In sport, as in life, it’s important to be an efficient mover. Whether you’re an athlete performing in weightlifting, crossfit, or rugby, being an efficient mover is key to longevity in your sport and in every day life. Today we’re going to discuss a tool that can be utilized to control/increase your efficiency in movements and translate to an increase in performance in the gym, on the field, and in the rest of your life.
Tempo, also known as time under tension, is the rate at which an exercise is performed. Tempo is a variable that coaches can manipulate to target specific adaptations within your training program. Altering the time that a group of muscles is placed under tension for a workout or several consecutive workouts can drastically alter the specific adaptations of that program.
Before we dive any further into this topic let’s look at a couple of examples of tempo in training:
Tempo allows us to control the rate at which we perform each phase of a muscle contraction. Without doing too much of a deep dive into some physiology here we’re going to quickly break down each phase of movement from example A and the muscle contraction associated with it for you.
I. An eccentric muscle contraction is one in which the muscle elongates (lengthens) due to the opposing forces acting on the muscle being greater than the force that the muscle is generating. In this example that we’re using the eccentric phase would be the lowering phase of the bench press.
II. An isometric contraction is a form of contraction where the joint angle and muscle length do not change during the contraction. With our bench press, the isometric phase occurs at two points a) at the chest and b) when the arms are fully extended.
III. A concentric muscle contraction is a form of contraction where the muscle shortens due to it’s ability to generate more force than the external load or forces that it is acting against. In this example the concentric contraction occurs during the pressing/upward phase of the bar.
With that out of the way we can take a look at the reasons for why tempo can be incorporated into your own training program.
Tempo can be regulated for multiple reasons- to focus on movement control, efficiency, and mechanics; to increase the metabolic demands of the movement; to provide a form of progressive overload; and to influence a variety of physiological responses such as force development, muscle fiber recruitment, and increasing hypertrophy (muscle size) while under load.
I) One of the reasons why we control tempo in training is that it helps the athlete to better learn the movement and create a level of self awareness around how their body is moving throughout the range of movement. Regardless of the stage of skill acquisition that a learner is at; cognitive, associative, or autonomous, slowing things down by manipulating the eccentric phase and isometric phase of a lift can provide the athlete with more of an opportunity to focus on ensuring that they are maintaining proper position throughout the movement.
By slowing down the eccentric phase of the movement i.e. the lowering phase of the bench press, we can increase the potential for an athlete to feel how their body is moving and interacting with the external load that is acting upon them. By pausing at the bottom or top of a lift we can increase the awareness around what it feels like to be at the end range of motion in that movement pattern.
This awareness helps to enhance the learning process associated with acquiring this skill, all while impacting a variety of other adaptations. As the individual moves through the stages of skill acquisition; cognitive, associative, and autonomous, their level of efficiency and error detection/correction increases. Tempo allows us to influence the rate at which we acquire skills and it allows for experienced athletes to have a new stimulus imposed on them while potentially revisiting the basics of that movement pattern.
II) After much practice and experience, a skill becomes habitual or automatic. This is the autonomous stage. In this stage, improvements come slowly, but there is good consistency of performance. Most of the skill is performed without thinking because the athlete requires less attention to basics. Tempo can be used in this instance to influence the metabolic demands of the movement i.e. increasing time under tension will influence/increase the amount of work being performed.
III) When we look at using tempo as a form of progressive overload we can manipulate it in a variety of ways; to increase the load lifted by decreasing the time under tension, or to increase the time under tension while maintaining or potentially decreasing the load.
IV) Tempo can influence a variety of physiological responses to training;
“When lifting light or moderate loads while using a maximal bar speed, fatigue has been shown to decrease the bar speed. This reduction in speed increases the force that each working muscle fiber can produce. As the speed continues to decrease and failure begins to approach, the fiber shortening speed becomes slow enough to produce a high level of mechanical loading in the working muscle fibers, which are those associated with the high-threshold motor units. Thus causing the stimulation of hypertrophy”(1).
With all this in mind it’s also important to mention that tempo is a tool, as with all tools, there is a time and a place for them to be used. So let’s take a look at when we shouldn’t implement tempo into our training programs.
We wouldn’t recommend incorporating tempo when close to or during competition. During this phase we may need to focus on having the athlete be able to express the demands of their respective sport i.e. maximal strength, power, or speed.
If we look at the sport of Olympic Weightlifting for instance, we wouldn’t want our athletes attempting a 1 rep max snatch while performing it as slowly as possible. Due to the nature of the sport this would most likely result in a missed lift, a potential injury, or an athlete not being able to truly express the adaptations that they had been building leading up to competition.
Tempo, like many other things, is a tool. It’s implementation can have a profound effect on your movement efficiency and a variety of other adaptations in your training program.
As with all of our programs at Ascent Strength, this sort of tool gets implemented based on the needs of each individual that we work with. Contact us to find out more about how we can use this tool as well as a variety of other tools to help you reach your goals.
Here’s an example of how you can implement some tempo into your programming to spice things up a bit:
A) Back Squat- 4×5 @ 75% @2x1x1x1
B) Barbell Good Morning (Sumo Stance)- 4*6 @ 75% @2x1x1x1
Part D) Metcon
Perform one round of:
200m run (or row)
15 Wall balls
10 Chest to bar pull-ups
Every 3 minutes for 5 rounds.
A) I. Close Bench Press- 4×6 @ 70% @ 3x1x1x1
II. Bent Over Dumbbell Row (Double Dumbells)- 4×6 @ 70% @ 1x3x1x1
500m row then:
Dumbbell Snatch- @ 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies
Burpee Over Dumbbell
A) Conventional Deadlift- 4 sets of 3 @ 75% @ 1x1x2x1
B) Double Dumbbell Box Step-Up- 4×6/leg (all heavy) @ 1x1x2x1
C) 10 min amrap
i) Farmers Carry (With Dumbbells)- 100m (Heavy)
ii) Double Dumbbell Deadlift: 8 Reps
iii) Double Dumbbell Push Press: 6 Reps
- Beardsley, C. (2018) What is time under tension?. Retrieved from (https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/what-is-time-under-tension-d96afdea16e6)