On one of our latest podcasts lately we started discussing tempo’s and even we got a little confused trying to explain them in an easy to understand way.
They definitely make up the most abundant questions I get on a regular basis.
Just like how the speed at which music is played really makes a difference to how it sounds, when you’re lifting tempo matters.
A Definition Of Terms:
Eccentric or Negative Stage of an exercise:
Eccentric or negative refer to the part of the exercise where you lengthen a muscle under tension. Where you control the weight but allow it to move you.
Concentric or Positive Stage of an exercise:
Concentric of positive refer to the part of the exercise where the muscle contracts and shortens. Where you exert energy to overcome the weight and make it move.
The 4 Stages of an Exercise:
To do 1 repetition of an exercise you have to go through 4 different stages.
Ex 1 – The Deadlift
Stage 1 – Lifting the bar from the floor (concentric or positive portion)
Stage 2 – The Pause or lack of at the top of the lift
Stage 3 – The controlled lowering back to the floor (eccentric or negative portion)
Stage 4 – The pause of lack of at the bottom before starting the next rep
Ex 2 – The Squat
Stage 1 – Lowering to the bottom position (eccentric or negative portion)
Stage 2 – The Pause or lack of at the bottom of the lift
Stage 3 – The controlled squatting back up to the top position (concentric or positive portion)
Stage 4 – The pause or lack of at the top before starting the next rep
So what are tempo’s?
Tempo’s are the speed at which you perform each individual repetition of a given set of an exercise.
More simply put, tempo’s are basically how fast or slow you move up or down. Tempo’s also refer to the pause or lack of pause at the before and after each repetition.
Tempo’s are usually written with 4 numbers. Like this:
Ex – 4010 is a tempo
Ex – 5050 is another tempo
Ex – 3131 and so on
Ex – 31X1 and so on
You get the picture. The first tempo example, the 4010, is read as four, zero, one, zero (not four thousand and ten).
Each number corresponds to time in seconds: If it says 4 it means that part takes 4 seconds. If it says X, it means that part is performed as fast as possible.
Each number also corresponds to one of the 4 stages of an exercise:
The 1st number always corresponds to the eccentric, negative, or muscle lengthening part of the motion. (Stage 1)
The 2nd number always corresponds to the pause or lack of pause after the muscle has been lengthened, after the eccentric of negative, before starting the concentric. (Stage 2)
The 3rd number always corresponds to the concentric, positive, or active overcoming of the weight. (Stage 3)
The 4th number always corresponds to the pause or lack of pause before restarting the eccentric. (Stage 4)
This is part is relatively straight forward. Where people often get into trouble is trying to figure out which part of the motion is the eccentric and which is the concentric.
Usually the eccentric or negative (the first number in the tempo) is the way down. For a bench press, squat, deadlift, chin up or bicep curl it is the way down, when you lower the weight.
The exception here is when you use a pulley system. When you use the pulley to do a lat pull down the eccentric or negative part of the motion is the way up, when you do a pulley tricep extension it is the way up.
Once you know which part of the exercise is the negative and you also know that it corresponds to the first number in the tempo then you’re good to go.
Examples – A squat and bench press are two examples where you would start the motion with the negative which makes it easy.
If you were to do a squat with a 5030 tempo, you would squat down for 5 seconds, take no pause at the bottom, squat up for 3s, then take no pause before starting your next squat.
If you were to bench press at a 3231 tempo you would un rack the weight, lower the weight for 3 seconds, hold UNDER TENSION for 2 seconds at the bottom position, take 3 seconds to bring the weight back up under control, then hold for 1 second at the top before doing your next repetition.
What about exercises that don’t start with a negative?
Here’s where the confusion comes in. If you were to a pulling motion, like deadlift, bicep curl, rows, or chin ups you start with the concentric part of the motion.
I know what you’re thinking. Oh shit.
Don’t worry. With these motions you don’t start with the negative, you start with the positive or concentric. So you start with the 3rd number.
Example – Deadlift at a 31X2 tempo.
You would lift the weight off the ground as fast as possible with the intension of speed because of the “X”, pause for 2 seconds at the top, take 3 seconds to lower the weight under control, pause for 1 second at the bottom before starting your next repetition.
Example – Lat pull down at a 2013 tempo.
You would pull the weight down taking 1 second, hold for 3 seconds at the bottom, raise the weight back up taking 2 seconds, then right away without pause start the next repetition.
How are they used?
The most important thing about tempo’s is that they allow us to keep things consistent and measure ACTUAL progress. If you squat for a set of 10 at a 4010 tempo, then do more weight the second week that’s progress!
If you squat 3 sets of 10 at a 4010 tempo, then the next week squat 3 sets of 10 at a 2010 tempo with more weight, you haven’t gotten any stronger you have just manipulated the tempo to spend less time under tension and look stronger.
Tempo’s are also used differently depending on the goal. We use them to manage how much time an athlete spends working during a particular set. Something we in the business call TIME UNDER TENSION or TUT.
As a general example if we wanted to gain muscle we would need a time under tension for each set to be between 30-70 seconds.
So we could say do 10 repetitions at a 5010 tempo to get our 60s, or we could do 5 repetitions at a 5151 tempo to get the same time under tension.
Same time under tension, however both sets will feel completely different.
Slower tempo’s things like 5050, 5151, 4132 etc, are more generally used for learning a new movement, rehabbing muscle, re-teaching a muscle to fire properly, getting control over a weak motion or part of the motion. There is no hiding from a 5050 tempo.
Medium tempo’s things like 31X1, 41X1, 3201, 2122 are used more generally for both muscle and strength building.
Fast tempo’s things like 20X0, X0X0, 11X1, are used more generally for strength and power.
How often should you change them?
The body adapts to tempo’s faster than it adapts to other aspects of training. The first thing to think about changing in any program is tempo. You can make 3 Sets of 10 back squat feel like a foreign exercise with a new tempo.
My intention was to clarify and give you a little insight as to how important tempo’s are and how they are used. If you change one thing about your workouts this year find a squat rack and change up the tempo’s.