In today’s article, I’m going to explain what tempo training for strength is, why it’s important, and how you can implement it in your own training today. But more importantly, I’m going to explain how to actually read it correctly when written its down.
It’s funny how things come around in a full circle. Sometimes the more you learn in fitness, the more you forget, but over time you start to go over your old notes and are reminded of certain things that you used to do, that used to work extremely well.
And it just dawns on you, why on earth did I stop doing that?
Well, tempo training has been one of those moments for me. It suddenly dawned on me as I was listening to an interview with James Fitzgerald who was talking about its importance for beginners and advanced alike.
It was like a big slap in the face. A true Homer Simpson “DOH” moment.
What is tempo training for strength?
I was first introduced to tempo training by the great minds of Ian King and the late Charles Poliquin. Both are huge proponents of tempo training as a viable option for achieving greater strength, size, and overall athletic performance.
Tempo training is essentially the concept of time under tension, or as we prefer to call it, time under load. Time under tension refers to how long you, or a specific muscle, are under strain during a working set.
Not all strength movements can be controlled by tempo, particularly movements with dynamic contractions such as absolute speed activities or plyometrics. However, many movements can be controlled by tempo. These movements have an eccentric component (lengthening of the movement) that works in conjunction with a concentric component (shortening of the muscle).
For the sake of simplicity, think of a good old-fashioned back squat as a good working example. As we squat down, that’s the eccentric phase. As we stand back up, that’s the concentric phase.
There are four phases to tempo training. We have to include the phases at the top and bottom of these movements. Both are essentially isometric holds where you pause for a set period of time, before completing the movement.Tempo training is essentially the concept of time under tensionClick To Tweet
What Is 31X1?
When writing training programs for our clients, we like to write them using this formula:
Exercise + Sets + Reps @ Tempo
Using our back squat as an example it would look like this:
Back Squat. 3 Sets. 8 Reps @31X1 Tempo.
There are four stages to tempo training (Eccentric, Isometric, Concentric, Isometric), and these numbers represent each of the four stages and the time required to complete the movement.
Here’s how to interpret these numbers:
The First Number
The first number always refers to the time needed in the lowering (eccentric) phase of the lift, even if the movement begins with the ascending/concentric phase such as a pull-up.
Using our back-squat example, the 3 will represent the amount of time (in seconds) that it should take you to descend to the bottom of the squat.
The Second Number
The second number refers to the amount of time spent in the bottom position of the lift (isometric hold) – the point in which the lift transitions from lowering to ascending.
In our back-squat example, the prescribed “1” means that the client should reach the bottom position and immediately begin their ascent. There is no pause.
If the prescription was 32X0, the client would be expected to pause for 2 seconds at the bottom position.
The Third Number
The third number refers to the ascending (concentric) phase of the lift – the amount of time it takes you to get to the top of the lift.
Yes, X is not a number, but it’s one of the most prescribed tempos on the internet. We decided to start here to help you. The X signifies that the client should EXPLODE the weight up as quickly as possible. In many cases, this will not be very fast, but it is the intent that counts.
X, or exploding up is only prescribed for the more intermediate and advanced client and only ever done on the concentric phase of the lift.
For beginners, we like to control the speed at which they ascend. Their tempos will often look like 3010 or 3020, with 1 and 2 signifying it takes 1 or 2 seconds to ascend the lift.
In some cases, you may see the following tempo prescribed – 40A1. “A” signifies assistance. Some exercises will require some form of assistance in the concentric phase at some point. It simply means you need some help to get back up.
Great examples of this would be negative pull-ups, or band assisted pull-ups, even kipping pull-ups and handstand push-ups. The “A” just signifies and makes you more mindful of this movement.
The Fourth Number
The fourth number refers to how long you should pause at the top of the lift.
In our back-squat example, it’s a 31X0 tempo. This means there is a zero second pause before initiating the next movement.
