Tempo Training for Strength: The Ultimate Guide to 31X1 for Trainers


The world of fitness is as dynamic as it is diverse. As fitness professionals, we continuously seek to educate ourselves, adapt, and evolve in the face of new research and techniques.

One such technique that has resurfaced in recent conversations is tempo training for strength—specifically, the 31X1 tempo.

In this article, we delve into this potent tool, exploring what it is, its importance, and how to implement it into training regimes.

Moreover, we’ll unravel the mystery of reading this tempo correctly when it’s written down.


Sometimes, the volume of knowledge and techniques we acquire can lead to some crucial elements slipping through the cracks.

We’ve all had those moments, thumbing through old notes or listening to a podcast, when an old concept leaps out at us, one that we had somehow neglected.

Suddenly, we’re struck by the realization of how effective it was and find ourselves wondering, “Why on earth did I stop doing that?”

For me, the epiphany arrived during an interview with James Fitzgerald, in which he emphasized the importance of tempo training for both beginners and advanced athletes.

It was as if I’d been handed a valuable piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I’d been missing—an unmistakable Homer Simpson “DOH” moment.

Tempo training, and specifically the 31X1 tempo, has been this awakening.

This technique of controlled speed during workouts, which manipulates time under tension (TUT), is a potent lever in stimulating muscle growth and strength.

Let’s dive in and rediscover the power of tempo training together.

Unraveling Tempo Training for Strength

My understanding of tempo training was primarily influenced by two leading figures in the fitness industry, Ian King and the late Charles Poliquin.

Both vouched for tempo training as an effective strategy for enhancing strength, building muscle size, and optimizing overall athletic performance.

At its core, tempo training hinges on the principle of ‘time under tension’ or as some trainers prefer, ‘time under load’.

This concept refers to the duration a specific muscle or group of muscles is under strain during a set.

Tempo Training for Strength: Squat

Tempo training doesn’t apply to all strength movements, especially those involving dynamic contractions like plyometrics or absolute speed activities.

Nonetheless, it can be incredibly beneficial in a wide range of exercises that involve both eccentric (muscle lengthening) and concentric (muscle shortening) components.

Consider the fundamental back squat for illustration. As we descend into the squat, we’re engaging in the eccentric phase of the exercise.

In contrast, as we rise back to standing, we’re in the concentric phase.

But the nuanced art of tempo training doesn’t stop there. It encompasses four distinct phases, which include the moments at the top and bottom of the movements.

These instances can be classified as isometric holds, wherein you pause for a predetermined period before completing the exercise. Including these phases in your tempo training can enhance muscle engagement and foster improved strength gains.

By meticulously controlling the pace of each phase, trainers can strategically manipulate time under tension to drive significant progress in their clients’ strength and performance.

The Benefits of Tempo Training for Strength

As fitness professionals, it’s our duty to provide our clients with the most effective strategies to improve strength, enhance performance, and reach their individual fitness goals.

Tempo training holds a prominent position among these strategies due to the myriad benefits it offers.

  1. Enhanced Muscle Control: Tempo training necessitates a high level of control over the weight throughout the exercise. This control translates to increased muscular coordination and motor learning, which can help improve overall performance in all areas of training.
  2. Increased Time Under Tension: The concept of time under tension is central to hypertrophy (muscle growth). By slowing down the eccentric and concentric phases of an exercise, tempo training effectively extends the time a muscle spends under load, stimulating greater muscle growth.
  3. Greater Metabolic Stress: Slower, controlled movements with deliberate pauses challenge the muscles to work harder, leading to an increased metabolic response. This heightened metabolic stress stimulates the release of growth hormone, further supporting muscle growth and repair.
  4. Improved Form and Technique: The focus on precise control and timing encourages better form and technique, reducing the risk of injury. This aspect of tempo training can be particularly valuable for beginners, who are still developing proper movement patterns.
  5. Enhanced Strength Gains: Research indicates that eccentric training, a key component of tempo training, can lead to superior strength gains. The increased time under tension during the eccentric phase promotes significant muscular adaptation, resulting in greater strength and power output.
  6. Versatility: Tempo training is highly versatile. It can be incorporated into virtually any strength exercise and adapted to suit various fitness levels, making it a powerful tool for trainers working with a diverse range of clients.
  7. Increased Body Awareness: Tempo training promotes increased body awareness. As clients pay more attention to their movements’ pacing, they often gain a better understanding of their body mechanics, leading to more efficient and effective workouts.

