How and why to use tempo during a workout

Jake Blog, Training Tips

“What does @3131 tempo mean?”

So you finally know the difference between a muscle clean, a hang power clean and a clean, and you think you know how to add the plates up. But now you’re expected to know what a back squat @3131 tempo means?

“I didn’t come here to train my brain dude, the whole reason I’m here is so you’ll just tell me what to do”

Relax! The key to remembering new information is understanding the concept, before I explain what @3131 or @40X0 means, let’s talk about WHY TEMPO IS ESSENTIAL for your fitness development.

It doesn’t matter what the movement is, there are many reasons to slow things down with tempo work in your training program. Five of these reasons are:

1. SAFETY

Because tempo work forces you to slow things down, it allows you to focus on and develop perfect mechanics. You have to learn to walk before you run. Tempo is an excellent way to make sure movements are perfect before adding speed to the equation. In the squat for example, when you bounce into the bottom position, your knee cap gaps a little bit, which can strain the joint. If you have knee pain from squatting, doing less “bouncy” squats and controlling your tempo would be a great place to start to relieve pain.

2. Mind-muscle connection
Slowing a movement down allows you to really feel each part of the movement, ultimately helping you move better and more consistently. Knowing the feeling of which muscles should be firing helps us activate them better in the future.

3. Improve (Muscle) Strength

Tempo work means you’ll be spending more time under tension, which is a key component in building strength. On a similar note, tempo work is a great way to address and fix any positional weaknesses in any given movement (we use it in Olympic lifts as well).

4. Improve (Connective Tissue) Strength

Spending more time under tension in lifts is also an excellent way to increase the strength of the tendons and ligaments. Done properly it’s literally how you can bulletproof your body.

5. Variety

Tempo work adds variety to your training by giving your body a new stimulus another key to helping you continuously make improvements.

Let’s figure out how to read a prescribed tempo:

First, you need to understand the difference between the concentric and eccentric portions of a movement:

The eccentric portion of the movement is the “negative” part of any movement. During this portion of the movement, the muscles lengthen while producing force. During a squat, it’s when you lower into the squat, and during a push-up it’s where you lower your body to the ground. This is also the part of the movement that makes us the most sore the day after.

The concentric portion of the movement is when the muscle contracts and shortens. In layman’s terms, it’s essentially the “working part” of the movement. During a squat, it’s where you’re working to get out of the hole and stand back up, and during a push-up it’s when you’re pushing yourself off the ground.

The two other pieces of the puzzle to understand tempo are the top and the bottom positions. Real simple, the bottom of a squat is the bottom (as low as you can get comfort-ably with a flat back), and the top position is when you’re fully standing up. The bottom of a pull-up is where you’re at a deadhang position with straight arms, and the top is when you have your chin over the bar.

Still with me?

Reading Tempo:

The first number of the tempo prescription is always the eccentric portion of the movement (lowering the weight). The second number is the bottom position, the third number is the concentric portion of the movement (raising the weight), and the fourth is the top position.

So for a Backsquat @3113 means: 3 seconds down 1 second hold, 1 second up, 3 second pause at the top before the next rep.

Now here’s where it get’s a tiny bit more confusing, not all movements start with lowering the weight. In fact, many movements start off the floor.

So for a Deadlift @3113 means: One second raising the weight, 3 seconds at the top locked out, 3 seconds down, and one second on the floor. The same tempo starts from the first 3 in the squat (3)113, and from the second one in the deadlift 31(1)3.

If you see an X, like 31X3, that means explode up as fast as possible. If you see an A, like 31A3, that means assisted. In a handstand push-up for example that would mean you just stand up and kick into the next rep, instead of actually pressing up.

For a quick idea about how to incorporate tempo into your program, try adding higher time under tension in the eccentric, bottom and top positions of your lifts, and decreasing the time under tension as you progress through your training cycle. So week one could be @33X2, and week 3 could be @21X2. If you are less than 6 months into weight training consider adding tempo to the concentric portion as well.

The more you know!

Still confused? Talk to your coach for an in-person explanation. If your coach doesn’t know, get a better coach! Sorry, not sorry 🙂