Few workout protocols fit the bill for pretty much any problem or goal you have in your exercise regimen: but tempo training is one of those protocols. If you’ve hit a plateau in your lifting, want to get stronger, or learn to control the weight on the bar — tempo training is the method for you. This type of lifting is all about mental discipline and physical results — by pushing yourself to the max by dramatically increasing your time under tension, tempo training will elevate your abilities in the gym.
Whether you’re an experienced lifter looking to improve your max strength, a newbie in need of more muscular endurance, or an athlete at any level who needs to dial in their form, you can turn to tempo training. How do you do tempo training? And why? Read on to find out how to decipher a tempo protocol, the importance of increasing your time under tension, how to select the right weight for tempo training, and how to integrate tempo training into your program.
What Is Tempo Training?
Tempo training is all about moving slowly and under control. Instead of somewhat mindlessly moving through your reps, you’ll be breaking each movement down into its fundamentals: an eccentric portion, a concentric portion, and two isometric portions in between (one at the top and one at the bottom of the lift). Each portion of the lift is assigned its own number, corresponding to how many seconds that part of the lift will take you.
By lifting to a set tempo, you’ll increase your time under tension (TUT) compared to your standard lifting pace. For example, say you typically squat 225 pounds for a set of 10 reps, and each rep takes you two seconds to complete. In total, you accumulate 20 seconds of tension. However, if you take three seconds to descend, pause for two seconds at the bottom, and then explode up, each rep will take you about five seconds. Do six reps at that pace, and you’ll have accumulated 30 seconds of tension.
How Tempo Training Works
Generally speaking, when you lift for lower rep schemes, you’re using much heavier weights (a higher percentage of your one-rep max). With tempo training, you’ll do the opposite by lowering your number of reps per set and lower the weight you’re using.
This might feel counterintuitive, and it’ll definitely feel humbling. You’ll accumulate so much more time under tension that your muscles will be quaking under 60% of your 1RM just as badly (if not worse) as if you squatted 85% of your 1RM.
According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Physiology, the greater the time under tension, the greater the protein and muscle synthesis — even when using light weight. The study involved men experienced in weight training: one group perform leg presses to failure at 30% of their 1RM with a one-second (average) rep time, while the other group performed leg presses to failure at 30% of their 1RM with a six-second eccentric rep time (tempo). The latter group (which spent significantly more time under tension) showed three times more protein synthesis after 24 hours, indicating a much greater degree of muscle-building potential when slowing down rep speed. (1)
How to Decipher Tempo
Typically, you’re probably accustomed to two or three numbers next to each exercise in your program: the number of sets, the number of reps, and an intensity percentage. Think: 3×5, 82% — which translates to three sets of five reps at a weight that is 82% of your 1RM. Sometimes, that intensity percentage will be switched out with a number representing RPE (rate of perceived exertion). But that’s usually it.
With tempo training, you’ll have those numbers, but also a sequence of four numbers. If you’ve ever seen 3-1-1-0 pop up in a program, you’ve encountered tempo training before — even if you didn’t know quite how to read the tempo of the exercise. Here’s what those numbers mean:
- The first number is the eccentric portion (descent) of the exercise, which is the load coming down. (squatting down, lowering the body during a pull-up, etc.)
- The second number is the pause at the bottom (holding the bottom of a squat, pausing at the chest on a bench press, dead hang on a pull-up bar, etc.)
- The third is the concentric portion (ascent), which is the weight moving up. In some cases, in place of the third number, you may see an “X,” which means explode up as fast as possible, or an “A,” which means assisted up.
- The fourth number is the pause at the top. For some movements, like the squat, it is back to the start position; for others, like the pull-up, it is holding the top position with the chin over the bar.
Tempo numbers are always written in the same order (E,P,C,P). However, not every exercise starts with an eccentric movement. The deadlift, pull-ups, and other similar movements start concentrically. So when reading the tempo for these types of movements, make sure you understand what position the movement starts to complete the exercise with the correct tempo.
