Evidence Based Programming (Part 5) - Tempo

Posted on Aug 13, 2019

One aspect of programming that is usually either grossly overlooked, or vastly overrated, is training tempo.

Tempo refers to the speed at which you perform a repetition. Usually it will be listed as a series of 4 numbers, i.e. 1:2:3:4

  • The first number refers to the eccentric, or lowering phase.
  • The second is the pause in the extended, or stretched position.
  • The third is the speed at which you lift the weight.
  • And the fourth is the hold at peak contraction.

 

That said, many programs neglect tempo completely, and see it as a lifter’s choice as to how quickly or slowly they lift. Let’s look at what the research says.

 

Slow Tempos

Slow tempos will often involve taking 3-4 seconds to lower a weight, pausing for 1 to 2 seconds, before lifting again.

Usually, the lifting part of the movement is relatively fast and explosive still, but some training methodologies, such as the HIT-style training popularized by Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones in the 1980s, also includes lots of slow concentric (lifting) phases.

The thinking behind this is that slower lifting causes the muscle to have more time under tension (TUT.) With an increased TUT, you may produce a greater build up of metabolites, along with recruiting more muscle fibers. (1) Both of these are mechanisms involved in hypertrophy. (2)

From a strength point of view, there may also be some benefit to doing slower negatives, especially if you have a particular weakness. For example, if you find your knees prone to caving when at the bottom of a squat, performing them with slow eccentrics for a while, and really focusing on pushing the knees out all the way down could help correct any collapse.

Similarly, deadlifts with a slow eccentric (and a lighter load,) can be used to develop back tightness, and keep you in a more mechanically advantageous position.

Pauses can also be utilised very effectively, particularly on the big lifts. Paused squats, deadlifts and bench presses all cause you to focus on tightness, and to not get overly reliant on bouncing the weights to get more reps. While pausing exercises like pull-ups and rows in the peak contraction position really force you to engage the back muscles, and not use lazy technique.

One downside to slower tempos, particularly in the eccentric portion, is that eccentrics cause far more muscle soreness than concentrics. (3) You may see this as an advantage for hypertrophy, but from a performance perspective, it’s probably going to be detrimental, if you’re using slow tempos, and going into your next session feeling beat up and sore.

 

Fast Tempos

The one area where lifting with a slightly faster tempo definitely has the edge is in terms of weight lifted.

Think about how you lift when you want to move a heavy load; You do it explosively. That’s because it’s almost impossible to move a heavy weight slowly, (you don’t see many Olympic lifters cleaning and jerking with a slow tempo!) and so in order to generate maximal force, the body has to recruit its fast-twitch motor units, and get them working together, fast.

We also know that tempo affects volume in a negative way. (4) Lifting slowly decreases the load you can use, and also extends the time it takes to do every single set, which may mean you get less volume in per session. That can definitely have a detrimental impact on size and strength, and potentially fat loss, too, as a lower volume means fewer calories burned, though this is likely negligible.

 

A 2011 study from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research also showed that when comparing a 2-0-2 tempo to a 2-0-4 one, participants had higher levels of IGF-1 (a hormone that plays an important role in muscle growth,) when lifting with the faster tempo. (5) 

We’ve even seen studies debunk the traditional notion that slower tempos cause more muscle damage, and suggest that a fast tempo may cause more breakdown. (6)

There’s also a strong case for including deliberate speed work in a training program. This is demonstrated in many powerlifting programs based around the conjugate method, which include 1 day per week for strength work on each lift/ muscle group, and 1 day per week for speed work, often known as ‘dynamic effort work.’

 

What’s Best?

If you hadn’t already guessed the answer, it comes down to those two key words - ‘It Depends.’

We can safely rule out extremes for the most part.

There’s an argument that a slower tempo may induce more muscle damage and mechanical tension, but super slow training has several downsides, including the need to use far lower loads, and either sacrificing volume, or having to train for hours every single session.

Similarly, there’s a place for lifting as quickly as you can if you’re training for maximal strength, or competing in Olympic lifting, but it shouldn’t be a mainstay in your program, and if you’re training purely for muscle growth, you don’t need specific speed work. 

For the most part, a good guide is to lower the weight with control, pause briefly, then lift as forcefully as you can, before pausing temporarily (potentially with a squeeze on the contraction,) and going again.

The tempo for this would look something like - 2:1:0:1, or perhaps 2:1:X:1, with X indicating lifting explosively.

 

What to Do Now

MyPhysique has set everything up for you so you needn’t worry about changing your own tempos. 

Depending on your goals, you might see some exercises with slower tempos, (particularly the eccentrics,) some exercises with faster ones, and even some paused work. If you don’t see anything, stick to the recommendations above of controlling the eccentric, and performing the concentric explosively. 

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