The next time you go to the gym, look around and see if you can figure out who's a newbie and who's an experienced lifter. What signs will you watch for? The size of the trainee? Maybe. The poundages being used? That might help in some cases. A spanking new Body-For-Life T-shirt? Yep, sounds like a newbie! But perhaps the best sign to watch for is how the lifter utilizes the concept of tempo.
Testosterone contributor Doug Santillo has written a nice little overview of tempo prescriptions and their applications to various training goals. So whether you want to be the next Arnold or the next World's Strongest Man champion (or maybe you just want to look good nekkid) you'd better be paying attention to tempo.
With all the new theories on strength training out there, tempo is often an overlooked variable in periodization models. How much of a difference can speed of movement really make? I'll tell you, a huge difference!
Honestly, I think the lack of emphasis on tempo variations comes from nothing more than a general misunderstanding of how tempo influences training. Adhering to a tempo guideline also requires a lot more concentration than simply "controlling" the weight. However, it's about time that bodybuilders learn how to correctly manipulate this variable to suit their goals. Here're some quick and dirty basics. There're four parts of any repetition:
- An eccentric or negative portion (the lowering of the weight)
- A pause in the stretched or "bottom" position
- A concentric portion (the actual lifting part)
- A pause in the contracted or "top" position
Let's analyze these and see if we can sort out the metabolic and neural effects of each.
A lot of emphasis in bodybuilding literature has been placed on lowering the weight slowly. Sure, most of the time a slower eccentric is probably the way to go. But as you'll soon learn, there's a time and a place for everything, including fast eccentric tempos. What's important isn't which is better, but how you organize your training program around both fast and slow eccentric tempos.
In an eccentric repetition, less force is applied to the bar than that of the resistance (the weight on the bar). In other words, when curling a weight of 70 lbs., in order for the bar to actually descend, the force on the bar must be less than 70 lbs., otherwise it wouldn't go anywhere. Look at these two examples using the bench press. Assume the bar is loaded with 300 lbs.
- You lower the weight in one second, all the way down to your chest. How much force was applied to the bar during the lowering? Probably not much. Maybe 150 lbs. at best.
- You resist the load, taking a full eight seconds to bring the bar to your chest. The force on the bar in this situation was a lot higher, around 295 lbs., because you lowered the weight much more slowly.
From a bodybuilding standpoint, this second option looks a lot better, at least in terms of force production and muscle tension. A slow eccentric causes you to apply a very high level of force (i.e. muscle tension) for the entire repetition, without giving your muscles any time to rest and recuperate during the set. Keeping tension high for the entire set can lead to muscular endurance and a higher degree of tissue microtrauma. All of the above are goodthings if your goal is to become a big cornfed-looking sumbitch!
It's not uncommon to hear reports of trainees making strength gains using eccentric-only protocols. The reason this type of training can lead to higher levels of concentric strength is simple. In order to lower heavy weights (oftentimes) even heavier than your 1RM, the trainee must still apply extremely high levels of force to control the weight.
For example, if you have a max curl of 100 lbs. and you do a 4 second negative with 110 lbs., you're still putting about 100 lbs. of force on the bar. This work is done without the benefits of elastic energy, so the muscles must rely solely on their own energy. This means big gains in strength and size. So think about incorporating some eccentric-only training into your plan. I must warn you, however, that heavy eccentric repetitions can quickly lead to overtraining, so make sure you're monitoring your recovery ability.
Does this mean a bodybuilder should never use faster eccentric tempos of only one or two seconds? Of course not, but it does mean that for the purposes of hypertrophy, the majority of the time should be spent using slower eccentric speeds.
There're times when lowering the weight fast can be advantageous. In training for maximal strength, the primary goal is to force your nervous system to more efficiently recruit fast twitch fibers. With a faster eccentric speed, you give the nervous system more of a break between each explosion, since the tension is reduced. By doing this, your muscles must contract from a more relaxed position, thereby forcing your nervous system to adapt. Of course, for a bodybuilder, since his priority is gaining muscle mass, not maximal strength, a good choice would be to alternate between fast and slow eccentrics during his strength phases.
