Tempo: What is it good for?

When you head to the gym and lift weights, do you ever pay attention to the tempo of your reps? Most people overlook this simple aspect of training. There is a lot of attention that is paid to other parts of a training program. For example, exercise selection, rep range, and even rest periods are carefully thought out. However, there isn’t much to be said for the importance of in our training. Even those with years of experience may go about their workout without any real intention behind their rep speed.

Those who pay attention to their tempo tend to do so in an attempt to maximize hypertrophy. But does tempo training really bring about bigger increases to muscle mass? Even so, is there any reason to care about tempo outside of muscle mass? Although it is not often mentioned as an important variable, ignoring tempo may be causing you to leave a lot of results on the table.

More Hypertrophy?

As I mentioned, most conversations that involve tempo training are centered around increasing muscle mass. Mechanical tension is one of the main drivers of muscle hypertrophy. As such, many people focused on building muscle will look for ways to increase mechanical tension. There are two main ways to do this: increase the weight you are lifting or increase the time you spend lifting it. The latter is often referred to as Time Under Tension (TUT) and is a training variable that many bodybuilders pay close attention to.

Slowing down your rep speed essentially increases the time your muscles spend under tension. Theoretically, this should lead to more hypertrophy of the muscle mass. In direct comparison, we see that lifting a weight slowly does tend to outperform faster tempo when the same number of reps are completed [1]. However, when you lift a weight more slowly, you have to use a lighter weight compared to lifting it faster. When you consider the extra weight that could have been lifted, the hypertrophic benefit actually evens out [2].

I think the key here is focusing on controlled movement execution. Lifting a given weight with a deliberately slow tempo is a good way to promote muscle growth. But so too is lifting a heavier weight with a slightly faster tempo. However, flailing around and lifting a weight with momentum is going to short change you as far as hypertrophy is concerned. Your movement tempo should allow you to stay in control of the weight at all times. This will ensure that you maintain solid mind muscle connection.

Laying a Foundation

So it seems that there isn’t necessarily a magical benefit to slow tempo training for muscle mass. However, that doesn’t mean that tempo is a useless variable to consider. There are still other important aspects of training besides building muscle. One of those aspects would be the concept of improving structural integrity in order to build the physique you want.

The muscles get all the attention when it comes to working out and lifting weights. But they can’t do their job without the help of the tendons, ligaments, and bones. Although slower tempo training deosnt necessarily build muscle more effectively, it does seem to benefit our connective tissue. Several studies have shown that slow tempo training is highly effective at promoting connective tissue repair and remodeling compared to traditional speeds [3, 4]. Stronger connective will allow us to lift heavier weight in the future with less risk of injury. This is important if we want to continue progressing toward our lifting goals.

Similarly, tempo training has a way of improving our neuromuscular efficiency. Cycling through periods of slow and fast tempo is a great way to prime the nervous system for more challenging loads. With the slow tempo periods, you are teaching your body how to absorb force and transfer it properly. This same concept applies to every other discipline life. We practice things slowly before we try them at full speed. As you progress to faster tempo, your body will be able to handle the heavier loads and produce more force. This not only increases your strength effectively, it also decreases your risk of injury as well.

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Progressive Overload

Perhaps it is a lack of creativity, or maybe a predisposition toward routine, but we often forget that change can be a good thing. Your body needs a change of stimulus in order to continue adapting. Of course, most people will accomplish this by increasing the weight they use when training. But what happens when you hit a sticking point? Although there are a few options here, one good one is changing the tempo of your reps.

Changing the tempo can breathe new life into an otherwise tired and boring exercise. All of a sudden these old exercises are challenging again.  You may spend a few weeks with this new tempo, all the while priming your nervous system. Then, when you return to your regular tempo, you’ll find that you’ve broken through your sticking point. It’s all about picking and choosing the right variables to change in order to continue making progress. Sometimes that will be exercise selection, and sometimes rep count. But don’t overlook tempo as a contender as well.

Conclusion

It may seem a little nitpicky to worry about the speed of your repetitions. However, this simple aspect of training can actually pack a large punch. Is it as important as the volume and intensity of our training? Not really. But it is still a worthwhile training variable that we can use over time. In essence, tempo is another tool in the tool belt for us. We can apply it in order to mix things up or bring about a certain adaptation. It may not have magical muscle building properties like some believe. But it does help us in other ways such as connective tissue integrity and progression of workouts.

Remember that our training should be fun and exciting for us. Without that, we are not going to stick with the program for very long. Tempo helps us to continue mixing things up which leads to better adaptations over time. In that way, tempo can be a great resource for helping us build more muscle and strength from our training. 

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References

  1. Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J., Hector, A. J., … & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub‐fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of physiology, 590(2), 351-362.
  2. Mohamad, N. I., Cronin, J. B., & Nosaka, K. K. (2012). Difference in kinematics and kinetics between high-and low-velocity resistance loading equated by volume: implications for hypertrophy training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(1), 269-275.
  3. Beyer, R., Kongsgaard, M., Hougs Kjær, B., Øhlenschlæger, T., Kjær, M., & Magnusson, S. P. (2015). Heavy slow resistance versus eccentric training as treatment for Achilles tendinopathy: a randomized controlled trial. The American journal of sports medicine, 43(7), 1704-1711
  4. Hyldahl, R. D., Nelson, B., Xin, L., Welling, T., Groscost, L., Hubal, M. J., … & Parcell, A. C. (2015). Extracellular matrix remodeling and its contribution to protective adaptation following lengthening contractions in human muscle. The FASEB Journal, 29(7), 2894-2904.

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