Regardless of the profession in question, your "rep" (reputation) is usually what gets you where you want to go. In the world of physique and performance enhancement, building your rep is equally important, except that we're talking about an altogether different type of "rep" here.
If a lifter builds up his rep, otherwise known as repetitions, he'll have more productive sets, which in turn leads to more productive workouts. And this, of course, leads to faster progress.
The Anatomy of Tempo Prescription
Within the last decade, an additional element has been added into workout prescriptions: repetition tempo guidelines. This quantitative measure of rep speed has reared its head in many forms. I've seen tempo prescriptions that range from two numbers to four numbers.
For example, a 4/2 tempo prescription would relate to an eccentric or lowering phase of four seconds with a concentric or lifting phase of two seconds.
In addition, tempo prescriptions such as 4/1/2/1 have also surfaced. This relates to a four second eccentric, a one second hold in the stretched position, a two second concentric, and a one second hold in the extended joint position with exercises such as squats and presses. But this prescription has led to some confusion since the fourth number actually represents a flexed joint position with flexion-based exercises (rows, curls, etc.)
As such, a tempo prescription that represents three phases of a lift is what's often recommended. Therefore, a 4/1/2 prescription relates to a four second eccentric, a one second hold in the stretched position, and a two second concentric.
So, in the bench press that would mean lowering the bar to your chest in four seconds, pausing with the bar at your chest for one second, and finally lifting it back up to a two second count. Got it?
Initially, this tempo prescription seemed like a valid addition to a program's structure. Many coaches and trainers (including myself) have utilized such a recommendation at one time or another. I used to think it had some merit. After all, five reps performed with a 3/1/2 tempo will provide a stimulus that's sufficiently different than five reps with, say, a 1/0/1 tempo.
Much like "a calorie isn't just a calorie," a "rep isn't just a rep" if you consider the aforementioned example. The former prescription would lead to the muscles being under tension for 30 seconds compared to just 10 seconds. Obviously, that's a substantial difference!
To take this a step further, it's pretty safe to postulate that one must utilize a significantly lighter load with a 3/1/2 tempo compared to a 1/0/1 tempo. (Is my bias beginning to shine through yet?)
Tempo Prescriptions: The Good?
It's no secret that most people are very dogmatic. As such, they don't like to change what they're doing unless there's a damn good reason. Unfortunately, most people don't know what a damn good reason is.
If I told you that the induction of near-death asphyxiation before a set would lead to a better "pump," would you do it? (Okay, don't answer that.) But what if I told you that the introduction of tempo prescriptions to your program would allow you to induce a myriad of stimuli with a constant rep range?
In other words, you could train with only five reps/set for months and constantly induce a different type of stimulus. Indeed, you could perform 1/0/2, 2/0/1, 3/1/2, 4/0/2, etc. that all recruit different motor unit pools due to the loads that must be mandated with each tempo prescription. But is this quality beneficial?
Secondly, tempo prescriptions allowed coaches and trainers to have an "easier" way to measure progress. For instance, if a trainee completes three sets of eight reps with 2% more load, it's tough to ascertain whether or not the trainee actually improved if tempo isn't considered.
But if this same trainee completed three sets of eight reps with 2% more load with the same tempo, then it'd be safe to assume that the trainee progressed (obviously, consistent rest periods must be taken into account too).
Lastly, trainees spend most of their time in the same rep ranges. The addition of tempo prescriptions has effectively forced people to use different time under tension (TUT) durations. Almost always, this related to a set lasting longer than the trainee was accustomed to.
I've observed an interesting phenomenon in my years of training. Regardless of the load, most trainees have a "pre-set" TUT that they're most comfortable with. Therefore, whether I prescribe three reps or six reps, the TUT is very similar if tempo prescriptions aren't taken into account.
So, the incorporation of tempo prescriptions led to these theoretical benefits:
1. More training options within a constant rep range.
2. An easier way to measure progress.
3. Different TUT ranges for dogmatic trainees, or an "overriding" of the TUT comfort zone.
These three "benefits" are the reasons why I experimented with TUT prescriptions over the years. In addition, they're very similar to the reasons I hear when a coach attempts to defend TUT prescriptions. But is there anything to this TUT thing?
Tempo Prescriptions: The "Why?"
Any time I'm faced with a "new" way of doing things, I take the scientific approach. What's the scientific approach, you ask? Being extremely critical. In fact, when I started my graduate studies at the University of Arizona, my mentor told me that her sole purpose was to turn me into a remarkably critical thinker.
