TRAINING TEMPO: IS THERE A PARTICULAR TEMPO THAT'S BEST?

Training tempo is a topic that is commonly discussed with many different perspectives and viewpoints…

Some try to utilize scientific data to support their beliefs (although they’re often misinterpreting the data) and others just use their anecdotal opinion. I’m going to break down some of the science behind this topic but also give you some practical advice that doesn’t involve numbers!

People want to know, is there a specific tempo they should utilize when performing their eccentric and concentric muscle contractions?

I’ve heard this many times – training tempo isn’t important – the most important thing is total volume. This would mean that performing 3×10 reps with 20 pounds is essentially equal, regardless of how it’s performed, the tempo utilized, and the total time under tension.  In this article, your going to learn why that is not true.

Time is valuable, and your time in the gym should be maximized for your progress.

What is training tempo?

Training tempo is the cadence at which a repetition is performed.  Repetitions are broken down into 4 phases when tempo is prescribed.

  • Eccentric Contractions (Negative – the portion of the rep where the primary muscle is lengthening)
  • Bottom – The end of the range at the bottom of the movement
  • Concentric Contractions (Positive – the portion of the rep where the primary muscle is shortening)
  • Top – The end of the range at the top of the movement

What are some of the scientific suggestions in regards to tempo?

It’s pretty clear that manipulating your training tempo, or how you perform an exercise does effect the acute physiological response(1).  The speed at which your perform your repetitions as well as the total time under tension can impact factors like metabolic stress (i.e. lactic acid accumulation), muscle damage (microtears), and cell swelling (the pump!)(2).  However, a lot of the studies examined concentric or eccentric tempo only on a fancy piece of equipment called an isokinetic dynamometer.  Since none of us actually use that equipment in our gyms, applying those findings to traditional weight training isn’t a great idea.  

Some of the data contradicts previous findings and what people often do is cherry-pick data that supports their beliefs. Differences in opinion aren’t seen just around the bros in the gym, there are still different opinions within the scientific community.  For example, the American College of Sports Medicine recommend a 1-2 second concentric and 1-2 second eccentric(3). However, Brad Schoenfeld, one of the most respected researchers in regards to hypertrophic (muscle building) training suggest a 2-4 second eccentric, with a faster 1-2 second concentric(2).

Instead of debating about specific tempos and concrete numbers, let’s think about other pieces to the puzzle to help us come up with a logical approach.

 

What’s advantageous to each phase?

It is well understood that our muscles are stronger during the eccentric phase of the lift.  This means we can withstand heavier loads during the negative and we also understand that their is great potential for muscle damage during this phase of the lift(4).  However, traditional resistance training utilizes the same load during the concentric and eccentric phases of the lift. The eccentric can be overloaded with techniques like forced negatives from a training partner, or accommodating resistance techniques (i.e. reverse bands) but thats for a different article. So in order to take advantage of our negatives, I recommend your negatives move at a slower tempo than your positives.

We also understand that if you perform super slow concentric and eccentrics you’re going to increase metabolic stress and fatigue much faster.  This accumulation fatigue will force you to use lighter loads throughout the entire workout – and often times lighter loads means less mechanical tension (assuming form/execution of the exercise is maintained properly with heavier loads).  So performing lighter weight with slower tempo can significantly decrease your total training volume, and that approach sure doesn’t seem to be optimal either (5,6).

But what about pausing, what do we know about isometrics.  Interestingly enough, our muscles are strongest during maximal isometric contractions(7).  Pausing for a split second at the bottom of the rep can be very beneficial and a period where you consciously switch to a force-production (concentric) phase compared to a tension-lengthening (eccentric) phase.  

This can also be very advantageous to minimizing your risk of injury! When people utilize momentum and a stretch-reflex at the bottom of a lift, oftentimes active tension on the musculature is transferred as passive force on the joints.  This is where a lot of injuries take place – during the transition phase from eccentric to concentric because there is a lack of control.

Your concentric muscle action is where you can recruit the greatest amount of muscle fibers.  Although your strength potential is greater during eccentrics, your ability to recruit motor units and active muscle fibers is greater during concentrics.  It has been shown that performing controlled, yet explosive concentrics are best to maximize motor unit recruitment.

Now although an explosive concentric contraction seems to be best, it’s important to understand that the actual velocity of the movement is going to be heavily dictated by the intensity of the load (% of 1RM)(8- VBT).  The heavier the load is your working with, and the closer it is to your 1RM, the slower you will be able to move that load, however, your intent should be to generate as much force as possible as quickly as possible!

So now you’ve read a decent amount of information on tempo, but I still haven’t really given you any definitive answer… What should you actually apply to your training to maximize your muscle growth?