Take reading a tempo for the deadlift, for example. If the deadlift tempo is 2-1-1-4, you’ll start at the third number (concentric) instead of the first number (eccentric). It’ll look like this: one second up, four-second hold at the top, two-second descent, one-second reset at the bottom. On the other hand, if a squat had a 2-1-1-4 tempo, it would look like this: two-second descent, one-second hold at the bottom, one-second ascent, four-second hold at the top.
The Benefits of Tempo Training
Improves Movement Quality and Control
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned athlete, one of the best ways to increase strength while avoiding injury and improving strength is maintaining proper movement mechanics. When rushing a movement such as a squat, you’re less likely to pay attention to several key points — like properly hinging from the hips, maintaining midline stability, and proper tracking of the knees.
Disregarding these key points can result in crashing down with a rounded back, harsh flexion of the knees showing little to no control, and the infamous “butt wink” and “good morning squat.” Lifting to a tempo helps you slow down. Over time, you’ll get stronger while maintaining proper form.
Addresses Positional Weaknesses
Completing reps without awareness and control makes it easy to hit a plateau due to lingering weaknesses. Have you ever had a hard time with a front squat? You may be able to complete the squat, but you can’t seem to maintain an upright position, or you lose the weight forward. Try to go heavier, and the problem magnifies. You can address your mobility to try to get your elbows up higher or check your ankle mobility, but when that doesn’t work, you might start feeling pretty hopeless.
Assuming that you have good squat mechanics, chances are you have a weakness, possibly a lack of midline stability, causing complications getting in or out of positions like the bottom of the squat. But without slowing down your movement to isolate and strengthen each portion of the lift, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to identify your weakness, let alone address it. By using tempo training to hone in on each segment of each lift separately, you’ll be able to pin down what’s going wrong with your lift and strengthen your way out of pretty much any plateau.
Improves Mind-Muscle Connection And Mental Toughness
Tempo training breaks down each lift into its core components, forcing your body — and your mind — to focus on each aspect of the move in turn. And you’ll have a long time to linger on each motion, too, since you’ll be performing the lifts a lot slower.
Even when you’re moving heavy weight at a regular speed, your mind pretty much goes blank, and you focus on getting through the lift. Tempo training requires a much different type of mental and physical discipline. You’ll need to challenge yourself to slow down your counting to perform your sets accurately. In doing so, you’re going to want to give up or speed up the set. When you have to resist moving faster to escape your physical exhaustion and mental fear with every single rep, you’ll be developing more confidence in your body, a more solid connection with your muscles, and a much tougher lifting mindset.
You Can Progress Your Training
Typically, you’d either add more weight to the barbell or add reps to progress your training. You should do those things, but eventually, you’ll hit a plateau. As you become more advanced, it gets harder to add pounds to your lifts or move that same weight for more reps. However, altering the speed with which you lift the weight is a simple but effective way to spark new gains.
Say you’ve been stuck benching 315 pounds for three sets of three reps for months. Well, try taking two seconds to lower the bar before you press the weight back up. Then, a week later, try lowering it to a count of three seconds. The next week, try a four-second eccentric. It may not be more weight or another rep, but you’re accumulating strength- and muscle-building tension.
Reduced Injury Risk
Controlling the movement and increasing the quality of the reps alone can keep you away from injuries. Lifting with a tempo forces you to focus on technique while also developing neuromuscular adaptations with safer weights that are less stressful on your joints, muscles, and central nervous system. In other words: You’ll be able to better avoid injury using submaximal loads that are less stressful on your body but stimulate big gains.
Getting stronger and building muscle using lighter loads can give your body a much-needed break it might need to recover from max lifting while still producing new gains. Tempo-style exercises relieve stress on the joints due to the extra recruitment of muscle fibers with lighter weights. According to CJ Martin of CrossFit Invictus: “Muscles are far better at adapting to increased loads. Connective tissue typically takes longer to strengthen and adapt to the increasing loads, so by slowing down the tempo, you can give your connective tissue some rest while still strengthening the surrounding musculature.”
