The Tempo for Gains
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.”
Every exercise includes three distinct phases of movement: the eccentric phase (lengthening of the muscle), isometric phase (pause at the bottom of the movement), and concentric phase (shortening of the muscle). The purpose of tempo is to ensure all these things don’t happen at once.
I’m sure you’ve been at the gym and seen people racing through exercises, pressing weights like they are fist-pumping at a rock concert and then dropping them like hot potatoes. Exercises can be performed at many different tempos, and there is a time and a place for going as fast as you can. Lifting heavy things isn’t that time.
Weightlifting should be done at submaximal speed, and for good reason: when attempting to move at full speed, it is nearly impossible to maintain perfect form.
Now, I can already hear the pitter-patter of keyboards from CrossFit junkies telling me that I’m crazy-pants, but before you put down the PVC pipe and start typing, hear me out.
I am all for lifting things faster on some days and slower on others. In fact, I think it is a crucial part of programming for advanced lifters. Tempo is one of only three truly effective ways to vary a workout, the other two being weight and reps. However, the only exercise that can or should be done at 100 percent maximum speed is wind sprints.
Whenever you attempt to lift at full speed, the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases get blurred into one. Not all exercises have an isometric phase, and that is cool because it makes its easier to go faster! But show me someone doing perfect heavy dead lift after perfect heavy dead lift at full speed without briefly resetting and we will be looking at the next powerlifting supreme leader (or whatever they call the champion).
Since you and I are not professional lifters gunning for the role of supreme leader, I recommend starting with a few different tempos.*
(Note: Tempos are written with the numbers/seconds corresponding with the eccentric- isometric-concentric phases.)
The classic beginner: 4-1-1
This is my favorite tempo, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Start with this one. Lowering slowly helps you work on your mechanics, pausing allows you to demonstrate control, and who doesn’t want to come up fast? This is the tempo I use when I teach a client a new lift.
I got this lift down: 3-0-1
This tempo is pretty similar to the classic, with the main difference being the lack of a pause. This is by far the most common tempo you’ll see in the gym. I prefer to have people go at this pace only once they understand the movement of a specific exercise. So often, you see people lazily doing reps when they first start out training, and this is not a tempo you should do lazily!
I’m stuck in a rut: 3-2-1
Having trouble increasing weight on a certain lift? Try this tempo. Lowering slowly and pausing for two seconds is hard, so make sure to use less resistance than normal. The longer pause is awesome for breaking plateaus because it removes the benefit you get from the elasticity of your muscles. Have you ever lowered down for a squat and felt like you just bounced back up? That feeling is the natural tendency and stretch reflexes of your muscles. When you have a second, pause at the bottom; you will get no love from the stretch reflex.
Can’t stop, won’t stop, that is why I’m huge: 2-0-2
Time under tension (TUT) is one of those fitness buzz phrases. Without getting into the sciency stuff, the idea centers around continual work with no rest at the top or bottom of the movement. The key here is fluid movement; you just keep going, never letting your muscles get a second of relief until the set it over. For gains, program each set to last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds. Start with less time and lighter weights, and work your way up. This as an advanced practice—don’t be a hero.
These tempos can be applied to any exercise! Give them a try with all your favorite lifts (and your not-so-favorite ones, too).
Got fitness questions? I got answers. Send me an email at Jd@jakedermer.com
*Note that a lot of weightlifting programs will have four numbers. In these cases, the fourth number will represent the amount of time to spend in the lockout or completed position. This was intentionally left out in this article because it is rare in beginner weightlifting programs; the time you should spend in the lockout position is generally as long as necessary to safely prepare to perform your next rep.