When it comes to setting personal records in the weight room, it’s natural to focus on sets, reps, and weight. But most athletes give little thought to tempo—the cadence at which a movement pattern is performed.
Enter tempo training, which was popularized years ago by strength coach Ian King but has resurged. And no wonder: Changing up tempo can produce dramatic results, including increased strength, power, and size. It can also help you bust through plateaus by mixing up stale routines that no longer generate results. “By varying the speed, you trigger a response that creates muscle growth,” says Ken Croner, owner of Indiana’s Munster Sports Performance.
What’s more, being aware of your tempo ensures a more mindful workout, an antidote to all the digital distractions that’s made it difficult for athletes—like everyone else—to concentrate on the rep at hand. “Focusing on your lifting tempo forces you to think about what you’re doing,” says Croner.
Muscular and mindful? Can’t beat that.
Slow down to build strength
Athletes typically lift at a steady pace, powering through the eccentric (lowering), isometric (holding), and concentric (raising) portions of a lift. But greater gains require a change of pace.
A slower tempo increases a muscle’s time under tension (TUT) for each rep. The greater the TUT (on the lowering or holding portion), the greater the stress on the muscles; that leads to optimum hypertrophy, or muscle building. As a bonus, this speed encourages proper form.
A pushup is more effective if you spend three to four seconds lowering yourself and one to two seconds holding just above the floor before powering back up. There’s additional TUT, and the slower movement recruits more shoulder stabilizer muscles and better engages the core.
A squat becomes extra challenging if your eccentric phase takes 10 seconds, which adds 100 seconds to a 10-rep set and raises the TUT tenfold. Plus, squatting—more than any other move—is about execution, and a slower tempo forces you to squat properly.
Tempo training even applies to thrusters, the popular CrossFit move: Slow down in the squat portion before exploding into a shoulder press. Beyond the greater TUT, this encourages proper form. A criticism of CrossFit is that it emphasizes speed at the expense of form, and some athletes, especially newbies, aren’t ready for ballistic movements.
A slower tempo yields a correctly performed lift. Anthony Hobgood of Exos in Gulf Breeze, FL, recommends slow-tempo training with pullups. This increases TUT and stops the natural tendency of using a body’s momentum to get through a set, boosting the number of pullups an athlete can do.
Speed up to increase explosiveness
On the other hand, working at a faster tempo with less weight is better when training for power. A quicker pace increases the body’s ability to handle rapid stretch loads; the faster movement also lengthens your fascia’s elastic properties, causing muscles to contract more forcefully.
Focus on moderate resistance—60% of a one-rep max—and maintain a high effort while moving quickly. The end of a set shouldn’t feel harder than the beginning.
Have a 300-pound bench max? Load just 180 pounds and blast through all three phases. Or do a squat jump using just your body weight. For both workouts, you’re combining speed and strength.
For a new PR, mix up the tempo
Alternating between various tempos will not only help you break through plateaus, it’ll lead to a more focused workout and a more efficient gym session overall. “Tempo is so valuable because it serves so many goals,” Hobgood says. “You know the moves; this just changes things up to improve results.”
Slower-tempo sample workout
*These can be done on their own or consecutively*
>10 pushups: 4 seconds down, 2 seconds hold, 1 second up
>10 squats: 6 seconds down, 1 second hold, 1 second up
>5–10 pullups (depending on ability): Starting from the bar, 2 seconds down, 2 seconds (hold at bottom), 2 seconds (hold at top)
Faster-tempo sample workout
Do these as fast as possible:
>10 bench presses using 40% of 1RM
>10 squat jumps using body weight
>10 medicine ball rotational throws using modest weight