Tempo Training 101

Ever find yourself in fitness purgatory?

You know, somewhere between a plateau and complete, mind-numbing boredom?

This is the place where motivation, consistency, and results go to die. And while tips like “switch things up” or “increase your weights” are valid and likely helpful, the answer to busting through exercise purgatory might be even simpler than you think.

Enter….tempo training.

A friend of mine recently called to discuss his own fitness purgatory. While he doesn’t care to lose weight or get shredded, he does want to improve his physique and strength for his demanding firefighter career and active lifestyle.

We discussed a few strategies, everything from body split training, exercise progressions, to intensity.

But after our call I sat down and thought, if he could only change one thing about his training, I’d have him tempo training like a boss.

Tempo training for dummies

Tempo training, or time under tension (TUT) is a fancy way of saying “slow the eff down” during specific phases of a lift.

It can be used for almost any exercise, and is one of the many tricks I pull out of my magic hat should training get stale, results stagnate and I fall into the bottomless purgatory pit.

But before you start adding tempo work into your training, there are a few key things to know.

The layout

A training program might denote tempo or time under tension (TUT) like this:

2-0-1-0 or 2010

Get to know your numbers!

  • First number: Refers to the eccentric or lowering portion of a lift (i.e. down phase in a squat)
  • Second number: Refers to any pauses at the midpoint (i.e. a pause in a bench press with bar on your chest)
  • Third number: Refers to the concentric or lifting phase of an exercise
  • Fourth number: Points to any pause at the top of the lift

The numbers can get a bit confusing, however, if an exercise starts on the concentric phase instead of eccentric. For example a deadlift starts in the concentric phase, so the tempo might read 0-1-3-0 to indicate you lift the barbell at a 3-second pace with a one-second pause halfway through the lift.

Just know how to read the numbers. If you’re unsure where a lift starts, I hear Google has a lot of answers. 😉

The benefits

Anyone can benefit from tempo training in their workouts and should incorporate them at some point in their training careers. However, you don’t need to include it during every phase or for every single exercise. The workouts would simply get too long and boring.

Still, the benefits of tempo training are well worth your time, and include:

  • Heightened intensity
  • More muscle size and definition (read: “toning”)
  • Teaches stabilization
  • Teaches movement control
  • Perfects movement patterns
  • Addresses mechanical/positioning weaknesses
  • Prepares your joints for all the extra hard sh*t you’ll likely do later in the future
  • Good at preventing overuse injury down the line
  • The Burn. Like it really, really burns.

In other words, tempo training is an excellent way to steer you out of fitness purgatory and make you a fitter, healthier, stronger badass without having to go to extremes.

How to add TUT to your workouts

As wonderful as tempo training is, you must use it strategically. Here are a few ways to incorporate it.

You can:

  • Add tempo to your big, compound lift like the squat, bench press or deadlift to address movement control, positioning weaknesses, and perfect the pattern
  • Add tempo work to 1-2 accessory exercises to increase intensity, build muscle in that particular area, or “feel the burn” in the most hellish of ways. For example, if your goal is build a strong, gorgeous bum, you might add 3-5 second pauses at the top of each barbell hip thrust for maximum growth potential. (Be warned: This is BRUTAL!)
  • Add tempo to the last 2-3 reps at the end of a set. For instance, you might have 4×12 bicep curls and then do a 2-1-2-0 tempo for the last two reps.

A great way to dip your toes into tempo work is to pick one or two exercises in your workout that address a specific need and either focus on a 2-3 second eccentric portion of the lift or include a 1-second pause at the bottom of the lift.

 

For example, my female clients tend to come in with two speeds: fast and faster. They may have decent body awareness and fairly good movement patterns, but the fact that they’re always in “beast mode” puts them at risk for injury and technique gets sloppy.

To prevent this, and get them stronger without having to increase the weights every set, I slow them down with a 2010 or 3010 tempo. It’s also a popular tempo given that I only have 50-55 minutes with each client so I don’t have the luxury of adding longer tempos.

Typically, I add the tempo work to the compound exercises that need the most control and attention, like the barbell squat or chin-up.

I add pauses to exercises like chin-ups, face pulls, anything glute bridges and hip thrusts. For men who are concerned about added size, I’ll add tempo work with plenty of pauses to the compound lifts like the bench press and some isolation accessories that target a specific body part they want to improve, like bicep curls.

Implementation

While there are other tempo styles you might see in programs, these are the most basic and easiest to implement if you’re just trying to bust through a block in your training, improve technique and get your muscles revved up to look good.

Don’t overthink it. Pick up to 2 exercises that address a specific part of your goal and add the tempo work to that. Experiment for 4-6 weeks to see how it goes.

Be aware that whatever tempo you choose affects how much weight you’re able to lift. For instance, if I have 5 sets of 6 barbell squats at a 2010 tempo, it’s unlikely I’ll be going near 80% of my 1RM (those pauses really catch up to you!).

Give it a shot and comment below…what are your favorite tempos?

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