How to slow down and make your workout more effective

by Chere Lucett

What is Tempo Training?

Tempo Training
It is easy for the science behind weight training to get lost at the gym. Too often you find yourself caught in the hustle and bustle of a workout and forget that all those machines, dumbbells, barbells, and the like belong to a system of training designed to help you achieve your fitness goals.

Dependent on the desire, there are sets and repetitions schemes that help manipulate the volume of a workout to help you get big or stay lean and toned. But throwing weights around haphazardly does little to assist in muscle development or body composition change. In fact, lifting without a systematic plan is more likely to end in injury. Most people are aware of how many sets and repetitions they are going to perform on each exercise at the gym, but have they thought about how long each repetition should take?

Tempo training is often the most underrated component to resistance training, yet its role in muscle development is significant. Altering the tempo of your training workouts can alter the way your body adapts to your training. Can a small change to your workout really create large results? You bet.

Most injuries occur during the deceleration phase of a movement.
Training tempos are based upon the three phases of a repetition, the eccentric phase, isometric phase and the concentric phase.

The eccentric phase of a muscle contraction is performed when the resistance is being decelerated – as the resistance is moving with gravity, like when you are lowering the barbell to your chest during a bench press, or lowering down into a squat.

The isometric portion of the contraction is performed when the muscle is at its shortest point in the lift, for example, holding the barbell at the top position of a barbell bench press or at any end point (lengthened or shortened).

The concentric phase of the contraction is performed when the resistance is moving against gravity – the acceleration phase of a muscle contraction, for example pressing the barbell up toward the ceiling during a barbell chest press or curling the weight up towards the shoulders in a bicep curl. The concentric phase of a muscle contraction is what most people focus on, neglecting the other two phases. Sure, pressing heavy weight can give anyone a sense of power, a rush of tough-guy adrenaline, but focusing on one phase of training may lead to severe injuries. After all, most injuries occur during deceleration in everyday life and especially in sport. If the body cannot slow an action down appropriately, movement patterns become altered and this loss of control often results in an injury such as a torn ACL or rotator cuff. Not surprisingly, this type of training is rarely included in exercise sessions. To avoid these types of injuries, all three phases of a muscle contraction need to be trained appropriately.

Training tempos will vary based upon your goal. For example, an endurance training goal would benefit from a longer duration repetition tempo. In fact, most people can benefit from slowing their repetition tempo down. A slower training tempo has numerous benefits including preparing ligaments and tendons (which lack adequate vascularization (blood flow) and are generally slower to adapt) for heavier loads and faster training speeds, teaching the body to eccentrically control movement (most people struggle to decelerate) and focusing more on training the slow twitch muscle fibers which are endurance/stabilization type fibers that exist within every muscle.

The slow twitch muscle fibers adapt to increased time under tension, and generally take longer to fatigue than their counterparts, the fast twitch muscle fibers (power/force fibers). Muscles that lie deeper in the body are primarily made up of these slow twitch muscle fibers and these muscles help to stabilize joints and the spine and play a huge role in proper posture. Training these muscles appropriately allows the larger, more superficial muscles to work better (a prime mover can only fire to the capability of the stabilizing muscle). Based on this premise, slower tempos, with controlled eccentric contractions are recommended.

Beginning tempos would range from a 4/2/2-2/2/1 with the first number representing the eccentric portion of the contraction, the middle number representing the isometric portion and the last number representing the concentric portion of the muscle contraction. Using a squat as an example, with a 4/2/2 tempo, you would lower into the squat slowly taking 4 seconds to reach the bottom position. You could pause for two seconds at the bottom position, with tension on the muscle, for 2 seconds and then stand and return to the start position in 2 seconds. For the previous chest press example, you would lower the weight for 4 seconds, hold for 2 (top or bottom. Top is easier) and return to the beginning position with straight arms for 2 seconds.

Most people can benefit from slowing their training tempos down.
If hypertrophy (bigger muscles) is your goal, then keeping a slower tempo would be ideal. For the greatest muscle gains, one repetition should last between 4-6 seconds and 24-72 seconds per set (6-12 repetitions per set). Often there is confusion that to get as “big as a house” you have to lift as “big as a house”. The truth of the matter is, you can’t lift extremely heavy weights and keep a slow, controlled tempo. Often times that is why you see people hurling weights around, using momentum and heading to injury, but lacking control and often not getting the gains they desire. But for hypertrophy gains, moderate to heavy weights (about 70-80% of your 1 repetition maximum) is required for optimum cellular changes. It is a concept called time under tension and it is the combination of the load on the muscle for a significant period of time, causing tension that leads to muscle growth.

If you are looking for maximum strength, your training tempos will change again. Maximum strength requires a neural adaptation. In other words, consider the fact that your brain sends a signal to the muscles for the individual muscle fibers to contract. If for some reason, some of the lines of communication from your brain to the muscle fibers get disconnected, your brain is sending out a limited signal, and not all of the muscle fibers will be recruited to contract. Well, for maximum strength, your goal is to get the best communication from the brain to the muscle fibers and you want to recruit as many muscle fibers as you can to fire. This is a neural adaptation for strength. In order to get this adaptation, you need to perform each repetition as fast as possible (a tempo of (1/1/1). Often times, you will be lifting a maximal load (95-100% of your 1 repetition maximum) so your repetition tempo will be only as fast as you can handle the load. Basically, even though the weight used is very heavy, you want to think of moving it fast, even though it may not. This will excite the nervous system and ask it to involve more muscle fibers for the challenge.

The performance paradigm dictates that force production is reliant on force reduction.
If you are looking to increase your power, then speed things up! Faster tempos equal faster times. When focusing on increasing power, you have an inverse relationship between load and speed, the higher the load, the slower the speed, the lower the load, the higher the speed. When you are training for power you will likely be throwing around medicine balls or performing plyometrics (explosive, jumping lower body exercises). Therefore, at this stage, your focus will be on the concentric portion of the repetition, always making sure that you can decelerate properly (to produce force, you must be able to reduce force)). As your muscle stretches, it is storing energy so the goal when training for power is to be able to move from a stretched muscle position to a short muscle position as fast as possible (the stretch-shortening cycle). Since, the tempos being used here are explosive, it is hard to quantify in time what the actual tempo should be, and the best we can say is to use a 1/0/1 tempo as your guide. You definitely don’t want to hold a position when working on power as the energy being stored in your muscles will be lost!

To recap the tempos, use the chart below to help guide you towards the adaptation you are looking for. Remember to build the foundation with the slower tempos first, before working to faster tempos

Stabilization Strength Power (Explosive)
Training Tempo 4/2/1-2/2/1 3/2/1-2/0/2 1/1/1-1/0/1

If you want to make your gym experience the most effective it can be, make small changes to your workout, such as training with different tempos, in order to get to your goals. Often it is the smaller training items that get lost in the gym, and the smaller items can make the biggest difference in your results!