Greetings and happy holidays from sunny and sweltering Costa Rica!
I’m down here for the holidays … zip-lining through the jungle, doing pull-ups like Tarzan, and failing miserably at surfing. More on that later.
In my absence, something special from one of the best in the industry, Mike Samuels of Healthy Living, Heavy Lifting in Southampton, England.
It’s always an honor to welcome Mike. This article is about training tempo. I talk a lot about lifting explosively. Mike tackles the other side of the coin: lifting with controlled tempos.
Take it away Mike!
Why You Should Give A Crap About Tempo
By Mike Samuels
Tempo is the black sheep of training programs.
Everyone stresses over sets, reps, exercise selection and workout frequency. Thaymeans that tempo is often left behind, forgotten amongst a plethora of other variables.
Long gone are the days where tempo ruled the roost.
Sure, it’s good to get out of the dark ages of super slow training, and Mentzer-style HIT, though some still (bizarrely) promote that kind of approach today. But it would be nice if trainers and coaches gave a little more love to tempo.
I remember when I first got involved in training myself. Before going on to work in fitness, I’d read over old programming templates on T-Nation or in Muscle & Fitness. One of the first columns my eye was drawn to was about tempo.
The reasoning behind why an author chose the speed of their eccentrics, concentrics, stretches and contractions fascinated me. Guys like Charles Poliquin and Christian Thibaudeau really seemed to care about making sure you were training at the right pace.
So I say it’s time to bring tempo back to the forefront of programming.
A (Brief) Primer on Tempo
Tempo refers to the speed at which you’re lifting a weight.
It can be given as three or four numbers. For example –
The first number is the eccentric (lowering portion.)
The second is any pause at the bottom of the eccentric (also known as the midpoint.)
The third is the lifting phase, while the last number is any squeeze or hold in the contracted position.
Sometimes, the fourth number will be omitted, so you’d get:
As an example, take the bench press:
A 3:1:1:1 tempo would be a 3-second eccentric, a 1-second pause on the chest, a 1-second lifting phase, and a 1-second gap (as you squeeze the pecs and triceps) before beginning your next rep.
Tempo Takes a Tanking
Many guys in the industry are pretty anti-tempo. In a way, it’s easy to see why.
People often equate lifting with a tempo to lifting slowly.
We know that if you lift slow, your strength is compromised. You have to use less weight, you don’t recruit as many muscle fibers, and your Central Nervous System doesn’t get as much of a workout. Clearly, that’s bad news.
But lifting with a tempo doesn’t necessarily mean lifting slowly. It simply means you’re putting more thought into how you lift, and not just throwing weights around, bouncing reps without any care and attention.
There’re are times and places not to care about tempo. Shooting for a PR or competing at a powerlifting meet are examples. You just want to lift as much weight as possible. But most of the time, most people need to consider tempo in every workout.
Lifting Tempo Keeps You Strict
Without coming across as a member of the form police let me say this: too many guys in the gym use terrible technique, caused by not giving a crap about tempo.
It’s cool to dive-bomb your squats … if you’re an Olympic weightlifter. But it doesn’t do much if you’re trying to stimulate maximum motor units, and keep your hamstrings and glutes engaged so you get stronger over time.
A more controlled descent is far more likely to reap long-term rewards.
Likewise, we all know people who can bench press incredible amounts of weight, but can they REALLY bench press that much?
I’m not talking about lying about their numbers. But I wonder about, under powerlifting competition guidelines, still pressing that much with a controlled eccentric and a strict pause?
I’d say probably not.
Anyone can grab a heavy weight and swing it up for a few curls, or leg press a gazillion pounds at lightning speed. This might sound impressive on the Internet. But, in reality, it’s doing nothing for your strength or your muscle growth.
The Power of the Pause
Recently, I’ve been including a lot of paused work in my programs, and have seen huge benefits.
Some might not qualify paused work as tempo. But I would. it’s one of the four numbers, after all.
This use of the second number in the tempo sequence has an amazing power to increase your tightness and muscle engagement at the bottom of a squat, bench press or overhead press, and also makes you cry like a little girl.
You Still Lift Fast
A lot has been made about trying to lift as quickly and explosively as possible when you’re moving big weights, and that’s 100% true. You’ll never lift near your potential if you try to do the concentric phase slowly.
Most strength-based programs will still have you lifting with a tempo of 1 (or even 0 or X – indicating as quickly as possible) on the concentric. But it’s merely the eccentric, with the pause and the peak contraction the elements that are changed.
Plus, it can sometimes be good fun to play around with the concentric, especially when it comes to accessory work. Bring on the pump.
It’s One More Variable
The more advanced you get, the harder it is to make size and strength gains. There’s no way in hell you’ll be able to add weight to the bar every workout. You’ll probably even struggle to add sets and reps, or even reduce your rest times, yet you still need to work on progressive overload.
That’s where tempo comes in.
Say you were doing dumbbell chest presses, and three weeks in a row you hit four sets of eight with 90-kb dumbbells. If you couldn’t get past that, what could you do?
One way would be to tweak your tempo, by using a slower eccentric, or adding in a pause at the bottom.
On paper, it might seem as though you did exactly the same training protocol. But thechange of tempo could make a whole world of difference, increase metabolic stress and kick-off new gains.
Taking Up TUT
Time Under Tension (TUT) can come across as a bit of an old-school technique. We know now that total volume (weight lifted x reps) is going to play a bigger role in your progress. But TUT still matters.
By elongating one or more parts of the tempo equation, you can increase TUT, increase the stress on a muscle, get more tissue breakdown, and get bigger.
Time for LiftingTempo?
Whatever your goals, you can benefit from looking at tempo.
Don’t spend hours worrying about it, or neglect what really matters – the exercises, sets and reps.
But if your training’s been stuck in a rut, or you think something’s amiss with your strength, it’s probably time to sit down and plan out your tempos carefully.
As a general rule of thumb, start with a 1-3 second eccentric, have 1-3 seconds at the mid-point (depending on whether you feel the need to do a paused rep or not) lift explosively, then take a second to compose yourself before the next rep.
Doing that might mean you have to use less weight for a few weeks as you acclimatize to the stricter form. But hey – you’re man enough to do that for the sake of your long-term strength and muscle mass… aren’t you?
Mike Samuels works as a writer and online coach, based in Southampton, England. He is also a competing powerlifter. Mike loves lifting heavy stuff, helping people get shredded and drinking coffee. Visit Mike’s website
Healthy Living, Heavy Lifting and his Facebook Page. And be sure to check out Mike’s latest check out his latest flexible dieting home study course.