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The Most Overlooked Variable in Lifting – Tempo

When you hit the gym, you think of all the normal things like what exercises you’re going to do, how much weight you’re going to lift, and how many sets and repetitions you’re going to perform.

Rarely do you think about the speed you’re going to lift at.

Regardless of the lift, weight, day, you perform each exercise and each phase of movement at the same speed.

Breakdown of an exercise

There are three phases of movement that take place in an exercise: concentric, eccentric, and isometric.


A type of muscle contraction in which the muscle shortens while generating force greater than the external load. I.e. The lifting portion of a movement.


A contraction where the muscle elongates while under tension due to opposing force being greater than the force generated by the muscle. I.e. The lowering portion of a movement.


An application of force to a muscle in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction. I.e. The paused portion of a movement.

All three areas are important to train because real life present us with situations in which all three phases are needed. You don’t just go through life only picking stuff up. Sometimes you have to put things down, slow yourself down, sit down, hold stuff, or maintain good posture. If you don’t focus on all three phases during exercises are less equipped to deal with these situations and you open yourself up to greater injury risk.

Why tempo matters

There are many reasons to use tempo training. Here's just a brief list:

  • Improved body awareness

  • Improved control of lifts

  • Development of connective tissue strength

  • Improved stability

  • Improved hypertrophy

Speed in a lift is something that should be earned. The first thing you should focus on is proper neuromuscular control and stability. Slowing a movement down allows you, and forces you, to feel the muscles that should be working and gives your brain time to receive information and produce a response. By simply slowing a movement down we can easily improve form and function.

Time under Tension

Time under tension (TUT) is the amount of time that a muscle is under stress or load. It is one of the three ways your body adds lean muscle mass. If you want to take advantage of this system, then you need to increase the TUT for muscles during an exercise, but research shows that simply increasing the total time you’re under load is not enough.

For example, performing 15 to 20 reps for 60 seconds does not produce the same response as performing four to six reps in 60 seconds, even though the total TUT is the same. Less repetitions at a slower speed will increase the window of time during which the muscles are actually under tension, having a greater effect on adding lean muscle.

Give it a try to see which creates more muscle fatigue!

How to train tempo

When we talk about tempo training, we illustrate it by x-x-x where the first number is the eccentric portion of the lift, second is isometric, and third is concentric.

The simplest way to add tempo training into your routine is to slow down. Most people lift at a tempo of 1-0-1. It’s the most common thing you see when you walk into the gym, where people are just lowering and lifting the weight, thinking of little else besides getting to the desired number of reps.

To adjust this, change your tempo to 3-3-1. Now you slowly lower the weight under control, fighting gravity, for three seconds. Then, hold the stretched position of the lift for three seconds, feeling the muscles that are controlling the weight. And finally, lifting the weight explosively to generate maximal force.

By doing this you will improve the form, technique, and neuromuscular control of your exercises, greatly reducing the risk of injury while creating an optimal environment for adding lean muscle.


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