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FitSmart: October 2015

The fire hall and the fitness centre both provide opportunities to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. As with the fire hall, the water cooler in the gym is where I find myself continuously learning each and every day. I’m always interested to see what other trainers are trying, not just with their clients’ programs, but also with their personal programs. The latest buzz in the fitness world is on exercise tempo. Knowledge of tempo training has been around for decades, but it has become more prevalent lately in structured training programs.

September 28, 2015 
By Brad Lawrence

Lifting tempo, simply put, is the rhythm by which you raise and lower the weights. This includes lowering the weight, pausing at the bottom, raising the weight and pausing at the top. The full sequence creates a lift tempo for that movement. It sounds basic, but strength coaches are incorporating structured tempo training into regular routines. The beauty of lift tempo is that just about anyone can incorporate it, from a novice to an elite athlete. And recent research shows there’s good reason to do so.

Lift tempo is presented in four digits and measured in seconds and will look something like this:

This 2010 is a fairly standard lift tempo that you are likely loosely following without even knowing.

The first digit always describes the eccentric phase – the time in seconds it takes to lower the weight from the top of the lift to the bottom.

The second digit is the pause at the bottom of the lift. A traditional lift generally yields 0 – or no pause.

The third number is always the concentric phase of the movement – the time in seconds it takes to reach the top of the lift. In certain programs you may see this value as an X, for example 20X0. An X value calls for an explosive concentric movement, or as fast as possible while maintaining comfortable control of the load.

The fourth number denotes the time in seconds of the pause at the top of the movement, or the pause between reps. Generally you’ll see a value of 0 with the exception of certain exercises for which a pause between reps will increase difficulty (pull-ups, for instance).

To better grasp the concept of tempo, try a walkthrough on a familiar movement. Envision the 2-0-1-0 sequence for a traditional bodyweight squat.

  1. Take two seconds to lower from starting position to the bottom of the squat.
  2. Pause for zero seconds at the bottom of the squat.
  3. Take one second to push up from the bottom of the squat to the top.
  4. Pause for zero seconds between the first rep and the second with your knees just shy of locked out at a full standing position.

Each rep of your set follows the tempo, and tweaks ordinary exercises into very different demands on your muscle.

Benefits of a slow tempo (3030, 3130, 4040, 4140, 5030)

Slow tempo lifts require you to use lighter weights, but will increase the total time your muscles are under tension. Time under tension increases muscle strength and size. Lifting at a slow tempo forces your body to build stability around those working muscles and very commonly throughout your core. While the weight you’re lifting is lighter than normal, it’s important to still reach that muscle failure with every set in order to have a high metabolic output that is great for fat loss. With an exaggerated eccentric phase, these lifts also commonly increase muscle soreness, but in turn boast greater endurance gains. Slower tempos also provide a perfect opportunity to focus on proper technique.

Benefits of a faster tempo (1010, 10X0, 2010, 20X0)

Faster tempos generally recruit the highest volume of muscle groupings per lift, and the quick explosive nature also allows us to lift heavier loads. As we’ve discussed in past columns, heavier loads lead to hypertrophy and fat loss, two great benefits. The quick pace of these movements also helps activate our fast twitch muscle fibers.

For the majority of people the most practical application of tempo training is to improve the body’s composition. Simply put, a longer lift and increased time under tension consumes far more energy than a standard lift. Higher energy consumption increases metabolism, adds muscle strength and size and burns fat – all good things right? The trick when designing a tempo program is variety. There is no golden tempo for success, and the possibilities are endless to revitalize
old movements.

As with any new program, plan it ahead of time, on paper, before you hit the gym floor. Start off by incorporating tempo into every second workout, and pick a manageable sequence to start; 3010 for instance. Use the tempo on your comfortable lifts (squats, dumbbell press, hamstring curls and so on) and move forward as you gain confidence. When you feel ready, simply switch the tempo.

Train with a purpose and you won’t be disappointed. Happy training.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer who specializes in training and nutrition for emergency responders.

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