In weight training circles, people talk about a number of principles to help you focus on different areas of physical development. There is a lot of advice out there that addresses training within different rep ranges for different outcomes, altering your training volume, exercise variety and more. Something that isn’t focused on a lot is rep tempo.
Adjusting your rep tempo is another fantastic way to aim for different training outcomes. Rep tempo, quite simply means, the time you take to perform a repetition. Varying the tempo can mean slowing down the negative or positive phase of the rep, speeding it up, pausing at the bottom and top of the rep, and having no pause.
It is suggested that regular changes in tempo in your overall program can bring about better growth and development. This is achieved by altering the type of fibres and nervous system stimulation, depending on the approach.
Altering tempo affects a number of variables of training — the first, and possibly the most significant, is time under tension. Tension is what forces the muscle to contract and perform work. It is tension that fatigues the muscle and tension that triggers the response to training — a combination of strength (neural) adaptation, and/or mass (hypertrophy). So tension is a key factor to manipulate, and one of the ways to manipulate time under tension is tempo.
Rep tempo is measured with four numbers, and an example of how it is presented is this: 2-0-1-0. The first number represents the number of seconds it takes to perform the negative phase of the rep, or the eccentric contraction. The second number represents the amount of time you spend at the pause phase of the exercise, the third number represents the positive phase of the exercise or concentric contraction, and the fourth number represents the time in seconds at the top of the rep.
So with this sequence on, say the bench press, you take two seconds to lower the bar, don’t pause at the bottom, power up on the way up and complete the rep in one second, with no pause at the top — straight into the next rep.
Some suggest saying one phrase as you lift the weight, and another as you lower the weight. This enforces a specific tempo — probably something like 3-0-1-0: Three seconds to lower the weight, no pause, explode up, no pause.
The tempo strategy helps to explain why doing the traditional three sets of 12 can fatigue the muscle as much as doing a heavy lift with only three sets of four reps. If I do 3 sets of 12 at a medium weight, most likely I can handle a 2-1-1-0 tempo — that’s four seconds per rep. So four seconds each rep, multiplied by 12 reps, further multiplied by three gives us 144 seconds of tension time for the full exercise.
When we go heavy for three sets of four reps, we might still take two seconds to lower the bar, but because of the weight, we might take four seconds to complete the concentric phase of the rep, because of the weight we’re lifting. So now we’re taking a 2-0-4-0 tempo, or six seconds per rep.
Tempo doesn’t just impact on time under tension, and is not just dictated by the weight on the bar. We can manipulate tempo ourselves for specific fitness goals. It is well known that the negative or lowering phase of a lift causes significant muscle micro-tears that lead to a hypertrophic response. Therefore, intentional slowing the negative phase of the rep for a few training sessions in a cycle may be extremely beneficial for muscle growth. So every few sessions, you might consider using a 4-0-20 tempo, or a 4-2-3-2 tempo, to add some pauses at the top and bottom of the rep. Slowing the negative phase is a great way to load those muscles with tension and elicit some major growth!
Finally, adding time in the pause phase of the rep can actually help people train through sticking points. Some people are weaker at the bottom or top of a lift, so if your bench press fails at the bottom rather than the top, you might consider a 2-3-1-0 tempo — take two seconds to lower the bar, pause for three seconds and then explode up, and repeat. The pause on the bottom forces you to perform an isometric contraction (your muscle is working but the weight isn’t moving). This will strengthen you in that specific range of motion and help get past the sticking point.