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Learning to lift is difficult, especially online where often you have to struggle with words and descriptions and maybe you’re lucky if you can find a short blurry video to be your walking stick. But one thing that is neglected in most explanations is tempo, simply put, the rhythm to which you lift. It might seem insignificant but in reality tempo plays a bigger role in shaping a program than the actual rep and set structure. Tempo is part of your training already–you most likely lift at different speeds in different exercises–but you might ask what benefit can be reaped by further understanding this concept. To begin with, increased strength, better muscular development, greater CNS stimulation, in short, getting an effective workout hangs in the balance.
Tempo is commonly divided into 3 phases:
Some take into account a fourth phase which would be the ‘lockout’ or top of the lift.
First and foremost, tempo will affect time under tension. Lets take the example of Joe who benches with a 101 tempo, which means he takes one second on the negative, no pause, and one second on the way up. That’s 2 seconds to perform each rep. If he does 10 reps that’s 20 seconds of work. Now change his tempo to 301 and the same 10 reps will take 40 seconds. We just effectively doubled the amount of time during which his muscles are under tension, greatly increasing intensity without changing the weight, sets or reps.
Tempo isn’t just about doing more, but doing better. Slowing down the negative phase forces the lifter to improve control and awareness which can in turn help form and understanding of the movement.
This little trick is a cornerstone of bodybuilding, popularized by Mike Mentzer and more recently by Dante in his infamous Doggcrapp protocol. Slowing negatives focuses on the eccentric phase. Tempo ranges here vary from 201 to 501, sometimes adding a pause at the bottom and slowing down the positive to two seconds. The idea is control: minimize momentum and stretch the fascia. These are concepts further discussed in our article on the DC program.
An added benefit of training with negatives is that you are, in effect, stronger than in the positive. You can use more weight on the negatives and also come closer to failure since you are resisting rather than doing. Yet it’s an effective method for building strength, for example, the use of negative pull-ups as a stepping stone to regular pull-ups. Since it’s easier to hold on and lower a weight slowly than it is to bring it up, it is possible to reach a CNS activation threshold that is simply not possible otherwise.
I recommend negatives for pressing movements such as bench and triceps. Negatives can also be done easily with hammer strength and cable movements. Biceps and forearm movements, as well as calves and any isolation exercise can benefit from slow negatives.
Negatives are impossible to do and not recommended on explosive lifts, like cleans and Olympic lifts. Even with bent over rows, I do not recommend slowing the negative. Same goes for squats and deadlifts, although stiff-legged deadlifts and leg presses can benefit.
Pauses have been popularized by a range of strength training and power lifting routines. The idea behind them is pausing at the bottom part of the lift, for example, where the bar rests on the floor for deadlifts or on the chest for bench. The pause causes the muscle to lose part of the tension which would otherwise aid the lifter, like a tight rubber band wanting release. For strength training, try a tempo of 110 or 220. As you can see, this emphasizes a fast (110) or slow negative (220) and maximum explosion for the positive. The point of the pause is to develop maximum acceleration from a dead stop, something that traditional training programs usually neglect.
“Deloading” is an extended pause in which the lifter relaxes at the bottom position, thereby releasing all tension. This requires the muscle to generate even more power on every positive. Deloading is only possible for movements which allow for resting the weight, such as box squats, deadlift, or rack/board presses for bench.
Another use for the pause is to target weak points in a lift. Set up the lift to limit range of motion with the weak point at the bottom of the movement. Pause with each rep. For example, pin press and rack pulls make use of this technique. The lifter may only be able to lift a fraction of his regular weight, but all the emphasis will go to the weak point, strengthening it and improving the main lift.
Pauses aren’t simply for powerlifting and strength training, they can aid in hypertrophy; the pause can require a large amount of isometric work (i.e. muscle length does not change), generating a great deal of muscle fibre and CNS stimulation.
Pauses are great for a lot of exercises, but work especially well for large movements, such as deadlifts, bench, and squats. They can also be used for isolation, although I only recommend them for cable movements for triceps or delts. For biceps, calves, and traps they can be performed on almost any movement.
The positive is what makes you mentally say the next number in your set sequence. It’s seen as the main part of the lift, after all, each rep requires the completion of a positive. So, what variations are there on the positive? Tempos will vary. For hypertrophy a 1-2 second positive is sufficient, maybe 3 if you are feeling adventurous. As for strength training, since the goal is the amount of weight moved, it’s always best to aim for the fastest positive possible. This will vary a lot from one exercise to the next, but for maximum strength, acceleration must also be maximized and time under tension minimized. The less time you spend working the more work you can do, the more weight you can lift.
Positive tempo varies from lift to lift. Deadlifts will have a different tempo than barbell rows, which will have a different tempo than bench. Another important piece is the exercise medium; machines and cable devices carry a lot of momentum, which is going to exponentially lower stimulation. This is not good for hypertrophy. The same goes for the smith machine.
In conclusion, tempo is a fundamental of lifting and one of those things that haven’t translated well through the internet. It’s really one of the secrets that changes a lift from mediocre to monstrous. Experiment with tempo, see what offers the best stimulation and gives the best result. But don’t overdo it, negatives can be taxing, and focusing on one part while neglecting others is a sure way to fudge things up.