If you’re new to strength training, you may wonder why your trainer asks you to speed up certain portions of your lifts while slowing others down. Or, you might have noticed other gym-goers counting time as they hoist or lower weight.
Once a near obsession with many trainers and coaches, tempo training, as it’s called — deliberately controlling the cadence of each phase of a strength-training exercise — has fallen out of favor with some in recent years, but most fitness experts agree that the fundamental principles remain sound. “Lifting at different speeds will give your muscles different kinds of strength,” says Julia Ladewski, CSCS, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Buffalo.
“When tempo training first became popular, we saw formulas telling you exactly how fast to lift and lower a weight,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, CSCS, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. “But often, the concept wasn’t applied properly.”
Nowadays, smart trainers like Ladewski, Cosgrove and others teach a tempo-training method that uses just three different speeds, each tailored to fitness objectives ranging from fat loss, hypertrophy and absolute strength, to improved sports performance, injury prevention and recovery. The sooner you start implementing different lifting speeds into your workouts, the faster you’ll reach your fitness goals.
The 1-2-3s of Tempo Lifting
Most strength-training exercises consist of the following four distinct phases:
- The eccentric phase, during which you lower the weight.
- An isometric pause in the stretched, “down” position.
- The concentric phase, during which you lift the weight.
- A second isometric pause in the contracted, “up” position.
Extending or abbreviating any of these phases — lowering the weight slowly and lifting it quickly, for example — will elicit a slightly different response from your body.
The speed of the eccentric contraction (lowering phase) largely determines the involvement of the stretch-shortening cycle — the natural tendency of muscles and connective tissue to spring back to a shortened state after being stretched — in helping lift the weight.
For illustration, consider a barbell curl: It’s much easier to “bounce” the weight out of the bottom position than it is to lower the barbell slowly and then curl it upward under control. That’s because your tendons and connective tissues are helping your biceps muscles hoist the weight by snapping together like two ends of a bungee cord. But when you take your time and allow your connective tissues to lengthen and relax at the bottom of the lift, much of that elasticity is lost. This forces your muscles to carry the load.
A fast eccentric contraction isn’t a good idea for most strength-training exercises. (You certainly wouldn’t want to drop into the bottom position of a squat with a near-maximal weight on your shoulders!) But you can adjust the speed at which you lower the weight — from slow and controlled to more quickly but still controlled — and thus exploit or diminish the effect of the stretch-shortening cycle.
Slower eccentric contractions cause minimal stress to connective tissues, emphasizing pure strength and hypertrophy in the muscles. Faster eccentric contractions, which activate the stretch-shortening cycle, help build resilience in connective tissues and promote explosive strength, agility and general athleticism. (For more on the benefits of eccentric training, see “Put the Weight Down!”.)
The speed at which you perform the concentric (lifting) portion of an exercise determines which types of fibers you’ll effectively target. There are two broad categories of muscle fibers: Type-I, or slow-twitch fibers, engage during sustained, low-intensity activity; type-II, or fast-twitch fibers, kick in during short-duration, high-intensity exercise.
Perform a slow-tempo bench press with a light weight, for example, and you’ll target mostly type-I muscle fibers. Lift that same weight quickly, however — as if you’re trying to throw it off your chest — and you will also start to challenge your type-II muscle fibers. The slower your concentric contractions, the more you’ll build endurance-oriented type-I muscle fibers; the faster you lift a load, on the other hand, the more type-II strength-and-power muscle fibers you’ll stimulate to grow. (For more on muscle fibers, see “The Fast & Slow of It”.)
Less important but still significant for tempo training are the two isometric pauses at either end of every lift, which can vary in length from virtually nonexistent to several seconds.
Pausing at the top of a lift, such as the locked-out position on the bench press, usually makes each repetition easier, allowing you to train with more weight (exceptions include lifts during which the contracted position is the hardest part of the movement, such as rows and chin-ups). Pausing at the bottom of a lift, such as the lowest point of a squat, generally forces the muscles to work harder during the lift, and thus is a useful technique when you’re trying to stimulate muscle growth or burn calories.