To maximize the benefits of tempo training, it’s essential for trainers to understand the principles behind it and learn how to apply it effectively in different contexts.

When appropriately integrated into a training program, tempo training can significantly enhance strength, muscle growth, and overall performance, providing a comprehensive solution for various fitness objectives.

Decoding the Code: What is 31X1?

In the realm of strength training, tempo is often communicated through a unique numerical code, one of the most common being the 31X1 sequence. Understanding this code is crucial for fitness professionals to accurately prescribe exercises and for clients to execute their workouts effectively.

When programming workouts, we use a specific formula:

Exercise + Sets + Reps @ Tempo

To illustrate, using a back squat as an example, it could be written as:

Back Squat. 3 Sets. 8 Reps @31X1 Tempo.

The 31X1 sequence represents the four stages of tempo training, namely Eccentric, Isometric, Concentric, and Isometric. These numbers dictate the timing for each stage of the movement. Here’s how to interpret these numbers:

The First Number

The initial number in the sequence specifies the time (in seconds) for the lowering or eccentric phase of the lift, irrespective of the movement’s starting point. In the case of the 31X1 back squat, the ‘3’ dictates that the descent to the bottom of the squat should take three seconds.

The Second Number

The second digit indicates the duration of the pause at the bottom of the lift or the first isometric hold, which is the transition point between lowering and ascending. In our 31X1 back squat example, ‘1’ suggests an immediate transition with no pause at the bottom. If the sequence were 32X0, a two-second pause would be required before ascending.

The Third Number

The third figure signifies the time taken for the ascending or concentric phase of the lift. An ‘X’ instead of a number commands an explosive ascent as fast as possible. This ‘X’ is primarily used for intermediate and advanced clients, as the speed and intent of the movement are essential.

For beginners, a controlled ascent is more appropriate, leading to sequences such as 3010 or 3020, where the ascent takes one or two seconds, respectively. In certain scenarios, the sequence might include an ‘A’ (for example, 40A1), denoting assistance needed during the concentric phase. This could be applied in exercises such as negative or band-assisted pull-ups, or kipping pull-ups and handstand push-ups.

The Fourth Number

The final digit in the sequence indicates the pause duration at the top of the lift or the second isometric hold. For our 31X1 back squat, a ‘0’ means that there’s no pause before initiating the next rep. However, if we had a pull-up sequence like 30X3, the client would be expected to hold their chin over the bar for three seconds before starting the next repetition.

Understanding and properly utilizing the 31X1 tempo code allows fitness professionals to optimize their clients’ strength training by tailoring the duration of each phase of an exercise. In turn, this specificity can lead to greater muscle control, increased time under tension, and ultimately, enhanced strength gains.

Understanding Application: Practical Examples and A Crucial Clarification

Understanding the tempo prescription in a workout routine might seem straightforward, but it can occasionally become confusing, particularly when considering exercises that initiate with a concentric (ascending) phase rather than an eccentric (lowering) phase.

For such exercises, we need to shift our interpretation starting point to the third number.

Here are practical examples to help illustrate this principle:

Back Squat (Initiated by lowering) @ 33X1:

For exercises that begin with lowering, like the back squat, start interpretation from the first number:

  • Lower over three seconds.
  • Hold the bottom position for three seconds.
  • Ascend as fast as possible.
  • Pause for one second before initiating the next rep.

Pull-Up (Initiated by ascending) @33X1:

For exercises that begin with an ascent, such as pull-ups, the interpretation begins from the third number:

  • Ascend as quickly as possible.
  • Pause for one second at the top before initiating the descent.
  • Lower over three seconds.
  • Pause for three seconds at the bottom before initiating the next rep.

This interpretation shift ensures that we maintain the sequence’s integrity and appropriately apply the principles of tempo training to all types of exercises.

