It would be hard to overstate the amount of ineffective, erratic and downright awkward movement I’ve seen over the years. Fortunately, there’s a solution for all this cringe-worthy–as my kids would say–gym behavior. In today’s article about tempo, your movement redemption, your fitness salvation, your exercise rebirth has, at long last, arrived.
Tempo is simply defined as the rate at which a lift is performed. Along with the amount of reps, this dictates exactly how long a set will take, and is important for 4 main reasons.
1. Movement Quality
2. Injury Prevention
4. Training Effect
Despite age, training experience, gender, etc., quality is at the top of my priority list for all clients. Put simply, the better you move, the longer you can move for. To draw a comparison of this, there is a big difference between doing 300 shitty Air Squats for time (a reference to “Murph” for all my CrossFitters out there) vs. a handful of Goblet Squat sets at a specific tempo. The former is done once a year for reasons that should be clear, whereas the latter could be done for the majority of your life.
Taking a closer look at how precisely tempo works, it is written as 4 numbers that determine the speed in seconds of each phase of a lift, starting with the downward/eccentric phase. Even if a particular exercise starts with an upward motion, such as a Pull-Up or Deadlift, you would begin counting the rep with the downward phase. Therefore, the order of tempo is always Down, Hold, Up, Pause. See below for a couple examples.
A. Back Squat @ 3011
3 – Moving smoothly, take 3 seconds to squat fully
0 – Hold for 0 seconds at the bottom (do not pause)
1 – Come up from the squat with a 1 second count
1 – Start the next rep after 0 seconds (do not pause between reps)
B. Strict Pull-Up @ 2012
2 – Under control, come down for 2 seconds with arms fully extended
0 – Hold for 0 seconds at the bottom (do not pause)
1 – Pull yourself up with chin over the bar at a 1 second count
2 – Pause for 2 seconds, holding chin over the bar before starting the next rep
Injuries are inevitable when it comes to exercise, but many of them can be avoided by simply performing better, more precise reps that target the correct muscle groups. Although reps play an important part in the development of movement proficiency, volume cannot always be the sole tool for learning, for instance, a perfect Deadlift that fully targets the hamstrings and glutes. Further, asking a beginner to perform complex hinging/bending exercises at high reps could lead to a lot of short-term risk with very little long-term reward. This is where tempo comes in.
To continue with the Deadlift as an example, we can apply time to each phase of the exercise to teach proper positioning and glute/hamstring engagement, which is critical to all hinging movements.
A. Deadlift @ 2221 (2 sec down, 2 sec pause at bottom, 2 sec up, 1 sec pause at the top)
Without even considering total volume/reps, this particular tempo alone demands positional control during all phases. Moreover, the 2 sec pause at the bottom–where tension is typically lost, resulting in dreaded Spinal Flexion (rounding of the back)–prevents “Touch & Go” reps, thereby requiring a conscious focus on resetting between each rep to maintain a Neutral Spine (flat back). Put more simply, this particular tempo prescription forces you to “own” each phase, or, position, of the lift.
Whether you’re aiming for a Max Effort attempt, or going into your first week of a big lift, tempo separates the legit from that which is haphazard. If, for instance, you performed a 5 Rep Max Bench Press last year, and increased by 10 lbs. 6 months later, without tempo, unfortunately, it doesn’t mean much. What?! That’s right. Let’s just say during the 1st max, you controlled each rep on the way down and paused between all of them (not that you would actually remember since you weren’t paying attention to tempo), while on the 2nd max attempt, you bounced the last 3 reps off your chest and may or may not have had some assistance from a spotter on that crucial 5th rep. Needless to say, those 2 attempts don’t remotely resemble one another, and whether or not you actually got stronger is debatable thanks to no consideration given to tempo.
One of the most important functions of tempo training, is Dose Response, or training effect. By slowing lifts down in the Deadlift example above, we can more adequately learn each phase of complex lifts. Conversely, we can apply quicker tempo counts as mastery of movement is sharpened to achieve more strength and power. Further, tempo along with reps dictates how much total time is spent performing a given, also known as Time Under Tension. This plays a big part in training effect, given that longer amounts of time under tension generally result in more muscle gain. On the other hand, lesser time under tension typically is meant to gain strength. This becomes an important facet in programming when it comes to your individual goals, whether body composition or strength and performance related.
To conclude, the case for tempo training is a clear one no matter who you are or what you’re aiming to get out of fitness. The only question is how you’ll apply it to your individual needs.