Whenever we'd get into a heated debate over some aspect of neuroscience, she'd usually respond to my reasoning with the simple, albeit effective, "Why?" Sure, the "why" retort might be nothing more than an act of laziness employed by many overpaid shrinks, but it often works exceptionally well in the world of neuroscience and research. After all, there are enough unknowns within the realm of neuroscience to fill Bill Gate's line of credit at the local Porsche dealership.
Therefore, when I critically analyze the incorporation of TUT prescriptions, I must ask: why?
1. Why should the tempo of each rep be counted?
2. Why should trainees incorporate tempo prescriptions into their programs?
3. Why would the incorporation of tempo prescriptions be beneficial?
It might seem that I've already answered the above three questions with my previous statements on the "goods" of tempo prescriptions, but when I first experimented with tempo prescriptions, these "goods" weren't analyzed with a critical eye.
Instead, my statements were basically a rehash of what I've heard repeated from various members of the TUT cult, and they're the reasons why I experimented with tempo prescriptions in the first place. As such, it's time for me to give my current take on the issue.
Tempo Prescriptions: The Opposite of Good
The consummate neuroscientist, Charles Sherrington, referred to the motor unit as the "final common pathway" within the nervous system. This is because all neural pathways that have to do with movement or posture converge on it.
For instance, when you decide that you're going to flex at the elbow, a "committee" of brain areas communicate with each other to determine the precise (and necessary) amount of descending neural input onto the motor units. (Note: The motor unit consists of a motor neuron and all the fibers it innervates).
Therefore, if you're holding a pencil in your hand, the nervous system sends the perfect amount of input down to the motor units that cause contraction of the biceps. If this descending input wasn't perfect, you'd end up recruiting 90% of the total motor unit pool – thus stabbing yourself in the eye.
When you consider this quality of movement control, it's immediately apparent that the more descending input you have onto your lower motor units, the more force you'll be able to produce. But, what in the hell does this have to do with tempo prescriptions?
Counting Makes You A Wussy!
Whenever you follow a particular tempo guideline for a given movement, your brain must constantly compare your actual speed with the intended speed. Therefore, you must either a) count to yourself or b) have a trainer count out loud to you. In either case, your brain is required to perform functions that are additional to just lifting the damn load.
What does this mean? It means that the descending neural inputs onto your precious lower motor neurons are reduced since your brain is performing additional neural work to adjust and assess your tempo. This, in turn, reduces the amount of force you can develop.
I've had a few trainees question the validity of this explanation. In an effort to stroke my ego, I immediately have them perform a 3RM for the squat. Once they finish the 3RM, I let them rest a full five minutes before repeating the task. But the second attempt requires an additional component: they must lift the original 3RM load while counting backwards, out loud, from 100 in pairs (100, 98, 96, 94, etc.) You know what happens? They can't lift the load for all three reps! Try it if you don't believe me.
The reason these poor, cynical bastards couldn't repeat the 3RM is because their counting task was "robbing" neural processes from rushing down the descending neural path to fire up the motor neurons. In fact, when I have trainees perform this same test while counting backwards in series of 7, their strength decreases even further.
Obviously, counting a 4 second negative isn't as cerebrally-challenging as counting backwards from 100 by sevens, but it accurately demonstrates that the amount of descending input onto motor neurons is reduced with additional cognitive activities.
Bottom Line: The first reason to avoid TUT prescriptions is that the counting action reduces your maximal strength.
Use the Force, Don't Lose the Force!
The second reason why I'm not a fan of tempo prescriptions is that they usually relate to slower muscle contraction* speeds. Before the incorporation of tempo prescriptions, most trainees wouldn't even think of lifting a load for, say, three seconds. It just didn't seem right. After all, how many times have you seen old footage of Bill Kazmaier lifting a submaximal load slowly?
Now, I've been on my soapbox for years about the importance of fast muscle contractions, but that's not to say that there's no place for anything else. The incorporation of slower eccentrics, pauses, and supramaximal holds definitely have their place within the iron game. What I'm trying to convey is the importance of lifting a load as fast as possible.
The force/motor unit relationship has been effectively demonstrated in the neuroscience community. But, all you really need to understand is there exists a positive correlation between the speed of movement (force production) and motor unit recruitment (i.e. the faster you lift, the more motor units you'll recruit). This is obviously important when you attempt to produce as much force as possible.
