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So you’ve been lifting for years, and you even have some solid performance and physique results to show for it all. Good on you. If you’ve reached a plateau in your gains, however (and we all have), it’s worth taking a closer look at the particulars of your program, your exercises and even your individual reps. Doing this can be the difference between a stagnant training period and continued results.
Making this happen means taking a moment to consider other ways to view “progression.” Though most training zealots will chalk progress up to either adding weight or adding reps performed, it’s also invaluable to consider lifting tempo as one of the keys to progression.
Many people think that completing a task faster is a demonstration of mastery (think: solving a math problem or parallel parking a car). But in the case of lifting weights, the real sign of improvement is showing just how much control you have over the movement as the weights increase.
Once you have a handle on that, there’s no telling just how strong you can get.
First Things First
First and foremost, what matters is learning how to read lifting tempos when they’re written in your program. A tempo will be written in a series of four figures, and the order is what gets most lifters confused. Here’s how to break it down.
The first figure represents the eccentric or lowering phase. All tempos begin on the eccentric, and they’ll always be represented by a number of seconds.
The second figure of the tempo represents the amount of time spent holding the weight in position at the end of the eccentric rep — usually the “bottom” position of most lifts.
The third figure of the tempo represents the nature of the concentric or lifting phase. This can be illustrated in a couple of different ways, which you’ll learn below.
The fourth and final figure of the tempo represents the amount of time spent holding the weight at the end of the concentric rep — usually the “top” position of most lifts.
If that sounds a bit strange, here are a couple of examples. Think of a basic biceps curl pattern for the following tempos and see how they’d apply.
Using the guidance above, this would mean each eccentric rep (lowering phase, during which the arm straightens to a full extension) would take two seconds. There would be zero seconds spent at the bottom (“0” means no time in this portion) and one second to lift the weight up to a fully flexed elbow position. At the top, the lifter would then hold and squeeze for one second before repeating for her next rep. That’s the full tempo.
Whereas a lifter may be more used to following a fairly basic rhythmic lifting style that may disregard things like pauses for full contraction at the top or control to the eccentric phase of the lift, being mindful of such things as demonstrated in the example above can mean more work for the muscles to produce on both halves of the rep.
Here’s another example:
Getting the hang of things now, you should be able to see that in this case, the biceps curl would be asking for a four-second lowering phase. There would then be a two-second pause at the bottom of the rep, which would remove all momentum and transfer of forces from the rep. The next figure is a new appearance: the letter X. It means “explode” or “explosive.” Whenever this appears in a tempo directive for a lift, it means the concentric phase of that lift should be performed with aggressive speed, using a full-force output. The final figure of one would mean there’s a one-second pause up at the top of the curl.
Of course, tempos can be applied to every single exercise in the gym, as long as you can perform concentric and eccentric reps and they aren’t isometric in nature (like planks or wall sits) or locomotive in nature (like sled pushes or farmer’s walks). To apply them in the best way possible, read on.
Putting It All Together
Using tempos to your advantage means making sure you’re making the best choice for the exercise in question. Overall, it’s fairly foolproof to apply slowed eccentric reps to most movements, but especially where the concentric reps are concerned, it’s more worthwhile to choose to explode using muscles or movements that can benefit from explosiveness.
For example, applying an “X” concentric tempo to squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses makes sense because these are commonly practiced patterns for powerful movements in the athletic world (like jumping and pushing actions, respectively). That suggests that the fast-twitch fibers of the involved muscles will be better trained using these tactics. Alternatively, movements like rows, pressdowns, lateral raises or flyes may not be suitable choices for this tempo decision.
Another universally solid idea when the goal is specifically to get stronger would be that of adding time to the portion of the tempo dedicated to the phase at the bottom of the eccentric (“pausing” between directions). It’s a real testimony to true absolute strength levels and keeps lifting honest to one’s abilities when the momentum is completely removed on each lift. If you were able to squat 135 pounds using “typical” lifting methods, you can guarantee you won’t be able to squat the same weight when you’re asked to freeze at rock bottom while keeping form.
When the goal is building more muscle, adding time under tension by slowing down the concentric rep can come in handy. Lifting slow and controlled can do more to exhaust the muscles and make for a great burn using lower weight to do it.
Contrastingly, you also can increase your work capacity during heavy big lifts by removing the eccentric phase altogether. Movements like pin presses, dead-stop deadlifts and Olympic lifts provide the opportunity to release the eccentric rep (by letting the bar crash to the floor or down to the pins, respectively, without using much control, if any). Forfeiting this time under tension is a surefire way to avoid excessive muscle soreness and perform more concentric repetitions without as much tissue damage to plague the rest of your week in the form of DOMS.
Get My Tempo?
Simply put, using tempo training methods only creates golden opportunities for your body to make its move to the next level in your training abilities. Take advantage by proving your mastery over weight with a change in perspective. The skill in lifting isn’t demonstrated by the amount of weight you can lift, it’s by the amount of weight you can own.