I want to start off this article by addressing an issue I have with the current way most information is presented. Too much time is wasted touting programs, diets, or exercises as the best. A proportionate amount of time is also squandered pointing out the inferiority of similar topics. Where did the middle ground go?
This loathsome attitude for the middle ground is not recent, though it has been exacerbated and perpetuated quite a bit of late. Colloquialisms such as “sitting on the fence” deride the non-extremist thinker. Switzerland, a neutral country, is often used as a figurative punitive destination for those unwilling to take a stance. Who wouldn’t want to go to Switzerland? It’s got chocolate, snow, and Roger Federer. I’m sold.
I want to resurrect the middle ground and fill the chasm that lies between the extremes once and for all. To start this process I want to address a topic, which has been both praised and hated. Tempo.
What is Tempo?
If you have never been introduced to training with tempo, then I am happy you have chosen to start your enlightenment here.
Training with tempo is achieved by programming a certain “rhythm,” for lack of a better word, to an exercise in a training program. The goal of manipulating the pace at which a movement is performed, is to elicit a very specific training adaptation (Strength, Hypertrophy, Endurance).
The closest thing most trainees come to using tempo is being instructed to lower a weight under control. True tempo training requires programming specific second counts to the different phases of each lift. Before you get intimidated or freak out trying to figure out what the hell “phases of each lift” could possibly mean, I am here to help.
Charles Poliquin, from whom I have learned a lot about tempo, likes to break down each lift into four possible segments.
- Eccentric Phase: The lowering of a weight, or portion of the lift where the target muscle or muscle group is lengthening. Such as descending in a squat, lowering the bar to your chest in a bench press, or moving away from the bar during a chin up.
- Pause After the Eccentric: The time (if any) between the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift. Such as pausing in the hole at the bottom of a squat, or pausing with the bar right above your chest on a bench press.
- Concentric Phase: The raising of the weight, or portion of the lift in which the target muscle or muscle group is being shortened. Such as standing up out of the bottom of a squat, pressing the bar away from your chest during a bench press, or pulling your body towards a bar during a chin up.
- Pause After the Concentric: The time (if any) between the concentric and eccentric phases of the lift. Such as pausing at the top of a squat after standing up or pausing with your chest close to the bar on a chin up.
With those four phases in mind it is time to move on to the bare-bone basics on tempo prescription.
Each of the above phases is assigned its own numerical value in the order they were presented (Eccentric, Pause After Eccentric, Concentric, Pause After Concentric). For example a possible tempo for a barbell bench press (everyone’s fav) could look like this:
3 = Lower the bar in the eccentric phase to a three second count
0 = Do not pause in between the eccentric and concentric phases
1 = Lift the weight in the concentric phase to a one second count
1 = Pause for one second in between the concentric and eccentric
That same process can be repeated with pretty much any lift you can perform inside the four walls of a gym. Take a second and try it with some of you other favorite exercises.
Time Under Tension (TUT)
Once you have grasped the concept of tempo on a repetition-by-repetition scale, it is time to move onto analyzing the tempo on a set-by-set basis. This is referred to as Time Under Tension. Thankfully, because these training protocols were designed by meatheads, none of the nomenclature is too involved.
Time Under Tension is, as the name entails, the amount of time the target muscle is worked per set. To calculate the time under tension for a given set, add up the time taken for each phase of the lift and multiply that number by how many repetitions were performed using that tempo. Returning to the previous example here is how you would calculate the time under tension for a set of 8 repetitions:
3+0+1+1 = 5 (seconds) x 8 (reps) = 40 seconds of Time Under Tension per set
Charles Poliquin, often regarded as the primary perpetuator of tempo training, uses specific ranges of Time Under Tension to determine the effect. All you need to know is the shorter the TUT (0-40 seconds) the greater emphasis on strength/neural adaptation, and the longer the TUT (40-70 seconds) the greater emphasis on metabolic adaptation.
The Tempest Surrounding Tempo
Detractors of using tempo point out its practical limitations, and reject possible academic reasoning. Their points usually center on the fact that nothing in life or sports uses a tempo. Whether you are on the field or in the real world, everything comes at you fast. A basketball player isn’t going to take three seconds to descend into a squat before jumping up to grab a rebound, and the average person isn’t going to do the same when it comes time to jump clear over an oncoming taxi cab. Am I the only one that jumps over traffic?
On the other hand, die-hard tempo trainers cite the research and subsequent academic applications of tempo. They have a tough time looking past the paper and into the practical.
Call me a flip-flopper, a fence sitter, a hippie, or whatever else you want, but I choose to qualify tempo with one word: Useful
Keep an eye out for “Time for Tempo Part 2: The How” I tell you how you can make tempo training work for you. (Part 2: Time For Tempo Part 2: The How)