Honestly, how many times have you said to yourself, "What can I do to decrease the amount of force in my next set of squats?" Well, you probably haven't ever said that, and in fact you'd probably assume that such a line of thinking is absurd. Guess what? You are decreasing the amount of force your muscles can produce when you lift a load slowly!
Is there ever a reason to lift slowly? Of course there is! It's called rehabilitation. Whenever a joint is damaged, or whenever a movement pattern must be re-programmed, slower concentric contractions are beneficial. But if you're training for the most size and strength, you should strive to lift the load as fast as possible while maintaining perfect control (form).
Bottom Line: The second reason to avoid TUT prescriptions is that they often lead to slower than normal concentric contractions that reduce force production.
*Note: There's an ongoing debate about the term muscle "contraction" versus muscle "action." I used to be one of the dogmatic punks who postulated that an eccentric or isometric contraction should be referred to as a muscle "action." After all, I assumed a contraction related to shortening, and if a muscle wasn't shortening then it couldn't be contracting.
Luckily, the über-neuroscientist, Roger Enoka, knocked me over the head with a two-by-four and subsequently yelled, "A muscle can only contract!" Therefore, I wisely converted to the term "contraction" for all muscle actions.
I often get asked questions from readers regarding their desire to perform different TUT durations for a given exercise. For instance, here's a question I recently received:
"I've been performing sets with a TUT of 20 seconds. What tempo should I use when aiming for a TUT of 40 seconds per set?"
My response is usually something along the lines of: Why do you seek to perform a set that lasts 40 seconds? Honestly, ask yourself "why?" Are you thinking about it? Good. Now that you've thought about it, what's your answer? Here are two of the most common responses:
Inane Reason #1: Because a TUT of 40 seconds is great for hypertrophy and a TUT of 20 seconds isn't.
My Response: Really? According to who? And according to what literature? What's your basis for such a statement?
Inane Reason #2: Because short duration sets are only good for powerlifters and Olympic lifters.
My Response: With that limited thought process, please don't ever run for public office.
Yeah, I had to resort to a harsh response in order to get your cerebral neurons fired up while demonstrating my point. For those of you who follow tempo prescriptions, before performing your next set, I want you to honestly ask yourself why you seek a particular TUT.
Let's continue with the 40s/set TUT example. Here are two good reasons why:
Valid Reason #1: My sport mandates that I continuously maintain muscle activity for 40 seconds.
Valid Reason #2: It's beneficial to train with different TUT lengths for optimum hypertrophy.
Since both of the above reasons are valid, let's use my previous information to find a solution.
The solution to Valid Reason #1 is to utilize a load that allows you to continuously perform muscle contractions for 40 seconds with fast concentric contractions. I have no idea why trainers and trainees immediately associate longer TUT sets with slow muscle contractions. If you lift a load quickly for 40 seconds, you'll recruit more motor units and you'll develop higher levels of force with each rep.
Bottom Line: Athletes should seek to train with fast muscle contractions with a TUT that matches the demands of their sport.
The solution to Valid Reason #2 is the incorporation of dramatic swings in repetition parameters throughout your microcycle. If you perform sets with vastly different rep ranges, you'll be forced to use a wide range of loading parameters that, in turn, recruit different motor unit pools.
Therefore, you'll minimize CNS fatigue since you won't be able to continuously bombard your neural and structural systems with heavy loads. And you'll build more muscle since you'll be targeting different motor unit pools throughout the week. (This allows bodybuilders to benefit from both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy responses.)
Since I don't prescribe rep tempos, I often prescribe dramatic swings in repetition parameters. For instance, if I merely switched a trainee from 3 reps per set to 5 reps per set, it wouldn't be significant enough to change the TUT. That's precisely the reason why I recommend set/rep combinations such as 10 x 3 and 3 x 15 – there's a big TUT difference, even when tempos aren't considered. Therefore, my parameters effectively offset the reduced descending neural input by significantly varying the set/rep parameters throughout the microcycle.
Bottom Line: Force your muscles to perform different TUTs through the incorporation of vastly different rep ranges instead of slower concentric contractions.
Thanks to my mentor, I've also learned that none of my solutions would be sufficient if I couldn't also address the original reasons why TUT were considered valid. Therefore, my last obstacle is to tackle the three original "benefits" of TUT prescriptions.
Rebutting the "Benefits" of Tempo Prescriptions
Benefit #1: More training options within a constant rep range.
