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Coaching Strength & Conditioning

Understanding Tempo in Strength Training

In the beginning we are delighted that we can lift that dumbbell safely (your workout doesn’t conclude in casualty, which is a good thing). You refine your form. You become consistent. You even throw in a few more exotic variations of the classics (get you!). Life is good! So you explore “intensity” by either increasing the weight or adding more repetitions (depending on your training goal). But there is more…

If you are not thinking about “tempo” then you might be missing a trick. It’s another tool in your armoury for varying the intensity of an exercise. So what’s it all about?

Basics of a Strength Exercise

A strength exercise has two phases; the concentric phase and the eccentric phase. For the target muscle (let’s use the Bicep during a Bicep Curl), the concentric phase is that muscle shortens (in this case as we lift the dumbbell up) and the eccentric phase is as it lengthens (in our example the dumbbell goes down).

A fundamental of good form is to have both phases of the exercise under control! We are not swinging around or generally being unstable as we perform the exercise. Movement occurs because the target muscle(s) lengthen and shorten. Not because of gravity or momentum.

So what is “Tempo”

Tempo describes the speed at which we the two phases are performed and also and pause that is required transitioning from one phase to another.

Important: The Slower the movement, the harder it will be.

So it follows that by slowing down one or both phases and potentially adding in a pause (whilst the muscle(s) are under load) will vary the intensity of an exercise. Generally making it much harder. You may want to bear that in mind when you see people in a gym “throwing” weights around thinking they are being super strong and impressive, when in reality they are trying to use too heavy a weight for their ability and they skipped the page on “form” 😉

How to use “Tempo”

An appropriate tempo will be governed by the exercise. But also in context to the overall aims of the session and the ability of the athlete. For someone starting out with strength & conditioning, you may well not see tempo in the exercise prescription. However once the rudiments of form are in place and there is some basic strength, it becomes an important part of the exercise prescription.

To use our example of the humble dumbbell curl, you might see this:

3 x  (8 x 18kg DB Single Arm Standing as 30X1)

This would be 3 sets of 8 reps of a Single Arm Dumbbell Curl using an 18kg dumbbell performed at a tempo of 30×1

Reading the Tempo prescription

The first two characters (“30”) refer to the concentric phase and the second two are the eccentric phase (“x1”).

In a dumbbell curl the concentric phase happens first. Each digit represents a set time; first digit is the number of seconds the phase should take and the second digit is how long to pause at the end of the phase.

I realise that “x” is not a number! But “x” is used to signify “explosive” (the athlete may not be able to truly move the weight explosively, but that is the intent).

In our example then we “explosively” contract the bicep muscle to lift the dumbbell through the range of motion. At the top (or the end of the contraction) we hold the contraction for 1 second. Then we slowly lower the dumbbell (the eccentric) phase for a count of three seconds with no pause before we start the next rep.

Did You Know…

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Be thoughtful about Tempo

Particularly when adding in something that is described as explosive! For instance you would not want the eccentric phase of a bicep curl to be explosive. Or indeed anything that is involving the spine being curved during the exercise.

Also a second is a long time (as you know if you plank much in your training!). Under the load of a heavy weight it is quite possible to count to four in one second as you rush to get it over with! That completely misses the point… If you are not using a Tempo Timer then use the “thousands” method in your counting.

Give it a try!

The best way to understand the potential for this is to try it out. As with anything new, start easy (small durations). Initially try it out with isolation exercises (where one muscle / joint is being trained in isolation) and exercises using free weights are probably easier to implement this with at the outset.

Whilst it is possible (in theory) to programme temp for a regulation press up, in practice this would make for a very difficult exercise!

Enjoy and let me know how you get on if you try this out. – Ed


Picture Credit : Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash