What is Tempo?
Tempo means you are executing an exercise at a given speed during the contraction phase of the movement as well as the eccentric phase of the movement. The contraction phase is where the muscle is shortening when you are doing a movement. I.E during a bicep curl, the biceps are shortening during the motion of bringing the weight up so that is the concentric phase of the movement. The eccentric phase is where the muscles are lengthening. I.E. during a bicep curl on the downward motion, the biceps are lengthening the return the weight back to the waist in a controlled manner.
What does a Tempo look like?
A Tempo consists of 4 numbers that dictate the tempo of the movement.
Your Back Squat says 3 x 10 @ “40×1” The 40×1 is the tempo that is attached to the Back Squat.
The First number (4) is the eccentric phase of the movement. In the back squat, it will be the descent of the squat. So the tempo is placed to take 4 Seconds to get to the bottom of your squat.
The Second number (0) is the number of seconds you will pause at the end of the eccentric phase of the movement. In this case, the “0” means there is no pause at the bottom of your squat.
The Third number (x) is the concentric phase of the movement. In this case, an “x” means explode. If there was a number, that would tell you to go through that portion of the movement for that many seconds. So with the back squat, an “x” means to explode out of the bottom and stand up as fast as possible.
The Fourth number (1) is the number of seconds you will pause after the concentric phase before you return back to the eccentric phase. In this case, you will pause for 1 second at the top of you squat before you return back down with a 4 second descent.
Reading Tempo gets tricky when the movement starts with a Concentric phase. For instance a Strict Press @ 2111, does not start at the 2 seconds because that is the eccentric phase, or when you are controlling the movement down. So you must start at the 3rd number, the “1.” It reads you press for 1 second, you pause for 1 second at the top, you control the movement down for 2 seconds, and then pause at the bottom for 1 second.
Strict Press, Push Press, Deadlifts, and Pull Ups are examples where it gets trickier to read because you have to start the movement at the 3rd number.
Why use Tempos?
They make you stronger! Time under Tension, or TuT as written in exercise science literature is referring to how long the muscle are under strain during a set. So think about doing a set of 10 Back Squats at no tempo. You went at your own speed and usually it takes about 4 seconds a lift. So your total time for 10 Back Squats would be 40 seconds.
Now think about doing a set of 10 Back Squats @ 4221. Now each Back Squat will take you 9 seconds to complete. With 10 Back Squats taking you a total of 90 seconds. Which is 50 seconds longer then just doing a set of 10 with no tempo. So in essence your muscles are under strain longer and will adapt to that and get stronger.
Also controlling the eccentric phase of the movement, the lower phase, recruits more motor units thus effectively developing strength and performance. That is why if you don’t have a strict pull up I tell you to work the negative portion of the pull up because it will develop strength in those muscles and recruit more motor units to more prepare you to get your 1st strict pull up then just working strict pull ups with a band.
As a beginner, using tempos are also great for pinpointing out where you have weaknesses or imbalances. Rushing through portions of a movement can be a crutch because you may not have the mobility or stability needed to perform that movement properly.
Think about the Back Squat again, if you are missing range of motion in your ankle you will tend to rush through the eccentric phase of the movement because it would hurt to lower slowly and control it to the bottom and hold for 2-3 seconds.
So if you have been hitting a plateu in your strength gains and haven’t broken past your barriers, try adding some tempos to your lifts and see if you notice a difference. If you know your technique is not the greatest, you definitely need to control the movement and feel where your technique is breaking down and learn from it.
Heres a video of me Back Squatting at 40×1 for a set of 4. Notice how slow and controlled the movement is and much more difficult it is only squatting 70% of my max.
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