What You’re Missing in Your Strength Program for Real Gains: Tempo

Powerlifter with strong arms lifting weights

The beauty of training is the mix or art and science that creates endless possibilities on the journey to maximize our potential and ability. There is a certain joy and mastery to acquiring the knowledge of training and the scientific background of our human anatomy and potential; then coupled with the true art form of adjusting the variable to achieve the desired adaptations and results. I have always been one to use the metaphor of master trainers with master composers. They know all the notes, information, and history of their craft, but it is the ability to make small adjustments and create just the right set of variables in their artwork to illicit the results they desire.

If training and the ability to adjust the variables in a program for results is an art form, there is one tool that I see often left out and thus many symphonies of training that do not reach the level of mastery desired. That tool, just as in a composer’s symphony, is tempo. While most trainers understand the finer points of sets, reps, exercise order, energy systems and anatomy, very few truly master and implement tempo intro their training programs.

What is Tempo in Training?

Tempo refers to the speed at which we lift. To be more specific, it refers to the duration of the different phases of lifting: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. Nearly all major lifts will have these three components in varying order. For example, in a back squat we have an isometric hold at the top after we step back from the rack, an eccentric drop to parallel, an isometric hold in the parallel position, then a concentric drive back to our standing isometric position. Conversely, in a deadlift, we begin with a concentric pull off the ground, an isometric hold at the top, followed by an eccentric drop.

While this may seem elementary or like Training 101, the trick is not to know the variables or phases of tempo as much as it is to manipulate them to achieve your purpose. For example, to develop muscle mass and hypertrophy the eccentric phase needs to be extended, for improved static stability the isometric phase must be extended, and for improved power the concentric phase must happen as fast as possible.

To show a few basic examples, let’s use a middle school novice power lifter, a collegiate freshman football player, and an Olympic shot put thrower. All three will be performing squats, however their goals are obviously quite varied and their squat tempo would reflect that. A novice 13 year old lifter needs to build up isometric strength just to ensure he can move through a full range of motion with correct form. A collegiate freshman football player most likely needs to get bigger and put on weight to compete with older players, thus he needs hypertrophy and would want to concentrate on the eccentric portion of his squat. Finally, an Olympic shot put thrower needs extreme concentric explosiveness and thus needs to focus on the power or concentric phase of his squat. All of these athletes are performing the same exercise, however if they all just did 3 sets of 8 with disregard for tempo it is very unlikely they would see the results they desire.

How to Adjust Tempo for Various Goals in Training

Now that we’ve demonstrated the importance of tempo in training, we need to cover how to implement it into our programs. With three distinct phases of lifting, each has a particular tempo associated with that goal. While we can obviously make this much more complicated, an overview of some basic applications should spark some ideas for you to improve your training program and see some improved results!

  1. Isometrics – It seems everyone knows what Isometrics are, yet few know how to use them or why. Simply put, an isometric contraction is the definition of stability. Holding a contracted position for an extended period of time not only is very difficult but is also very applicable. In sport, there are countless examples of athletes who need to be able to stick an isometric contraction to perform. Whether it is an Olympic weightlifter stuck in the bottom portion of a power clean, a basketball player who has to stay in defensive position for a 30 second possession, or an MMA fighter hoping to submit an opponent, the ability to hold a contracted position is important. In addition it is arguably one of the best ways to help novice lifters, athletes returning from rehab, elderly clients etc. develop strength in a safer plane by removing the more complex components of movement from a lift.

Implementing Isometrics can be as simple as holding a body weight squat or plank, however my favorite is loaded carries, specifically farmers walks. From an aesthetic standpoint, picking up heavy stuff and moving it is appealing for some reason, however from a training standpoint the ability to hold a heavy load and stabilize is an awesome isometric contraction that can provide benefits for almost any client, specifically in developing postural strength and grip strength, two classically weak points for athletes of all levels that can be inhibitors to other movements or lifts as well.

  1. Eccentric – The eccentric portion of the lift is where we stretch the muscle, improve range of motion and develop improved hypertrophy and overall strength (it is also the best way to get some Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness A.K.A. DOMS the rest of the week). For athletes looking to improve their overall strength, specifically in sports that require the ability to decelerate effectively to make explosive movements safely, developing strong eccentric strength is critical. An example might be a basketball player who needs to land effectively to avoid knee issues or a baseball pitcher who needs proper upper body deceleration to prevent shoulder injuries.

My favorite version of eccentric training is negatives. A negative rep is essentially performing only the eccentric portion of the lift, the best example is stepping or jumping to the top position of a chin up or pull up, then lowering yourself down as slow as possible. Negatives have two awesome applications depending on the population; for novice lifters it is a great tactic to improve strength in core movements like pushups, chin ups, squats etc. Building up eccentric strength improves the foundation of strength for clients to eventually complete full reps.

My personal favorite is heavy negatives for strength. Extreme Caution: Do not do this by yourself, you will need a spotter or three! Heavy negatives means loading up a lift beyond your 1 rep max, then performing just the eccentric portion of the lift and holding it as long as possible, with spotters to help you return the weight. For example, if your 1RM in bench is 205 lbs., you might load up 225 lbs. (with spotters!), then lower the bar as slow as possible for one rep. This is an awesome technique for improving strength, hypertrophy, and breaking PR’s!

  1. Concentric – Concentric is all about power and is linked to Rate of Force Development (ROFD), one of the principle components of power and explosive movement. The most important thing to understand when developing concentric power and ROFD is that it heavily taxes the nervous system and carries a high rate of risk and complexity. Thus, if you training primarily for ROFD or concentric power, you would want to remove or minimize the eccentric and isometric components so as to devote all your energy to ROFD and not fatigue in the other two contractions.

That being said, when training for concentric power we have to engineer lifts and situations that remove or minimize the eccentric and isometric portions. Almost all pulls from the ground, including deadlifts, cleans, snatches etc. are concentric power lifts because they start in the concentric portion of the lift. The greatest upside to bumper plates is the ability to drop the weight and avoid the eccentric portion of putting it back down, thus increasing our ability to improve concentric contraction.

Another often overlooked component of concentric training is sled work. What makes sleds so effective for power and speed training is the lack of eccentric strength needed, because you are only moving the sled forward and not returning it, you are primarily training concentric power, and with a little imagination can train nearly every body part.

As we mentioned previously, the beauty of training and tempo is the ability to evaluate the goals and objectives of the trainee, and then like a master composer arrange the variables in that program to achieve the sweet symphony of training mastery. Add tempo training to your program this month and become the mad scientist, experimenting with different sets, reps, tempo, and exercises and so on to achieve your goals!

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