Rebuttal: It's always been ambiguous to me why a trainee would seek to remain in the same rep range for an extended period of time. After all, since "a rep isn't just a rep," a five rep set with a 4/0/2 tempo and a five rep set with a 1/0/X tempo are two completely different animals. (X means "explode.") Indeed, each mandates vastly different levels of force and motor unit recruitment.
I can't tell you how bemused I get when I hear a strength "guru" say that a set with 1-5 reps primarily leads to neural enhancement with minimal growth potential. Why does this tar my hide so much? Because these same strength coaches often recommend tempo prescriptions such as 4/0/2 for this "neural enhancement" range. This is duplicitous behavior at its best.
Therefore, a five rep "neural focused" set with a tempo of 6 seconds per set puts the muscles under tension for 30 seconds. So that must mean that a set that lasts less than 30 seconds should primarily lead to neural enhancement too, right? So what happens if a trainee performs 10 reps (the classic "hypertrophy" range) with a tempo of 1/0/1? That's a TUT of only 20 seconds, yet it's considered a "hypertrophy" range. Are you confused yet?
I once asked a member of the TUT cult to explain this confusion. He responded, "The load is higher with the five rep set compared to the ten rep set. Therefore, the five rep set leads to greater neural enhancement."
Now, I'm no mathematical genius, but I think it's pretty safe to assume that I could lift a larger load for 20 seconds compared to 30 seconds. Pair this with the fact that larger loads recruit more motor units, and greater motor unit recruitment leads to a larger hypertrophy response.
In other words, you can handle a larger load for 20 seconds compared to 30 seconds – the number of reps doesn't matter. Are you even more confused? Good, then you're ready for the take-home point.
Bottom Line: Don't waste your time searching for a quantitative relationship between rep tempos, TUT ranges, and hypertrophy/neural enhancement.
Benefit #2: Tempo prescriptions provide an easier way to measure progress.
Rebuttal: I've experimented extensively with slower rep tempo prescriptions. One element of tempo prescriptions that tickled my fancy was in the ability to easily measure a trainee's progress. I'd have my client perform 5 x 5 with a 3/0/2 tempo with a 315 pound load. The next session, I'd add an additional 2%. If the client could perform the parameters with the same tempo, I knew he'd improved.
But then I began to critically analyze what I was doing. Sure, he could perform better at a 3/0/2 tempo, but did it carryover to the "real" world. I found very little correlation between the ability to lift higher loads with slow concentric contractions and the demands of sport and life.
This isn't to say that there was no carryover, just that the carryover was higher when my clients started performing all shortening phases as fast as possible. After all, I know of no event that mandates a muscle shortening phase that lasts two full seconds with a submaximal load. If you find one that doesn't involve sitting and moving chess pieces, let me know.
Bottom Line: Unless you seek to perform slowly, there's no need to monitor the progress of muscle contractions that are any slower than "as fast as possible."
Benefit #3: Different TUT ranges for dogmatic trainees, or "overriding" the TUT comfort zone.
Rebuttal: I'm going to close out my position on the TUT prescription issue by saying that it did force people to train with longer set durations. That was a good thing. In fact, many trainees still use TUT prescriptions because they did progress with the addition of such parameters.
But I'm here to say that it could've been easily accomplished with dramatic swings in repetition parameters. Instead of switching from 3 x 12 to 3 x 15, they should've been switching from 3 x 12 to 10 x 3.
But along with TUT prescriptions forcing trainees into different set lengths, it also caused many to start performing the muscle shortening phase more slowly. That wasn't a good thing. I currently see no reason to perform a shortening phase (outside of rehabilitation settings) with a tempo any slower than "fast controlled." If you lift a load any slower than you're able to at any given moment, you're creating a motor pattern that's efficient at slow tempos.
Unless you seek to perform slowly in the real world, I suggest you don't reinforce the pattern. Also, slow concentric contractions with submaximal loads reduce the amount of force that you're able to produce at any given moment. Unless you seek to develop lower levels of force with each rep, I suggest you bump up your muscle shortening speed.
It should be mentioned that the incorporation of tempo and TUT prescriptions did prove useful since it forced many coaches, trainers, and trainees to take a closer look at their training parameters. In addition, tempo and TUT prescriptions created more questions than they answered (and that's always beneficial when you attempt to move an industry forward).
Now you know why I no longer give tempo prescriptions within my programs. Sure, I could've easily remained on the bandwagon and included them, but who wants to read the letter X (read: as fast as possible) for the concentric phase of every exercise? Maybe I'm just lazy.
In Part 2, I'll show you some ways to enhance your rep in order to accelerate your physique and performance goals! Stay tuned!