized to produce the desired outcome. Used in this manner, it will provide you with greater control when seeking to produce one effect over the other.

On very rare occasion, it might be beneficial to use what is commonly referred to as “super slow” reps to shock the muscles. Nonetheless, I personally believe that moving the weight any slower than three or four seconds most of the time is counter-productive, overall. Similar to ballistic movements, too much TUT can warp the tendons, and, ironically, not allow for adequate stimulation within muscles designed for power, such as the outer quads, chest, and lats. For this reason, the model illustrates a tempo range that I believe will give you the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak.

Please do not allow yourself to be thrown off by the strategies that follow. Here is what you should take from the article: switch up your rep tempo to shock your muscles and advance progress! It is okay, and recommended, to execute a cadence in between the set tempos established within the model, and this includes the variance between the positive and negative contractions (ex. 1-0-3). Moreover, I must also point out that the tempo of either a power or tension rep, as such, will vary based on the compound or single-joint movement performed. Using a 4-1-4 tempo is highly effective when performing dumbbell curls, but is ineffective, and potentially dangerous, when doing barbell rows. Also, consider that some muscles are designed more for power than others. A 4-1-4 tempo may refine the biceps well, but the lats may respond similarly with a 2-.5-3 tempo.

There are many ways to use the model to your advantage. One method is to rotate between power, tension, or standard reps for a given muscle group over a series of three workouts. A simpler pattern involves alternating between the extremes from one workout to the next. This means focusing on pure hypertrophy during one workout and concentrating on refinement the following week. If you have torched a muscle group with power reps, you will have to change things up the next time around since the fibers will have adapted by becoming more resistant to a power rep style. Performing with a slower tempo during the next workout will reduce the degree of explosiveness, which will be less taxing on the tendons and allow for greater recuperation. Additionally, the muscles will be more responsive to the increased tension and they will adapt favorably by advancing overall development.

Another sound strategy is to interchange what style you will use for each bodypart as you complete your training split. For example, if you incorporate power reps for quads, you may want to consider tension reps for hamstrings that same week, while switching up the arrangement next time around. In fact, you might find that you have to do this since the muscle groups that fall at the end of your split will suffer and your intensity will dwindle from too many consecutive days of power training.

Within the framework of the aforementioned rep structures, I personally will alternate the proportion of using one rep over the other based on the time of year, using more power during the deep off-season and gradually transitioning into muscular refinement as the contest approaches. One of the best pieces of advice that I could give to any bodybuilder or figure competitor is to avoid waiting until twelve weeks out to begin training to emphasize detail. Though it will have to be tailored to your competitive calendar, generally speaking, you will want to progressively add this style of training, beginning at least six months out. It is important that you continue to use power repetitions to maintain your size even as the contest approaches. A general cycling model is as follows, assuming a year in between competitions:

Consider that you do not have to use one rep style, strictly, during a workout. In fact, using maximum power during one or two exercises should exhaust you to the point to where it is expedient to switch to tension or standard reps for the remainder of your workout. (This is one of many reasons as to why you should be alternating target sections of a muscle group from workout to workout!) Likewise, you could execute a power style through two sets of a single exercise and follow that up with two more using tension reps. The table simply provides a reference point so that you can gauge your rep ratios. Obviously, until you get the hang of it, it is a wise idea to record a log of your strategies.

Finally, on a more personal note, I have used one of the two rep styles, strictly, for a little over a year a piece. Though not intentional, it was a sound experiment to determine their overall effect since the genetic factor was held constant, I used similar exercises and rep ranges, and maintained a low bodyfat level. The result was that my physique adapted to each style in terms of bulking vs. refinement.

In my early twenties, I sought a hard, ripped physique. I used nothing but slow tension-style repetitions at roughly a 4-1-4 tempo for most bodyparts. This is no exaggeration, and in fact, for awhile I earned a reputation among my gym peers as the guy who “always moves light weights real slow.” They would often inquire into my approach because, although I did not add a significant amount of mass in terms of overall weight gain, the separation, hardness, and refined appearance I had attained made me look much more muscular than I truly was.

Alternatively, for about a year and a half, leading up to the 2004 INBF NaturalMania, I sought to pack on as much muscle as I could to make my mark on the bodybuilding scene. During this time, I primarily utilized power-style repetitions with a 1-0-1 tempo. My muscles grew at a very rapid pace and I took on a very robust appearance, though not as polished and separated as I had once been. Upon comparison, even the untrained eye could distinguish the change in my physique!

In a nutshell, adhere to the basic models provided in this article until you internalize the concept and tailor it to each bodypart. At the very least, do not adopt one rep style over the other! Without power reps, you will never attain that full hearty look. Likewise, without tension reps, you will never maximize your aesthetic potential. Some of you will have to swallow your pride come tension time, as you will inevitably use a lighter weight as a result of slowing down your tempo. Nonetheless, it is imperative that you go as heavy as you can, while being sure that you are mixing up your cadence on a systematic basis. If you have yet to do so, you will find that this strategy alone will accelerate your overall progress at a pace unlike anything you have yet to experience!