If a repetition is the atom of a muscle-building program, then the separate parts of a repetition are its subatomic particles. The part you think of as a "lift" is only one of three components of a repetition. The others are the lowering of the weight and whatever pause you take between lifting and lowering.

The lifting portion has two formal, scientific names: You can call it the concentric or positive part of the repetition. (Or you can just call it "the lift." I'm easy.) What you're doing here is forcing your targeted muscles to contract. The purpose of any action of your skeletal muscles is to work joints, which moves bones closer together or farther apart (or keeps them from moving closer together or farther apart, as explained below).

Of course, when you lift weights, the last thing you're thinking about is what your bones are doing. But I think it's important to remember that your body is in the bone-moving business. Muscles only grow in proportion to their strength, and their strength is their ability to move heavy objects with those bones. That heavy dumbbell in your right hand is an impediment to the movement of the bones in your arms. Thus, the muscles controlling your elbow and shoulder joints must get stronger. And, most of the time, that extra strength will lead to more size.

Your muscles also have to work during the lowering part of a repetition, which has two scientific names: eccentric or negative. You can probably guess that your muscles are better at lowering heavy weights—that is, controlling the descent of those weights—than they are at lifting. A guy who would strain to bench-press 200 pounds for a single repetition could easily control the descent of a 240-pound barbell down to his chest, and do it multiple times. (Assuming he has strong people there to help him lift it off again.) But you probably don't know that the negative portion of a repetition has been shown in some studies to produce more muscle growth and strength improvement than the positive.

Some advanced training programs feature "negatives"—repetitions designed to force your muscles to lower extremely heavy weights—and in my experience they certainly help increase strength and size. But trust me when I say that negative reps beat the hell out of your muscles and joints, and you have no business doing them until you've tried everything else and built a considerable base of strength and muscle size.

Finally, there's the pause, which in some contexts can also be called an isometric contraction. Most lifts have two pauses: at the bottom, after you've lowered the weight to the starting position; and at the top, after you've lifted it and are about to start lowering.

You can manipulate the pause for different effects. For example, let's say you're doing a chin-up. You pull yourself up to the bar. The easiest thing would be to lower your tired self immediately. But if you pause in that position, holding your muscles in an isometric contraction, you've just made the exercise a lot more difficult. I recently did a program in which I did sets that started with a single chin-up, held at the top position for twenty seconds, followed by however many normal chin-ups I could do. To say those sets reduced me to a quivering, whimpering sack of once-proud manhood would be mostly accurate. But I think my arms grew a quarter-inch that week, so the temporary loss of pride was worth it. Still, I won't pretend I felt that way while I was still twitching uncontrollably.

The pause at the other end of a repetition—after you've lowered your body or the weight—has a different purpose. It won't build muscle and strength, but the longer you hold that pause, the harder the next repetition will be. That's because you've neutralized the natural elasticity of your muscles, their ability to snap back from a stretched position to a flexed position.

You can try it in your next workout: On one set of each exercise, pause with the weight in a lowered position for a count of five, then do the repetition. It'll feel different, I guarantee. You'll have to work with lighter weights, or do fewer repetitions, or both.

Getting Started With Dumbbells

Getting Started With Dumbbells

The use of dumbbells gives you a much more comprehensive strengthening effect because the workout engages your stabilizer muscles, in addition to the muscle you may be pin-pointing. Without all of the belts and artificial stabilizers of a machine, you also engage your core muscles, which are your body's natural stabilizers.

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