How to Choose Weight For Tempo Training
If you’re starting in your tempo training journey, begin by lifting between 40-65% of your 1RM for about 60 seconds of total tension per set. Don’t worry about lifting less weight. If you want to execute tempo training with consistently excellent form and without cheating yourself by counting the seconds faster than you should, you’ll have to lower the weight substantially from what you would normally lift. This will likely take some trial and error, and that’s okay.
Tempo training will expose weak points in your lifts that you probably didn’t realize so that it can be extremely humbling (and therefore excellent for your progress). If you normally can hammer out three sets of five squats at 315 pounds, you might be tempted only to lower the weight to around 285 pounds and tackle three sets of five at a 4-2-0-1 tempo. You can handle it, right? Probably not.
Your form will have to be absolutely perfect during your tempo. If you’re descending for a genuine four seconds and pausing at the bottom for a solid two seconds, you’ll find that you may have to lower the weight more to maintain actually excellent form. When you’re just going through the motions with regularly-paced squats, you might be accidentally promoting movement patterns that will break down at tempo — so to be on the safe side, start a lot lighter than you think you need to and build up from there.
How to Tempo Train
Here are a few protocols to implement to start adding tempo training to your routine:
For Muscular Endurance
When you want to use tempo training to improve your muscular endurance — or when you’re just starting with the protocol — you’ll want to move weight that seems super light at first. Think between 40-65% of your 1RM for tempos like 10-0-4-1, 7-4-0-2, and 6-2-2-2. Performing three sets of five of these tempo reps will have you maintaining between 60 and 75 seconds of time under tension three times for each move — which will definitely boost your muscular endurance in a big way.
For More Muscle
If you’re looking to build muscle with tempo training, you can up the intensity to between 60-80% of your 1RM and use protocols like 3-2-0-1, 3-1-0-1, or 4-1-0-1, depending on how heavy you’re going. Go for three sets of five with a two to three minutes rest between sets. This protocol will also help you change your body composition if you’re interested in losing body fat. According to a 2012 study published in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, working with 70% of your 1RM at a tempo of 4-1-0-1 produces greater excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) than your typical rep speed protocol will (thereby increasing potential calorie burn). (2)
For More Strength
When your body is ready for it, and your program calls for building max strength, it’s time to up the weight — going to 85% of your 1RM or higher — and significantly quicken the tempo to something more like 2-1-X-1. Your time under tension will be less, but it’ll still be a much slower lift than you would normally perform (and since the weight is so high, you’ll need the adjustment). Perform three sets with a three to five-minute rest in between.
Of course, each of these protocols will bleed into each other: emphasizing training for endurance with tempo training will still help you build strength, and training for strength will help you build muscle. So, especially once your form is locked in and your body is accustomed to the rigors of tempo training, it’s always okay to adjust as needed to suit your own body and your own needs.
When you’re programming tempo training, remember to prioritize recovery. Because you’ll be spending some major time under tension — especially in eccentric parts of movements that you might normally neglect in your training — you’ll want to be extra sure to recover properly when you’re in a tempo training microcycle. That will mean paying extra attention to your sleep, hydration levels, and food intake. It will also entail choosing your exercises extra carefully. When you’re tempo training, it’s not the time to be adding HIIT sessions or extra accessory moves into your program. Ensure you’re also programming plenty of restorative movement (including stretching, yoga, and long, easy walks or jogs) into your training.
Burd NA, Andrews RJ, West DW, Little JP, Cochran AJ, Hector AJ, Cashaback JG, Gibala MJ, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15;590(2):351-62. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200. Epub 2011 Nov 21. PMID: 22106173; PMCID: PMC3285070.
Scott CB. The effect of time-under-tension and weight lifting cadence on aerobic, anaerobic, and recovery energy expenditures: 3 submaximal sets. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Apr;37(2):252-6. doi: 10.1139/h11-158. Epub 2012 Mar 8. PMID: 22401781.
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