The Physique Wise Guide to... Tempo

Tempo = The speed at which you perform an exercise - sometimes referred to as 'cadence'

Tempo is usually expressed as 4 numbers - For example, “4 0 1 0”, or "20X0"

The First Number: The Eccentric Lifting Speed: The eccentric portion of a lift relates to the phase when the working muscle(s) are lengthening under tension. For example, the quadriceps (thigh muscles) on the downward phase of a squat, leg extension, leg press etc. The first number is usually the biggest number, as the eccentric portion of the lift is usually controlled.

The Second Number: Pause in the Stretched Position: If the number is a zero then this would mean that there is no pause after the eccentric phase of the lift and you go straight into the concentric phase of the lift. A '1' would denote a 1 second pause in the stretched position.

The Third Number: The Concentric Lifting Speed: The concentric portion of the lift relates to the phase when the working muscle(s) are shortening under tension, For example, the quadriceps on the upward phase of a squat, leg extensions, leg press etc. An ‘X’ during the concentric phase relates to the lift being performed ‘explosively’.

The Fourth Number: Pause in the Shortened Position: If the number is a zero then this would mean that there is no pause in the shortened position and that you would go straight into the eccentric portion of the lift.

So a tempo with the numbers '3111' would mean a 3 second eccentric phase, a 1 second pause in the stretched position, a 1 second concentric portion, and a 1 second pause in the shortened position.



What are the benefits to using tempo in your training?

  • Slower lifting tempos can be extremely useful for beginners who need to learn motor control, create mind-muscle connection and learn correct movement patterns
  • Can be useful for experienced lifters as means of overloading a movement
  • Using tempo standardises a lift so you can assess whether you are making strength improvements or simply just moving the weight faster each week.
  • Slowing down the exercises means less load can be used, reducing the likelihood of injury occurring 
  • Using pauses in either the stretched or shortened position (or both) can vastly improve the effectiveness of certain exercises
  • Using specific tempos can ensure you are utilising the correct energy system you are wishing to target

What are some of the disadvantages of slowing down the lifting speed?

  • Slower lifts create less mechanical tension on the muscle
  • Using faster tempos can result in greater overall work - “Lifting with short eccentric phases and no bottom rest produced greater repetitions and Power Output, and therefore, total work volume than repetition tempos with 4-second eccentric phases or 3-second bottom rest intervals” (King, et al, 2011)
  • You can use a greater load on the bar with faster tempos
  • You can utilise the stretch-shortening cycle by using a faster lifting speed
  • You can develop more strength and power utilising a faster lifting speed
  • Greater recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres when lifting faster

So as a general rule of thumb, the newer to training a client is, the more I will utilise slower lifting tempos. This is to ensure that: -

1) Chance of injury is minimised
2) The emphasis is on controlling the movement and learning correct movement patterns
3) To establish a mind-muscle connection - this is much easier with slower lifting speeds
4) To learn how to recruit certain muscles. For example, it might be advantageous to pause at the top of a hip bridge to maximally contract the glutes and 'feel' them working

Only once you have mastered an exercise with a slow tempo should you try to lift faster.

Whether lifting with a slow tempo or a fast tempo the goal should always be to lift with intent & completely focus on what you are doing.