Exercise tempo is easily the most misunderstood and neglected training variable. It is like the red-headed step child of strength training!
I don’t care if you are a physique athlete training to build muscle mass or a strength athlete training to build maximal strength. If you want to get the most out of your time in the gym then you must learn the art and science of tempo training!
- Part 1: What Is Tempo?
- Part 2: The Tempo Training Laws
- Part 3: How To Use Tempo To Build Muscle Mass
- Part 4: How To Use Tempo To Build Strength
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to manipulate exercise tempo to build muscle mass and strength.
Tempo refers to the speed at which you perform your exercises. Every single set that you perform in the gym has a specific tempo associated with it. This is true even if you are not paying attention to your exercise tempo!
Most trainees including advanced bodybuilders and powerlifters do not bother with paying attention to their exercise tempo. That is a shame, because exercise tempo is one of the most important strength training variables.
The scientific literature has repeatedly shown that varying your exercise tempo over time is a shortcut to getting bigger and stronger.
This comprehensive guide on tempo training will be divided into several different parts. In parts 1 and 2 of this article I will teach you the basics of tempo training including how to read tempo in a training routine and some of the most important tempo training laws.
Then parts 3 and 4 I will teach you how to vary your exercise tempo to build muscle mass and strength faster than ever before. If you learn how to apply even half of the information presented in this article then you will be light years ahead of your competition.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: What Is Tempo?
Tempo is the speed at which you perform your exercises. Every single set that you perform has a tempo associated with it. This is true whether you are tracking your tempo or not.
Let me use an analogy: every set that you perform has a specific number of reps associated with it. This is true even if you “blank out” and forget to count your reps. The same is true for your exercise tempo.
Tempo is written in a four-digit code. For example: 3/2/X/1. Each of the numbers tells you how quickly to perform a specific part of the exercise. Take a look at the following squat video:
In this video the athlete is squatting with a 3/2/X/1 tempo. Let’s take a closer look at each of these digits in the four-digit tempo code.
The first digit tells you how fast to perform the eccentric phase of the exercise. In other words it tells you how quickly to lower the weight down to the bottom position. In our example Joe Average is supposed to lower himself down over 4 seconds.
The second digit tells you how long to pause in the bottom or “stretched” position of the exercise. In our example Joe Average is supposed to pause for 2 seconds in the bottom position.
The third digit tells you how quickly to perform the concentric phase of the exercise. In other words it tells you how quickly to lift the weight. In our example there is an “X” instead of a number for the third digit. This means that Joe Average has to lift the weight explosively up to lockout.
If there is a number instead of an “X” then the number tells you how many seconds the concentric phase should take.
Finally the last number tells you how long to pause in the top position of the exercise. In our example Joe Average is supposed to pause for 1 second in the top position of squats with his knees locked out before squatting down again.
In case you are more of a visual learner here is the tempo training master Charles Poliquin teaching you how to read the 4-digit tempo code:
In the above video the athlete demonstrates a 4/2/1/0 tempo. In other words the athlete lowered the weight in 4 seconds, paused for 2 seconds in the bottom position, lifted the weight in 1 second and paused for 0 seconds in the top position.
There are a TON of misconceptions on the internet regarding tempo training. Many highly accomplished bodybuilders say that tempo training is pretty much useless because no top bodybuilders use a slow lifting tempo.
Tempo training does NOT mean that you have to use really slow tempos on all of your sets. Actually it’s the total opposite! All different types of tempos (fast vs slow, pausing in different parts of the range of motion etc) have merit.
The really important thing is that you actively manipulate your tempo on each exercise to produce an optimal training effect.
You probably wouldn’t perform sets of 5 or 10 or 15 reps on every single set of every single exercise. So why would you use the exact same tempo on every single set of every single exercise? Let’s take a look at some other sample tempos:
1/0/X/0 —> This means you lower the weight over 1 second, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively and pause for 0 seconds in the top position.
2/1/X/1 —> This means you lower the weight over 2 seconds, pause for 1 second in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively and pause for 1 second in the top position.
4/0/4/0 —> This means you lower the weight over 4 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, lift the weight over 4 seconds and pause for 0 seconds in the top position.
