By Carl Valle
Time under tension and barbell tempo schemes used to be all the rage, pioneered by Ian King and evangelized by Charles Poliquin. Tempo training lost favor as velocity based training (VBT) grew a few years ago, but now it’s making a comeback. Tempo training’s benefits include more than hypertrophy and strength gains, it also offers motor control and better power and fatigue monitoring.
This article covers what science has to say about tempo training and dissects reps and sets into more than intensity and volume to explore the true benefits of refining the repetition in training. Whether you want to bulk up an athlete, help them build power, or rehabilitate a soccer player, tempo prescriptions matter.
What Is the New Definition of Tempo Training?
Tempo training used to look only at a repetition’s time dynamics. Coaches sliced the repetition into four phases: lowering the weight, pausing, concentric action, and rest between reps. The definition is still relevant, and we should use it. But we should also expand the specifics beyond repetition duration to include repetition action. The average coach may connect tempo training to slower reps and time under tension, but most coaches would hardly think of jumping and sprinting as time under tension even though an overlap exists.#TempoTraining goes beyond repetition duration to include repetition action, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A few years ago, Brad Schoenfeld made the point that time under load was a better explanation, but even that improvement can be interpreted wrong if we don’t add some caveats. Coaches must understand that a repetition has specific characteristics of execution, and it’s important to properly tag or decrease the entire contraction with nearly all methods of resistance training. Many great results come from the careful control of the weight and an honest effort. To get the most out of training, however, an athlete has to do more than “perform it safely.”
Bodybuilding deserves credit for focusing on technique; these athletes understood a century ago that control means slowing down and doing the movement correctly. From a safety standpoint, slower lifts tend to be lighter with a full range of motion. Since the mind-to-muscle connection is fuzzy in the research—with each study seeming to alternate on how focus can enhance outcomes—it’s hard to determine the truth concerning tension-style workouts. We do know that the lower load and higher rep range of those past bodybuilding workouts fostered good habits early.
Countless repetition schemes were created until the early 2000s when the focus turned to concentric bar speed. And there has not been much progress in research beyond muscle growth and strength control. It’s not the researchers’ fault. It’s because the lack of progress in coaching did not inspire investigations of the training ideas; a researcher can only discover an idea to be useful or not.
Most of the advancements in barbell performance are in load-velocity relationships and attempts to use programming and profiling to leverage what we know about the force-velocity concept. But if we’re stuck on how fast someone lifts or jumps with different loads, we won’t make much progress.
How Has Science Changed Since the 1980s?
During the last few decades, the focus with weight training has been on the connection to the specific adaptations of the neuromuscular system rather than the neuroendocrine system. What used to be in vogue was hormonal changes after training based on rep schemes and periodized programs along with performance outcomes.
Now, training is more microscopic and molecular, providing even deeper insight into the value of knowing exactly how a repetition is performed. For the majority of the population, progressive overload is king, especially for the elderly and wellness populations.
In elite sport, however, where the differences between podium and failure are high, eliciting small adaptations can be necessary. Scientifically, we can divide the repetition into eccentric, isometric, concentric, and rest between repetitions. True, this is oversimplified and other small additions could be listed, but these four primary periods make up most of what’s happening during a single repetition in training.
While at times very little eccentric activity occurs or an entire repetition is isometric—so using tempo prescriptions may be unnecessary for some exercises—most of the reps prescribed in workouts incorporate all four time periods. Note, not every exercise starts with an eccentric action, so the pattern of lowering to raising the weight will not work for cleans and other starting strength exercises. Deadlifts are commonly done without any eccentric, so again the sequence may not match the actual annotation of the workout. There’s plenty of research and coaching resources about muscle contraction available on SimpliFaster.
Explore these training considerations when writing workouts.
Eccentric Considerations. Perhaps one of the finest reads on eccentric specific adaptations can be found on the Strength and Conditioning Research page. Solid information fully addresses how eccentrics change muscle architecture, recruit muscle fibers, promote regional hypertrophy, improve tendon stiffness, trigger neural adaptations, and challenge the cytoskeleton and Extracellular Matrix.
Isometric Considerations. Testing the mid-thigh pull and using force plates likely sparked the rise of isometric training. Isometrics are useful for managing soreness and pain and improving the ability to potentiate an athlete easily. Most isometrics are holds during traditional exercises, but some exercises are entirely composed of isometric contractions.
Concentric Considerations. Most of the research on muscle adaptations has focused on the eccentric component of muscle action. Concentrics are still important to train, however, especially for those who need high levels of rate of force development(RFD). Focusing only on length and not rate improves a muscle’s durability but leaves joint systems exposed with less RFD. Performing only eccentric training doesn’t happen because team practices have a bigger influence on adaptations than lifting sessions, but concentric training should not be considered a negative (pun intended).
Rep Rest Considerations. The rest between reps or groupings of reps can help improve power output with clusters. Flywheel training is a constant effort, so contrasting clusters and isoinertial training are common programming considerations.