Here are two examples of how a tempo may be prescribed:

Squat @ 4/1/X/1

This would mean you’re performing a 4 second eccentric, a 1 second “pause” at the bottom of the rep (in the whole), explosively performing the concentric, and pausing for 1 second at the top.

The second example would be as follows:

Bicep Curl @ 2/0/2/0

This would mean a 2 second eccentric, no pause at the bottom, a 2 second concentric, no pause at the top.

Now that you have an understanding on how tempo is broken down, you may be wondering how this affects the muscle itself.

What is the most important variable? …. CONTROL!

CONTROLLING the load with your target muscles is going to be the most important factor when performing your repetitions. You need to have a stable base and a strong foundation when performing all of your exercise in order to maximize TENSION on the target muscle.  Stop thinking about moving weight and start thinking about contracting your muscle. Stop thinking about a specific time and start thinking about CONTROL.

The negative portion of the lift is where many trainees really halt their own progress.  The negative is an eccentric muscle contraction, and although it’s vastly different (essentially opposite) of your concentric phase, it’s still a contraction and you should feel this portion of the lift.  Often times many people just allow gravity to force their joints through a range of motion during the negative with minimal control and suboptimal active tension! Not only are you missing a huge opportunity for muscle growth – you’re increasing your risk of injury.  

Regardless of the exercise, not controlling the negative and using momentum to initiate the positive is a recipe for disaster.

Here are two well respected hybrid athlete (powerlifter/bodybuilders) with drastically different approaches to training.  You can see that the video on the Top – Dr. Layne Norton (@biolayne) doesn’t use as slow of a negative, doesn’t pause at the bottom, and uses momentum or the stretch reflex mechanism to spring him out of the hole of the squat.  On the Bottom – Josh Vogel (@vogelitis) uses a much more controlled eccentric with a slight pause at the bottom where he consciously transitions from an eccentric to a concentric muscle action.

Another great example is shown here by Michael Charles (@mikecharles_) as he maintains control throughout the entire range of motion of every single repetition while benching some heavy ass weight!

Another crucial component to your repetition execution is your concentric phase.  Once you get to the bottom of the movement, or that particular end range, I want you to focus on initiating the concentric contraction with your target muscle.  You literally should be able to flex and isometrically contract that target muscle before actually moving the weight and positively contracting through the rest of the range.  This will be very beneficial at maximizing muscle activity and improve your mind muscle connection over time.

If you have some trouble connecting with your muscle, check out this previous article I wrote for Bodybuilding.com

The Optimal “Tempo” Approach for basically every exercise: C/SP/CX/SP

  • Controlled Negatives
  • Slight Pause
  • Controlled eXplosive Intent Positives
  • Slight Pause

I like what Eric Helms (@helms3dmj) and colleagues stated in their research article (1) – “a tempo that maintains muscular tension during the concentric and eccentric phases without sacrificing the magnitude of load may be optimal”.  The key factor in my eyes being “maintaining muscular tension”! These researchers also stated, “regardless of tempo of lifting muscle should control the weight during the concentric phase and muscle, not gravity, should lower the weight during the eccentric portion”.

Key Takeaways

  1. Always be in CONTROL of the movement (both during the concentric and eccentric portion)
  2. Your negative should generally be longer than your concentric (this may change as fatigue kicks in throughout a duration of a set)
  3. Do NOT use MOMENTUM – have a slight pause at the bottom (end range) of a movement and consciously initiate the concentric with the target muscle
  4. Tension, Tension Tension – you should feel tension on your target muscles throughout the entire range

References:

  1. Helms, E. R., Fitschen, P. J., Aragon, A. A., Cronin, J., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2015). Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training.
  2. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
  3. Kraemer, W. J., Adams, K., Cafarelli, E., Dudley, G. A., Dooly, C., Feigenbaum, M. S., … & Newton, R. U. (2002). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(2), 364-380.
  4. Roig, M., O’Brien, K., Kirk, G., Murray, R., McKinnon, P., Shadgan, B., & Reid, D. W. (2008). The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analyses. British journal of sports medicine.
  5. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2909-2918.
  6. Schuenke, M. D., Herman, J. R., Gliders, R. M., Hagerman, F. C., Hikida, R. S., Rana, S. R., … & Staron, R. S. (2012). Early-phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus traditional resistance-training regimens. European journal of applied physiology, 112(10), 3585-3595.
  7. Babault, N., Pousson, M., Ballay, Y., & Van Hoecke, J. (2001). Activation of human quadriceps femoris during isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(6), 2628-2634.

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