Thinking about tempo during a weight training session is a great way to change how it feels. Typically I’ll prescribe different tempos for one of a few different reasons.
- Reason One: Making light weights feel heavy. Slowing the tempo down on a lift is a very simple way to make an exercise much harder without adding additional reps or adding additional weight. In situations where you have limited equipment, it might be necessary to use a slower tempo to make the weight challenging (this can apply to bodyweight movements too). At a hotel gym that only has 25 pounds? That can be heavy with a 4-2-4-0 tempo (don’t worry I’ll explain those numbers). I also sometimes like to make a light weight heavy as a break for the joints and tendons without letting the muscles get a break.
- Reason Two: Increased time under tension. Time under tension is one of the main drivers of muscle strength and hypertrophy and by slowing the reps down you increase that time under tension. Adding reps is also effective and is another strategy I like to use, but it’s easy to let form breakdown when going for longer sets of an exercise. With a slow tempo, I find (anecdotally) that people can do a better job of maintaining form.
- Reason Three: Exercise variation. Trust me, the most tried and true movements you’ve done in the gym will feel drastically different with a little tempo change.
- Reason Four: Muscle awareness. I hear people talk about “muscle confusion” sometimes. I know what they’re getting at, but there really shouldn’t be any confusion about your muscles. Not sure how to feel your quads in a squat? Not sure how to feel your biceps in a curl? There’s a tempo format that can make you painfully, fully, and completely aware of those muscles working.
- Reason Five: Performance goals. Need to do a lot of muscle damage (this is good…it’s the precursor to growth), slow down the eccentric. Need to be more explosive in sports? Speed up the concentric. Need to increase strength out of the hole? Add an iso hold.
So what do those numbers mean? They’re not especially complicated. The first number is how long the eccentric, or lowering phase is. The second number is the time at the bottom or the fully stretched position. The third number is the concentric or the raising part of the lift. The fourth number is the time at the top or the flexed position.
Let’s look at how that would be in a squat. Barbell Squat at 4021 tempo. That would be unracking the bar and lowering down to the bottom of the squat in four seconds, no pause at the bottom, spending two seconds coming back up, and pausing at the top for one second. Easy. The only confusing portion is an exercise like a deadlift or a chin up that starts with a concentric. No matter what the exercise is the first number is the eccentric or lowering phase, so don’t get it mixed up on those other movements.
Hope this helps you get stronger and stay healthier.