There’s a strange paradox in program design: One of the most important variables is unknown or incompletely understood. Tempo, or the speed with which you perform the different components of an exercise, plays a huge role in training outcome.
If you ignore it, your gains will be mediocre and you put yourself at risk of injury, whereas mastering tempo training prescriptions will get you fantastic results.
This article will give you a quick overview of tempo and provide four reasons to incorporate it into your training programs.
What Is Tempo Training?
Tempo dictates the “time under tension” or the duration that muscles are being stimulated during a lift. For instance, performing a set of 10 repetitions of squats with 180 lbs at a 1-second-up and 1-second-down tempo is quite different from the same weight and reps at a 1-second-up and 4-seconds-down tempo.
The difference is in the time the muscles are exposed to the weight or tension. The first variation takes 20 seconds, while the second variation takes 50 seconds. That is a 30-second difference in the stimulus to the muscles and nervous system.
How To Write Tempo Prescriptions
In prescribing tempo training, four numbers are used like this:
- The first number (4) dictates the seconds it takes for the eccentric motion (the “down” motion in most exercises)
- The second number (2) is the pause before the concentric motion
- The third number (1) is the concentric (lifting or “up” motion of most exercises)
- The fourth number (0) 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. Then the weight is rapidly pushed up in 1 second. Then the rep starts over immediately.
Develop Baseline Strength
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 count tempo. A standard tempo of 4010 or 3010 is a good place to start.
These slower tempos with moderate weights allow you to develop improve technique while building strength and muscle. There’s much less risk of injury from loads that are too heavy.
Overcome Strength Plateaus
Training 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 neuromuscular system. Incorporating high-velocity and ballistic tempos into your routine will maximize strength gains.
For example, one study found that compared to “going through the motions” without a specific tempo, athletes who lifted “as fast as they could” improved maximal bench press strength by 10 percent after only 6 training sessions.
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. 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 training 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.
Improve Body Composition
When training to lose body fat, your main goal is to create a metabolic disturbance. Manipulating tempo is a great way to do this. 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. A longer time under tension also leads to release of growth hormone, a major fat burning hormone. The take away is that training longer tempos trigger both a favorable increase in growth hormone and an “afterburn” effect that requires the body to jack up calories expenditure during an extended recovery period.
By carefully programming all the loading parameters of training, including tempo, you will know exactly what type of stimulus you are applying to the body. Take control of your workouts, and you will achieve your goals faster than you ever thought possible.
To learn more about tempo prescriptions and how to use them to reach your goals, check out our online Program Design Course.