Tempo training: (What is it, and when should it be used).

posted on May 19, 2020

If you’ve spent a bit of time around a barbell, there’s a good chance you’ve either heard of or have incorporated tempo training into your program. If this is your first time hearing about it, then welcome. Tempo training can be extremely beneficial when it comes to building strength, muscle mass, and preventing/ overcoming injury. First, let’s dive into exactly what we mean when we refer to the term tempo. When used while performing a particular movement such as a squat, benchpress, deadlift, etc., the tempo refers to the amount of time that our body is performing an eccentric, isometric, and concentric contraction. In other words, this is the amount of time that it takes us to lower the bar and then return it to the starting position.


If you are following a training program that utilizes tempos, you will most likely see it written next to the movement that you are performing in the form of three numbers. For example: Barbell tempo front squats (3:2:1). In this example, the first digit refers to the number of seconds required for the eccentric (lowering) phase. The second refers to the isometric (pause) phase. And the third refers to the concentric (upward) phase. So, with a 3:2:1 tempo, the individual would lower the weight for a 3 count, pause for a 2 count, and drive the bar upward in a 1 count. This is just one of the many combinations you can use when incorporating tempos.


So what makes this method so beneficial? Although there are many benefits, the simplest answer would be that it increases the time under tension during the movement. Through this, you have the ability to improve in areas such as muscle hypertrophy, body awareness, motor control, and stability. On top of that, it’s a great way to challenge yourself and add variety to your training. Personally, I have seen all of these benefits from incorporating tempo work into my programming. As a high level powerlifter, it has allowed me to address my weaknesses within my lifts, gain a better understanding of my form and technique, and has helped me to prevent and overcome injuries in the past.


Now let’s go ahead and discuss how we can incorporate them. First and foremost, understand that tempos can be performed with any lift, not just the squat, bench press, or deadlift. They can be performed with free weights, machines, and even bodyweight exercises. There are 3 main ways to implement them into your training. Slow eccentrics, pause reps, and speed work.


Slow eccentrics: The eccentric portion of a lift typically places the most amount of stress on your muscles. So by using a slow tempo, you have the ability to improve hypertrophy and strength. It also allows you to focus on controlling the weight as it is being lowered, which will help to improve your technique. To achieve this, incorporate eccentrics of anywhere from 3-5 seconds, and start with using around 60% of your 1 rep max.


Paused reps: Pausing a rep at the bottom of the movement will teach you how to stay tight and control the load at what is considered the toughest point of the lift. With pauses, a tempo of 2-3 seconds is usually ideal, and like with slow eccentrics, starting with 60-70% of your 1 rep max is best.


Speed work: Working on explosive speed can allow your body to produce greater force over time, which will increase overall strength, speed, and muscle mass. When performing speed work, the load should move throughout the concentric portion of the movement as quickly as possible while also staying under control. Because of this, the tempo would look something like (2:0:0). As with eccentrics and pauses, start with 50-60% of your max.


The best way to learn what works best for you is to try it out for yourself and see. Regardless of what you go with, you will see nothing but benefits from incorporating tempo training into your routine.  


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