So what do these training considerations mean to a coach? The importance of each part of muscle contraction will add up over time, and it’s our job to prescribe the proper antidote to load errors or enhance a talented athlete by tailoring workouts better. If we were to rewrite the individualized training article, it would include more science and coaching practice on tempo training. The nature of a workout, as well as career development, is linked to the type of contractions we prescribe.
Who Can Use Weightlifting Tempo Training?
Athletes, bodybuilders, and rehabilitation populations benefit most from weightlifting tempo prescription. I want to note that bodybuilding may not be considered a sport, but the principles of bodybuilding are very useful for sports that have contact or require larger athletes like Rugby Union and American Football.Tempo training for weightlifting will benefit athletes, #bodybuilders, and return to play the most, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In our experience, tempo prescriptions are most valuable for return to play athletes. Why? Most of the injuries we see stem from poor program balance or lack of basic training. Sometimes it’s hard to determine an injury’s etiology, but nine out of ten times we see that flash-style workouts cause the most harm in long-term development. The culprit exercises are:
- hexagonal bar concentric deadlifts
- box jumps for ego purposes
- bouncing the bar off the chest with bench presses
These exercises are not the only banes to athletes, but they are the prime reason we need to include tempo training for athletes starting at an early age. Getting a pulse on the problems and solutions regarding long-term athletic development (LTAD) and body control in weight acceptance is disturbingly getting worse every generation.
The popularity of occlusion training, or blood flow restriction methods, is growing with rehabilitation. Our concern is that athletes who lack focus and discipline with lifting styles make time under load methods a struggle instead of a breeze.
To prepare an athlete for injury, we should ensure they have a great training background so rehabilitation can focus on incremental loading. Too many times a physical therapist has to teach basic training principles because coaches skipped fundamental training steps, rushing to Instagram with high-load training instead of ensuring push-ups were polished and lighter load exercises were textbook quality.
What Are the Coaching Benefits of Prescribing Weight Training Tempo for Athletes?
Now that we’ve explored the lab coat science and provided links, coaches are likely to ask: What practical benefits will they see in training and teaching? Sure, we’re all familiar with the science of tempo training and can appreciate adaptations to training, but what are some easy take-home ideas for a practitioner?Tempo training helps athletes self-coach by stimulating their brains to learn, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In our experience, tempos help an athlete self-coach by raising their standard for following directions. If you raise the standards, athletes will follow suit with both effort and technical proficiency. Coaching them as if they were puppets on a string doesn’t work in the long run, as it commands them with cues rather stimulating their brains to learn.
Motor Control. Tempos will not fix everything in youth sports, but adding tempo is part of the development wheel that physical education recommends. During rehabilitation, motor control is especially important, including rehabilitation for concussions. Enriching an athlete to control their body and learn to move with specific speeds is a real benefit. Athletes who adhere to tempo training will not become motor masters and learn to dribble and shoot better, but they will have a foundation to start with.
Safety. An often overlooked aspect of tempo training is reducing injuries resulting from an athlete jerking the weight or cheating reps. Lower the load and add a few purposeful speed bumps, such as extended eccentric periods and a good pause. Athletes who are dependent on speed and elasticity are great on the field but tend to get in trouble in the weight room, as they sometimes rely on passive restraints. Slow down when needed and, later in the development cycle, let the horses run wild.
Discipline. Some athletes need parameters for better results. Counter-movements, dips, bounces, and other excessive motions that help get better numbers are all problems we can reduce with tempo prescriptions. A simple pause goes a long way, as it teaches an athlete to wait—a quality that’s especially important in reaction events in sport.
Monitoring. Repeatability in the weight room means monitoring strength training, not just jumps and physiological responses. Often an athlete’s poor technique makes weight training a collection of injury prevention exercises, like Nordic hamstring and Copenhagen adduction exercises, but a good lifter can provide good data. Fatigue and power go hand in hand so that tempos can transform basic training into testing.
Remodeling. Rehabilitation, like training, is about managing tension and progressive overload. Eccentric training for remodeling is similar to eccentric training for power development; the difference is that a little eccentric training goes a long way during injury. When a muscle or tendon tears, remodeling must be organized, meaning the formation of new biomaterial can be a little misaligned. Longer tempo durations will not fix the tissues magically, but they do provide feedback and progression without having to add load.To reap the benefits of tempo training, athletes must perform with more precision and clarity, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Overall, achieving the benefits requires getting athletes to perform training with more precision and clarity. While the science is important to know, we can meet the pragmatic needs of running a training session with a group of athletes better when we map the written workout with better instruction. We don’t need to flood an athlete with too much information, but it’s wise to have it available just in case.
How to Program Tempo Better in Training
Many good resources exist on tempo training, but most of them don’t sell the essence well at all. The primary goal of tempo training is to match the initiation of the workout with the execution of the training and nothing more. Some lifts and some athletes may not need any tempo instruction, while others who aren’t gifted in the weight room may find it indispensable.Tempo training's goal is to match the initiation of the workout with the execution of the training, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Our list of programming tips for better workouts isn’t a comprehensive way to write better workouts or master tempo training, but they are practical for strength and sport coaches who are drowning in duties. Still, the list below is a great framework for anyone who wants to fine-tune training or rehabilitation.
