Most every exercise I do I end up doing fairly controlled positive reps - aiming for “decent” form first of all for most of my work reps, ending a set if I feel there’s too much wobble. (The routine I follow is X-reps-over-Y-sets, bump weight next week if target is met.) However, the how-tos for many exercise mention the positive should be done explosively.

The Science, as per usual, seems wildly inconclusive/context-dependent, going by searches for this question.

So I’m left wondering: should I reduce weight and do my main sets well below sub-maximal in order to do them explosively? Is it enough or at all beneficial to focus on this during the warm-up and back-off sets to split the difference?

My goals are general aesthestics/strength for health, so no particular competitive reason to develope explosive power in specific. (Other than the ego boost of being able to pull bigger numbers than somebody who looks more buff than me.)


Moving weight explosively is more of a mind-set than a specific velocity. You don't need to deload the weight in order to be explosive, rather, you need to be trying to move the weight as fast as possible (on the eccentric portion of the lift). The actual speed of the barbell is unimportant as long as you are trying to rip the weights off the face of the earth.

There are benefits in doing this such as increased muscle recruitment and studies showing increased strength for explosive reps versus controlled reps. You can apply this mindset to your warm-ups, heavy sets, and everything in-between. Additionally, performing reps explosively is simply the easiest method of teaching aggression which translates to higher numbers, IMO.

Since your goal is general strength for health and aesthetics I'd argue that you don't really need to train explosively: slow-and-controlled movements have been shown to promote more muscle growth and a simple progressive overload will still develop strength. However, consider mixing it in! It is fun to put up bigger numbers at the gym. Personally, I train my competition dead-lifts/squats/bench-press explosively, I'll mix in a lot of tempo work on those as well, and for most accessory work I've always liked exploding on the eccentric and then returning very slowly on the concentric.

One thing to be said is, again, performing reps explosively is a mindset. If you're doing an explosive dead-lift it doesn't mean that you jerk your back up and rip your arms out of your sockets to move the bar as fast as possible. It means you're contracting your muscles violently while still using the proper technique. I see a lot of people at the gym that think that if they just raise their back fast they'll get some momentum into the lift -- that's not being explosive, that's just asking for an injury.

There is a difference between moving weights fast and moving weights explosively. Moving weights fast is more for muscular endurance and is usually done in the high rep range.

  • Right, so basically if I’m gonna include this, I should view it as an incremental addition to “good form” that I’m already trying to maintain; improving muscle recruitment on top of getting the trajectory of the weight/joints right. (I’ll probably try soon, I’m hitting a plateau I’m unlikely to break through with mass gain. It might not be the worst idea to turn this into an opportunity to take a break from worrying about the big number, and instead improve how I like my reps while hovering at whatever weight for a few weeks.)
    – millimoose
    Aug 23 '20 at 3:29
  • @millimoose -- I think that's a good way of thinking about it. It is another level of performing the exercise. If you've got a chance, try doing some cleans or power cleans (ever so slightly different) to learn about being explosive. You can't really do a slow-and-controlled clean.
    – C. Lange
    Aug 23 '20 at 4:22
  • I do “clean” the bar up for OHPs so I think I have a slight hunch, although that’s probably nowhere near maximal and the inertia from the legs helps a good deal, it’s def impossible for me to just curl my OHP weight into place
    – millimoose
    Aug 23 '20 at 4:38

You don't need to deload, but if you want to push your 1RM (which you stated as a goal elsewhere but, interestingly, not here) you should try to move the weight as fast as possible, which may be a major change in how you train.

should I reduce weight and do my main sets well below sub-maximal in order to do them explosively?

No. Often the problem I see from people in your situation (as judged by your background described in your other question) is that the obstacle is trying hard enough – and eating enough to be able to try hard enough – in the work sets. Folks who are a little older, without an athletic background, who don't want to eat enough, and who have modest goals often short-change themselves by never pushing their limits during the work sets. So if I'm right and maximal effort freaks you out a bit, consider that that may be the issue.

Maximal effort is really, really, really it's own special thing, like muscle mass or flexibility. It must be trained specifically. It does well when fed properly, meaning you eat the protein that puts creatine in your muscles and you manage your carbohydrate intake such that you are full of energy through the main part of your workout. It requires maximal effort against strong resistance. It's a major part of strength, even for health, so I don't think neglecting it is a good idea.

Is it enough or at all beneficial to focus on [moving the bar fast] during the warm-up and back-off sets to split the difference?

Absolutely, yes. But as C. Lange points out, there's a way to do this in your work sets too.

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