Pause in the Stretched Position
Ian King has perfectly illustrated the benefits of taking a pause in the stretched position in his book Get Buffed! If you haven't picked up a copy yet, I strongly suggest you do so. Charles Poliquin also has a nice section on the all-important pause in his book The Poliquin Principles. Rather than repeating everything that they've already said, I'll sum it all up nice and neat for you.
The stretch shortening cycle refers to the transition from eccentric to isometric to concentric. When this transition is fast (i.e. you bounce the weight off your chest when benching) elastic energy built up in the muscle helps to propel the weight up. In other words, if you don't pause in the stretched position, you can lift more weight.
However, taking advantage of elastic energy reduces the amount of actual muscular work performed. So, while going straight down and taking that little bounce at the bottom of a squat may make you look stronger, it's definitely not the most effective way to train. It takes a full four second pause to completely dissipate the elastic energy, but even a one second pause will help. If you take a pause between the eccentric and concentric, you have to work harder to lift the weight. This translates into more fiber recruitment, more muscle growth, and ultimately, more kinky sex with Hooters girls. (At least we can hope.)
Of course, there're appropriate times to take advantage of the stretch shortening cycle. If you're training for strength in specific speed related movements such as shuttle runs, sprinting, and jumping, using this elastic energy can be advantageous. This is usually referred to as plyometric training.
At last, we come to the really exciting part: the lifting, the pressing, the pulling and the pushing! It's the "power stroke" of the set. Concentric speeds have long been misunderstood. Variations in this crucial variable are hard to be found. Most strength coaches tell you to accelerate the weight regardless of your training phase or your goals. If you're a collegiate, Olympic, or professional athlete, I'd probably tell you the same. However, for a bodybuilder, variations are more important, as is stimulating a broader range of fiber types. So, we need to figure out which concentric tempos are best for each type of program or goal.
An athlete generally trains with one of three goals: maximal strength, strength and size, or hypertrophy. We'll look at each of these using the bench press as an example. Assume in all examples that your max bench press is 300 lbs.
If your training goal is solely to gain strength, then the force on the bar must be high in order to stimulate your high threshold fibers and trigger neural adaptations. So, you need to make sure that the force applied to the bar is maximal, regardless of the actual weight used. You have two ways to accomplish this.
A. Use a heavy weight close to your 1RM.
Attempt to accelerate the weight, even though the bar will move very slowly.
Generally speaking, this is how bodybuilders train in a given strength phase. Charles Poliquin has popularized the use of low reps and heavy weights for bodybuilders, and rightly so. The bar is moving so slowly with maximal weight sets that your muscles must provide all the force for the full range of motion. However, this isn't the only option for strength training, and like everything else, your body will adapt if you use this method too often.
With heavy sets, use a slow eccentric tempo if you're primarily interested in hypertrophy. Use a faster eccentric tempo if your main goal is strength. You could also choose to alternate between the two as described above. Using a rep bracket in the range of 1-4 is considered a strength phase regardless, but altering the eccentric tempo can change the emphasis either more toward the strength side or the hypertrophy side. For example, four sets of three reps with 270 lbs. using a 41X1 tempo* would lean towards hypertrophy training. Four sets of four reps with 270 lbs. on a 21X1 tempo would be better for strength goals.
B. Use a lighter weight and focus on exploding the weight up. In this case, the bar will move very rapidly.
In this example, maximum force was still applied to the bar, and consequently, the sets will lead to neural adaptations. I've found this second option to be far underutilized by strength athletes. However, since the concentric tempo is much faster, and the eccentric poundage is reduced, I recommend a faster eccentric tempo and more repetitions to keep the time under tension at an appropriate level.