5/0/X/1 —> This means you lower the weight over 5 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively and pause for 1 seconds in the top position.
3/1/1/0 —> This means you lower the weight over 3 seconds, pause for 1 second in the bottom position, lift the weights explosively and pause for 0 seconds in the top position.
In reality there are an endless number of different tempos that you could use in your training. All of the above tempos and many, many more have merit. In order to get the most out of your training you have to learn the best ways to use these different tempos at different times.
The same thing is true for rep ranges. There is no single best rep range for every situation. Low, moderate and high reps all have merit. The same is true for exercise tempos.
Now that you understand how to read the 4-digit tempo code let’s take a closer look at 5 of the most important tempo training laws. These laws are useful regardless of whether you are training for strength or hypertrophy so I suggest you pay close attention to them.
Part 2: The Tempo Training Laws
It would take a large book to teach you all of the laws regarding tempo training. Instead of doing that I want to teach you 4 of the most important tempo training laws. If you understand them then you will be well on your way to manipulating tempo in your own training programs.
- Tempo Law #1: There Is No Perfect Strength Training Tempo!
- Tempo Law #2: Tempo Influences Your Time Under Tension!
- Tempo Law #3: You Must Record Your Tempos In A Logbook!
- Tempo Law #4: You Must Lower Your Weights More Slowly Than You Lift Them!
- Tempo Law #5: Tempo Is A Function Of Range Of Motion!
Let’s take a closer look at each of these tempo training laws.
Tempo Law #1: There is no perfect strength training tempo!
I cannot emphasize this enough: there is no single best exercise tempo! First of all your body will eventually get used to any exercise tempo that you use. Once your body has fully adapted then you must move on to a different exercise tempo for optimal results.
In fact the scientific literature has clearly shown that varying your tempo over time leads to faster size and strength gains than using either fast or slow tempos on a consistent basis (1-7). Here is the strength coach Charles Poliquin explaining this concept in more detail:
You wouldn’t use the same exercise in every one of your workouts so why on Earth would you use the same exercise tempo on every exercise that you perform!? Using a variety of exercise tempos is absolutely required if you want to maximize your results in the gym.
Tempo Law #2: Tempo Influences Your Total Time under Tension!
The time under tension of your sets is calculated using the following equation:
Time under tension = (number of reps) x (seconds to complete each rep)
In other words if you perform 10 reps in a set and each rep takes 4 seconds to complete then your total time under tension is 40 seconds. Clearly your exercise tempo has a huge impact on the total time under tension of your set. Well it turns out that your time under tension dictates the training effect of the exercise!
There are four main strength training adaptations that you can train for during a set:
- Relative strength
- Absolute strength
- Muscular endurance
The scientific literature has very clearly shown that there are optimal time under tension ranges for each of these training goals. For example:
- Relative strength = 1-20 seconds per set
- Absolute strength = 1-40 seconds per set
- Hypertrophy = 40-70 seconds per set
- Muscular endurance = 70+ seconds per set
Let’s say that Joe Average is a bodybuilder and he are designing a routine to increase the size of his quadriceps. Joe Average decides to start his workout with sets of 10 reps on the back squat. So far so good.
Joe Average walks up to the bar and bangs out 4 sets of 10 reps. Unfortunately Joe does not keep track of his tempo on any of his sets. This means he has no idea what his time under tension was for each set. In other words Joe doesn’t actually know what he is doing!
Joe probably squatted down over 1 second and lifted the weight explosively back up to lockout. In other words each of his reps takes about 2 seconds to complete. This means his time under tension per set is (10 reps) x (2 seconds per rep) = 20 seconds per set.
20 seconds of time under tension is great if your goal for the set is relative or absolute strength. The problem is Joe is a bodybuilder training for hypertrophy! He needs AT LEAST 40 seconds of time under tension per set to stimulate maximum hypertrophy in his quads!
Even if Joe is working really, really hard in the gym his results will be suboptimal because he is not accumulating enough time under tension on his sets. If you don’t monitor your exercise tempo then you don’t know your time under tension, and if you don’t know your time under tension then you don’t actually know what you’re doing!
