Very few people I know within the fitness industry understand the principle of exercise tempo. Those who do understand it rarely apply it or allow their clients to actually learn and understand it. Personally, I have been working with tempo for a few years, attempting to educate my clients on its importance and uses along the way. So, I come to you with all of this information so that you can now apply it to your own training and accelerate the results of both your training and your clients.
‘Time Under Tension’
Our ‘Time Under Tension’ (TUT) is the governing factor in how we get our muscles to respond the way we want them to. TUT can be defined as the time that the given muscle or muscle group is subject to a load during an exercise set. When a trainer gives you a rep range to train in the obvious thing to think is that this rep range determines your results and therefore your TUT. However, unless the correct tempo is applied, this is not strictly true.
Different times under tension elicit the different results we desire. For example, if you are training with the goal of building the size of your muscles your go-to rep range would probably be 8-12. Why? Because that’s what you have been mistakenly spoon-fed by social media fitness accounts and out-of-date, uneducated trainers. When looking into TUT, the best way to build your muscle size is to train for sets of 30-40 seconds, regardless of your rep count. More of these examples will follow at the end as well as a few exceptions!
How does tempo fit into this?
Easy- your rep count plus your tempo equals your TUT. However, before moving forward, it’s important to break down tempo and evaluate its 4 separate parts. Tempo is always written as 4 separate numbers (for example, 3010). Each of the numbers represent a different part of any movement. Here is what they mean:
1) The first number represents the eccentric component of the movement (the lowering part in which we control a weight against gravity). An example of this is the downward phase in a bench press movement.
2) The second number represents the pause in the stretched position of a movement. For example, a pause at the bottom of the squat position. Quick tip- unless you are training specifically for strength, the majority of the time you will see this written as 0.
3) The third number in the sequence represents the concentric part (and is often the only part people think of). This part of the movement is the lifting phase, where we work against gravity to lift weight. For example, pulling up on a deadlift.
4) The final number represents the pause in the contracted/shortened part of the movement. This number is also often written as 0, apart from when look at pulling movements- such as rows or facepulls.
Putting it all together
As we mentioned above, your exercise tempo plus your rep count equals your TUT. So, if we use the tempo numbers above (3010- meaning 4 seconds in total per movement) with a set of 10 Romanian Deadlifts, our TUT would be 4×10=40 seconds.
Tempo and training goals
The two most common training goals I come across are either to increase strength or to cut body fat. So, how can tempo be manipulated to suit either of these goals?
Let’s start with strength training. Firstly, we need to understand that strength increases are dictated by nervous systems adaptions and are best trained with heavy weights and set times of 10-20 seconds. To elicit these times we must look at our rep count along with our tempo. Here, the most straightforward set-up would be to look at a set of 5 squats with a tempo of 2010, creating a set time of 15 seconds- perfect!
Finally, when looking from a body composition angle of training, we aim to train in a way which maximises our excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). A greater level of EPOC can be achieved through using slow tempos, providing an elevated metabolic rate for up to 48 hours which is a key ingredient in the recipe for weight loss. Here is a quick example: if I give a client a set of 12 squats and they race through it with a tempo of 1010, their overall TUT would be 24 seconds. However, if they use a tempo of 4010, their overall TUT would be 60 seconds- which I have seen to be much more effective in the hunt for great body composition and a lower body fat percentage.
As you can see, all of this can be very confusing, so it is no mystery as to why it is often considered as the ‘forgotten training principle’. Following reading this I hope that you all understand this area more, so that you can start to implement it into your own training routines. There are of course a few extra things to think about or do your own research into it if you want to – the first that comes to my mind would be the different muscle fibre make ups of different muscles which may cause differences in desired TUT’s. The last point worth mentioning is that when looking to build muscle you may stick within the 30-40s time frame for the majority of the time however there is room for extended or giant sets to target every fibre in the muscle.
The scope of tempo training does go deeper than this, but it does make me think- why don’t we train for timed sets rather than number of reps?