Does it ever feel like no matter how hard you try, you just can’t quite seem to get your movement right and every rep seems to feel a little bit different?
I am here as a coach to say that no matter what your lifting experience, we have all felt like Bambi at some point, a shaky and uncoordinated baby deer. The key to your technical mastery may actually mean taking the weight off the bar and slowing things down, and I mean slowing things right down. Here at Strength Culture, we are avid believers that if you can’t do a movement slowly, then you can’t do it fast.
When it comes to improving our overall strength for the three big lifts, there are three key factors that we must pay attention to. The first is muscle size; a larger cross-sectional area of muscle has the potential to produce more force. The second is neuro-muscular adaptations; the nervous system’s ability to recruit those motor units. The third is skill acquisition; our ability to express our strength efficiently with a barbell. All three play a major role in strength adaptations, but for the purpose of this article, our focus will be on the third and final factor, skill acquisition. Strength is not just a physical adaptation in terms of muscle size and motor unit recruitment but ultimately a skill, and in order to efficiently express our physiological adaptations, we must be able to move effectively and optimally. How strong one can become in a specific movement is dependant on how competent you are at executing that movement. So then, why is moving slow so important in acquiring a skill? This leads me to diverge from lifting for a moment and bring your attention to an idea known as ‘Fitt’s Law.’
Fitt’s Law was first proposed in 1954 by Psychologist Paul Fitts. When examining the human motor system, Fitts showed that the time required to reach a target is dependent on the distance to the target, and inversely to the size of the target. To put it simply; the quicker you try to do a specific task, the more likely you are to make an error. I was first exposed to this idea in the second year of my undergraduate degree when my class was made to do an experiment involving a pointer and two targets which would differ in size and distance (see figure 1 below). The objective of the practical was to touch the first target and then see how quickly we could touch the second target. The target width and distance changed with each attempt. The results of the experiment clearly showed that when the targets were closer or the desired speed was decreased, accuracy was high. However, when the targets were further away the individual needed to slow down their movements in order to maintain accuracy, or else risked missing the target. The results of this experiment show a clear representation of the inverse relationship between speed and accuracy.
Figure 1. Example of targets used in Fitt’s Law experiment.
So, what does this mean for our barbell movements? It means that including tempo work in your strength program is a necessity. We can assume that just like our target experiment, as absolute bar-load and speed of the movement increases the accuracy to which we will execute the movement will decrease. This means that throughout our programming there needs to be some exposure to tempo work to ensure we minimize this tendency. As you become more and more competent with the three movements, your need for this will likely reduce, however, this is not to be confused with saying that tempos are only for beginners. It is my strong belief that all lifters will make some improvements by following some tempo work. We only need to look at Bryce Krawacyk of Calgary Barbell, an experienced and elite-level powerlifter who recently completed a whole block where all of his movements were 6-second tempos.
I have spent a fair chunk of time talking about why tempos are the bee's knees for improving skill acquisition, however; I should also explain the mechanisms by which tempos can make improvements. The first time we try to execute a skill, the messages between the brain and the specific muscles required are not optimized. This is where the saying; “Practice Makes Perfect” comes from; however, we must re-define this statement to read “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”. To put it simply; the brain loves repetition and the better quality the repetitions, the more optimized the expression of that skill will be, this is known as neuro-plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's innate ability to adapt to training, learn and express new skills. If we refer back to Fitt’s Law, by using tempos we are forcing the brain to execute better-coordinated movements more often which will allow us to express our physiological strength more efficiently. Without an efficient neural signal from the brain to the muscle, we will have very poor force production, and poor force production means less weight on the bar.
Now that we understand the benefits of using tempo’s, how do we incorporate them into our program? It is simple, take any movement you are looking to improve and add a tempo. Here at Melbourne Strength Culture, we employ tempos varying anywhere from 2 - 6 seconds, typically on the eccentric phase, but with some experimentation with the concentric, too. If an individual squats twice per week, on day 1 they would perform their normal competition squat and on their second day would perform a 2-6 second tempo. The 2-6 second tempo would be performed on the eccentric phase, with the concentric phase executed as normal. The use of tempos on either or both phases will be dependent on the individual's needs and their desired outcome.
In essence, by understanding Fitt’s Law, we can bridge the gap between accuracy and speed by simply moving slower and more accurately. Employing this trade-off allows our brain to experience a better quality of movement patterns more often and thus speed up the process by which we retain those patterns. This is literally where the saying “move slow, learn fast” originates.