As you can see monitoring the tempo of every one of your sets is absolutely critical for optimal results.
Tempo Law #3: You Must Record Your Tempos In A Logbook!
I am constantly amazed at the number of trainees who do not record their workouts in a training logbook. If you don’t use a logbook then you are just “winging it” in the gym and praying for a good outcome. This is perfectly fine if you are more of a weekend warrior and just want to exercise for health reasons.
However, if you are serious about meeting your strength and physique goals then you MUST record your workouts in a training logbook! This is especially true when it comes to manipulating exercise tempo. Take a look at the following back / biceps accumulation-style workout:
Back / Biceps Accumulation Workout
- A1: Wide overhand grip pull up, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow supinated grip chin up, 3-5 x AMRAP**, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Barbell dead stop row, 3-4 x 8-12, 2/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: One-arm dumbbell row****, 1 x 15-20, 1/0/X/0, rest as needed
- D1: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinating grip), 2-3 x 10-12, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- D2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 2-3 x 10-12, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- E2: Seated zottman curl (offset grip), 2-3 x 10-12, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
**Perform as many reps as you can with the same exercise you used for exercise A1.
****Performed with relatively “loose” form. It should somewhat resemble a “Kroc row.”
Every single exercise has a very specific tempo associated with it. For example on the barbell dead stop rows there is a 2 second pause in the bottom position of each rep. This is done to facilitate the recruitment of the high-threshold motor units. There are specific reasons for the tempos of every other exercise as well.
Now here comes the important part: if you don’t use a logbook then how are you supposed to remember all of these different tempos? Unless you are Elon Musk you can’t! Actually I’m not sure even Elon Musk could remember all of these different tempos while working out without using a training logbook!
If you are not using a training logbook then you are not actively manipulating your exercise tempo. And if you are not actively manipulating your exercise tempo then you are getting suboptimal results from your workouts.
If your goals include getting as big and strong as possible then you must use a training logbook so that you know what tempos to use on which exercises. I’m sorry but there is no alternative: you must use a logbook for optimal results!
Tempo Law #4: You Must Lower Your Weights Under Control!
Charles Poliquin made the observation way back in 1982 that for optimal results you should lower your weights more slowly than you lift them. There are a number of reasons for this.
During eccentric contractions you recruit about 50% fewer motor units than you do during concentric contractions. This means that there is more mechanical tension on these motor units during the eccentric range than the concentric range.
In fact the scientific literature has shown that your muscle fibers are exposed to 1.3 times more mechanical tension during eccentric contractions than concentric contractions! This has profound implications for both strength and size gains.
Indeed research has shown that it is the lowering phase of your exercises, NOT the lifting phase, that is responsible for most of the strength and size adaptations. For optimal results you MUST lower your weights under control.
There are many other benefits to using slow eccentric contractions including increased connective tissue strength and improved exercise technique. For optimal results you should vary your eccentric tempos and use anywhere from a 1 second to a 5 second eccentric tempo on most exercises.
If you are performing supra-maximal eccentric training then eccentric contractions lasting as long as 10 seconds have merit.:
Tempo Law #5: Tempo Is A Function Of Range Of Motion!
As a general rule of thumb you should favor longer eccentric tempos on exercises with larger ranges of motion. The reverse is also true: you should generally favor shorter eccentric tempos when using exercises with a relatively small range of motion.
Extremely low tempos can sometimes be used for exercises such as the back squat that have very large ranges of motion. For example here is Frederick Luethcke back squatting with a 7/6/X/0 tempo:
To review a 7/6/X/0 tempo means that Frederick is squatting with a 7-second lowering phase, a 6-second pause in the bottom position and an explosive concentric phase. This style of squatting was popularized by Dmitry Klokov as he used it to build up his super-human squatting strength.
On the other hand exercises with a very small range of motion such as calf raises or the Petersen step-up should generally be performed with 1-2 second eccentric phases. You would perform a larger number of reps for these exercises to make up for the shorter time under tension per rep.
Part 3: How To Use Tempo To Build Muscle Mass
It’s rare to see a bodybuilder or physique athlete actively manipulate the tempo of their exercises. Of course there are a few bodybuilders such as Dorian Yates or Dante Trudel who do so but these guys are few and far between.
