HOW TO DETERMINE THE RIGHT EXERCISE TEMPO FOR YOU

Recently, a new client rushed through the warm-up sets prior to his workout, launching an unloaded barbell off his chest like pistons in a motor.  I praised his enthusiasm but focused on the importance of controlling a weight through a full range of motion.

As a coach, I’m always looking for moments to educate and I took this opportunity to highlight the significance of following an exercise tempo. It’s a critical practice that ensures clients are prepared to fly on their own when they leave the nest.

WHAT IS EXERCISE TEMPO?

Simply, the speed at which an exercise is performed is called a tempo – much like dance steps. Most exercises can be broken down into four phases and the tempo of each phase can be manipulated.

A tempo can be assigned to each phase of an exercise and is assigned a series of numbers such as 3-0-1-0.  Using this tempo and a Push Up as an example, the four phases are as follows:  

Phase I
The first number represents the eccentric action or muscle
lengthening component.  
i.e. –  The body’s descent in a Push Up.

Phase II
The second number is the length of pause or isometric hold.   
i.e.- The time the body spends at the bottom of the Push Up, fully
contracted.

Phase III
The third number is the concentric action or muscle shortening phase.
i.e. – In this case, returning the body to the starting position.

Phase IV
The fourth number is a second isometric hold
i.e. – The second pause or isometric hold at the start position.
(Personally, I don’t usually extend this phase.)   

WHAT IS THE “BEST” TEMPO? 

The short answer is, it depends. I know, not very helpful, but it really comes down to what you are trying to accomplish.  

Tempo training gained momentum in the early to mid 90s when it was primarily used by bodybuilders for building muscle tissue.  Tempo training increases metabolic stress due to the time a muscle is under tension (TUT) from an external load – metabolic stress is one of the important factors in building muscle.


Muscle Building Requirements  

  • Metabolic stress: The buildup of lactate, pooling of blood and lack of oxygen.  This creates what we call ‘the pump.’
  • Mechanical tension: Lifting heavy weights (~85-90% of 1 RM) in a full range of motion
  • Muscle damage: A new stimulus causing the muscle to adapt.  There are a number of ways to elicit muscle damage such as reducing rest times and  increasing workout frequency. Building muscle is largely dependant upon weekly volume (total number of sets x repetitions x load being lifted).

With this in mind, some fitness circles once believed the longer a repetition took to complete, the more metabolic stress would be created, resulting in greater muscle gains.  However, when something is good, doing more of it doesn’t always make it great.

Tempos that last between three and eight seconds are best if building muscle is your goal.  Any longer than eight seconds makes it nearly impossible to lift heavier weights, which is, in fact, what creates higher mechanical tension mentioned in the Muscle Building Requirements info graphic above.  Lighter weights just aren’t able to recruit as many Type II muscle fibers.  Also, lighter weights and prolonged repetitions make it difficult to meet volume demands – unless three hour workouts are your thing.

muscle-fiber-typeElitefts.com

WHY TEMPO IS IMPORTANT? 

Training with prolonged tempos is one factor in building muscle and straining tee-shirt sleeves, but it has other benefits as well.

  1. Tempos are great for novice lifters and those of advancing age as it teaches them how to fully control an exercise while maintaining good form.  The same can be said for any lifter learning a new exercise..
    .
    3-0-1-0
    (Best for the compound exercises such as Squats, Press and Pulls)2-0-1-0
    (Associated with supplemental exercises like leg and biceps curls, leg and triceps extensions and deltoid raises)
  2. It helps to eliminate a loss of tension, especially through while transitioning from the eccentric to concentric phase of an exercise.  For example, in the Bench Press exercise, think of controlling the barbell on its descent to gently touch your chest before returning to the starting position versus losing tension in your muscles every time the barbell bounces off your chest.
    .
  3. Along the same point, tempos allow for a greater mind-to-muscle connection. This is an instance when more doesn’t mean better. Repetitions should take 3-8 seconds to complete from start to finish. Anything longer and you will be forced to use lighter weights.
    .
  4. Extending the eccentric phase of a lift helps to build strength..
    .
    5-0-1-0
    .
  5. A paused rep is usually geared towards the intermediate to advanced lifter as it’s beneficial for cleaning up technique flaws and overcoming sticking/trouble points..
    .
    3-3-1-0
    .
  6. The added control offered by tempos are great for those returning to lifting after an injury, or who may be currently feeling a bit tired from training..
    .
    3-2-3-0
    .
  7. If you aim to increase power for better sport performance, traditional plyometric exercises, med ball work and Olympic Weightlifting would use the following tempo..
    .
    2-0-X-0
    .
  8. Applicable to the earlier scenario with my client, using the same tempo for warm-up sets as is used during the working sets helps not only to raise body temperature and increase blood flow to the muscles, but also grooves the path the bar will travel.

Important to note that Biceps Curls and Chin-up/Pull up exercises start with the concentric action (Phase III) because the muscle is in the stretched position but the tempos are still written with the eccentric action (Phase I) first.  

OBEY THE SPEED LIMIT

For advanced lifters, applying a tempo may not be of great importance.  For everybody else, applying a tempo to an exercise has many advantages, especially if strength training on your own.

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