But in other examples, say a pull-up prescription of 30X3, the client would be expected to hold his or her chin over the bar for three seconds before beginning to come down at a rate of 3 seconds, pausing for 1 second at the bottom, before exploding up.
Working Examples and an Important Reminder
The first number is always the eccentric phase (lowering). The third number is always the concentric phase (ascending).
Many people get confused when they apply this method to exercises that begin with a concentric (ascending) phase. For these types of exercises (such as pull-ups), you have to start reading it from the third number.
Here are two examples with both types broken down for you:
Back Squat (Initiated by lowering) @ 33X1
Start reading from the first number.
Three seconds to lower. Three seconds pause at the bottom. Explode up as fast as possible. One second pause before initiating the next rep.
Pull-Up (Initiated by ascending) @33X1
Start reading from the third number.
Explode up as fast as possible. One second pause before initiating the descent. Three seconds to lower. Three seconds pause at the bottom before initiating the next rep.
Counting Under Load
When working under heavy load, it’s very easy to count “quicker” than what you would do normally. I see it time and time again, and it’s completely understandable because it’s all easy until the weight gets heavy and all you want to do is lift that thing up as quickly as possible.
So as a best practice and to ensure that we’re getting consistency with our counting, we ask everyone to use “one thousand.”
As in: 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand, etc.
It’s a great way to stick to consistency and have best practice.
Why Do We Apply Tempo Training?
There are a number of scientific reasons why you should apply tempo training. Some studies suggest it’s a great way to lose fat and get stronger. Others suggest it maximizes muscle growth when using time under tension optimally.
They’re all valid reasons; however, there are three main reasons why we like to use tempo training when working with everyday athletes:
- Movement control
- Validity and repeatability
- Prescribing the correct dose response.
Quality of movement should be your first priority when it comes to strength training and everyday athletes. Intensity and max strength work come only after you can consistently demonstrate the proper mechanics of a movement.
Tempo prescriptions develop awareness and body control to help people own their movements and help us as coaches find weak links.
An overhead kettlebell squat is a great example of this. Some people can perform this move easily at a tempo of 10X0, but the moment we shift this to a 4313 tempo, it changes the whole dynamic and people are unable to complete it. This has gone from a 2-second movement to an 11-second movement.
Why? Because a lot of people think nothing of plunging into the bottom of a squat and hope that their momentum will help propel them back to the top.
The problem is they can be adding load onto dysfunction, and in the long run, we know this isn’t the best way to get stronger. And it can potentially lead to a higher risk of injury.
If you are unable to control the descent and perform the movement at the prescribed tempo, we know the load is too great and we need to regress.Quality of movement should be your first priority when it comes to strength training and everyday athletesClick To Tweet
Validity and Repeatability
When writing strength programs, it’s important that we control as many aspects as possible to ensure quality control and make sure that we’re prescribing correct workout and routine for the individual involved.
Controlling tempo and time under tension is invaluable for ensuring the validity and repeatability in workouts and exercises.
Imagine if someone is constantly controlling their own speeds each and every workout, on each and every exercise? How chaotic would that be as a coach? Every tempo elicits a completely different dose response. How would we know what’s working? How would we know what to improve on?
That’s why controlling the tempo in the exercises that we can control is invaluable. It allows us to see trends, make informed decisions and adjustments to programs, and make sure clients stay on track.
This validity of workout results allows for clear insight into the individual’s rate of progression.
Prescribing the Correct Dose Response
We believe in balanced fitness here at Strength Matters. That includes being equally strong as you are aerobically fit. It means being able to demonstrate muscular endurance, strength endurance, AND max strength feats.
A number of people will often spend a lot of time doing max strength work, but completely forget about muscular endurance.
When we prescribe tempo, we always do it with the correct dose response in mind for the individual involved.
Individuals who need to do more max strength work will work with lower time under tension. People who need more muscular endurance will do higher time under tension. It varies from person to person.
