Upon receiving a shiny new training program, one of the biggest riddles for novice gym goers is deciphering tempo - the numbers that dictate how fast or slow you lift and lower the weight. Frequently overlooked, misunderstood and underestimated; tempo is best described as the cherry on top of your exercise selections that will make or break your workout.
Tempo is a critical aspect of program design that should not be ignored.
Although it was in fact Australian strength coach Ian King who introduced the use of tempo as three digits, it was super coach and strength sensei Charles R. Poliquin who introduced the popular four numerals system as you see in figure 1 by adding the fourth digit which indicates the pause in the top position of a movement.
TEMPO & TIME UNDER TENSION (TUT)
Prescribed tempo is a critical factor in your development for fat loss, hypertrophy, power and strength gains. In terms of bodybuilding, the deployment of slower tempos is critical for ensuring adequate time under tension (TUT) is achieved in order to create damage to muscle fibres and stimulate hypertrophy. If you are familiar with the work of Ben Pakulski IFBB Pro and his Mi40/Mi40X system, then you will know that he is a major advocate for enforcing tempo within his programming as a way to increase the mind muscle connection, which has been proven in studies to increase motor unit recruitment and lead to greater gains in strength and muscle size. In fact, his entire training methodology centres around the importance of tempo in achieving optimal innervation, or muscle activation, and he recommends that if hypertrophy is the goal then every set should take approximately 30-40 seconds to perform..
To gain a clearer understanding how this works in practice, compare the following scenarios where two men perform an Barbell Bench Press at 80kg for 10 reps, but at varying tempos. The goal of the workout is hypertrophy, and to create as much metabolic stress as possible:
SCENARIO A: Slow and controlled, the trainee eccentrically lowers the bar for a count of 4 seconds. With no pause, he then contracts his pecs and accelerates out of the bottom position for one second stopping just shy of lockout to begin lowering the bar again for another 9 reps.
SCENARIO B: Said trainee bounces out ten reps like a bat out of hell in just under 12 seconds flat.
Estimated time under tension for person A is approximately 40 seconds - ideal for stimulating muscle growth. Person B is about 12 seconds. Too fast for hypertrophy to occur, and the load too light to create any real neural adaptation to increase strength either.
At the end of the day, you can only train a muscle as hard as you know how to locate and activate it neurologically. Therefore experimenting with tempo in terms of paused reps and slow eccentrics can also help develop greater sensation or feeling, in beginner trainees. On the contrary, for optimal strength development use of fast and explosive tempos are also required.
BENEFITS OF TEMPO PRESCRIPTION
Tempo is among the simplest, and easiest training parameters to control and manipulate.
Tempo influences hormonal responses to training.
Adequate time under tension (TUT) is required in order to ensure that enough muscle damage occurs to stimulate hypertrophy.
Paused reps, isometrics and explosive (X) tempo's all come with their own set of neurological enhancing effects that when done correctly, make excellent plateau busters.
Enforcing tempo in people of a young training age, increases mind-muscle connection, enhancing muscle activation and leading to faster progression.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
So to gain a better understanding of how to utilise tempo within your programming, let us use Charles' formula in an example of a Barbell Romanian Deadlift with a tempo of '4210.' Each digit equates to one second:
'4' - The first digit is the eccentric or lowering phase. In this case, it dictates the speed in which you would lower your body to the floor.
'2' - The second number would indicate either rest or a pause at the bottom portion of the exercise. A pause in the bottom range, will require increased motor unit activation to overcome the inertia created by the 'dead stop.' An incredible useful technique in helping trainees overcome plateaus in the lifts by overloading the common 'sticking points.'
'1' - Numeral three is how fast you contract on the concentric portion of the lift, or the rate of acceleration. Such as coming out of the hole in the back squat. An ‘X’ in place of a number may be used to indicate that the movement is meant to be EXPLOSIVE.
'0' - Lastly, the final digit indicates how long you pause at the top point of an exercise.
So to put it in practice, you would commence your deadlift with a controlled descent of 4 seconds, and as you hit the floor you would pause or dead stop for 2 seconds before firing up out of the hole, and repeat.
Remember that each number represents one second in time. Therefore, have a training partner keep you honest by counting out your tempos aloud as you would the second hand on a clock. When counting, I like to use Charles' ‘thousand’ method.
So just imagine for a moment that we’re working with a pretty standard '3010' tempo. I would mentally countdown backwards ‘three thousand-two thousand-one thousand’ as I lower and ‘one thousand’ again as I am going through the concentric part of the repetition.
- Poliquin, Charles R. The Poliquin Principles: Successful Methods For Strength and Mass Development. 2nd ed. Napa, CA: Dayton Writers Group, 1997. Print.
- Pakulski, Ben. "Is Your Rep Speed KILLING Your Gains?" Benpakulski.com. N.p., 17 July 2014. Web. 1 June 2016. <http://www.benpakulski.com/uncategorized/rep-speed-killing-gains/>
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