Prescribing exercise tempo is the hallmark of a good training program. Despite being one of the most important variables of workout prescriptions, many people ignore tempo or simply don’t know how to use it to get results.
Tempo is the speed with which you perform the different components of a exercise. Every exercise contains a concentric contraction in which the muscle shortens and an eccentric contraction in which the muscle lengthens. The concentric contraction is the “up” motion whereas the eccentric contraction is the “down” motion in most exercises, including the squat, bench press, and biceps curl.
Tempo also allows you to prescribe any pauses in between the up and down motions of a lift. Why would you insert pauses in between the contractions?
Pauses at the “top” of a lift can allow for increased rest between repetitions, whereas pauses at the bottom increase the training stimulus and make the exercise harder.
In prescribing tempo, four numbers are used like this: 4210.
The first number dictates the seconds it takes for the eccentric motion.
The second number is the pause before the concentric motion.
The third number is the seconds it takes for the concentric motion.
The fourth number is the pause before the repetition repeats.
In the case of a 4210 tempo in the squat, it takes 4 seconds to lower the weight, there is a 2-second pause at the bottom position, and then the weight is rapidly pushed up in 1 second and the rep starts over immediately.
Benefits of Tempo Training For Weights
Now that you know how to read tempo, you need to know why it’s worthwhile to bother training tempo in the first place.
Benefit #1: Develop Baseline Strength Faster
As strength training has surged in popularity, more people than ever are picking up weights. Instead of haphazardly letting the weights fall with gravity, progress will happen much quicker if you follow a standard tempo such as 4010 or 3010. These slower tempos with moderate weights are a great tool to learn technique and build body awareness. At the same time you are gaining strength and muscle. There’s much less risk of injury from loads that are too heavy.
Benefit #2: Overcome Strength Plateaus
Slow, controlled eccentric tempos are a great tool for establishing baseline strength but once you’ve got several years of training behind you, you need to find other ways of stimulating the muscular system. Incorporating high-velocity and ballistic tempos into your routine will maximize strength gains, especially in more advanced trainees. For example, one study found that compared to “going through the motions” without a specific tempo, athletes who lifted “as fast as they could” using a load of 85 percent of the 1RM improved maximal bench press strength by 10 percent after only 6 training sessions.
Benefit #3: Increase Muscle Gains
To maximize muscle mass, you need to stimulate protein synthesis so that muscle fibers grow, but you also need to target the higher threshold motor units that are hard to reach and are typically only recruited with maximal load training. Longer, slower tempos are standard for stimulating protein synthesis with research showing 6-second eccentric tempos lead to a 3-fold greater muscle building effect than 1-second tempos. On the other hand, it’s worth incorporating ballistic, powerful tempos that will hit the hard-to-reach Type IIX fibers because you will recruit a greater proportion of muscle fibers for long-term gains.
Benefit #4: Improve Body Composition
When training to lose body fat, your main goal is to create a metabolic disturbance, hence, the term “metabolic conditioning.” Manipulating tempo is a great way to stimulate lactate buildup and stress the body metabolically. For example, one study compared the effect of a 4010 tempo with a tempo of 1.5 seconds for both the concentric and eccentric motions on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), a proxy marker for energy expenditure.
The 4010 tempo produced a greater increase in EPOC, which makes sense since participants spent more time under the weight. The interesting thing is that a longer time under tension has been shown to correlate with higher lactate levels, which leads to release of growth hormone, a major fat burning hormone.
Researchers concluded that longer tempos that tap the anaerobic energy system are ideal for body composition because they trigger both a favorable increase in growth hormone and an “afterburn” effect that requires the body to jack up the calories it burns during an extended recovery period.
By carefully programming all the loading parameters of training, including tempo, you will know exactly what type of training stimulus you are applying to the body. Take control of your workouts, and you will achieve your goals faster than you ever thought possible.