Tempo is a training variable equal in importance to reps and sets, but commonly neglected. This programming tool allows strength coaches to target specific adaptations in an athletes programme and is a key component of a training plan. Essentially, in resistance training, tempo refers to the speed that an exercise is performed. The tempo that each rep is performed at will dictate the total time under tension (TUT) for any given set, and this component is one of the major keys to achieving the desired training response. Each repetition of a movement will have 4 phases, or positions, and 3 contraction types: eccentric, isometric and concentric. When prescribing tempo we use a four digit method popularised by the late Charles Poliquin.
THE FIRST NUMBER – EcCENTRIC CONTRACTION
An eccentric contraction occurs when your muscles lengthen under load. An example of this is when you lower the resistance (i.e. dumbbell) during a rowing movement. The first digit of our tempo prescription sets out the speed of this lowering motion. Using the example of 4-0-X-1 above, the eccentric phase would be a controlled movement over 4 seconds.
THE SECOND NUMBER -Stretched Position
This phase, or position, usually occurs between the eccentric (lowering) phase and the concentric (lifting) phase of a repetition. The arm is at full length during the 1 arm row [image below] is a good illustration of this position. This phase of the exercise is an isometric contraction, although in this example (4-0-X-1), there is no deliberate pause in this stretched position.
THE THIRD NUMBER – Concentric Contraction
The concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens, such as when you push a bar away from your body, or pull resistance towards your body as occurs during the 1 arm row exercise below. If “X” is used in the formula, it implies an explosive action with full acceleration. It would be harmful or dangerous to use “X” for the eccentric contraction of most exercises as this would mean lowering the load much too fast in lifts such as squats and bench presses. This is why you will only see the “X” used as the third number in our tempo prescriptions.
THE FOURTH NUMBER – Shortened Position
This final phase, or position, occurs at the end of the concentric phase, such as when you lock out a pressing exercise. Another example of this would be in a rowing movement such as the example below, where the elbow is at its most flexed position. With the tempo prescription of 4-0-X-1, there would be a brief 1 second pause in this position, before proceeding to the next repetition.
TEMPO IN PRACTICE
Putting it all together, a 3-2-X-1 tempo prescription for the bench press would look as follows: The athlete would lower the barbell to their chest over three seconds. He/she would then pause for two seconds when the bar made contact with the chest. Right after this, they would press the weight to extended arms forcefully, and finally, rest 1 second when the barbell is at the top of the movement.
The same 3-2-X-1 tempo prescription for a chin up would look as follows: The athlete would lower their body under control over three seconds, before pausing for two seconds when the arms are fully extended. Right after this, he/she would pull themselves up forcefully, and finally, hold 1 second at the top of the movement (chin over bar).