Tempo Play: An Underrated Variable for Size & Strength

Plateau-Busting Tempo Progressions

A rep is not just a rep. You can lower, lift, and pause strategically for a certain amount of time. Here’s how to play with tempo and win.

Some lifting strategies grab all the attention: set/rep schemes, splits, and exercise selection. But tempo, the red-headed stepchild of training, dramatically affects your results, too.

Tempo is the speed at which you raise and lower a weight, along with the pauses you use at the top or bottom of a lift. Here’s how you might see it written: 3-2-1-0.

What Do Those Dumb Numbers Mean?

  • The First Number: This represents the time you spend in seconds on the eccentric or lowering phase. So, in our example above, it would be three seconds. This is the “negative” of the exercise, where your muscle lengthens under tension.

  • The Second Number: The amount of time you spend at the bottom of the lift, indicating the time in seconds of the pause. If that number is zero, then you move to the next phase of the rep without any pause. In the example above, you’d pause for two seconds. The pause is used to focus on control, maintain tension in the muscle, and prevent using momentum.

  • The Third Number: This is the concentric phase where you’re lifting the weight. This number tells you how long it should take to move the weight back to the starting position. In the example of 3-2-1-0, this phase should take one second. This is the “positive” phase, where the muscle shortens and contracts to move the weight.

  • The Fourth Number: The time you spend holding the weight at the top. In our example, zero indicates no prescribed pause at the top. However, you can probably think of certain exercises where it might be beneficial or common to spend some time pausing at the top, like a hip thrust or lateral raise.

Understanding and harnessing the power of tempo is a game-changer. Training isn’t just about lifting heavier weights; it’s about maximizing the quality of the reps with a focused outcome in mind. Because tempo is often overlooked, it provides a massive opportunity for improving strength, power, or muscle, especially when you unlock the power of tempo progressions.

Weekly Tempo Progressions

You can use tempo progressions to alter the training response on a weekly basis to create progressive overload. If building strength is your primary goal, you need to build high levels of eccentric strength and tightness at the bottom of your movements. While maintaining load (coach-speak for keeping the weight the same), you can manipulate tempo weekly to create the stimulus needed to improve.

Here’s a tempo progression example for the squat:

  • Week One: 3-0-1-1 tempo
    No pause at the bottom. Accumulate time with training load.
  • Week Two: 3-1-1-1 tempo
    Add a one-second pause at the bottom of the squat. Build tightness and reinforce optimal technique.
  • Week Three: 3-2-1-1 tempo
    Increase the length of the bottom position pause to two seconds. Optimize motor control patterns.
  • Week Four: 4-2-1-1 tempo
    Now lower the weight for 4 seconds instead of 3. Increase time under tension and eccentric strength. Build out-of-the-hole strength and power.

By manipulating the training tempo on the eccentric and in the hole, you’re building tons of strength and stability each week. Taking 3-4 seconds to lower and pause at the bottom will keep you from using the stretch-shortening cycle to rebound out of the hole. The lengthened eccentric also adds more time under tension, which helps with muscle growth.

Intra-Workout Tempo Progressions

With intra-workout tempo progressions, you’ll change up the tempo from set to set. This is an excellent way to add variety and challenge to your training. Ascending and descending protocols work very well:

Ascending Tempo Progressions

Ascending tempo progressions increase the total time under tension during each set. For example, you might start with a tempo of 3-0-1-0 (3 seconds for the eccentric, no pause, 1 second for the concentric, and no pause) and progressively increase it to 3-1-1-0 in the second set, and 3-2-1-0 in the third set.

Set 1: 3-0-1-0 tempo
Set 2: 3-1-1-0 tempo
Set 3: 3-2-1-0 tempo

In this example, I add a second to the pause at the bottom from set to set.

This is best used with submaximal training or isolation work when you’re trying to take exercises to muscular failure. You’re forcing yourself to slow down as cumulative fatigue builds, increasing the total time under tension to progress.

Descending Tempo Progressions

Descending tempo progressions decrease the total TUT from set to set. For instance, you might start with a tempo of 3-2-1-0 for two sets of an exercise. Because fatigue is building, you switch to 3-0-1-0 while still maintaining the load.

Set 1: 3-2-1-0 Tempo
Set 2: 3-2-1-0 tempo
Set 3: 3-0-1-0 tempo

This approach ensures that you continue to challenge your muscles even when exhaustion creeps in.

Use ascending and descending tempo progressions to emphasize different aspects of muscle adaptation, such as time under tension, muscle control, and endurance. These progressions add an element of variety and keep your workouts engaging.



What role does Time Under Tension play in muscle fiber hypertrophy?

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Maybe, maybe you can use rep speed to target different areas of your quads.

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Obviously, the concentric speed will diminish as one approaches failure, even if you are still attempting to lift the weight as fast (X) as possible. A set that started with the intent of 3-0-1-0 might even devolve towards something closer to 3-0-3-0.

Would you therefore recommend terminating the set once the intended concentric speed can no longer be maintained? It appears that might be the way to accurately gauge progress.