Tempo: More Important Than You Think

Tempo is arguably the most underrated factor in any training program. As a refresher, tempo refers to how fast you lift and lower a weight. It can also refer to how long you pause at the halfway point of a rep (if at all) and how long you pause before starting your next rep.

The tempo you use can have a huge influence on the type of adaptations your body will make. There are tempos best suited for power, others for strength gains, and others for building muscle. Let's break down a few of the main goals and talk about which tempos are optimal.

1 – Strength Tempo

Think about the qualities needed to lift heavy-ass weights. You need to give every rep 100 percent effort in order to recruit all the muscle fibers to lift a weight that could theoretically crush you.

That means that whether the weight is moderate or heavy, you want the tempo to be strong and fast, with good form. If you go so fast that you lose form, you risk getting injured and developing poor motor control patterns, which can stop you from gaining max strength.

You also need to be able to control the weight eccentrically, meaning stabilizing and controlling the weight on the way down (the negative). Try doing a 1RM without staying tight and controlling the weight. There's almost no chance you can regain control at the bottom of the rep, get tight in the proper position to stabilize the weight, and then forcefully lift it back up.

So a controlled tempo on the way down is much more conducive to strength gains compared to just letting gravity lower the weight as you catch it at the bottom. Also, a more controlled tempo (say 2-4 seconds) adds more volume to the workout and volume is related to strength and muscle gains.

Recommended Strength Training Tempos

  • 4 second eccentric/lowering
  • 1 second pause at bottom
  • 1 second concentric/lifting
  • 1 second pause at top

Tempos can be also manipulated based on individual needs. For example, if you're trying to increase your bench press but you notice you're weaker getting the bar off your chest, you may alter the tempo so that you do longer pauses at the bottom – forcing you to really focus on that aspect of the lift:

  • 2 second eccentric/lowering
  • 3 second pause at bottom
  • 1 second concentric/lifting
  • 1 second pause at top

2 – Muscle Building Tempo

There are many ways you can manipulate tempo to see massive gains. This is the fun part. Take a quick look at what needs to happen physiologically and you can come up with some several tempos that are as effective as they are different.

One known factor for building muscle is time under tension (TUT). The idea that the more time a muscle spends under tension (longer sets, more reps, or slower tempos) the more of a spike in protein synthesis – basically, muscle building. Research shows that 30-60 seconds of TUT per set can elicit a huge pump and spark size gains.

Recently, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld released a paper discussing TUT and how it should really be called "time under load" because time should be relative to the actual weight you're using. In other words, you'll see results whether you lift a weight that maxes you out at 30 seconds or a lighter weight that maxes you out at 60 seconds.

Dr. Jacob Wilson supported that research with some of his own. A study showed that for muscle growth using a faster eccentric (lowering) tempo was better than slower. This could be due to the fact that you're getting more concentric/lifting reps, therefore restricting the amount of blood flow to the muscle and stimulating it to grow in order to handle more reps the next workout.

On the other hand, a slower eccentric tempo with a very heavy weight (>85% 1RM) can still lead to muscle hypertrophy, especially if the individual tends to spend more time lifting lighter weights for higher reps (10-plus).

Recommended Muscle Building Tempos

Option 1

  • 4 second eccentric/lowering
  • 0 second pause at bottom
  • 2 second concentric/lifting
  • 0 second pause at top

Option 2

  • 2 second eccentric/lowering
  • 1 second pause at bottom
  • 1 second concentric/lifting
  • 1 second pause at top

Option 3

  • 2 second eccentric/lowering
  • 0 second pause at bottom
  • 0 second concentric/lifting (explosive)
  • 0 second pause at top

Option 4

  • 4 second eccentric/lowering
  • 15 second pause at bottom (yup, you read that right)
  • 1 second concentric/lifting (if you're got enough energy to even finish the rep)
  • 0 second pause at top

3 – Fat Loss Tempos

Any tempo will work for fat loss, but understanding this one concept will help you burn fat quicker.

Increased heart rate during exercise can increase the amount of energy burned compared to rest. In order to increase the tempo we actually need the heart to pump harder to get more blood flow to the working muscles. We do that by pumping out more concentric-focused reps.

But we don't want to completely dismiss the eccentric portion of the lift for two reasons:

  1. Eccentric muscle activity still uses energy.
  2. Controlling the eccentric portion of the lift allows for better technique and no injury. Nothing stops you from losing fat more than a nice muscle or ligament tear.

Recommended Fat Loss Tempo

  • 2 second eccentric/lowering
  • 0 second pause at bottom
  • 0 second concentric/lifting (explosive)
  • 0 second pause at top

Related:  5 Strategies for Choosing Exercises

Related:  6 Questions About Tempo Training