Some strength coaches have their athletes perform eight sets of three reps using 60-70% of their maximum poundages, which is a weight most trainees can handle for 8-10 reps. If the trainee focuses on exploding the weight up, big strength gains can be made, even though the athlete isn't going anywhere near concentric failure. The point here is simply that not all strength phases need to utilize maximum weights, as long as you focus on accelerating the weight. An example of this type of training may look like this: 8 sets of 3 reps with 195 lbs. on a 21X2 tempo.
II. Strength and Size
If you want the best of both worlds and your training goal is to increase strength and size, you're looking to stimulate a broader range of fiber types. The force on the bar must be a middle ground between stimulation of higher and lower threshold motor units. That would mean that the force on the bar needs to stay around 85% of your maximum. Again, we have two options.
A. Use a load significantly less than 85% of your 1RM, and lift the weight quickly.
If the bar is loaded with 75% of your maximum (this is just as an example, as any weight down to about 60% can be used), applying 85% of your maximum force will result in the weight moving relatively fast. So, since you can't measure your actual force on the bar when you're trying to do your set, the only way to ensure that your force production stays at 85% is to use about a two-second concentric. (This will vary depending on the actual weight you use.) An example might look like this: 3 sets of 6 reps with 225 with a 3121 tempo.
B. Use 85% of your maximum and a slow concentric tempo.
If you decide to use 85% of your maximum, you'd need to lift the load slowly at about a five second concentric tempo to keep the force on the bar at 85%. In reality, however, applying an 85% level of force on the bar would mean that the weight would go nowhere and you'd simply be holding it in the middle of the repetition. However, the force difference between holding the weight and lifting it in five seconds is pretty small.
If you're using 255 lbs. on the bench (85% of 300), and you lift it in two seconds, the force on the bar would be closer to 275 lbs. This would be more suited for pure strength training. To keep the force on the bar down to 255 lbs., the concentric speed needs to be very slow. Since the weight is heavier than the first option, I suggest using a slower eccentric tempo to reap the benefits that eccentric training has to offer. Since each repetition takes longer with this method, you'd also have to reduce the number of reps in each set to keep the total time under tension between 30 and 40 seconds. An example would look like this: 3 sets of 3 reps with 255 lbs. at a 4151 tempo.
Lastly, if your training goal is size only, you need to keep the force on the bar between 60-70% of your maximum and you need to keep it there for a longer duration (45-60 seconds). There're two ways to accomplish this:
A. If the load is at the full 70%, you need to lift the bar more slowly in order to.
keep the force production down to 70%. You'd also be doing less repetitions. The rationale for this is the same as in the "strength and size" model. With the heavier weight, you need to use a slower tempo to keep the force production down to where you want. You'd use less repetitions to keep the time under tension between 50-70 seconds. An example would look something like this: 2 sets of 6 reps with 210 lbs. on a 4141 tempo.
B. If you choose a lighter load, maybe 60% of your 1RM, the concentric tempo would need to be faster with more repetitions.
Again, the rationale is the same as the strength and size example. Since the load is less than 70%, you need to use a faster concentric tempo to jack up the force on the bar to the optimal level of 70%. Since each rep is faster, you need to do more reps to keep the time under tension between 50-70 seconds. An example of this type of training would look like this: 2 sets of 10 reps with 185 lbs. on a 4111 tempo.
As you can see, there're more training options available to you than you might've guessed. Don't accept any one lifting tempo to be supreme, but keep alternating the styles you use to train different muscle fibers. Alternating concentric tempo is simply another way to add an element of variety in your program and ensure you're targeting the appropriate muscle fibers.
Pause in the Contracted Position
When Ian King refined the three number tempo system (which was ultimately popularized by Poliquin), he left out the pause in the contracted position for purposes of simplicity. However, I think bodybuilders are familiar enough with tempo prescriptions that it's time to introduce how important this variable can be.
The pause in the contracted position has very different effects on different exercises. For example, taking a pause at the top of the bench press (when your arms are fully extended) and taking a pause at the top of a chin-up (when your head is over the bar) are very different. In the bench press, the fully contracted position is the "easiest" portion of the lift. In a chin-up, however, holding your head over the bar can be pretty damn hard.
