Always Count Tempo: Build More Strength & Muscle By Controlling Lifting Speed
There’s a strange paradox in program design: One of the most important variables is unknown or incompletely understood. Tempo, or the speed with which you perform the different components of an exercise, plays a huge role in training outcome. If you ignore it, your gains will be mediocre and you put yourself at risk of injury, whereas mastering tempo prescriptions, along with the other variables of program design, will get you fantastic results.
This article will give you a quick overview of tempo and provide four reasons to incorporate it into your training programs.
Tempo dictates the “time under tension” or the duration that muscles are being stimulated during a lift. For instance, performing a set of 10 repetitions of squats with 180 lbs at a 1-second-up and 1-second-down tempo is quite different from the same weight and reps at a 1-second-up and 4-seconds-down tempo. The difference is in the time the muscles are exposed to the weight or tension. The first variation takes 20 seconds, while the second variation takes 50 seconds. That is a 30-second difference in the stimulus to the muscles and nervous system.
In prescribing tempo, four numbers are used like this:
- The first number (4) dictates the seconds it takes for the eccentric motion (the “down” motion in most exercises)
- The second number (2) is the pause before the concentric motion
- The third number (1) is the concentric (lifting or “up” motion of most exercises)
- The fourth number (0) is the pause before the repetition repeats
In the case of a 4210 tempo in the squat, it takes 4 seconds to lower the weight, there is a 2-second pause at the bottom position, and then the weight is rapidly pushed up in 1 second, and the rep starts over immediately.
Reason #1: Develop Baseline Strength
As strength training has surged in popularity, more people than ever are picking up weights. Instead of haphazardly letting the weights fall with gravity, progress will happen much quicker if you follow a standard tempo such as 4010 or 3010. These slower tempos with moderate weights are a great tool for novice trainees because such protocols help you improve technique and body awareness while building strength and muscle. There’s much less risk of injury due to compromised technique from loads that are too heavy.
Reason #2: Overcome Strength Plateaus
Slow, controlled eccentric tempos are a great tool for establishing baseline strength but once you’ve got several years of training behind you, you need to find other ways of stimulating the neuromuscular system. Incorporating high-velocity and ballistic tempos into your routine will maximize strength gains, especially in more advanced trainees. For example, one study found that compared to “going through the motions” without a specific tempo, athletes who lifted “as fast as they could” using a load of 85 percent of the 1RM improved maximal bench press strength by 10 percent after only 6 training sessions.
Reason #3: Increase Muscle Gains
To maximize muscle mass, you need to stimulate protein synthesis so that muscle fibers grow, but you also need to target the higher threshold motor units that are hard to reach and are typically only recruited with maximal load training. Longer, slower tempos are standard for stimulating protein synthesis with research showing 6-second eccentric tempos lead to a 3-fold greater muscle building effect than 1-second tempos. On the other hand, it’s worth incorporating ballistic, powerful tempos that will hit the hard-to-reach Type IIX fibers because you will recruit a greater proportion of muscle fibers for long-term gains.
Reason #4: Improve Body Composition
When training to lose body fat, your main goal is to create a metabolic disturbance, hence, the term “metabolic conditioning.” Manipulating tempo is a great way to stimulate lactate buildup and stress the body metabolically. For example, one study compared the effect of a 4010 tempo with a tempo of 1.5 seconds for both the concentric and eccentric motions on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), a proxy marker for energy expenditure.
The 4010 tempo produced a greater increase in EPOC, which makes sense since participants spent more time under the weight. The interesting thing is that a longer time under tension has been shown to correlate with higher lactate levels, which leads to release of growth hormone, a major fat burning hormone.
Researchers concluded that longer tempos that tap the anaerobic energy system are ideal for body composition because they trigger both a favorable increase in growth hormone and an “afterburn” effect that requires the body to jack up the calories it burns during an extended recovery period.
Final Words: By carefully programming all the loading parameters of training, including tempo, you will know exactly what type of training stimulus you are applying to the body. Take control of your workouts, and you will achieve your goals faster than you ever thought possible.
Burd, N., Andrews, R., et al. Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-Fractional Synthetic Responses In Men. Journal of Physiology. 2012. 590 (2), 351-362.
Gentil, P., Oliveira, E., Bottaro, M. Time under tension and blood lactate response during four different resistance training methods. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 2006 Sept. 25(5), 339-344.
Padulo, J., Mignogna, P., et al. Effect of Different Pushing Speeds in Bench Press. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2012. 33(5), 376-380.
Scott, Christopher. The Effect of Time Under Tension and Weight Lifting Cadence on aerobic, Anaerobic, and Recovery Energy expenditures. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2012. 37(2), 252-256.
Tran, Q., Docherty, D., et al. The Effects of Varying Time Under Tension and Volume Load on Acute Neuromuscular Responses. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2006. 98, 498-410.