Charles Poliquin Tempo Training: The Ultimate Guide!


Charles Poliquin says that exercise tempo is one of the most important parts of a great training program. If you want to get as big and strong as possible then you must learn how to manipulate the exercise tempo in your strength training routines!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Exercise Tempo For Building Muscle Mass
  • Part 2: Exercise Tempo For Building Strength

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you how Charles Poliquin manipulates exercise tempo in his strength training programs.

Every exercise that you perform in the gym has a specific tempo. You can perform the exercise with fast or slow reps and you can even perform pauses in different parts of the range of motion.

Charles Poliquin says that one of the reasons for his success as a strength coach is he varies the exercise tempo of his routines.

To Charles exercise tempo is another one of the big strength training variables like the number of sets or reps that you perform. The key to getting great results is to vary your exercise tempo over time. Check it out:

“There is no single best way to train. The human body is an especially adaptive organism that responds to variables in training.

Changing those variables is how we force the body to adapt, and one of those variables is exercise tempo.”

Charles Poliquin says the best way to track exercise tempo is using a 4 digit code. For example: 

4/0/X/0

This code has 4 digits. Each number tells you how quickly to perform a certain part of the range of motion of the exercise. Here is Charles describing this system in his own words:

“I use a four-digit system to represent the time it takes to complete the different phases of the strength training repetition.”

The first digit tells you how quickly to lower the weight. The number “4” in our example tells you to lower the weight over 4 seconds.

The second digit tells you how long to pause in the bottom position of the exercise. The number “0” in our example tells you to pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position.

The third digit tells you how quickly to lift the weight. The symbol “X” tells you to lift the weight explosively all the way to lockout.

Finally the 4th digit tells you how long to pause in the top position of the exercise. The number “0” in our example tells you to pause for 0 seconds in the top position.

Let’s put it all together: if your tempo is 4 / 0 / X / 0 then you would lower the weight over 4 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively and pause for 0 seconds in the top position.

Here is Charles Poliquin himself giving a great video explanation on tempo training:

Charles Poliquin Tempo Video

Why does Charles Poliquin believe tempo training is so important? The answer is really simple: if you don’t know your exercise tempo then you don’t know the time under tension of your sets.

And if you don’t know what your time under tension is then you literally don’t know what you’re doing in the gym. Check it out:

“If you don’t measure your tempo then you don’t even know what you’re doing because you don’t have any concept of time under tension.”

Charles Poliquin says that there is no “best” tempo. The tempo 4/0/X/0 is no better or worse than any other tempo. The important thing to understand is that you will get faster results if you vary your tempo over time.

The human body builds size and strength faster when you use different tempos in your program. Here is Charles Poliquin himself driving this point home:

“Various authors have contended that muscles gain in strength faster if trained at various speeds, rather than constantly being trained at the same speed.

Various world-class athletes have reported enhanced performance from systematically planned variations in speed of contraction.”

I hope you found this introduction to tempo training helpful.

In the rest of this guide I will teach you some of Charles Poliquin’s favorite tempo training strategies for building muscle mass and strength. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Exercise Tempo For Building Muscle Mass

Charles Poliquin says that time under tension is one of the most important factors in building muscle mass. Most people know that it’s easier to build muscle mass when you train in the 6-20 rep range. But how long should your sets last?

Charles says that sets with about 20-70 seconds of time under tension are optimal for building muscle mass. Check it out:

“To develop maximum muscle mass, the optimal time a muscle should contract during a set should fall between 20-70 seconds. This allows for a lot of variation in your sets, reps and exercise tempo.”

If you want your sets to last between 20-70 seconds then you need to start paying attention to the tempo of your exercises.

One of the easiest ways to vary the tempo of your exercises is to use a 5-second negative phase on at least some of your exercises. Let’s say that you are using a 5/0/1/0 tempo. This means you lower the weight down over 5 seconds and lift it back up over 1 second.

Each rep takes about 6 seconds so if you perform a set of 10 reps it would take (6 x 10) = 60 seconds to complete. This is perfect if your goal is to accumulate a lot of time under tension and build maximum muscle mass.

The bodybuilding coach Josh Bryant learned about this 5-second negative phase from Charles Poliquin. Here is Josh demonstrating the 5-second negative phase on Romanian deadlifts. Check it out:

The 5 Second Negative Phase

The 5-second negative phase does more than just increase the time under tension of your sets: it also overloads the eccentric or lowering phase of your exercise.

Research shows that the eccentric or lowering phase of your exercise is where most of the size and strength gains occur. I think you will be shocked at how sore your muscles become when you use the 5/0/1/0 tempo in your workouts.

Another great way to use tempo training to build muscle is to insert 3-second isometric pauses during your reps. These isometric pauses will increase the time under tension of your sets and the tension on your muscles. Check it out:

The 3 Second Isometric Pause

In this video the bodybuilder is performing 3 separate 3-second pauses during the lowering phase of the exercise. This is another great way to overload the eccentric phase of the exercise and to accumulate more time under tension.

Here is how you would write this tempo for your routines:

3/0/1/0**

**Perform 3 separate 3-second pauses on the eccentric range of the exercise. Perform 1 pause in the top position, 1 pause in the mid-range position and 1 pause in the bottom position of the exercise.

Charles Poliquin says that some muscle groups like the quadriceps and deltoids respond well to sets with more than 70 seconds of time under tension.

For these muscle groups you can even do sets lasting 2 minutes long! Here is Charles Poliquin describing the benefits of 2 minute sets for quadriceps growth:

Charles Poliquin 2 Min Leg Press Video

“[For quads] your sets should be at least 40 seconds long but probably more like 2 minutes. When you do 2 minute leg presses, for example, the amount of growth hormone you produce is enormous. Of course that translates into IGF-1 levels which will foster hypertrophy.”

When Charles Poliquin writes his training routines he thinks about the target time under tension for the set. Then he picks a tempo for each exercise that lets him hit the target time under tension.

For example let’s say Charles was writing a routine with sets of 10 reps and he wanted each set to have 60 seconds of time under tension.

Here are some different exercise tempos that he could use to reach his target:

  • 5/0/X/0
  • 3/2/1/0
  • 4/0/2/0
  • 2/3/X/0

And so on. All of these tempos will give you about 60 seconds of time under tension if you perform 10 reps per set.

One of Charles Poliquin’s most famous bodybuilding routines is the German Volume Training program where you perform 10 sets of 10 reps on two different exercises.

Charles wrote this routine with a 4/0/2/0 tempo for the major exercises because he wanted each set to last about 60 seconds. Check it out:

German Volume Training Leg Routine

  • A1: Back squat, 10 x 10, 4/0/2/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying leg curl, 10 x 10, 4/0/2/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Stationary alternating DB lunge, 3 x 12, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Romanian deadlift, 3 x 12, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

This is a very simple example of how Charles Poliquin uses exercise tempo in his bodybuilding routines. Now let’s look at a more complicated example.

One of Charles Poliquin’s favorite muscle-building strategies is tri-sets. The basic idea is to perform 3 different exercises in a row for a muscle group with 10 seconds rest between each exercise.

Charles likes to use tri-sets where you use different rep ranges and exercise tempos for each of the exercises.

Here is one of Josh Bryant’s routines where he uses this exact strategy:

Josh Bryant’s Omni-Arm Workout

Phase #1: Biceps Tri-Set

  • A1: Chin ups (narrow / supinated grip), 5 x 5, 8/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: 45 degree incline DB curls (supinated grip)**, 5 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: 45 degree spider curl****, 5 x 20-25, 1/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest

**Performed as 1.25 reps. Lower the weight all the way down, curl the weight a quarter of the way up, lower the weight all the way down, the curl the weight all the way up. That counts as 1 rep. Perform 10-12 of these reps per set.

****Loop a towel through a kettlebell and hold the ends of the towel as you curl. Perform the top 70% of the range of motion only.

Here is the training video for this workout:

Talk about an intense biceps workout! Josh Bryant uses a different tempo for each of the exercises.

On the first exercise he uses an 8-second negative phase. On the second exercise he uses 1.25 reps with a normal lifting tempo. Then on the last exercise you perform every rep with a fast lifting and lowering phase.

Here are some of the time under tension estimates for each exercise:

Josh Bryant’s Time Under Tension Per Exercise

  • Exercise #1: (5 reps) x (8/0/1/0 tempo) = 45 seconds time under tension
  • Exercise #2: (12 reps) x (2/0/1/0 tempo) = 36 seconds time under tension
  • Exercise #3: (25 reps) x (1/0/1/0 tempo) = 50 seconds time under tension

With this routine you are getting anywhere from 36 – 50 seconds of time under tension per exercise. This is right where you want to be if maximum hypertrophy is your goal!

