These were the sounds I heard on the gym floor every time Rudy would train one of his clients as the barbell slammed off of the floor or the cable slammed back into the stack.
Rudy believed in making every lift explosive. (And, no, I haven’t changed his name because sometimes trainers need to be called out on their crap.) “Why do you feel the need to have your clients perform every aspect of every lift explosively?“ I asked him once.
His response was, “because on on the playing field, everything happens fast.”
Fair enough (even though that’s not true). But the problem was that Rudy’s clients weren’t high level athletes preparing for the Olympics of the World Cup. They were general population clients looking to stay healthy, move well and get shredded by Memorial Day — the same as almost all of the clients you and I deal with on any given day.
Clearly, Rudy did not understand or appreciate the value of assigning different lifting tempos to various phases (eccentric, concentric) of loaded exercises. He didn’t know how to manipulate this key variable in order to prevent injury and train different strength qualities. You’re smarter than Rudy, don’t make the same mistakes as him.
This article is about the secret to good programming — tempo.
There are two key reasons to employ specific tempos in your client’s weight training programs:
- Tempo is one of the simplest and most effective ways to dictate specific time under tension of any set which, in turn, determines the strength quality (relative strength, hypertrophy, strength-endurance) you are training.
- Most injuries on the playing field and even in life happen during the transition from acceleration to deceleration and vice-versa. So learning to accelerate or decelerate your body or the bar in a controlled setting such as the gym can be useful in mitigating injury.
Speaking The Language
The way tempo is most often discussed is with a 4 digit number such as 4010.
The first number is the eccentric or lowering phase of the movement (for example, in the close grip bench press the time you take, in this case 4 seconds, to lower the bar to your chest).
The second number is any pause in the bottom position (in this example, no pause).
The third number is the amount of time it takes to lift (concentric phase) the bar (1 second here).
The final number is any pause at the top of the movement.
Remember: The first number is always the lowering phase of the lift, regardless if lowering the bar (or yourself) is the first thing you do.
In a chin up or lat pulldown, for example, your first motion is to lift yourself to the bar (or pull the bar to yourself), however the first number in the tempo prescription still represents the lowering phase of the movement. Lowering first, pause at the bottom second, lifting third, pause at the top fourth for all lifts.
Though most people (trainers included) believe that rep and set schemes are really what determine strength qualities, the secret to programming is really time under tension (TUT). Simply put, if you perform a set of 10 reps on bench press and it takes you 20 seconds or you perform the same set and it takes you 40, the training effects are different.
I realize some smarty pants out there is going to ask, “So, Dan, if the total length of a set is what drives the strength quality, why not simply set a timer for that length of time and have the client perform the exercise until the buzzer goes off?”
Now, that is a smart question (fact: you can not have smart pants unless you are smart as well) and you can train your clients that way. They will hate you as it’s really uncomfortable and unnerving for most people not to know exactly how many reps they should be shooting for in any given set, but it will work.
However, the total time of the set only addresses one variable. The other variable is the time under tension of any given rep.
Why does that matter?
A slow eccentric (lowering phase) has been proven to cause increased muscle damage which can be of huge value during a hypertrophy phase.
Fast concentric phases can carry over to explosive actions in sport (at least Rudy got something right). And specific pauses at the top or bottom of the movement can be helpful in training transitional power or plain just make the exercise more challenging.
So a 3-1-1-0 front squat will certainly have a different effect than a 1-2-2-0 front squat even though they both take 5 seconds to complete. Kapeesh?
Keeping Joints In Their Sockets, Where They Belong
If you are a fan of professional sports you will notice that most joint injuries occur during the force coupling phase where muscles act on a joint going quickly from a concentric phase to an amortization phase to an eccentric phase or vice versa. For those of you who do not want to dust of the “Essentials of Strength and Conditioning” to figure out what the hell I’m talking about, it’s the transition from acceleration to deceleration. Training these transitions through tempo training, specifically controlled eccentrics can reduce the incidences of these types of injuries. Or, at least, that is the theory.
From a common sense standpoint this certainly seems to be logical. Train the joint to be strong in a moment when it’s usually weak will make for stronger musculature surrounding the joint. But even if you want to throw logic and reasoning out the window there is still reason to utilize tempo in your training.
It’s the fact that most clients have never trained with specific tempo and doing so will make exercises more challenging, the training session more engaging and make sitting down on the toilet the next day that much more interesting.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
It would be wrong of me not to mention the two Godfather’s of Tempo, Ian King and Charles Poliquin. I first discovered a numbered tempo prescription through King’s three number system years ago. Then Charles (being Charles) had to up the ante by creating the 4 number system that you see most often utilized in text books and training magazines. Poliquin has also really delved into the entire time under tension/strength quality relationship. If you are interested, you should certainly check out his work on the topic.
Now that you have the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ it’s time for you to start utilizing tempo in your training. First, try using tempo prescriptions in your own training (this is a good rule of thumb with all things gym related, try it on yourself before you try it on your clients). It’s especially helpful if you train with a partner as they can count out the tempo for you. If you’ve never done it before, prepare for a unique (read: brutal) experience. Once you’ve got the hang of it, give it a shot with some of your more advanced clients. If they’ve never done it before they’ll think you’ve channeled the spirit of Schwarzenegger and become personal training’s version of Yoda. Just don’t paint your face green. That would be weird.
Photo credit: Chris Turner Photography