- Step away from slow negatives as the leading workout for eccentric training. Lowering slow and control is not eccentric training, it’s just slow training with part of the rep. True eccentric training is about overload not speed.
- Pauses are not just short periods of holding the weight. They are periods where an athlete is expected to attempt to recruit as much muscle force as possible. Adding additional instructions to describe the difference between a hold for a specific time and an attempt to overcome the resistance is a priority.
- Concentrics usually don’t need much tinkering since they are explosive and fast. Slow concentric programming is unnecessary for the most part, so reminders about controlling the weight are enough to get the idea across to the athlete.
- Rep rest is always the last to be programmed. Clusters are all about maximizing power by strategically resting while isoinertial reps are constant because of the flywheel mechanism. Remember to balance repetition rest by looking at the number of singles as well, as some athletes need capacity for peaking later.
- Don’t forget to multiply the longer tempo schemes since reps that are longer than 3-4 seconds can be very taxing as the total sets and reps get high. A set longer than 40 seconds tends to be metabolic rather than power generating.
- Eliminate tempo prescription when necessary, as paralysis by analysis could be an issue with technical or heavy lifts. An example is replacing precise tempos with instruction or summary when performing heavy bands and maximal efforts—sometimes the exercise forces the tempo to be very clear.
- During rehabilitation, especially with tendons and muscle remodeling, add specific tempo durations during the later phases. The early parts of return to play are about communication and distance of motion rather than targeting narrow adaptation benefits.
- High-velocity contractions like plyometrics are still tempo training, as tension under short time frames is like slow-high effort work and requires instruction rather than prescription in milliseconds. Contact time periods and joint stiffness (kinematic species) are worth noting, as these adaptations are likely to add up as well.
These guidelines are in no way commandments; they are simply recommendations for most circumstances. Surely many situations will occur when a tempo isn’t worth prescribing. Or there may be times when you should lock down an athlete and make directions very strict if they lack focus and have trouble paying attention to workouts. Not every exercise needs tempo training, just as not every excercise needs to be measured by a barbell velocity training device.
How Can We Measure and Refine Weightlifting Tempo Better?
Here comes the area that is arguably the most important but hardest to implement: quantification. When you’re grinding away with hundreds of athletes and need to write workouts, tempo can become a chore. In addition to writing the workouts, enforcing strict adherence can become a battle with those athletes who find tempos too demanding and just want to play the game. Don’t worry, we have the solution for you.
Measure the Set Duration Totals. Nothing beats a cooking clock or a simple pace clock to find out if an accumulation block of barbell work is followed to a T. With sets of 4-8 reps, it’s easy to see if pauses and controlled descent are performed by looking at duration totals. You don’t need to do this all the time, but during the general preparation phase, athletes have to build good work habits. This way, when they are tired in the later phases of the year, they have a reference to overcoming adversity.
Record Bar Speed Concentrically. The most straightforward and easiest part of VBT is looking at a sliver of a repetition contraction. Measuring peak or mean velocity won’t change the game dramatically, but looking at biofeedback and then tightening up the load prescribed will improve any program. Most coaches are already looking at bar speeds or planning to maximize training by incorporating VBT. If you’re already doing so, focus on the other areas that add context to bar speed.
Monitor Work Distance of Main Exercise. Time matters, but distance is equally valuable when under load. Usually, eccentric distance declines as the load becomes heavier, so while velocity is important, repeatability is just as valuable. Sometimes an athlete is stronger than the bar reading displays, either with speed or weight, but they lack confidence in the whole movement (squat) or near their chest (bench). Mixing in pauses at the right distances helps reinforce the bar stroke later when we remove the pauses for power training.
Audit Repetitions with Random Testing. You don’t need to audit every athlete to motivate their compliance to workouts when they know a VBT device is watching the bar. Some systems can export raw data, and GymAware Cloud has back-end reporting that’s easily accessible if you do some post-training analysis. An athlete seeing their training partner rewarded for being accountable to the tempos is a perfect motivational tool that rewards the process, not just results.
Video 1. GymAware is great for measuring basic strength and power tempo, and each rep can be recorded to see trends over a season. The Cloud option enables coaches to make reports and see deeper analysis later.
So far, this is all we have to work with, and anything past this might be overkill. Although time will tell if all of this training makes a difference, we do know that using tempo in workouts makes an athlete more independent and more skilled than not including it. An athlete with a workout where tempo matters also will often do better because of the placebo buy-in factor.
Prescribe Tempo Workouts with Precision
We’d be shocked if you don’t start prescribing tempo training tomorrow if you’ve fallen off the wagon, though adding more details to workouts does take more time. I strongly recommend getting on a strength and conditioning software platform now and invest the time. All the extra work done in the front end will pay off down the road. It will not only get better results but will also save time after the work is done.#TempoTraining in the weight room is not about slow negatives anymore, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Tempo training in the weight room is not about slow negatives anymore, it’s about ensuring the workout intervention matches the training execution. The details are what separate a good session from a great session. Over time, you’ll see the training start to compound and make a difference when the athlete is hitting their genetic ceiling. We’ve put more effort into tempo training because we want every repetition to make a difference, and we hope you find the same success.