If you want to build as much muscle mass as possible then you must know how much time under tension each of your sets has. If your goal is to build as much muscular hypertrophy as possible then about 70% of your sets should last between 40-70 seconds.
About 15% of the time you should perform sets lasting 20-40 seconds and another 15% of the time you should perform sets lasting 70-120 seconds.
- 20-40 seconds time under tension = 15% of your sets
- 40-70 seconds time under tension = 70% of your sets
- 70-120 seconds time under tension = 15% of your sets
Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. If you were blessed with an extremely large percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers then you are better off performing most of your sets for 1-40 seconds time under tension. However, for most trainees 40-70 seconds TUT is a good baseline for the majority of your sets.
Most bodybuilders drop the weight down as quickly as they lift it back up. For example on a set of incline dumbbell presses they would use an X/0/X/0 tempo. In other words they would let the weight drop to their chest and then lift it back up! With this tempo each rep would take about 2 seconds at most to complete.
This means that the typical bodybuilder would have to perform most of their sets in the 20-35 rep range just to accumulate enough time under tension per set! A much better approach is to experiment with longer eccentric tempos and pauses in the stretched position of various exercises.
For example if the same athlete used a 3/1/X/0 tempo it would take them about 5 seconds to complete each rep. This means they could perform sets in the 8-14 rep range and accumulate just the right amount of time under tension on each set.
Here’s a sample chest routine that shows you how you might manipulate exercise tempo for maximum hypertrophy:
Advanced Chest Hypertrophy Routine
- A1: 45 degree incline DB press, 4 x 8-10, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Flat DB press, 3-4 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3-4 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B3: Machine pec dec, 3-4 x 12-14, 2/1/1/1, 180 seconds rest
This specific routine uses a tri-set to stimulate hypertrophy gains in the chest. There are a number of bodybuilding training methods that you could use to stimulate growth but tri-sets are one of my favorites. They dramatically prolong the time under tension of your set which forces your muscles to work much longer than normal.
When you go to design your own hypertrophy routines I want you to think about the target time under tension for each of your sets. If you want maximum hypertrophy that may mean performing at least some of your sets with 40-70 seconds of total time under tension.
You have two options to pull this off: perform 20-40 reps on all of your sets or manipulate the tempo of your exercises in an intelligent manner. Hint: go for option #2!
Part 4: How To Use Tempo To Build Strength
Exercise tempo is at least as important for strength athletes as it is for physique athletes. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, bodybuilders are usually more concerned with the time under tension of their sets than powerlifters.
In reality your exercise tempo can vary A LOT more for strength training protocols than it can for hypertrophy training protocols. As long as your total time under tension per set stays in the 1-20 or 1-40 second range then you are good to go.
Let’s take a look at three of the most effective strategies for manipulating exercise tempo when training for strength:
- Cluster sets
- Eccentric Training
- Isometric Training
Let’s take a closer look at each of these strategies:
Tempo Strategy #1: Cluster Sets
Cluster sets are an incredible strength training method. The basic idea is that perform multiple repetitions per set with a relatively long break in between each repetition. The most famous cluster set training protocol is Poliquin cluster sets. You are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 15 seconds rest in between each rep.
For example if you were performing a set of bench presses you would simply rack the weight in between each repetition for 15 seconds. Then when the short rest break is up you would unrack the weight and perform your next rep.
For example here is a sample bench press cluster set routine that you may want to try:
Bench Press Cluster Set Routine
- A1: Bench press (medium grip), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow neutral grip pull ups, 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 3 x 6, 3/2/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 30 degree incline DB chest supported row, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
Cluster sets work so well because the long breaks in between each rep help you to tap into the high-threshold motor units. Of course it is possible to take a shorter break in between repetitions.
For example you could pause at the lockout position of a bench press for 1-3 seconds in between repetitions. In that case your tempo might look like something like this: 3/0/X/3. In other words you would lower the weight over 3 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, explode the weight up to lockout and pause for 3 seconds in the lockout position.
These isometric pauses in the lockout position of exercises is a fantastic strategy to use when training for strength.
