A lay person’s introduction to tempo in resistance training
Lifting weights is lifting weights, right? Sure, to a point. But how you lift is as important as what you lift. Obviously, factors like exercise selection, weight, number of reps, and rest periods all play a part in the results you get, as does using great exercise technique.
But equally important is the tempo you use to lift – that is how fast you push the weight, how fast you let it down, and how much time you spend in between. So, I thought I’d talk a little about the concept of of tempo in resistance training.
Three phases of a rep
A rep isn’t just a rep. It’s really three distinct phases (four if you’re nasty). This’ll be the last of the jargon – promise:
- Concentric – The main action phase. Muscle is contracting. For example, in a biceps curl, this is the part where you curl up. In a bench press, this is the part where you push the bar up.
- Eccentric – The “down” phase. Muscle is lengthening. This would be the phase where you let the dumbbells back down after a curl or let the bar down toward your chest in a bench press.
- Isometric – The part where you pause in between. Technically this is the part after the eccentric phase, just before you start another contraction, but you may notice there’s an opportunity to pause at the other end of the movement as well.
You probably already figured it out. There are four opportunities to slow down or speed up. You could power the weight up as fast as possible and let it down slow. You could push the weight up slow and let it fall on you and crush your soul or break your elbows. You could do it all super slow. And – you can pause at the top or bottom – or in the middle.
It turns out, the effects of these changes aren’t random. Certain things happen when you play with the tempo. Let’s talk about some of them.
Time under tension
You’re going to be mad. I promised no more jargon, but we need to mention time under tension. Time under tension is simply a measure of how much time your muscles spend actually working. When you’re pushing a bench press up, your muscles are developing tension. They’re also slowly releasing tension as you come down – unless you just let go.
It turns out that the results you get from lifting – especially strength and muscle growth – have a lot to do with how much time they spend under tension.
You can increase how much time muscles spend under tension by increasing reps, but you can also increase that time by spending more time doing those reps. This is a handy trick for getting more sheer muscle building action from your exercises.
Try a 2 second up, 2 second down pace on your bench press for example. Or try a lateral shoulder raise with a weight you can do 15 times normally – with a 10 second up, 10 second down pace. See how many reps you get in that way.
Not only that, but if you were to pause a lift at the moment of greatest tension you would increase your time of tension further. You may have heard of isometric holds – that’s what this is. A long, grueling, life-sucking wall sit is an example. So is a plank. Isometric exercise has a variety of potential benefits (but it doesn’t replace training through a whole range of motion).
One note – check with your doctor if you have high blood pressure before you try doing isometric holds.
There’s even more to it
It’s not quite as simple as “do everything as slow as possible”. There happen to be some subtleties there, especially when you consider your goals. You may know, for example, that you would choose different weights and numbers of reps if you’re looking to improve muscular endurance than if you’re looking to get swole.
Similarly, what you’re trying to accomplish determines how you deal with tempo. For example, if you’re looking for power and speed – say if you’re a sprinter, boxer, or jumper – you might use different tempos than if you’re looking to build size or raw strength.
Since I promised no more jargon, I won’t go much farther into the deep science about this (also I’m not really a scientist). But if you want a deeper dive, try some of these resources:
- Does Tempo of Resistance Exercise Impact Training Volume?
- Effects of lifting tempo on one repetition maximum and hormonal responses to a bench press protocol
- The Effect of Resistance Exercise Movement Tempo on Psychophysiological Responses in Novice Men
- The Influence of Movement Tempo on Acute Neuromuscular, Hormonal, and Mechanical Responses to Resistance Exercise—A Mini Review
- Effect of Repetition Duration During Resistance Training on Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
With all that said and without further ado, here are some examples of tempos you might use for different purposes. I’ll express the tempos in a standard way: eccentric, pause, concentric, pause. EG: 3/1/3/0 would be 3 seconds eccentric, one second pause, 3 seconds concentric, zero pause. An x indicates “as quick as possible” – aka power burst.
- Aerobic Tempo Strength Training – 2/0/2/0 – absolutely no pause in between. Sets of 8-12, up to 40 seconds of rest between sets. This one comes from Joel Jamieson of 8 Weeks Out – a successful MMA conditioning coach. It’s a method for growing slow twitch muscle fibers, and Joel uses is in aerobic training phases – creating a solid base aerobic for an athlete.
- Power/Strength Tempo – 3/1/x/1 – This method comes from my colleague Oliver, who I tapped to help coach me for sprint training. Notice the long eccentric phase. Slow eccentric phases promote muscle growth – and soreness! This method is done at 50-60% of 1 rep maximum for 3 to 6 reps, with about a minute of rest in between.
- Negative Tempo – 10+/0/NA/0. This method is great for building up the strength to do things like pullups or pushups. Start at the end of the concentric movement, eg in the pushup position. Go down as slow as you possibly can. 10 seconds or more. Get back up however you need to.
- Extreme Slow – 10/0/10/0– or more! This method was introduced to me in physical therapy when I was rehabbing a shoulder injury. In that context we used it for pushups and “scaption”, which is a type of shoulder raise. It’s great for getting yourself a lot of fatigue without the risk of super heavy resistance.
- Pause Reps – 1/3/1/1 – This method works well for things like squats where the bottom of the lift has a lot of tension. Can be great for muscle growth. You can try 5 second pause as well.
- Concentric control – 5/0/1/0 – Emphasizes the eccentric portion, which is great for muscle growth. This can cause extra soreness, and is not always recommended for older individuals, people with high blood pressure, or in situations where you can’t afford to be sore for a couple days (such as athletes competing regularly).
- Speed tempo – 2/0/0/1 – Great for developing speed and power. Similar to the power/speed tempo, you’ll use only about 50-60% of your one rep max. Not recommended for beginners or if you’re not used to a particular movement.
There you have it. Check out the resources above for more information, try out some different methods for yourself, or ask your coach or trainer for more help. If you have any questions for me, just email aaron @ aaronthetrainer.com!