Resistance training is the most effective way to build strength and muscle mass, but the technique you use matters. You’ll make the greatest gains in strength and muscle size if you use proper form and technique. When your form breaks down, you take some stimulus off the muscle and increase your risk of injury. Not only will your training be less effective, but you could end up out of commission for a few weeks nursing an injury. Nothing throws off a resistance training routine more than getting injured!
You may have heard that to improve your form and lower the risk of injury, limit momentum when you lift weights. Too many people either consciously or unconsciously use momentum since it allows them to lift a heavier weight. Rather than lifting a weight in a controlled manner through the entire range-of-motion of the exercise, they toss the weight or move the weight with a fast, but uncontrolled, tempo.
Once a weight moves quickly in one direction, it doesn’t take a lot of muscular effort to keep it moving along that path. People take advantage of this when they lift weights. For example, when doing biceps curls, they bounce the weight at the top of the movement. Doing this makes lifting the weight easier, which is why people do it, but it takes the tension off the muscle. If you’re trying to build muscle, you want your muscles to do the work!
Other ways people cheat and use momentum is by bouncing when doing squats and lunges and using a too rapid tempo when they do exercises like presses. This reduces the time the muscle is under tension. However, momentum isn’t always an awful thing. Sometimes you want to use momentum when you train, but the key is to know when to use it and use it the right way.
When Not to Use Momentum
The time to limit momentum is when you’re training for strength. When momentum enters the equation, you reduce tension and that stymies muscle growth. You also work the muscle through a narrower range-of-motion and that lessens the benefit of the exercise.
How can you stop using momentum? One way is to slow the tempo so you’re lifting at a controlled speed. You can do this by counting as you lift and lower the weight so you’re aware of your tempo. Another way is to squeeze the muscles you’re working at the midpoint of the movement for greater awareness.
Another way to take momentum out of the equation is to not try to lift more than you’re capable of. You’re more likely to use momentum when you’re working with a heavy weight. It’s safer and more effective to use a lighter weight you can control and use impeccable form. Also, when you use a challenging weight, your focus shifts to moving that weight at any cost rather than scrutinizing your form. When you slow down, you’ll control the weight rather than the weight controlling you. Increase your awareness at each point in the exercise. Midway through a movement, pause for a second to counter momentum. As always, breathe in on the eccentric portion and exhale during the concentric phase.
When to Use Momentum
Momentum isn’t always a negative factor. Sometimes it works in your favor and helps you make gains. An example is when you train to build muscle power, the rate at which your muscles can generate force. If your muscles can contract and move a weight through space at a fast rate, your muscles are powerful. This contrasts with muscle strength, which is the ability to generate force independent of time.
A practical way to measure muscle strength is with the one-rep max test, but how much weight you can lift for a single rep at a self-selected tempo says nothing about how powerful your muscles are. Both strength and power are important for physical fitness and functionality. You need muscle power to thrust your body out of a chair, for example, and to climb stairs. Strength alone doesn’t give us the ability to build up enough momentum to start a movement. Studies show that for older adults, strength AND power training improve functionality and power training may be more beneficial than even strength training.
When you train to build muscle power, you use a fast, almost explosive, tempo, to increase your muscle’s capacity to generate power. Momentum is an integral part of power training and you won’t become more powerful using a slow, controlled tempo. To build power, lighten the weight to 50-70% of your one-rep max and increase the tempo of your reps.
Another way to use momentum to boost power is to grab a kettlebell and do kettlebell swings. Kettlebell swings are designed to build dynamic strength and power. Plus, kettlebells have a thick handle that makes it the perfect form of resistance for improving grip strength. Don’t forget about plyometric moves, like squat jumps, box jumps, rope skipping, and sprints for building lower body power. Having powerful lower body muscles helps you perform better athletically and helps you remain fully functional as you age.
- Using momentum isn’t always bad but know when to use it.
- Momentum helps build greater power, but it’s not as effective for building strength.
- You can build power by lifting at a faster or more explosive tempo or by doing exercises like kettlebell swings or plyometric exercises.
- When you train for power, lighten the weight to around 50 to 70% of one-rep max and increase the tempo.
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Countering Momentum During Exercise”
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Power Training For Older Adults”
- Rice†, John and Keogh‡, Justin (2009) “Power Training: Can it Improve Functional Performance in Older Adults? A Systematic Review,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Vol. 2 : Iss. 2.
- Int J Exerc Sci 2(2): 131-151, 2009.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2228-33. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2c9b.
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