In weight training, tempo is the speed at which the reps in an exercise are to be performed. Tempo is probably one of the most underrated variables in the fitness industry. Most of the time we hear people talk about exercise selection, adding more weight, adding more reps, or adding more sets as a means to get leaner, bigger, stronger, or faster. Rarely do we hear people talk about how they are altering their training tempo to better suit their goals and needs. Tempo has yet to be implemented in a wide spread manner throughout the practice of training. This is a crying shame because the benefits of utilizing tempo far exceed the benefits you may get from the other training variables. Tempo is so powerful that it should be your first “go-to” when it comes to progression and it should be the foundation from which you determine if you will alter other training variables.
An example of the way tempo is written is 4/0/1/2. When receiving a program with tempo included you will see this little collection of numbers in such a way. Each number in this sequence is the amount of seconds you will take to perform a specific part of a single rep. The structure of this combination is very specific. In order, we read tempo as:
ECCENTRIC / PAUSE / CONCENTRIC / PAUSE
ECCENTRIC - The eccentric part of the rep is the part that lengthens the muscle. It goes with the force and can be thought of as the negative phase of the rep. In a standing bicep curl it would be the lowering of the weight. You can think Eccentric = Elongate. You’re lengthening the muscle.
PAUSE- The first pause in the sequence is the hold that occurs after the eccentric part of the rep. In a standing bicep curl, it would take place at the bottom of the rep after you have lowered the weight but before you begin to move the weight back up.
CONCENTRIC- The concentric part of the rep is the part that shortens the muscle. It goes against the force and can be thought of as the positive phase of the rep. In a standing bicep curl it would be the lifting of the weight. You can think Concentric = Curl. You’re curling/moving the weight.
PAUSE- The second pause in the sequence is the hold that occurs after the concentric part of the rep. In a standing bicep curl, it would take place at the top of the rep after you have curled the weight up but before you begin to lower the weight back down.
CREATING YOUR OWN TEMPO
When it comes to choosing a tempo, it can get very goal specific very fast. Tempo ALONE can dictate whether you will be doing a more metabolic style program or a more mechanical style program. For example, if you overload the eccentric pause (add seconds), you are overloading the lengthened position of a muscle, which will result in more mechanical damage. If you overload the concentric pause, you are overloading the shortened position of a muscle, which will result in more metabolic trauma. (PRO TIP: Use your understanding of exercise selection to pair with a corresponding tempo to get the most out of your workouts. Click here to read more about exercise selection.) This is not to say that you MUST ALWAYS overload one position and add seconds to these paused positions. Stimulus is a very complex topic containing many different variables. This is just a very basic idea of how to use tempos to get more goal specific.
You can also use tempos as a means of learning stability and control. Tempo allows you to slow down an exercise, check your form throughout the rep, and make sure that your body isn’t attempting to compensate half way through the move by recruiting different muscles. Regardless of your goals, you should ALWAYS utilize some sort of controlled pace to ensure that you are not whipping the weight around via momentum and not your muscles.
The following are generic tempos, possible ways to use those tempos, and different things you can do with tempos.
4/1/2/1- A great tempo for those who are new to the gym or new to a specific exercise. Taking everything slow allows you to find form and the target muscle.
4/0/1/0 or 3/0/1/0 - These would be ideal for more seasoned lifters. At this speed, you’re confident about your form and know how to use the muscle. You can demonstrate control and have eliminated momentum from the exercise.
4/1/1/0 - This tempo places a pause after the eccentric phase, meaning that we are overloading the lengthened position. This is a mechanical damage tempo.
3/0/1/1 - This tempo places a pause after the concentric phase, meaning that we are overloading the shortened position. This is a metabolic tempo.
3/0/X/0 - The X means “explode.” This is an explosive move. We want your concentric contractions to be fast. Notice I said fast contractions and not just to move fast. We’re still using the muscle, not momentum, to do the work.
3/0/A/0 - The A means “accelerate.” This tempo means that as you concentrically contract your muscle, you will speed up the rate at which you move.
3/0/D/0 - The D means “decelerate.” This tempo means that as you concentrically contract your muscle, you will slow the rate at which you move. TRAINERS, this is a great tempo for those clients who use momentum and end up bouncing out of the concentric pause of the rep.
Tempo is a beautiful thing that will completely renovate the way you view training. Tempo helps to create stability, solidify control, and can even be utilized to elicit certain stimuli. When it comes to training variables, tempo is the one variable with endless possibilities and the greatest potential for progress. While adding more weight, reps, or sets can lead to progression, eventually there will come a time when there is too much weight, too many reps, and/or too many sets. Switching up your exercises can be good for sanity but your muscles won’t inherently know the difference if the profile of the exercise is the same. Tempo can easily keep you out of a plateau and constantly progressing. If you’re not currently training with tempo, I highly recommend that you begin ASAP. With that said, be prepared to be humbled. Tempo training is no joke. Leave your ego at the door, lower your working weight, and prepare to make hella gains!