bench press“Tempo! Tempo! Tempo!” This word was something I heard screamed over and over by my football coaches during my experience as a college student-athlete. As a center in a no-huddle, fast paced, spread offense, it was my job to find the ball and set my feet as quickly as possible. The entire offensive line, quarterback and running back aligned themselves based off of where I lined up.  The next play didn’t start until I was set, which in turn allowed everyone else to get set.

That was a lot of pressure especially when you have someone screaming, “Tempo!” at you as you run like a mad man to find exactly where the ball was spotted.  It was different and took some getting used to coming from a wishbone, ground and pound, slow paced offense in high school.  But, this experience grained the idea, and importance of tempo into my head.  This idea of tempo can be implemented into your workouts as well.

When referring to tempo in your work outs, we are talking about how quickly you execute each rep of each movement or exercise.

A typical tempo would be 2,1,1,1. These numbers are referencing the amount of seconds it takes to execute the eccentric contraction, the stretch position, the concentric contraction, and the peak contraction.  (Check the article on Eccentric and Concentric contractions for more details)

Think of these numbers as variables that can totally change your workout parameters.  Working with a slower tempo (particularly on the eccentric portion) creates more time under tension.  This would be a good choice if your goal is hypertrophy, or to gain size.   An example of a good tempo for this goal would be a tempo of 4,1,3, 2.

If you wanted to train for power to become more explosive, a great tempo would be 1,0,1,0.  This won’t elicit a major hypertrophy response, but it is a great way to challenge the nervous system and make you stronger.

Remember, you are only as strong as your nervous system allows.  It is the nervous systems job to recruit muscle for contraction.  The better trained one’s nervous system is, the stronger he or she will become.

A good workout program will cover every spectrum of tempo.  Think about it like this.  If a person wants to get bigger they should follow a slower tempo, but if a person never focuses on gaining strength then the weight they use at the slower tempo will never be maximized.

This is why workout programs should go through periodization.  This means it has phases with different goals in mind.  This can be broken up into an endurance phase, hypertrophy phase, and a strength phase for example.

Each phase might last for a few weeks or even a few months, but there is always some type of change in the program.   If someone’s main goal is hypertrophy, then most of the time will be spent in the hypertrophy phase (slower tempo, longer time under tension, high volume), but each time they move into the strength phase (faster tempo, shorter time under tension, slightly less volume) they will get stronger.  This will allow them to use heavier weight when they go back to the hypertrophy phase.

The same can be said for someone whose focus is to get stronger.  They will stay in the strength phase most of the year but will often go back to hypertrophy training.  It is the nervous systems job to recruit as much muscle as possible for contraction, but if you only have a limited amounts of muscle to recruit you can only be so strong.

In short, these phases are reciprocal of one another.  Gains are never linear.  You must take a step back and see the big picture to truly achieve your goals.