Slow down . . . it might be your key to avoiding injury and getting stronger.
Have you ever seen a workout written with a weird series of four numbers, sometimes with an X thrown in? It might say something like 3131, or 20X2. At first, you might think this is some more crazy CrossFit jargon meant to confuse people. In fact, it’s not CrossFit related at all – it’s called tempo weight training.
Tempo weight training is a type of training where you want to control the amount of tension you put in your muscles to create different stimulus and recruit different fibers.
You may hear of tempo training in running as well – this is a common way of training for runners to gain speed and explosiveness. Road Runner Sports breaks down running tempo work here.
When we use tempo training in weightlifting or bodyweight movements, we break the movement into four phases: eccentric (muscle lengthening), a transition position (from eccentric to concentric), concentric (muscle shortening), and the start/end position.
The four numbers represent the time that it should take to complete each of the four stages of the lift.
When we focus specifically on where our body is in space and how we are moving through a lift or exercise, we are creating awareness, generating more force, and training more effectively.
In a workout, the tempo training prescription will follow the assigned number of reps, which will look something like this:
Back Squat x 3 reps @ 30X0
Let’s break down what the numbers mean.
The First Number – The first number refers to the lowering, or eccentric, phase of the lift. Using our back squat example, the 3 would represent the amount of time in seconds that it should take you to descend to the bottom of the squat. (The first number always refers to the lowering/eccentric phase, even if the movement begins with the ascending/concentric phase, such as in a pull-up.)
The Second Number – The second number refers to the amount of time spent in the bottom position of the lift – the point in which the lift transitions from descending to ascending. In our back squat example, the 0 means that you should reach the bottom position and immediately begin your ascent. If, however, the prescription was 32X0, you would be expected to pause for 2 seconds at the bottom position.
The Third Number – The third number refers to the ascending, or concentric, phase of the lift – the amount of time it takes you to get to the top of the lift. No, X is not a number. In this case, the X means that you should EXPLODE the weight up as quickly as possible.
In many cases, this will not be very fast, but it is the intent that matters – try to accelerate the weight as fast as you can. If the third number is a 2, it should take you 2 seconds to get to the top of the lift regardless of whether or not you are capable of moving it faster.
The Fourth Number – The fourth number refers to how long you should pause at the top of the lift. For example, let’s look at a weighted pull-up prescription of 20X2. In this tempo, you would be expected to hold your chin over the bar for two seconds before beginning your descent.
Counting – It seems silly to even mention how to count seconds, but many athletes audibly count to 4 in less than one second while under a heavy load. So, to ensure that your 4 second count is a true 4 second count, use “one thousands,” as in: 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand, 4-one thousand.
Remember: the tempo is always written the same way, but not all movements start with a decent (or eccentric) movement.
Tempo numbers are always written in the same order of (E,P,C,P). The deadlift, pull-ups, and other similar movements start with an ascent (or concentrically), so when reading the tempo for this movement and others alike, make sure you understand what position the movement starts in order to complete the exercise with the correct tempo.
Lets look at a tempo of 20X2 for both a squat and a pull-up.
Squat: descend for 2, pause for 0, explode out of the bottom, pause at the top for 2 before descending for 2 again.
Pull-up: “explode” for the pull, pause at the top with chin over the bar for 2, descend/lower for 2, pause for 0 before exploding for the pull again.
Time Under Tension
So what is all this for, anyway? What we’re looking to obtain is increasing our time under tension, or TUT. Manipulating the “TUT” in an exercise changes the response your body will have.
We can often blow through movements as fast as possible to get them done, but using tempo weight training will require us to be more mindful of how our bodies are moving and challenge us to stay more aware of using the correct form.
Improved Quality of Movement
Quality of movement should always be your first priority. Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity.
Intensity comes only after you can consistently demonstrate the proper mechanics of a movement. Proper tempo prescriptions can help you develop awareness and body control by giving you an opportunity to “feel” which muscle groups are activating to keep you in proper positions.
In more experienced athletes, tempo can be used to emphasize problem areas and shore up weak links in technique.
For example, if you struggle in the bottom position of an overhead squat, tempo training that forces you to spend some time in that position will help solidify your technique, create more comfort in that weak position, and permit greater improvements down the line.
Reduced Risk of Injury
Improving the quality of the movement also helps to reduce the risk of injury. Slowing down the tempo of lifts can also ease the stress placed on joints and shift that additional stress to the muscles powering the lift. More stress on the muscles and less on the joints is a good thing!
Muscles are far better at adapting to increased loads. Connective tissue typically takes longer to strengthen and adapt to those increasing loads, so by slowing down the tempo you can give your connective tissue some rest while still strengthening the surrounding musculature.
Tempo prescriptions also naturally control intensity (and perhaps, rein in egos). Let’s use the bench press as an example. If you excessively load the barbell you might be tempted to speed up the lowering phase and bounce the barbell off your chest.
But if you know that the prescription calls for a 3-second descent and a 2-second pause at the bottom, you’re not going to be tempted to load anywhere close to the same amount.
Improved Strength Gains
Proper tempo prescriptions can also result in improved strength gains.
First, different tempo prescriptions permit for greater training variety and stimulus. This means fewer plateaus and more adaptation.
Second, they allow us to challenge our weaknesses by overloading certain areas of movements. For example, how many of you feel more comfortable with your second and third deadlift reps than your first?
It’s because you’re using the benefit of either or both the elastic “bounce” of your stretch-shortening cycle or your rubber plates hitting the hard floor. But if you were working a tempo that called for a slow descent and a longer pause at the bottom, you might actually have to get stronger through your weak points.
Third, slowing down movements with tempo prescriptions can allow for greater amount of time under tension with less overall stress on your central nervous system.
This can be particularly important for CrossFit athletes, who are often pushing themselves to the limits with maximal effort lifts and workouts, by creating a way to continue training and making an athlete stronger without overtaxing his or her system.