Ah, the infamous tempo we see all too often in many lifts such as back squats, presses, and pull-ups. If you are already a Central Athlete Client and just starting, you will notice tempos show up almost daily in your individualized training plan. What is the importance, and why bother including this well known 4-digit number into a program?
Besides the fact that slowing down any eccentric portion of a movement (the lengthening of a specific muscle or muscle group) causes magnificent strength gains, there are other if not more important reasons why tempos should be used in specific fitness programs. Before we dig deeper into the importance of a tempo, let's review how to read this 4-digit number.
Tempos are always changing, but the order of the letters will always have the same meaning.
Let's use a tempo of 3010 for example.
The first number, 3 in this case, is always used for the eccentric part of the movement, or in most cases the lowering of the movement.
For example in the shoulder press, the number 3 tells us that once the bar has been pressed overhead I must take 3 seconds to lower the bar back to the starting front rack position. In the squat, this would tell us that I need to slowly lower into the bottom of the squat for 3 full seconds.
The second number then tells us how long we will pause before beginning the concentric (shortening on a specific muscle or muscle group) part of the movement. If the number is 0, like in the above 3010 tempo, you will not pause in this position, but go immediately into the next part of the lift.
For example, in the shoulder press, this would be the time in the front rack position, and for the squat, this number would represent how long you will be holding the bottom of the squat.
The third number represents the time it will take you to complete the concentric part of the movement (the shortening of a specific muscle or muscle group). In most cases this is the upward movement, like standing up from the squat, pulling your body over the chin-up bar, and pressing the bar overhead. When you see the letter X in place of the third number, this means the concentric part of the movement is meant to be explosive.
Remember that it is the brain’s intent, not the actual bar speed that will determine the effect of being “explosive”.
Lastly, the fourth number explains how long you will pause at the top position. For example, how long will you be holding the barbell overhead in a locked out position for the press, or how long you will be standing at the top of your squat before you begin the next rep. Now take the number 4210. Four seconds down, 2 seconds at the bottom, 1 second to drive up, and a 0 second pause at the top. Just think EPCP (eccentric, pause, concentric, pause) Easy enough, right? Just remember some movements such as the press and deadlift will start with the concentric part of the movement which will represent the 3rd number of the tempo format, rather than a squat where you will start with the eccentric portion or the first number in the tempo. Practicing with tempos will only make reading and understanding this number more natural.
Now, why is this number so important to incorporate in your training program?
The first reason is that it provides control. As a fitness program that values scientific measures to produce specific responses and is constantly testing and retesting, we need to make sure every rep of each set is constantly the same in order to have a valid, measurable and repeatable test. This will create validity in your training and testing. That way, when a personal record is set we know it is because the athlete has truly improved and not because he/she may have held the “resting” position for 5 seconds between reps, compared to the last test when he/she only rested for two seconds in the resting position. Control is necessary in order to truly test an athlete's physical capabilities.
The tempo is also what is used to create specific dose responses based on the intention of the workout at hand. Take for example the tempo of 4010. A single rep constitutes five seconds of time under tension (4+1), but depending on the reps, the dose response can be completely different. If I take 10 reps at 4010, my time under tension is 50 seconds (5x10) whereas if I am only completing three reps using this exact tempo, my time under tension is now only 15 seconds (5x3). Both important, but have completely different dose responses.
The third important characteristic of using tempo in your training program is to pick on certain areas of weaknesses within specific movements. If we have an athlete working on increasing their snatch weight but who is still uncomfortable in the bottom of an overhead squat, we may apply a 3311 tempo which forces the client to lower his/her weight and sit comfortably (or maybe uncomfortably at first) in the bottom of the overhead squat for an exact 3 seconds. The same thing applies for creating strength and control for driving out of the bottom of a front squat. In this case, we may use a 3210 tempo where the athlete is forced to pause at the bottom of the front squat for 2 seconds and then using pure strength to drive back up to the standing position. Remember it is very important to actively hold yourself in the bottom position rather than passively. This will recruit more muscle fibers, which will, in turn, do greater muscle damage, causing increased strength development. These are great tools used for a variety of purposes.
Lastly, tempo can also be used for safety in order to ensure athletes are getting into appropriate, safe, and efficient positions. Safety measures are important for beginner athletes who are still getting comfortable moving their bodies in various ways and understanding where they should be in different parts of the movement. We have had experience with athletes dropping into the bottom of the squat too quickly because of a lack of control and muscular tension. This would be the perfect scenario to add a specific tempo to make sure the athlete stays tight throughout the entire movement while hitting all points of performance. On the same note as safety, tempos naturally deload the amount of weight most clients will be able to handle, placing less stress on the muscular/skeletal system. This has applications for rehabilitating injuries as well as improving the function of joint stabilizers. If we plummet to the bottom of a squat and drive back up, there is a high amount of involvement from the prime movers, with minimal assistance from the stabilizers of the movement. Yet when we add a tempo, it forces the stabilizers to work in conjunction with the prime movers. Many athletes adhere to training programs that target these prime movers, and we see massive strength gains. Yet are we functionally strong when our stabilizers have not developed in tangent with the prime movers?
Central Athlete coaches use tempos for all of the reasons above and more. So it is not only important as a coach to understand how to use this four number sequence but as a client, it is crucial in understanding why they are being used and how to use them correctly. Mixing up the numbers in a provided tempo will completely change the intent of a given movement, so be sure to ask your coach if you have any questions regarding specific tempos.