A Question of Speed
All of this may leave the average lifter wondering: Up fast or up slow? Down fast or down slow? Pause at the top or the bottom? Mix and match the cadences and you have a seemingly endless number of possible lifting variations. So how do you choose? Out of all the possible permutations, most strength and fitness professionals agree on the following lifting tempos for various goals.
This is the tempo at which all portions of the lift are done under control: “If I were to clap my hands at any point during a slow-tempo lift, you should be able to stop dead instantly,” says Cosgrove. The concentric and eccentric phases of the lift should take roughly two seconds each, with about a two-second pause at the bottom of the lift.
1. Injury recovery and rehabilitation: If you’re recovering from injury and have been cleared for strength-training activities by your doctor or physical therapist, you should use mostly slow lifts for the area being rehabilitated. The slow speed is minimally taxing on connective tissues, and the longer time under tension helps build muscle endurance — a key factor in shoring up easily injured tissues such as the lower back and shoulder stabilizers.
2. Single-joint exercises: If you like to include the occasional lateral raise, curl or extension, try them at a slow tempo. A leisurely pace on such “isolation” movements allows you to fully focus on working muscles.
In a normal-tempo lift, the eccentric phase and the pause at the bottom of the lift should each take about two seconds. “After four seconds has elapsed, elasticity is effectively taken out of the equation and the muscle gets maximum stimulation,” says Cosgrove.
The concentric phase, however, should be as fast as possible. Keep in mind that “as fast as possible” doesn’t always mean the bar moves quickly — trying to move the weight quickly is more important than actually moving it quickly, especially when lifting near-maximum weights.
1. Muscle growth and absolute strength: Old-school bodybuilders will tell you that slow lifting works best for building size, but in recent years, most coaches have concluded that a slow-down, fast-up tempo is optimal for muscle growth and strength because it targets growth-prone type-II muscle fibers and limits the elastic component of the lift.
2. Fat loss: Lifting at a “normal” tempo — particularly on compound movements involving large muscle groups, such as squats — ramps up the heart rate and keeps it elevated much the way interval training does. And, your metabolism stays revved even after you stop exercising, making it an excellent fat-loss tool.
3. Sports performance: According to Ladewski, normal-tempo lifts create “strength-speed,” or the ability to move relatively quickly under a load — be it a barbell or one’s own body weight — which is a key component in nearly every sport (think of sprinters exploding from the starting blocks). Studies have shown that this kind of strength training also boosts power output — fundamental for running, jumping, swinging and throwing.
Squats, dead lifts, bench presses, overhead presses, pull-ups, lat pull-downs.
Fast-tempo lifts exploit the stretch-shortening cycle, allowing you to lift maximal weight while developing real-world and sports-specific explosive strength. Do a fast-tempo lift with a rapid, controlled eccentric phase (one to two seconds), no pause at the bottom of the lift, and a fast-as-possible concentric phase, remembering that, if you are using a heavy weight, it may still move slowly. Pause at the top of the lift only if necessary.
1. Sports performance: Fast lifting is the best way to prepare for any activities that require you to speed up, slow down or change directions quickly. “On the playing field we express strength at full speed,” says Lou Schuler, coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting. “So it makes sense to spend some of your time training that way.”
2. Injury prevention: Whether you’re chasing a ball or running to catch a train, the effect on the body is the same: high impact. Assuming you’re healthy and have sound lifting technique, fast lifting can offer great preparation for full-speed activity outside the gym. The fast eccentric and concentric phases build tendon and connective-tissue strength and density, while the quick change from lowering to lifting prepares the body to absorb shock.
Pushups, body-weight squats, inverted rows.
One final benefit of tempo training is that it gets people to break out of habitual patterns and really focus on what they’re doing. “Most people just go to the weight room, throw weights up and down, and walk out assuming they’ve done their job,” says Ladewski. “Concentrating on the timing of your lifts helps you connect your mind to your muscles — maybe for the first time since you started lifting weights!”
This article originally appeared as “The Right Timing” in the January/February 2010 issue of Experience Life.