Remember, the key is to always align the eccentric phase with the first number and the concentric phase with the third number, regardless of the movement’s initiation phase.

This consistent application can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of your clients’ training, enhancing control, muscle time under tension, and ultimately, strength gain.

When managing heavy loads, it’s all too common to speed up the count, especially when the weight feels overwhelming, and there’s an instinctive desire to complete the lift as quickly as possible.

We see this frequently in practice, and while it’s entirely understandable, it can compromise the integrity and effectiveness of tempo training.

To promote consistency and proper execution, we encourage all our clients to count using the “one thousand” method:

1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand, and so forth.

This counting strategy helps maintain a steady pace, aligning the rhythm of the count with actual seconds.

It’s a simple yet effective way to adhere to the prescribed tempos and ensure the best practice in your clients’ strength training routines.

Consistency in tempo training not only improves adherence to the workout plan but also maximizes the potential benefits of each lift, ultimately leading to better strength gains.

Why do We Utilize Tempo Training in Our Practice?

Scientific research offers various reasons to apply tempo training, with some studies indicating it’s an excellent strategy for fat loss and strength enhancement, and others highlighting its role in maximizing muscle growth through optimal time under tension.

These are all compelling arguments, however, when working with everyday athletes, we implement tempo training primarily for three reasons:

  1. Improved movement control
  2. Validity and repeatability
  3. Precise prescription of the correct dose response.
Enhancing Movement Control

Our prime directive in strength training, especially with everyday athletes, is to prioritize movement quality. Intensity and max strength efforts follow only after a client consistently demonstrates proficient movement mechanics.

Tempo prescriptions foster body awareness and control, facilitating athletes to fully own their movements while enabling us as trainers to identify weak links.

Consider the overhead kettlebell squat. Some athletes can execute this movement with a 10X0 tempo effortlessly. But, switch to a 4313 tempo, the dynamics drastically change, transforming a 2-second movement into an 11-second one.

Many athletes struggle with this longer duration because they tend to rely on momentum to descend into and ascend from a squat. This approach can lead to dysfunctional loading and, over time, increase the risk of injury.

By controlling the descent with the prescribed tempo, we can assess whether the load is excessive and if the exercise needs to be regressed.

Validity and Repeatability

To ensure quality control in strength programs, we need to regulate as many variables as possible. This includes controlling the tempo and time under tension, which are crucial to validate and replicate workouts and exercises.

Imagine the chaos if an athlete continually modifies their speeds in each workout, for every exercise. The inconsistency would make it nearly impossible to determine what’s working, what needs improvement, and how to keep clients on track.

That’s why tempo control in exercises is invaluable: it allows us to identify trends, make informed decisions, adjust programs, and ensure clients’ progression remains consistent.

Prescribing the Correct Dose Response

At Strength Matters, we believe in balanced fitness: equal prowess in strength and aerobic fitness, with a demonstrated capacity for muscular endurance, strength endurance, and max strength feats.

Often, individuals focus extensively on max strength work, neglecting muscular endurance. We prescribe tempo with the individual’s specific dose response in mind.

For example, those who need more max strength work will engage in exercises with lower time under tension, while those requiring more muscular endurance will tackle higher time under tension exercises.

This personalized approach helps ensure each client receives the most beneficial workout routine to propel them toward their goals.

Incorporating Tempo and Time Under Tension for Strength Training

Time under tension (TUT) refers to the total duration that a muscle or body is under strain during a working set. Let’s revisit the back squat as an illustrative example:

Back Squat. 3 Sets. 6 Reps. @3313 Tempo.

In this scenario, each repetition takes 10 seconds to complete. With 6 repetitions per set, the total TUT equates to 60 seconds (6 reps x 10 seconds per rep).

However, if you modify the tempo to a 30X0, each repetition reduces to roughly 4 seconds, resulting in a TUT of 24 seconds for 6 reps (6 reps x 4 seconds per rep).

Can you see how such changes can influence the weight and load prescribed, thereby altering the response to the same exercise? This demonstrates the importance of understanding and applying tempo training in your routine.

