Think you know all there is to know about program design?
Everyone’s familiar with the basic components of a strength-training program, like sets, reps, rest periods, exercise selection, how many days per week you train, etc.
But show me a coach that truly understands – and properly applies – time under tension to their programs, and I’ll show you a coach who’s getting great results with their clients and athletes.
1 – What is tempo training?
I was first introduced to time under tension (TUT) training through Ian King and Charles Poliquin. And while they may disagree on certain components of the following definitions, here’s the basic gist of TUT.
There are four numbers that constitute the tempo of an exercise, so it may look something like this:
- The first number (3) is the eccentric, or lowering, component of the lift.
- The second number (0) denotes any pause at the midpoint.
- The third number (1) is the concentric, or lifting, component.
- Finally, the fourth number (0) denotes any pause at the top.
A 3010 tempo makes perfect sense on lifts that start with an eccentric, or lowering phase, like a squat or bench press. You lower the bar for 3 seconds, there’s no pause at the midpoint, and then you return to the starting position. Reset and go again.
However, people get confused with exercises that start with the concentric portion of the lift such as chin-ups and barbell curls. Just remember, the first number is always the eccentric, and the third number is always the concentric, and you’ll be good to go.
2 – Who should use tempo training?
Everyone should use tempo training at some point during their workouts.
All strength/power athletes can benefit from slower TUT’s that focus on the eccentric in the off-season as this will develop body control, connective tissue strength and, of course, hypertrophy.
However, as you get closer to your specific event, you’ll need to become more “sport” specific with your TUT training. If you’re a power or Olympic lifter, there’s no reason to knowingly slow down your squats. As the saying goes, “practice like you play.”
3 – When should you use tempo training?
We really have two questions here:
- When in a workout should you use tempo training?
- When in a training career should you use tempo training?
During a workout, it can be argued that tempo training can be included for literally every exercise. It might not be necessary, but it can play a role.
Regarding training career, I’d argue that those who are younger or earlier in their training career will benefit more from focusing on their TUT’s than more advanced athletes. Not only do they need the connective tissue and strength base, but they need the body awareness as well.
4 – Where should tempo training be used?
At the gym, of course!
5 – Why should you use tempo training?
There are many reasons to use tempo training. Here’s just a brief list:
- Improved body awareness.
- Improved control of lifts.
- Development of connective tissue strength.
- Improved stability.
- Focus on muscular elements versus tendinous elements (a slow, controlled motion is going to place more stress on the muscles, whereas a bouncy or ballistic motion will place more stress on the tendons, etc.).
6 – How should you use tempo training?
Here are some common TUT’s you’ll see in my programs, along with the exercise branches they work best with:
- Tempo: 2-0-2-0
- Exercise(s): Any/All
- Goal: Intermediate Fiber Recruitment
If you read some of the old Eastern Block/Russian literature (i.e. Verkhoshansky), you’ll often see “tempo” or continuous training methods.
Tempo training is done to:
- Improve stability.
- Develop intermediate muscle fibers.
- Develop work capacity.
In a base or accumulation phase, try throwing in some continuous motion exercises such as bench presses/push-ups, squats, chin-ups, etc. This can be done with just about any exercise, but the key is not to let your ego get in the way.
Here’s a protocol to get you started:
- Exercise: Squats, Bench Presses, Chins, Rows, etc.
- Tempo: 2020 tempo
- Work: 40 seconds (10 reps)
- Rest: 60 seconds
- Repeat 3 times
The key here is to not stop or rest at any point during the set. Focus on maintaining continuous motion.
While it’s not specifically noted in the other tempos, a zero (0) as the fourth number typically means you can reset in between reps. In the case of 2020 tempos, you can’t rest between reps as doing so decreases the training effect.
Furthermore, I’d highly recommend using a metronome app on your smart phone to make sure you’re not cheating. Chances are you’ll lower over a two count, but raising the bar will get consistently faster and faster as the reps and sets go on. Don’t let this happen!
While I’ve used this protocol with numerous trainees, one in particular stands out.
One of our clients at IFAST was incredibly unstable, had poor connective tissue development, and as a result, always ended up with some sort of overuse injury.
To rectify this, I created two months of workouts that were strictly tempo based. Squats, split-squats, push-ups, inverted rows, chin-ups, and Romanian deadlifts. The training was brutal for her, but in the year or two since we implemented that routine, she’s had zero overuse injuries.
