Ask the Expert Q&A Charles Staley Strength and Conditioning Coach June 2017


Q: This might seem like a strange question, but on deadlifts, how slow/fast should I lower the bar?

A: This is actually a great question, because unlike most lifts, you have a lot of options in terms of lowering the bar:

1) Open your hands and simply let the bar fall to the floor (only with bumper plates of course).

2) Let the bar fall to the floor, while keeping your hands on the bar

3) Lower the bar under control (speed can vary depending on goal).

Like many training questions, I tend to look at this in terms of cost/benefit analysis. When you look at the 3 options I presented above, each has distinctive benefits as well as costs. Lowering a heavy weight slowly has great strength and muscle-building advantages, but at the cost of generating a lot of fatigue. Simply dropping the bar (or lowering it quickly) produces much less fatigue, but also is less effective in terms of adaptive stimulus.

If you’re a powerlifter training for a competition, I’d start with slow/controlled eccentric phases early in your training cycle, and then gradually progress toward lowering the bar quickly and finally, dropping the bar altogether as competition nears. This way, early on, you’ll maximally develop hypertrophy and strength, and then later, when you start lowering the weights faster, you’ll still maintain those adaptations while you reduce fatigue heading into the meet.

If you’re more interested in physique training, I’d place a much bigger emphasis on lowering the weight slowly, like you would so with any other lift (at least most of the time). It’s long been known that the eccentric component of the repetition is largely responsible for the total results you’ll obtain from weight training, so don’t just drop the bar after each deadlift just because you see powerlifters doing it!

Q: If all I care about is muscle growth, do I really need to also work on strength (by doing low rep/heavy weight sets)?

A: While I do think it’s possible to grow a lot of muscle while never going lower than about 8 reps, there may be a few advantages to (at least occasionally) doing lower reps — say, in the 3-6 range.

First, there may be an adaptive advantage to novel stimuli — things that you’re not used to doing. This applies not only to rep rages, but also to exercise selection, training frequency, and other factors. Novelty not only has physiological benefits, but psychological as well.

Secondly, while high rep training functions mostly in the realm of the metabolite production aspect of muscle growth, lower reps exploit the mechanical tension component of hypertrophy.

Finally, lower rep training with heavier weights more directly targets the development of maximal strength, which should, over time, allow you to lift more weight when you go back to your higher rep training, which should further advance muscular hypertrophy.

If you for whatever reason dislike lofting heavy weights, you’ll still be able to grow a lot of muscle by using 8+ reps per set, but if you’re interested in reaching your maximal potential, I’d recommend using low reps perhaps every 4th of 5th month.

Q: Charles, what’s your take on eating “clean” foods for the purposes of health and/or body composition?

A: Starting with body composition, as long as your total caloric intake and macronutrient distribution is optimal, it’s physiologically possible to reach and maintain great body composition eating nothing but highly-processed and/or “junk” foods. With that being said however, there are two possible issues with a highly processed diet:

1) Highly processed foods tend to be much less filling than “whole foods” like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein (hence the term “empty calories”), which lowers the likelihood of being able to tolerate your diet long term.

2) “Dirty” foods also tend to be highly palatable, which in some people tends to trigger cravings, this lowering the ability to tolerate the diet. This phenomenon is the reason why so may successful competitive bodybuilders eat super-bland diets — it’s boring, but it also keeps cravings in check.

So if body composition is your primary goal, you’ll simply need to do a bit of self-analysis and determine whether or not you’ll be able to partake in junky foods and still maintain your nutrition program — it’s a very individual matter.

Now to the health component of your question:

Generally, it’s my view that most people are FAR to fearful of food processing — artificial ingredients, chemicals, GMO’s, dairy, wheat, sugar, gluten, meat — jeez, when you think about it, most people seem anxious about almost every type of food! And most of these fears are really unwarranted.

With all of that said, from a long-term health perspective, it’s probably not wise to eat nothing but fast food. Aside from the harmful effects of trans fats and other types of processing, if you rarely or never eat fruits or vegetables, you’re depriving yourself of vital nutritional components — even if you take supplements.

So go ahead and enjoy some pizza or ice cream here and there, as long as your habitual diet is composed of mostly “whole” foods — meaning fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and so on, especially if you’re physically active and you maintain a healthy bodyweight.