But the key thing here is that it makes us more aware of the exercises we’re prescribing as a whole. It also makes sure we’re eliciting the correct dose response for all individuals to get them closer to their goals.We believe in balanced fitness here at Strength Matters.Click To Tweet
Applying Tempo and Time Under Tension
When we talk about time under tension (TUT), we’re talking about the total amount of time the muscle, or the body, is under tension in a working set.
Let’s take the back squat again in a very specific example:
Back Squat. 3 Sets. 6 Reps. @3313 Tempo.
During this example, one rep will take 10 seconds to complete. Since we’re doing 6 reps, the total time under tension will be 60 seconds (6 x 10).
Now if you were to change the tempo to a 30X0 Tempo, the total time for one rep would be around 4 seconds. Multiply by 6, and we have a TUT of 24 seconds.
Can you see how this would make a difference to the weight and load prescribed? How the response would be completely different. Same exercise. Different response.
It’s why tempo training is such an important aspect to grasp.
But how do you know how much time under tension is needed, and how do you apply it to individuals?
Well, as everything in fitness, it varies.
But as a general guide here’s how we apply time under tension to the people we work with:
Beginners: 30 – 90 seconds TUT per set
Intermediate: 30 – 60 seconds TUT per set
Advanced: 10 – 30 seconds TUT per set
Beginners need muscular endurance work and to create the foundation for strength endurance and eventually max strength work. They have a relatively higher TUT because they can’t lift as heavy weight, and it reflects the muscular endurance work involved.
An example exercise for this would be:
Goblet Squat. 2 Sets. 12 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds)
A total of 72 seconds TUT. (12 reps x 6 seconds)
Intermediates have basic muscular endurance, and we’re now starting to build strength endurance alongside muscular endurance.
An example exercise for this would be:
Back Squat. 3 Sets. 8 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds)
A total of 48 seconds TUT. (8 reps x 6 seconds)
Advanced everyday athletes, who demonstrate great muscular and strength endurance, who are looking to build on max strength capabilities, could have a workout that looked like this:
Back Squat. 5 Sets. 3 Reps. @3210 Tempo (6 seconds)
A total of 18 seconds TUT. (3 reps x 6 seconds)
Remember, this is just a general guide. It doesn’t mean we don’t get advanced clients doing more TUT. Far from it. TUT is a great way to build up work capacity.
But what it does do is provide a framework for us as coaches to work with all clients and all abilities.
How we determine where a client sits, all comes down to the assessments because if we’re not assessing, we’re guessing.
Applying tempo training to your workouts, or even just thinking about it, can have a significant impact on the results you get. I can’t believe it’s something that I forgot about while diving into the movement world.
It’s a great way for us as coaches to prescribe workouts and control as many variables as possible, while creating repeatability and validity. It’s also an excellent way for us to program and develop work capacity.
Start by experimenting with tempo in your own workouts, and see and feel the difference it makes to an individual exercise. You might be surprised.
Then, when you feel comfortable, determine where you sit on the max strength, muscular endurance continuum and start implementing it in your long-term strategy.
Hopefully, 31X1 now makes complete sense.
Every Journey Begins With a Single Step
In every great movie, the hero embarks on a path that promises adventure, challenges, and finally, achievement. Often, the hero finds a guide that takes the hero under their wing and pushes him or her to the limit. Just think, where would Luke be without Yoda? We are the stars of our own movies. And we all need that guide.
When it comes to fitness, a coach can be your guide to movie hero-type success, and your secret weapon. There are so many benefits to having a personal coach. I would go so far as to say that coaching is a prerequisite for achievement. Period.
Applying the Strength Matters System to achieve a pain-free athletic lifestyle won’t be easy but it’s guaranteed to work if you follow it. And we’re here to guide you every step of the way.
Are you ready to take that first step?
Life’s better as an everyday athlete. ~ James Breese