How To Tempo Train With Kettlebells

Learn what tempo training is and how its flexibility can fit your goals.

You’re not wrong if you associate kettlebells with powerful, explosive movements. If you’re looking for the kind of delightfully slow grind you get with barbells, tempo training with kettlebells can help you get the most out of your equipment.

What Is Tempo Training?

If you’ve ever seen a workout program specify that some sets should be performed with a four number sequence such as “4-0-1-0”, you’ve stumbled across tempo training.

  • First number — indicates the number of seconds you should be in a lift’s eccentric phase
  • Second number — indicates a pause mid-lift
  • Third number — indicates how many seconds you should spend in the concentric phase
  • Fourth number — indicates time back at the top of a lift (also a pause)

The numbers in the sequence can and should be manipulated to match the goals or needs of the athlete.

With a bench press, following this formula is pretty straightforward. If you were going to tempo train your bench press with a 4-0-1-0 tempo, the lift would go as follows: take four seconds to lower the bar to your chest (4); avoid bouncing, but don’t pause at the bottom (0); take a single second to press the bar back up (1); and avoid pausing at the top before performing the next rep. 

You can manipulate the variables depending on what you’re trying to emphasize. If you’re trying to get more comfortable holding an especially heavy bar over your face, you might (with a spotter) try tempo sets with a 1-0-1-4 tempo — perform a pretty normal-paced bench press, but pause for four seconds at the top, get used to the way the bar is aligned over you, your wrist position, catching your breath, etc.

A deadlift, on the other hand, starts with a concentric movement (lifting the bar from the ground to standing). To perform a deadlift with a 4-0-1-0 tempo, start by reading the third number first — in this case, the one stands for how many seconds you should spend in your concentric movement. Get set, deadlift the bar with normal speed, then lower the bar for those four eccentric seconds.

Don’t take four whole seconds to pull the bar off the ground just because the first number is a four: think about what lift you’re doing, and remember that the order stands for eccentric; pause; concentric; pause, not necessarily the order of operations in a lift.

Benefits Of Tempo Training

Why go through all the added counting and thinking? A lot of it is about time under tension (TUT). Depending on your goals, your muscles probably require a greater training stimulus than banging out three sets of ten quick reps that didn’t go to full, intentional contractions or to failure.

Tempo Kettlebell
Image via Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

Increasing your TUT — the duration to complete a set and how long muscles are, well, under tension — can increase your mental focus (counting while concentrating harder on maintaining form). With greater mental focus and a greater amount of time bringing the muscle to full contraction with excellent form, tempo training increases the mechanical damage done to your muscles without lifting the kinds of heavy weight that would fatigue the central nervous system.

Tempo training will also force you to confront the sticking places in each of your lifts. You’ll identify the weak points in your lifts rather quickly when you’re grinding slowly through the eccentric portions — it might feel crappy in the moment, but tempo training can help improve those weak points.

Why Tempo Train With A Kettlebell?

You can tempo train with pretty much any kind of equipment — barbells, dumbbells, even bodyweight. Why bother tempo training with a kettlebell, which is usually associated with explosive movements? Because kettlebells are weird.

They’re oddly shaped and sometimes unwieldy, but that’s also what’s so useful about them. Experimenting with different kettlebell grips, including various kinds of bottoms-up grips, will work your stabilizers, forearms, and even finger strength to the max.

When lifting barbells or dumbbells tempo-style, the forces are all distributed evenly — but put a kettlebell in the mix, and everything is off balance because of the shape of the bell. Add increased TUT to the extra effort (both physical and mental) that it takes to stabilize the kettlebell throughout the movement, and reap that huge bang for your proverbial buck.

How To Tempo Train With A Kettlebell

Throughout all of these types of tempo play, feel free to experiment with different grips. That’ll help hit muscles from more angles and further engage your stabilizers and core.

Play With Numbers

Remember the tempo formula: eccentric-pause-concentric-pause. 

For example, 4-1-2-1, which would make for a killer bicep curl — down for four seconds, pause at the bottom for a second, up for two seconds, pause at maximum contraction, then do it all again. Experiment with the numbers and have a good time finding the formulas that work best for you with different movements.

Try not to slow down concentric phases for certain moves. With a kettlebell deadlift, for example, don’t bust your lower back by pulling the darn thing up super slowly. Be cautious with the numbers you’re playing with, and calibrate them with the specific moves you’re performing.

This is going to be especially challenging with a move like the kettlebell half-kneeling overhead press with a bottoms-up grip. You’ll probably be shaking with the effort of maintaining the bell’s position within a single rep or two, but it’ll likely be worth it.

Pause Your Reps

Tempo is traditionally written in that four-number formula above — but pause reps are also a form of tempo training. Think about a four-second paused squat as a 1-4-1-0 tempo. A second down, come to a good halt for four seconds just before hitting bottom, rocket up, then go back down.

Playing with pauses can help you eliminate sticking points because it’ll force you to hold perfect form in the places where it hurts so good.

Let’s say you’re hitting pause squats with double-racked kettlebells. Your upper back and core get an extra special workout, not to mention grip, front and rear delts, and traps. It’s easy to see right away how effective (and efficient) kettlebell tempo training can be for the entire body.

Incorporate Negatives

Whenever the eccentric phase of your lift is significantly longer than the others, it is likely the type of tempo training classically thought of as negatives. Your muscles are stronger in the eccentric phase than the concentric phase of a lift. (1) Negatives help take advantage of that added boost.

Try for a 1-2-7-1 tempo if you want to bring slight pauses together with negatives for maximum muscle damage (and subsequent growth). Just make sure not to overdo it with the weight and total number of reps. Negatives with the kinds of unconventional grips that kettlebells allow are even more intense (and therefore even more awesome).

Speed It Up

Try following your slower tempo training immediately with a speed set. Attempt to get the numbers as close to zero as you can — of course, no one can perform a lift in zero seconds, but set that 0-0-0-0 number in your mind (with solid form!) to create a good speed goal and to maintain focus when that intense burn kicks in.

You may be used to moving kettlebells quickly, but when performing speed moves with more traditional lifts right after using slower tempos, it’ll bring it to a whole new level.

Time It Right

Playing with time and kettlebells can be a big asset in terms of improving your muscular stability and strength. The odd shape of kettlebells are in your favor, and grinding slowly will add some flavor that your current kettlebell routine might be missing — so really, it’s a win all around.

References

  1. Herzog, Walter. Why are muscles strong, and why do they require little energy in eccentric action? (2018) Journal of Sport and Health Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.05.005.

Feature image via Shutterstock/Jacob Lund.