We also need to distinguish between different types of pauses. Try this, stop reading right now and do four reps of "chair dips" wherever you happen to be sitting, just like you would do bench dips in the gym. Onthe first two reps, I want you to extend your arms to their full lockout position, noting how much tension is reduced at the top of the movement when your arms are locked out. The next two reps, stop just short of lockout, noting how much tension increases at the top of the movement. With pulling movements there really are no differences, but with all presses, triceps exercises, and squatting movements, this difference in top-position pauses will become a factor.
This pause can have very different effects depending on the style you use. In the bench press, for example, extending to full lockout and pausing there for a second will improve your strength during the next rep due to the small amount of rest you'll get during the pause. On the other hand, extending to just short of lockout will cause a greater degree of fatigue and decrease your strength during the next rep.
So what kind of pause should you use? Both of them! Just like everything else in the iron game, there's a time and a place for both types. What's important is how you plan the variations.
In maximal strength training, it may be advantageous to take a brief one second pause in the full lockout position in exercises like the bench presses, military presses, dips, squats, etc... Taking this small break in the set can help you sustain your power output for more repetitions.
However, taking this pause decreases muscle tension, which is not what we're looking for in a hypertrophy program. So in a hypertrophy phase, the pause should be taken just short of the lockout position to maximize tension on the muscle. It would also be smart to pause in pulling exercises like chin-ups, rows, and pulldowns. In these exercises, the contracted position is the point at which the muscle has maximum tension.
Most of the time, I prescribe a pause at the top of any row, chin, or pulldown, even in maximal strength training. In these movements, the "rest" period is at the bottom in the stretched position, so a longer pause should be taken there instead of the contracted position.
Okay, I realize that now you're probably more confused than when you started this article! The fact is, there're a lot of things to consider when figuring out which tempo you should be using. So here's a quick overview of my tempo guidelines for each training phase:
85-100% of your 1RM (could go all the way down to 60% with Compensatory Acceleration Training)
- Eccentric: Alternate slow and fast speeds if the weight is close to your 1RM, faster if the weight is 85% or lower: 1-3 seconds
- Pause in the stretched: 1-4 seconds (longer pause for pulling movements)
- Concentric: Always explosive, denoted by "X" (even if the bar doesn't move that fast)
- Pause in the contracted: Pause in lockout position when it increases strength: 1-4 seconds
Strength and Size
75-85% of your 1RM
- Eccentric: Slow if the weight is near 85%: 3-5 seconds, faster if the weight is between 75-80%: 2-3 seconds
- Pause in the stretched: 1-2 seconds (longer pause for pulling movements)
- Concentric: Slow if the weight is near 85%: 3-5 seconds, faster if the weight is between 75-80%: 1-2 seconds
- Pause in the contracted: Quick pause in lockout position when it increases strength
(60-75% of your 1RM)
- Eccentric: Slow 3-8 seconds (to keep tension high throughout the set)
- Pause in the stretched: 0-1 second (longer pause for pulling movements)
- Concentric: Slow if the weight is near 75%: 3-5 seconds, faster if the weight is between 60-70%: 1-2 seconds
- Pause in the contracted: Pause just short of lockout where it increases muscle tension: 1-4 seconds
Of course, there're many other factors that play important roles in reaching your bodybuilding goals, but if you're not progressing I'd strongly encourage you to take a close look at the tempo you've been using. It could be the missing ingredient you've been looking for.
If you're not familiar with tempo prescriptions, then where the heck have you been, bud? Here's how it works. Let's say you see the numbers 4221 beside of the bench press in a training program. The first number, 4, refers to the eccentric or lowering portion of the lift. The second number, 2, refers to the pause at the bottom i.e. when the bar is sitting on your chest. The third number, 2, refers to how many seconds you'll take to raise the weight.
Finally, if you see a fourth number, like "1" in the example above, that's how long you'll pause at the top part of the exercise. If you happen to see the designation "X", that means you should explode the weight back up. If you see "XXX" then you are watching a dirty movie, not training.