Using Tempo as a Training Variable
Based on current training models, a set 1-3 is associated with training for power, a set of 3-5 is associated with training for strength, sets of 6-8 hypertrophy, and anything greater than that you are training for muscular endurance. Now let’s call an apple an orange, and would it be possible for a set of 6 to actually illicit 3 separate training effects? In other words, is it possible that a set 6 reps can 3 seperate training effects? The answer is yes. Let’s welcome the training variable TEMPO to the conversation.
What is Tempo Training
Simply put, tempo is the amount of time you assign to complete a specific phase of a repetition. The tempo of a set is assigned to the eccentric, ammortization and concentric phase of the movement. Seeting a specific tempo allows you to manipulate the amount of tension your muscles and tendons are under during a given set. The tension in turn dictates the training effect of the set. A set with a slower tempo, places a greater amount of tension on your skeletal muscle, which will result in greater hypertrophy. A set with a faster tempo, one that is more ballistic in nature, places a greater stress on the tendons and ligaments responsible for movement during the lift, ultimately improving the elastic components of your musckuloskeletal system.
If we were to incorporate tempo into a training program, each phase of the lift would be represented by a number and that number dictates the length of time (amount of tension) for each phase of the lmovement. For example 3,1,1,2 means the eccentric phase of a lift will take 3 seconds, there will be a 1 second pause, or ammortizaton phase, 1 second to get back to the original starting position, and then two seconds at the top of the range of motion.
Squat 3,1,1, 2 = 3 seconds down, 1 second pause at the bottom, 1 second to drive up, and then pause for 2 seconds at the top before your next rep
Tempo of a lift will dictate the overall training effect of a set. Here are a few example of what the tempo of a movement will look like for a specific training effect.
Tempo To Train For Power
When squatting for power the Tempo could be 2, 0, X, 2. Translation: 2 seconds on the way down, no pause at the bottom, and drive out of the hole as fast as you can, reset at the top of the lift for 2 seconds and have at it again.
Tempo To Train For Strength
When training for strength the tempo should be 2,1,2, 2. Translation: 2 seconds on the way down, 1 second pause at the bottom, two seconds to return to the original starting position, then two seconds to rest and go again
Tempo Training for Hypertrophy
When training for hypertrophy the tempo could be 4,1,3,1. Translation: 4 seconds on the way down, 1 second pause at the bottom, two seconds to drive from the bottom, and two seconds to reset.
Hypertrophy has been shown to be a direct result of the amount of tension you place on your skeletal muscle during your training program. The greater the amount of tension, the greater the hypertrophy. 4, 1, 3, 1 over 6 reps would provide enough of a stimulus to start the mTor pathway responsible muscle hypertrophy. I go into greater detail on this topic in The effect of tension and skeletal muscle hypertrophy
Using Tempo to Enhance Stability throughout a Movement
Training with a specific tempo can have a great benefit for those who tend to have unstable joints or are new to training. For example shoulder instability during the bench press. Slowing down the tempo at each phase of the will potentially improve their body awareness, and provide enough of a stimulus to the nervous system to groove the movement pattern. The ultimate goal is to enhance stability by increasing the time under tension.
Addressing Tempo with your Athletes.
At 1RM Performance we work with a lot of overhead athletes, ie. Baseball, Volleyball, and Softball athletes. Working with this style of athletes requires a great deal of focus on shoulder function and how their core is firing during overhead movements. This ensures our athletes maintain healthy scapular movement and control. A great way to enhance an athlete’s shoulder function is by forcing them to focus on the tempo throughout the movement. A tempo I find to be very useful is 2,1,3,1 during exercises that require a large amount of scapular control ie. Y Band pulls, band pull aparts, rows, etc. The extra focus on the eccentric movement is necessary to help protect against the excessive eccentric force they face during their sport.
When an athlete is spending time under the bar with squats, or working with dumbbells to improve lower body power, the tempo of the lift more closely resembles the overall training goal for the current training cycle. When we are training for power an athlete with see 2,0,X,2, representing a fast explosive lift, or when working to improve strength or hypertrophy they will see 2,1,2,2 or 3,1,3,2.
The use of tempo doesn’t end there. For the athletes that have an inability to flex at their hip when they sprint, I will do a static knee hold in a sprint position. For something like this the tempo is even further slowed down. For this exercise it will be a 2, 10,2, 1.
Who should train with Tempo
Personally I would say anyone can train with tempo. The experience of the lifter will dictate when and what tempo the movement should be completed at. As mentioned above, a slow tempo will enhance the quality of movement through a lift, which is ideal for someone beginning a lifting program. In the same sense, a new lifter would not have the neuromuscular coordination to complete a set at a fast tempo, the movement will fall apart, and you will probably hurt yourself or your client. Experienced lifters have experienced "Plateaus", which could have been avoided by tweaking their training tempo, providing a new stimulus to maintain overload.
Tempo Training for Powerlifting
Tempo is a great way to prepare for a powerlifting meet. As a meet gets closer, it is of utmost importance for the athlete to train with a pause at the bottom range of motion. The tempo could look something like this: 2,2,1,1 - meaning two seconds of control during the eccentric phase, a 2 second cause at the bottom of the movement, driving the bar fast from the bottom position, and own the bar at the top to fully complete the lift.
Tempo Training for Olympic lifting
For an Olympic lifter, a tempo of X,1,X, 2, can be used to train the movement of a clean or snatch when the athlete is in the competition phase of their training cycle. Broken down, the lift would be a fast pull from the floor, a one second pause in the catch, then driving out of the hole as fast as possible.
Take home message
Training with tempo is a tremendous tool to use in your exercise program. Young or old, experienced or not, addressing and manipulating tempo with give you greater ownership of your programing. This will provide a new avenue to enhance your training effect. The greater the control of the variables within your programming, the greater the chance of achieving the benefits you are looking for.
Remember, if you want to train for hypertrophy, slow the tempo down and increase your time under tension. If you want to train for strength and power, speed up the tempo, decrease your time under tension and increase the speed on that bar!
Have A Strong Day!
If we were to incorporate tempo into a training program, each phase of the lift would be represented by a number and that number dictates the length of time for each phase of the movement. For example 3, 1, 1, 2 means the eccentric phase of a lift will take 3 seconds, there will be a 1 second pause, or ammortizaton phase, 1 second to get back to the original starting position, and then two seconds at the top of the range of motion.