The question is: How much TUT is necessary, and how should it be tailored to individual fitness levels? While this can vary widely, we generally follow these guidelines:

  • Beginners: 30 – 90 seconds TUT per set
  • Intermediate: 30 – 60 seconds TUT per set
  • Advanced: 10 – 30 seconds TUT per set

Beginners need to build muscular endurance, laying a foundation for strength endurance and, eventually, max strength work. Their higher TUT is reflective of the lighter weights they can handle and the emphasis on muscular endurance.

An example workout might be:

Goblet Squat. 2 Sets. 12 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds per rep)

This results in a total of 72 seconds TUT (12 reps x 6 seconds per rep).

Intermediates, having developed basic muscular endurance, are now focused on enhancing strength endurance alongside maintaining muscular endurance.

An example for this group could be:

Back Squat. 3 Sets. 8 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds per rep)

This yields a total of 48 seconds TUT (8 reps x 6 seconds per rep).

For advanced athletes, who exhibit excellent muscular and strength endurance and aim to increase max strength, a workout might look like:

Back Squat. 5 Sets. 3 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds per rep)

This gives a total of 18 seconds TUT (3 reps x 6 seconds per rep).

Bear in mind, these are rough guides and it’s not uncommon for advanced clients to experience more TUT to enhance work capacity.

However, these guidelines provide a useful framework for trainers to accommodate clients of varying abilities.

The crucial aspect is the appropriate assessment to understand a client’s capacity accurately because, without assessing, we’re merely guessing.

tempo training for strength: Bench press

Final Thoughts

Incorporating tempo training into your fitness program, or even simply contemplating its role, can dramatically shape the outcomes of your workouts.

It’s astounding to consider how such a critical factor was overlooked in the realm of movement training.

Tempo training not only allows us, as coaches, to prescribe workouts with precision, but it also manages multiple variables, ensuring repeatability and validity in training.

It’s an exceptional tool for planning and enhancing work capacity.

I encourage you to start by experimenting with tempo in your personal workouts and observe the tangible differences it can make in each exercise. You might find the results surprising.

Once you’ve grasped the concept and have seen the impact firsthand, assess where you stand on the strength-endurance spectrum and start weaving tempo training into your long-term fitness strategy.

By this point, I trust the 31X1 tempo approach now makes absolute sense to you. Remember, achieving fitness goals is a journey, and understanding the nuances, like tempo training, can make the difference between good and great results.

Enjoy the process and keep moving forward.


Understanding Tempo Training for Strength: What is it?

Tempo training refers to the speed at which an exercise is performed. It’s a powerful tool in fitness programming that can help improve the quality of movements, provide repeatability in workouts, and prescribe the correct dose response for muscle growth and strength.

Deciphering Tempo Training Codes for Strength: What Does 31X1 Mean?

In tempo training, 31X1 refers to the time taken in seconds for each phase of an exercise. The first digit (3) indicates the time in the eccentric phase, the second digit (1) represents the pause after the eccentric phase, ‘X’ signifies an explosive action during the concentric phase, and the final digit (1) refers to the pause before the next repetition.

Unveiling the Importance of Tempo Training for Strength: Why is it Vital?

Tempo training is crucial for improving the quality of movements and ensuring control over the exercise. It helps in identifying weak links in movements, providing consistency, and creating repeatability and validity in workouts. It also assists in determining the correct dose response for individual fitness goals.

Time Under Tension (TUT): Its Significance in Tempo Training for Strength

Time under tension (TUT) refers to the total amount of time a muscle or the body is under stress during a workout set. It plays a critical role in determining the effectiveness of a workout as it can manipulate muscle growth and strength development.


2 responses to “Tempo Training for Strength: The Ultimate Guide to 31X1 for Trainers”
  1. JennaRose Mapstone avatar
    JennaRose Mapstone

    Love your work. Love learning from you. Great article about TUT. I am a new trainer myself and a sponge for knowledge. I have transformed my own body and life and now try and show others how to “fall in love” with their journey to health.

    If you ever need help or other trainers to work with people on line or anything let me know and any work you do is so appreciated !

    Thanks again!

    1. James Breese avatar
      James Breese

      Thanks for your lovely comment and absolutely! Will do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.