Tempo Strategy #2: Eccentric Training
Accentuated eccentric training is one of the most powerful ways to train for strength. Accentuated eccentric training simply means you are using training methods that overload the lowering phase of an exercise beyond what you can normally do. One of the best tools for this purpose is actually weight releasers.
Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that you attach to either side of a barbell. They increase the weight of the barbell during the eccentric phase of the lift. However, during the concentric phase they fall of the barbell so you only lift the barbell back up to lockout.
Whenever you use tools such as weight releasers you want to use a very slow eccentric tempo.
I recommend you use an 8-10 second eccentric tempo whenever you use weight releasers. No, that is not a typo: you should use an 8-10 second lowering phase! This will help you to maximally overload the eccentric phase. It will also reduce your risk of injury.
Here is a sample weight releasers squat workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Weight Releasers Squat Workout
- A1: Back squat with weight releasers (medium stance / heels flat)**, 5-6 x 1, 8/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: Kneeling unilateral leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointing out), 3-4 x 5-7, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree leg press against bands, 3-4 x 7-9, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- C1: Reverse hyperextension, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
**Use 80% of your 1-rep max on the barbell and another 5-20% of your 1-rep max on each weight releaser. The total weight on the eccentric range should be 90-120% of your 1-rep max.
The 8 second eccentric phases are much harder than they look! Don’t worry, your total time under tension for each set of squats will still be under 10 seconds so you will stimulate plenty of strength gains this way.
Tempo Strategy #3: Isometric Training
Isometric muscular contractions occur when your muscles are contracting without moving. Some of the world’s best strength coaches such as Josh Bryant have found some creative ways to use isometric training to help their athletes blast through strength plateaus.
Josh is particularly fond of isometrics when it comes to blasting through strength plateaus in the bench press and deadlift. Josh has his athletes push or pull a barbell into a pair of safety pins for 6-8 seconds at a time. These are all-out isometric contractions. His athletes are literally trying to break the safety pins in half!
Here is an example of bench press isometrics:
And here is an example of deadlift isometrics:
It is absolutely critical that you push or pull against the pins for a full 6-8 seconds. This may seem like a long time to perform an isometric contraction but it is absolutely critical for getting the most out of this unique training method.
Research has shown that you can recruit far more muscle fibers and produce far more force with maximal overcoming isometric contractions when compared to more traditional training methods.
Here is a sample Josh Bryant isometric deadlift routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Isometric Deadlift Routine
- A1: Conventional deadlift**, 1 x 2, 1/3/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Isometric deadlift (just below the knees)***, 4 x 1, 1/0/X/8, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Speed conventional deadlift****, 4 x 3, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Barbell bent over rows, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Wide overhand grip lat pulldowns, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Glute ham raise, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Barbell shrugs, 3 x 10-12, 1/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 90% of your estimated 1-rep max
***Performed with an empty 45-pound barbell
****Performed with 75% of your estimated 1-rep max
Be warned: this is an advanced deadlifting routine that should only be attempted by experienced trainees. You want to have at least 2 years of hardcore training experience before you attempt something this intense.
If you meet the above requirements then I highly recommend you give isometric deadlifts or bench presses a shot. They are one of the most effective applications of tempo training ever invented!
Tempo is an incredibly important strength training loading parameter. Tempo influences the total time under tension of your sets which in turn influences the training effect. As Charles Poliquin used to say, if you don’t know the tempo of your lifts then you don’t know what you’re doing!
If you have little experience manipulating the tempo of your exercises then I strongly recommend you read through this article at least one more time. You must learn this information if you want to design optimal strength training routines and programs.
If you want more help reaching your strength and physique goals then check out my online coaching program. I customize the exercise tempos for all of my clients’ training programs in order to maximize their results. If you have never payed much attention to your temp then I think you will be shocked at how much of a difference it can make in your overall progress.
“I believe any success in life is made by going into an area with a blind and furious optimism.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
- Bührle and Schmidtbleicher 1981
- Lilikow and Worobjow 1984
- Poliquin 1988
- Harris et all 1996
- Urdang et all 1989
- Dohetry et all 1989
- Little et all 1996
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