What Are Tempo Prescriptions?

About twenty years ago we started seeing training programs written out like this:

  • Bench Press
  • 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • 4020 tempo
  • 90 seconds of rest

See that "4020" part? That's the tempo prescription. This 4 digit number refers to the length, in seconds, of the four phases of each rep.

The first digit represents the eccentric phase (lowering the weight). The second digit is the transition time between one direction (eccentric) to the next (concentric or lifting the weight). The third number is the actual lifting phase (the concentric portion), and the last digit represents the transition time between two reps.

For example, a 4020 tempo means:

Tempo
  • Lower the weight in 4 seconds
  • Transition immediately into the concentric phase (the "0")
  • Lift the weight in 2 seconds
  • Go right into the next rep (the last "0")

A 3212 tempo means:

  • Lower the weight in 3 seconds
  • Hold the stretch position for 2 seconds
  • Lift the weight in 1 second
  • Squeeze and hold at the top for 2 seconds before moving on to the next rep

Everyone Glommed On, Including Me

Most of the respected coaches soon started using this system, and a couple even recommended that you buy a metronome to precisely count the tempo of every rep.

When tempo prescriptions first became popular, I was studying kinesiology at the university. I really wanted to see myself as a "scientist of training" so I was attracted to this approach of quantifying everything. I began to include tempo prescriptions in my programs. This gave me another variable to play with to find that perfect program, that magical combination of training variables that would cause uncontrolled growth!

Well, that lasted two months. Then I realized that tempo prescriptions were pretty much useless.

A Dumb Way To Pretend To Be Smart

A lot of coaches love tempo prescriptions because it makes them look smart or more scientific. Come on, people! Please don't forget that lifting weights isn't rocket science. When we talk about someone who's good at lifting weights, we use words like freak, animal, and beast. We don't use words like precise, well-timed, or rhythmic.

Coaches are often looking for recognition. Some of them are desperate to prove that they have a brain to go along with their brawn. These guys will often use overly complicated language to explain their ideas. They forget that there's a difference between writing or speaking and actually communicating. These guys love tempo prescriptions for the same reason.

Other coaches just want to control every single variable. Sometimes it's because they genuinely believe that it's best for their client. But more often than not, it stems from the subconscious need to control everything and thus feel totally responsible for their clients' progress.

The problem? Having someone focus on counting tempo is a great way to make training LESS effective.

Strong People Seldom Use Tempo Prescriptions

The act of lifting weights should be a bit like a fight. Yes, the moves you make are important, but it's how hard you go that really determines if you come out the winner.

Look at the strongest powerlifters. There's a controlled form of violence to their lifting. Do you think they count out the tempo in their heads? Most big and strong bodybuilders have this quality too: they attack the weights.

I don't know a single accomplished bodybuilder, powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or strongman competitor who routinely counts tempo. Sure, once in a blue moon they'll use a training method where they go slow and count, but never as part of their regular training.

I know, I know. These people are better than you because of superior genetics or drugs, right? It just couldn't be that they're training harder than you, right? Well, listen up. I've been in this game long enough to understand that, yes, some freaks get to the top because they're genetically gifted, and yes, drugs help a lot. But in most cases when someone reaches the top (as far as muscle mass and strength are concerned) lots of quality, productive training was used.

And when everybody at the top does or doesn't do something, well, it should be considered. And almost NO ONE who has built a high level physique or elite strength levels uses precise tempo prescriptions.

Now, I have seen one pro-bodybuilder who uses a program containing strict tempo prescriptions. I asked him about it. He said that his coach always puts those tempo prescriptions in there, but he never follows them.

High-level people focus on the right thing: training hard and giving max effort on each set, not on each rep. They might slow down or squeeze more to get a better feeling in the muscle, but never is it part of a pre-planned rhythmic scheme.

Training in a Hospital

Lifter

When all emotion and instinct are taken out of workouts, I call this "training in a hospital." It's quiet, orderly, sterile, and feels excessively clean. The place seems dead, motionless.

That's exactly how a workout feels when every single element is planned. This makes me feel out of the zone. As a result, I lose my edge and my drive to go hard.

That's why there are always some training variables that I leave unplanned. The tempo of each rep and the rest intervals are two things that I don't tightly control. I want to keep them open to modification based on my instincts and drive for that day.

Now, some people feel good about following a very strict training plan. It reassures them, takes the guesswork out, and makes them believe (wrongfully) that they're following the exact formula for maximum progression. But the secret to progression is not in a set of variables written on a piece of paper; it's how focused and intense you are when you execute what's on that piece of paper.

Anything that can detract from that focus and intensity will lead to inferior results. And tempo prescriptions do just that.

Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Let's say you set up for a set of heavy squats – a 3-rep max. You get under the bar, get psyched up, and violently unrack the bar. You walk it back and prepare to fight the weight. The heavy weight is already compressing your spine, so you get tighter to fight it. You begin the squat down and...

Stop. What are you thinking about right then? Are you thinking, "Okay, the program says I gotta go down in 4 seconds, so here goes. One, two, three, four... pause of a second, now go up... And one, two..."

Or are you thinking, "Stay tight and murder it!"

I can tell you that 99.9% of lifters who have achieved decent strength and size are thinking the latter. The former is only used by people too weak to squat a load requiring intense focus and mental aggression.

Listen, when you're under a heavy weight there's no way you can think about counting tempo without it negatively affecting your lift. No F'ing way. Your focus is better spent on maybe one key technical cue or, more likely, pooling your mental resources to fight the weight.

What About Isolation Work With Light Weights?

Yeah, counting tempo is likely to be less damaging. But you'd still be better off focusing on squeezing the target muscle as hard as possible, making sure that it receives most of the stimulation.

And let's be practical here. If you're doing a set in the 12 rep range are you really going to do this...

  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2...  rep 1
  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2...  rep 2
  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2...  rep 3

...all the way up to 12 reps? That would be difficult to focus on if you were actually training hard, which is why people who actually train hard never do it.

Tempo Counting Short-Changes the Set

Let's say you're going to perform 8 reps at 70% of 1 RM using a 4020 tempo. By rep 6 your muscle fibers are too tired to be able to do the job with a 4020 tempo, but if you speed things up a bit (while still maintaining proper form) you'll be able to get those extra 2 reps.

What do you do? Stop at 6 reps with the 4020 tempo, knowing that you can get 2 more reps if you speed things up a notch?

Or...

Get those 2 reps to complete the set by going a bit faster (without cheating)? Won't those two reps contribute to making your muscles bigger and stronger even if you've strayed from the strict tempo parameters?

What's the purpose of the training session anyway? To complete a certain task according to some precise parameters OR stimulate muscle growth?

Prescriptions Are Seldom Adapted to Exercises

A squat might have a range of motion of two feet. A shrug or calf raise will be closer to two inches. How can you use the same tempo prescription for both types of movements? Let's compare a squat with a 24-inch range of motion with a standing calf raise with a 4-inch range of motion.

If you use a 4010 tempo in both cases, the eccentric will be done at:

  • 6 inches per second for the squat
  • 1 inch per second for the calf raise

Despite using the same tempo, you're going six times slower on the calf raise. Will that lead to the same type of stimulus in both cases? Likely not.

While the above might seem obvious, I still see a lot of coaches prescribing tempos such as 5010 or 4020 on shrugs and calf raises – the same tempos they prescribe for squats. This shows me that the coach doesn't have a correct understanding of how a muscle contracts.

It's not about how much time a muscle is under tension (which will be related to the range of motion) but at what speed of contraction a muscle has to function. If you want to use tempo prescriptions, at least be smart about it.

So What Should You Do?

Tempo prescription is a good idea, wrongfully applied. Changing how the reps are performed can be an important way to vary the training stimulus and get better gains. Dr. Dietmar Schmidtbleicher wrote:

"Muscles grow faster in strength if submitted to various tempos of execution than if trained always at the same speed. Slow speed movement places high tension on the neuromuscular system due to the absence of momentum, thus favoring greatly the trophism of muscle size and strength. High speed lifting with high loads (85-100%) is another way to achieve high levels of muscle tension by recruiting a great number of fast twitch motor units."

This is true, but precise tempo prescriptions aren't the way to go. Instead, use qualitative descriptions of the reps rather than an exact rhythm. That way you can focus on the proper feeling during the set instead of focusing on counting.

I use these cues for the concentric and eccentric portions of a lift:

Lifting Speed

I only add a descriptive for the transition point if I want the athlete to include an isometric hold. I'll say, "Hold in the bottom 2 seconds." Or "Squeeze at the peak contraction 2 seconds."

Yes, it's longer than writing down 4012 but it provides a good mental image which will allow you to focus on the right thing. It also adapts the rhythm to the movement. "Slow" might take less time on a shrug than in a squat, but it will still be slow. That's what is important, not the duration itself.

So when I advise someone about how to do the reps I might say something like this:

"Lower the weight under control, hold the bottom position for a second, then explode up to make the lift."

Or...

"Go down slow while flexing the muscle. Control the weight on the way up, squeezing hard."

See? Easy to communicate, easy to understand, and it gets the focus on the right thing.

Related:  Ask Coach Thibaudeau Questions Here

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