The feeling after a rigorous, sweaty session that ends in a heightened heart rate and pumped muscles is something we all aim for. Increasing weight, sets and reps are the usual go to for getting stronger and logically that makes sense because they are the easiest ways to progressive overload. But hear me out; you don’t need to dash around the gym on and off equipment, super-setting here there and everywhere to get there.
An underrated aspect of training, and also something that’s more intense than adding more and more weight, is altering the tempo. Tempo training will help you identify any weakness (physical or mental), fix pretty much any problem or push you towards your goals you have in your exercise regime. So if you want my advice, less is more and you should absolutely slow it down!
What is Tempo Training?
Simply put, tempo training relates to altering the time it takes you do complete each phase of a lift. Each full lifting movement is broken down into four parts:
- Eccentric Phase – How long it takes you to lower the weight. In this phase you are stretching or lengthening the muscle.
- Bottom Pause Phase – The pause at the bottom of the movement between the eccentric and concentric phases
- Concentric Phase – How long it takes you to lift the weight back to your starting position. In this phase you are contracting the muscle.
- Top Pause Phase – The pause at the top of the movement, after the concentric phase, before you complete your next rep.
The video below shows a back squat – try to identify each phase of the movement based on the descriptions above
Tempo is shown as a set of numbers corresponding to each part of the lift, for example, a tempo of 4-0-2-0 means that the eccentric lowering phase is 4 seconds, the bottom pause is 0 seconds (i.e. just change direction), the concentric lifting phase is 2 seconds and the top pause is 0 seconds before the next rep.
The tempo numbering will always be written in the same order – eccentric, pause, concentric, pause – but not every exercise follows this ordering, which is why it’s important to understand what each number relates to. For example, a squat or bench press with a 4-0-2-0 tempo means you take 4 seconds to lower the weight, pause, then 2 seconds to lift the weight, then pause. With a deadlift at the same tempo, you’re already at the bottom of the lift so the first movement is concentric, which you take 2 seconds to perform to get to the top, then four seconds to lower the weight back to its starting position.
It’s important to point out that you’ll need to lower your number of reps and sets and lower the weight you’re using when tempo training. That’s because your muscles will fatigue much quicker due to the slower eccentric phase of each movement, and so 60-70% of your 1RM as tempo training will feel harder than 90% of your 1RM without a tempo. If you don’t believe me, give it a go!
BENEFITS OF TEMPO TRAINING
Tempo training feels tough because you increase the demands of the muscles and keep them under tension longer. However, there are numerous benefits to incorporating it into you training programme:
- Your time under tension increases and so your muscles synthesise much more protein and get bigger. For example, if you do 10 squat reps each taking 2 seconds to complete, you’ll accumulate 20 seconds under tension. If you add in tempo training and take 4 seconds to lower into your squat and two seconds to get back into your starting position, each rep will take five seconds which totals 50 seconds of tension. All this means that you’ll have a greater degree of muscle building potential when you slow down your lifting speed. Here’s a scientific study to prove it: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22106173/
- You’ll experience much more awareness of your position because you have to hold yourself in your perfect lifting position for longer in order to stay balanced. Because you can’t rush tempo training, you’ll be paying attention to every key pointing the movement – maintaining a hinge from your hips, tracking your knees, bracing your core and controlling your breathing. Any positional weakness will show up in tempo training, and that could be the reason why you hit a plateau in training. For example, in a squat a lack of midline stability may make it difficult to get out of the bottom of a squat. By using tempo training to work on each segment of each lift, you’ll be able to identify what the problem is and strengthen each segment independently. Over time, you’ll get stronger and be able to blast heavier weights with and without a tempo whilst maintaining perfect form, removing any frustrating training plateaus.
- Your mental toughness will get a thorough workout as well as your muscles. By breaking down each movement into its respective segments, your mind needs to keep totally focused on your position and the tempo. Believe me, your mind will be screaming to you to speed up or give up on the set, but you have to resist and continue with the tempo. By doing so, you’ll be developing your mind-muscle connection and mental toughness required to level up your lifting performance.
- Your risk of injury will be substantially reduced because the control required in tempo training increases the quality of you reps. Focusing on technique with a lighter weight – 60-70% of your 1RM – will train your muscles and joints to move properly and safely without overly stressing your central nervous system by piling on weight plates.
IS Tempo Training suitable for beginners?
Yes, beginners really benefit from tempo training. Tempo training, like triphasic training, will give beginners plenty of time to think about body position, how they execute the movements and support the development of mental toughness required to get the best out of training.