Quality programming incorporates various training methods to maximize the way athletes get faster, stronger and fitter. One way to add variety into your training is tempo training, a form of training that focuses on the speed of a lift.
When it comes to weightlifting, tempo training has long been used by Australian strength coach Ian King, who is credited with popularizing the current system of writing tempo and Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin, who is credited with bringing this concept to mainstream.
In tempo training, four numbers constitute the tempo of an exercise. For example, you could see a training prescription like this:
Front squats: 5 sets x 3 reps at 3-0-1-0
So what do those numbers mean?
The first number, in this case 3, refers to the time (in seconds) you should spend during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift. In our example of a front squat, you should take 3 seconds to get from a fully extended position to below parallel. The first number will always represent the eccentric/lowering phase of whatever movement you’re doing, even if the movement starts with a concentric phase (lifting) as is the case for a strict press.
The second number, in this case 0, denotes any pause at the bottom of the lift (when the movement switches from lowering to ascending). In our example, you would immediately begin the concentric phase after you hit full depth in the squat. If instead of 0, the number was 2, you would spend two seconds paused in the bottom position before standing.
The third number, in this case 1, refers to the time you should spend on the concentric (ascending) portion of the lift. That means you should take 1 second to lift the weight, even if you think you could move it faster. Often coaches will swap this number out for an ‘X’, which signifies that the athlete should complete the concentric phase as quickly and powerfully as possible.
The last number, in this case 0, denotes the time you should spend at the top of the lift (i.e. the finish position). In our example, you would immediately begin your next repetition.
BENEFITS OF TEMPO TRAINING
Helps you overcome a strength plateau
Time under tension dictates the amount of stimulus a muscle is exposed to. When you place tension on a muscle without letting it contract, you experience passive elastic tension.
When you place tension on a muscle through an isometric contraction (the joint angle and muscle length doesn’t change—think holding the bottom position of a squat for a few seconds), you experience active tension. So, when you lift a weight through a full range of motion (the descent and ascent of a back squat, for example), your muscles experience both passive and active tension. Numerous studies have shown that in order to build maximum muscle, your body not only needs to experience tension through a full range of motion, but it needs to experience significant time under tension. Increased time under tension forces the body to recruit more muscle fibers to contract, thus equating to strength gains. Furthermore, by using tempo training you’re varying your training stimulus—meaning that your body isn’t used to having to perform certain movements at certain speeds in certain portions of the lift. The result is that your body has to constantly adapt and get stronger in an attempt to tackle the varied stimulus.
Improves quality of movement
Lifting weight at a set tempo allows you to develop kinesthetic awareness (body awareness), stability and control. The athlete will be better able to sense which muscles are firing to help keep them in the right position, and which are failing if they struggle to maintain it. Therefore, tempo training can be a great tool to correct faults in an athlete’s technique. An athlete that struggles to maintain their form during the bottom position of an overhead squat(or fails to get out of the position entirely) can gain confidence, strength and comfort by spending more time in that position with a bar overhead.
Reduces risk of injury
With better quality of movement comes a reduced risk of injury. But by increasing the tempo of a lift, you’re actively switching the focus from tendinous elements to muscular elements. This is because in a bouncy or ballistic motion, high stress is placed on the tendons and joints. A slow, controlled motion places more stress on the muscles, which are far better at adapting to increased weight. Tempo prescriptions also moderate an athlete’s intensity, which is useful when it comes to injury prevention. The bench press is a perfect example. If the athlete places an inordinate amount of weight on the bar, they could be tempted to bounce the barbell of the chest—which is dangerous. But if they’re restricted by a tempo prescription such as 3-1-X-1, those three seconds of controlled descent and one pause at the bottom is going to force the athlete to use a weight they can handle properly.
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