Give these a shot and see how they work for you. Chances are you’ll be humbled at this seemingly benign tempo prescription.
- Tempo: 2-3-1-0
- Exercise(s): Squat and Bench Press
- Goals: Improved Stability and “Pop” Out of the Hole
I’m pretty old school when it comes to my thoughts on powerlifting training. I feel if you want to get better at squatting, benching, and deadlifting, you should spend more time squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting.
However, constantly banging your head against the wall with no manipulation to the lifts themselves can definitely hamper your progress. To rectify this, try playing around with some paused lifts at the midpoint of the exercise.
For example, go through your typical squat workout. Then for a set or two, cut the weight by 50% and lower to the bottom position and hold for a 3-count. Stay tight, and then drive up hard to the starting position.
What you’ll often see is that people (myself included) get loose in the hole of a squat, or loose off the chest with a bench press. If you consistently take away that stretch reflex and force your body to stay tight, you’ll build some amazing starting strength.
As a side benefit, you’ll become more aware of where your body is in space, and find the most optimal line for each specific lift.
- Tempo: 3-0-1-0 or 2-0-1-0
- Exercise(s): Any/All
- Goal: Basic Body Control and Connective Tissue Strength
3010 and 2010 are the most common tempos you’ll see in my programming.
Not only are they very all-encompassing, but I throw them in to remind people that we should always be in control of our lifts. Even when training for maximal speed, we should still be under control.
Early on, I’ll make 3010 the most common tempo in my programs. This provides several benefits:
- Teaches people to lower under control.
- Allows them to “feel” where their body is in space.
- Develops muscular and connective tissue strength early on in a program.
So when you pair a slower TUT with a high(er) rep scheme (8-12), you lay a fantastic foundation for clients moving forward. Not only do they have the body awareness to continue to develop, but they have that connective tissue strength to build upon as well.
As someone progresses, 2010 is the most common tempo you’ll see. Essentially I want them to control the eccentric portion of the lift and raise the bar as quickly as possible (the number of which can also be replaced by an “X,” which means do the rep explosively).
- Tempo: 2-1-1-0 or 3-1-1-0
- Exercise(s): Upper Back and Scapular Stability Work
- Goal: Upper Back Stability
Growing up I was fascinated with Dorian Yates. I loved the hard work he put into the gym, and I also agreed with many of his training philosophies.
He was asked in an interview about his upper back development and what training concepts he attributed it to. Other than hard work, he said he’d only use weights that he could hold for a one-count at the midpoint.
If he couldn’t hold it there, it was too heavy and he was just using momentum. And if that’s good enough for arguably the best back ever in bodybuilding, it should be good enough for you!
Now let’s take that a step further. We assess a lot of people that have shoulder injuries at IFAST, and a common theme is that those with shoulder pain or dysfunction are unstable through the scapulae.
With this in mind, when I write a program, I require that every upper body pulling or scapular stability exercise should be held for a one-count at the midpoint.
If you’re rowing, hold the weight (or bar) to your chest for a one-count.
If you’re chinning, hold your chest to the bar for a one-count.
If you’re performing scapular stability work like I’s, T’s and Y’s, hold that midpoint for a one-count.
When I have even huge guys that have been lifting heavy for years do this, they’re shocked at how much less weight they can handle. However, the results can be quite gratifying. Just remember to again leave your ego at the door!
The Best of the Rest
My goal hasn’t been to give you every imaginable TUT combination. However, here are a couple more TUT’s you might see in my or other coaches’ programs:
- ISO. Isometric contraction (typically at the midpoint). An example would be performing an ISO hold at the top of a chin-up, the bottom of a lunge, or the bottom of a push-up, etc. This is really good for those who lack stability or are dealing with injuries.
- Dyn. Dynamic. This would typically be used when you aren’t too focused on the tempo of the lift, or it’s somewhat hard to control. I’ll often use this with step-ups, concentric-only movements like sled drags, and various other movements.
- Exp. Explosive or powerful. Typically used with Olympic lifts, med ball exercises, jumps, etc.
- 4-Count. Just like the name implies, I’ll use this for exercises where I want four fluid “steps” to the movement. Examples would include prone rows to external rotations, chop/lift variations, etc.
Using time under tension in your programming won’t magically make it the best program ever written, but using TUT prescriptions in conjunction with the other elements of program design can deliver a better training effect and better results.
What are your favorite tempos, and where do you use them within your programming?
I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion below!