How to STOP Using Momentum When Strength Training

Everyone’s seen it: A gym-goer working hard to crush it but instead is standing in their own way. How? They’re using momentum to complete the reps instead of the power of their own muscles. We raise our eyebrows when we see someone swinging their body during bicep curls, but the truth is, you, too, might be using momentum without even knowing it.

momentum And it’s not even entirely your fault. Newton’s second law of motion, the Law of Acceleration, states that “the rate of change in the momentum of a body is proportional to the applied force and takes place in the direction in which the force acts (Enoka 1994)” [1]. This means that if you “cheat” by using a body part other than the one you’re focusing on, the momentum of the moving weight may be greater than your muscle’s ability to slow it down and stop it.

For example, if you begin lat pull downs by pulling the bar down explosively, momentum begins building during the exericse. Your muscles are working less and your spine and joints more. By the time you’re done with the set you need to let the weights drop just to control the momentum!

So unless you’re a powerlifter, strength training needs to be slow and deliberate – especially at the beginning of the movement – or momentum will easily take over. The heavier the weight, the greater the risk of momentum.

The good news is that you can stop using momentum and get more out of your workouts.

Preventing Momentum

You can inadvertently use momentum during any exericse. But the most common culprits are standing bicep curls, seated machine or cable rows, triceps pushdowns, and back extensions. The best strategy is to assume that unless you consciously control it, you are using momentum. Then take an analytical approach (via IDEA Health and Fitness) with these steps:

  1. Set up. When you get into position, check your alignment – are your spine and joints in neutral position and your abdominal muscles pulled in to your spine?
  2. Define the start, middle, and end. Every exercise has a start, middle, and end, with the end position the same as the start position. To prevent swinging and bouncing during the repetition, know where these points are. Treat each point as its own distinct movement instead of one movement blurred together.
  3. Contract at the peak. At the midpoint of the repetition, always pause and contract the right muscles. This will stop you from using momentum and recruit more motor units to increase force.
  4. Control the speed. Slower repetitions build less momentum than faster ones. I’m not saying you should avoid fast, powerful concentric phases; sometimes you do want to train forcefully to generate power. Just be aware that when you rush through reps you’re more likely to rely on momentum, so slow down and practice awareness through each rep.

Tips for Specific Exercises

Here are some common exercises and variations to cut down on momentum. You’ll most likely have to lower the weight to do these with good form.

Standing Bicep Curls. Stand against a wall with your upper back and glutes touching the wall. You can also do preacher curls and seated curls for less momentum.

Bent-over Rear Delt Raise. Stand behind an incline bench and adjust it so that when you bend at the waist and place your head on the end of the seat, your upper body is parallel to the floor. Remember to keep your back flat and pull in your abdominal muscles to avoid back strain. See it here.

Pull ups. To avoid swinging during pull ups, do not jump up to the bar – use a box to get to the dead-hang position (arms straight). Cross your ankles and pull your belly button into your spine to stabilize yourself. Perform each pull up slowly, with two counts up, a pause at the top, and two counts down.

Seated Rows and Lat Pull downs. Keep the resistance at a weight that allows you to pull your elbows back and retract your shoulder blades without moving the rest of your body. You shouldn’t lean too far forward or too far back during each rep – keep your spine neutral. Also try chest-supported rows to isolate the back muscles.

Triceps Pushdowns. If your gym has a back pad at the cable station, that’s the way to go. When I do pushdowns this way I have to drop the weight 40 percent! If you can’t do pushdowns against a pad, I suggest you skip pushdowns and do lying triceps extensions, narrow-grip bench presses, or diamond pushups instead.

And finally, two more tips: (1) You’re less likely to use momentum during prone and supine positions; and (2) it’s usually fine to use leg drive to transfer force from your lower body to your upper body (such as with bench presses and lying triceps extensions on the floor).

Once you become aware of the power of momentum, your results will become much more productive. Enjoy!

The article originally appeared on

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  1. “Muscle not momentum” is something I repeat all the time to my clients. Thanks for the tips!

  2. i LOVE breaking down the movement into stages beginning/middle/end! i’ve noticed that when i do tabata workouts i tend to blur those lines; squats become almost circular instead of linear. not so good (or at least not as good as they COULD be…).
    thanks, as always, for your tips!
    Gene recently posted..Reebok Spartan Race Fenway SprintMy Profile

  3. This is a great FYI. Didn’t even think about this being an issue but I know it is for me!

    BTW, for some reason this post never showed up in my feedly.,..not sure why.
    Lisa recently posted..More Good Books to ReadMy Profile

    • Glad you found it useful! That’s odd, I see it in my reader. Thanks for the heads up though, we know what happened last time there was weirdness in the reader (Chinese handbags, anyone?)

  4. This is a great post.
    I know that I use momentum at times when I work out, especially when I am tired.

  5. Great reminder. Thanks. I do try to do my movements slowly and hold for a second or 2 when I hit peak. And I am mindful of the muscles that are SUPPOSED to be working with each move. Makes so much more difference.
    Elle recently posted..#onesmallchange Allowing Myself to be ImperfectMy Profile

  6. Thanks for the reminder, momentum is an easy way to get injured.
    toni @ Runninglovingliving recently posted..I’m Back, Again. Plus the November Bestowed BoxMy Profile

  7. Great tips! I am probably using momentum in my lifts without even realizing it. It seems like some schools of thought on lifting encourage using momentum — (cough cough crossfit) — to do something that you couldn’t do without it, like a pull-up. What do you think about that?
    Sarah @ Beauty School Dropout recently posted..Sam at four monthsMy Profile

    • Great question. There’s a big difference between powerlifting, CrossFit, and conventional weightlifting. Powerlifters train for maximal strength in short, explosive bursts of strength. Form is very important, even though they’re moving fast. Crossfitters do high-intensity, timed workouts with Olympic lifts and bodweight exercises. They do make use momentum in some cases, as in Kipping pull ups. And yes, they’ve been criticized for using poor form in the interest of speed ;).

  8. You know it’s pretty cool to be studying the topics you are posting on. I love it! I see momentum used all the time, it’s hard to keep that from happening without changing up those variables. Thanks for the suggestions too.
    Jenn Speer recently posted..Ups and DownsMy Profile

  9. Great advice about slowing down to prevent the forces of momentum! There are a couple of moves I tend to rush through in the gym and I appreciate this reminder…will reinforce it by playing slower music on my ipod during those sets. 🙂
    Shira recently posted..Three Ways to Identify Your Life’s PurposeMy Profile

  10. You know I am all over this!! OMG what I see in the gym & I go when hardly anyone is there!!!! 🙂 I am all into the mind/muscle link…. So important to swallow the ego, use less weight & do it right!… not so much with guys that feel the need to throw around heavy weights that they can’t control. 😉
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted..Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah, Happy ThanksgivukkahMy Profile

    • Seriously, and the scary part is when we’re doing it ourselves without even know it. I know I was shocked when I saw myself on video… and yes, swallowing the ego has GOT to be done!

  11. OOPS – hope you are having an amazing time with family!
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted..Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah, Happy ThanksgivukkahMy Profile

  12. Tasty…

    All true. Good stuff!

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