By Stefan Ianev, Head Of Educational Development
Welcome back to the 5th installment of the 7-part series Train Like a Pro, the previous four articles can be found here on our blog.
This month we are going to discuss the topic of tempo, which builds on last month’s topic, type of contraction.
To recap there are three types of muscle contraction;
Within each of those the duration of effort can vary depending on the load and intent.
For example, when using a near maximal load even when attempting to move the bar as fast as possible bar speed will be slow. In this particular case the load dictates the tempo.
However, when using a submaximal load, intent can dictate the tempo. In other word you can control how fast you move the bar during all phases of the lift.
For the concentric portion of the lift attempting to move the bar as fast as possible will maximize peak torque (1). This is because force equals mass x acceleration. So by accelerating a submaximal load you generate more force.
However, due to momentum you lose tension at the top of the movement (2). Slowing down the concentric tempo will reduce momentum hence increase the mean or average torque through the movement although the peak torque will be less.
For this reason, is it may be best to use a combination of explosive and controlled concentric tempos when using submaximal loads so that both peak and mean torque are maximized.
For more advanced clients I usually prescribe an explosive concentric tempo on compound free weight movements and a slower more controlled concentric tempo on isolation exercises.
For example, if you’ve watched Pumping Iron (if you haven’t cancel you plans this weekend) you may have noticed when Arnold was doing T-Bar Rows he was using lose form with an explosive tempo but on the cable fly’s he was using a slower more controlled tempo and focusing more on the squeeze rather than simply hoisting heavy weight.
Above you can see Arnold doing T-Bar Rows with an explosive tempo
Above you can now see Arnold doing strict cable flies and focusing on the squeeze
For beginners I recommend slowing down and controlling the concentric phase regardless of the exercise so they can develop a strong mind to muscle connection. Provided moderate loads are used (60-80% of 1RM) there is no benefit to taking longer than 1 to 2 seconds to perform the concentric phase since nearly all the momentum will be eliminated.
Artificially slowing down beyond what is necessary to eliminate momentum will simply serve to reduce muscle force output (4-9). Not only that but because you are doing less work metabolic stress and energy expenditure will also be lower (5-10).
During injury or rehab situations it may be beneficial to slow down more, as higher muscle forces are also associated with greater joint stress. In this case you are reducing muscle force output so you can unload the joints.
Now let’s address the eccentric portion of the lift. There is more misconception here than perhaps any other area in the realm of weight training. We already discussed in the last installment that the eccentric portion of the lift is associated with greater muscle damage and tissue re-modelling.
Because of this people presume that slowing down the eccentric is more effective for strength and hypertrophy adaptations. Some coaches go as far as prescribing 5 seconds or longer eccentric tempos.
While it is important to control the eccentric to prevent injury and ensure the muscle is doing the work, slowing down beyond what is required to control the weight will again simply reduce muscle force output because you will need to use less weight.
No research to date seems to suggest anything over 3 seconds is more beneficial for strength or hypertrophy (11). Taking longer than that to lower the weight actually leads to less muscle damage and hypertrophy (12-18).
This is because the contractile filaments in the muscle cell have more time to overlap hence leading to less micro-tears. In essence it starts to mimic an isometric contraction, which is associated with lower energy expenditure and muscle damage.
For this reason, I usually recommend taking no longer 2 to 3 seconds to complete the eccentric portion of the lift. For advanced clients I use even faster eccentric tempos at times. You certainly don’t see Ronnie Coleman or many pro bodybuilders doing 5 second eccentrics.
Above the biggest and strongest bodybuilders that hoist mind endingly heavy weights such as Ronnie Coleman are not known for counting tempo.
However, keep in mind that reversing a faster eccentric motion increases joint stress so using slower eccentrics has its place during general prep or rehab phases to unload the joints.
Regarding isometric contractions, occasionally I use 1 to 2 seconds pauses in the bottom position and/or peak contraction to reduce momentum and develop a stronger mind to muscle connection. That’s usually done with beginners, or with advanced clients during a general prep phase or weak point training.
In terms of tempo prescription some coaches like to assign digits to each phase of the lift in order to more precisely quantify the training stimulus. To my knowledge this concept was first introduced by Australian strength coach Ian King and was later refined by Charles Poliquin.
In recent years I have moved away from assigning digits to the tempo or use it very loosely only as a guide. I only know of a handful of pro body builders who use such precise tempo prescription namely Milos Sarcev, Ben Pakulski, and Frank Zane. The rest either use an explosive or a rhythmic controlled tempo.
For starters the duration of a single set has far lesser impact in term of the training effect when compared with other variables such as volume, intensity, and rest periods (19).
Secondly, if you are focused on counting digits that takes your focus away from the quality of contraction and mind to muscle connection. Plenty of times I have seen trainees counting tempo yet recruiting everything but the target muscle.
I prefer to assign tempo based on intent. In other words, either focuses on applying maximal acceleration to the bar (CAT) or controlling the weight and squeezing the target muscle (isotension).
As mentioned previously I typically use CAT with compound free weight movements and isotension with machine or isolation exercises. Isometric pauses are used as needed to strengthen weak points and/or develop a stronger mind to muscle connection.
I rarely vary tempo anymore simply for the sake of variety. At least not with every single exercise and every program. In my opinion there are other variables you can play around with that are far more effective.
That about wraps it up for tempo and this instalment of train like a pro. Tune in next time as we cover rest intervals.
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- Chapman D1, Newton M, Sacco P, Nosaka K. Greater muscle damage induced by fast versus slow velocity eccentric exercise. Int J Sports Med. 2006 Aug;27(8):591-8.
- Shepstone TN, et al. Short-term high- vs. low-velocity isokinetic lengthening training results in greater hypertrophy of the elbow flexors in young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005 May;98(5):1768-76.
- Chapman D, Newton M, Sacco P, Nosaka K (2006) Greater muscle damage induced by fast versus slow velocity eccentric exercise. Int J Sports Med. 2006 Aug;27(8):591-8.
- Shepstone TN, Tang JE, Dallaire S, Schuenke MD, Staron RS, Phillips SM (2005) Short-term high- vs. low-velocity isokinetic lengthening training results in greater hypertrophy of the elbow flexors in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology May 1. 2005 vol. 98 no. 5 1768-1776
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn DI, Krieger JW. Effect of repetition duration during resistance training on muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2015 Apr;45(4):577–85.