Using somewhat slower tempos on low-rep sets and somewhat faster tempos on high-rep sets is a great strategy when you are training for size gains.

Josh Bryant calls this the holistic approach to building muscle because you varying your tempos to hit many different kinds of muscle fibers. Check it out:

“To fully maximize the physique you have to use a holistic approach. You can use high reps, low reps, fast tempos, slow tempos and so on for a holistic approach.

You have to use a holistic approach if you want to get holistic huge arms.”

Charles Poliquin says if you know how to manipulate your exercise tempos then you can even use sets in the 3-6 rep range to build muscle.

Here is one of Charles Poliquin’s favorite low-rep arm routines that you can use to build massive arms. Check it out:

Charles Poliquin Eccentric Arm Routine

Arm Circuit #1

  • A1: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinating grip), 5 x 4-6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 5 x 4-6, 4/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • A3: 10 degree decline bench press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 4-6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A4: Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead), 5 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest

Arm Circuit #2

  • A1: Eccentric-only v-bar dips, 3 x 3, 8/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B2: Eccentric-only one-arm barbell preacher curls (supinated grip), 3 x 3, 8/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest

This routine is broken up into two parts.

In the first part of the routine you are performing 2 supersets: one for your biceps and one for your triceps. For both supersets you are using a 4/0/X/0 tempo. This is used so that you accumulate enough time under tension despite training in the 4-8 rep range.

In the second half of the routine you are going to perform eccentric-only reps using an 8-second lowering phase. Don’t worry, you will still build plenty of muscle mass despite the low rep ranges.

The combination of the 8-second lowering phase and the eccentric-only reps will take care of the size gains.

Charles Poliquin says these super slow reps have many advantages for building muscle mass. Check it out:

“Slow speed training will produce the following muscle-building effects: stimulation of the Type IIa fibers and increased muscle glycogen, CP, ATP, ADP, creatine, phosphorylase, PFK, and Krebs cycle enzyme activity – all of which equate to more strength and muscle mass gains!”

If your goal is to build maximum muscle mass then you have to start manipulating the exercise tempo of your routines. Charles says that you should use a specific tempo on every single exercise.

Other bodybuilding coaches like Josh Bryant like to throw in 5-second or even 10-second lowering phases on specific exercises and just use a “normal” tempo on the other exercises.

If you learn how to vary your exercise tempo like Charles Poliquin then your size gains will shoot through the roof!

Part 2: Exercise Tempo For Building Strength

Charles Poliquin believes that exercise tempo is just as important when you are training for strength gains as it is when you are training for size. Of course your time under tension per set is going to be lower when you just want to get stronger.

Here are Charles Poliquin’s general time under tension guidelines for the serious strength athlete:

World’s Strongest Man TUT Guidelines

  • 50% of your sets: 1-20 seconds of time under tension
  • 50% of your sets: 20-40 seconds of time under tension

Charles says that 1-40 seconds of time under tension is optimal when your goal is to get stronger.

If your sets last more than 40 seconds then you will use more of the slow-twitch muscle fibers which aren’t as helpful for getting stronger.

Charles says that you can get very creative with your exercise tempos when you train in the 1-5 rep range. For example Charles sometimes has his clients squat with a 7-second lowering phase an a 6-second pause in the bottom position of the exercise.

This is sometimes called a “Klokov squat” after the Russian weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov. Check it out:

The Klokov Squat

The Klokov squat uses a 7/6/X/0 tempo. You lower yourself down over 7 seconds, pause in the hole for 6 seconds and then explode up to the top position.

If you perform the Klokov squat correctly then it should take you about 14 seconds to complete each rep.

Charles says that you should only perform Klokov squats for single repetitions. So why are Klokov squats so effective? The long lowering phase eccentrically overloads your legs and the long pause in the bottom position eliminates the stretch reflex so your legs have to work harder in the bottom position.

The slow tempo also trains your legs in a unique way. The total time under tension of the set is closer to a regular 3-5 rep set even though you only perform 1 rep!

Remember what Charles said about varying your exercise tempo: 

“There is no single best way to train. The human body is an especially adaptive organism that responds to variables in training.

Changing those variables is how we force the body to adapt, and one of those variables is exercise tempo.”

In other words you have to mix things up over time so that your body doesn’t get “bored” of your routine! A 7/6/X/0 tempo is an extreme example of how to mix things up.

Another way to mix things up is to insert long pauses in the top position of your exercise in between each rep.

Just look at the following tempo:

2/0/X/3

This tempo tells you to lower yourself down over 2 seconds, lift the weight explosively to lockout and then pause for 3 seconds in the top position. Using 3-second pauses like this in between your reps on squats can be a great way to handle more weight on your sets.

A more extreme version of this strategy is called “cluster sets.” With cluster sets you actually take a 10-15 second break in between each rep! Charles likes to perform sets of 5 reps with these 10-15 second breaks in between each rep. For example:

The Poliquin Cluster Sets Training Protocol

  • Step #1: Perform your 1st rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Step #2: Perform your 2nd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Step #3: Perform your 3rd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Step #4: Perform your 4th rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Step #5: Perform your 5th rep, 3-5 minutes and perform your next set

Here is a perfect demonstration of this training method on the close grip bench press:

Cluster sets is basically a way of varying your exercise tempo so you can take your 3-rep max and perform 5 reps with it. This lets you accumulate a TON of time under tension with a relatively heavy weight. Cluster sets is a recipe for screaming fast strength gains and reasonably good size gains! 

Another one of Charles Poliquin’s favorite ways to vary exercise tempo to build strength is to use 8-second isometric pauses on the eccentric range of an exercise.

For example Charles loves to use deficit snatch grip deadlifts with 3 different 8-second isometric pauses on the eccentric range. Check it out:

Snatch Eccentric Deadlift

Charles says that this is one of the absolute fastest ways to strengthen your lower back. Charles tells his athletes to perform 6-8 sets of 3 reps with this technique.

Your sets should last about 75 seconds each. This is a lot of time under tension but Charles swears that it is a great way to train for absolute strength.

Many of his world-class athletes including the Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis used this exact strategy to get stronger.

If you are truly serious about getting stronger then Charles recommends you start using weight releasers in your workouts. Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that you can attach to either side of a barbell. They make the exercise heavier on the lowering phase but they drop off the barbell right before you lift the weight back up to lockout.

Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect demonstration of weight releasers:

Josh Bryant demonstrating weight releasers

Charles says that anytime you use an eccentric training tool like weight releasers you should use a very slow lowering phase.

Charles likes his athletes to use anywhere from a 5/0/1/0 tempo to a 10/0/1/0 tempo with weight releasers.

The slower reps will help you prevent injuries and create a stronger overall training effect. Weight releasers are often done for single reps. In that case your overall time under tension would be around 5-10 seconds.

Weight releasers can also be used with cluster sets if you are creative enough. Here is one of Christian Thibadeau’s athletes demonstrating the bench press weight releaser cluster set: 

Weight Releaser Cluster sets

This technique is so effective because you are accumulating a TON of time under tension with an extremely heavy weight.

Christian Thibadeau says that most athletes can use a weight that is around 100% of their 1-rep max on the lowering phase and about 80% of their 1-rep max on the lifting phase. That means you are getting anywhere from 25-50 seconds of eccentric time under tension with a weight that is around your 1-rep max!

Now THAT is the power of tempo training! Can you say screaming fast strength gains?

Conclusion

Charles Poliquin was the world’s greatest strength coach and it’s easy to see why. He was one of the only coaches in the world who truly understood the importance of manipulating the exercise tempo on every single exercise.

If you are serious about getting results then I suggest you do the same.

Every once in a while you will see some “fitness guru” argue that tempo isn’t important. They argue that fast and slow tempos are equally good for building muscle, therefore you shouldn’t worry about it. These guys are completely missing the point!

Number 1, exercise tempo is one of the training variables that your body adapts to. You will get faster results if you vary your tempo over time, just like you will get faster results if you vary your exercises, rep ranges or rest periods over time.

Number 2, if you don’t measure your tempo then you don’t know your time under tension… and if you don’t know the time under tension of your sets then you don’t know what you’re doing!

A set of 10 reps can last 10 seconds or 60 seconds depending on your exercise tempo. These are both valid approaches but the training effect will be completely different in both cases.

If you are serious about getting results then learning how to manipulate exercise tempo like Charles Poliquin is a no-brainer! Charles was truly ahead of his time.

“You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, expect to win.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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