Side View Of Female Athlete At Gym Sitting On Bench Performing Bicep Curls

Understanding Tempo Training for Maximum Strength Gains

BY Sari Terranova

Master the art of methodical movements and improve your strength through tempo training.

Ever thought about tempo being as crucial in the weight room as it is on the dance floor? Maybe it doesn’t have the allure of a rumba or a slow merengue, but mastering the art of methodically controlling your movements through each lift phase can leave you not just seriously sore but seriously strong. It’s like a workout dance that boosts form, builds a killer mind-muscle connection, fortifies connective tissues, and cuts down the risk of injuries.

Now, let’s talk about the guiding principle of strength training – progressive overload.

If the goal is to get bigger, better, and stronger (and who doesn’t want that?), you’ve got to shake things up in your programming and make those workouts progressively more challenging over time.

Most folks assume that progressive overload is all about tossing a bit more weight on the bar each training round, amping up rep volume, or slashing rest time. Tempo tends to be the unsung hero in the list of variables coaches play with, but it’s one of the easiest ways to up the challenge and keep things time-efficient.

All About Tempo Training

Let’s chat about tempo training, which is all about tweaking the speed of your movements during exercises.

In reality, you’re always playing with tempo when you hit the weights. But when you dive into tempo training, it’s like dialing in and fine-tuning those natural rhythm patterns you groove into during exercises.

When you throw specific tempo ratios into your workout plan, you’re basically calling the shots on the time under tension (TUT). That’s the fancy way of saying how long your muscle fibers are working hard during a move.

By tinkering with the time you spend on the trickier part of a lift (usually the eccentric part – hang tight, we’ll break that down!), you’re setting the stage for some serious strength gains. It’s like giving your muscles the exact nudge they need to level up.

Understanding Eccentric, Concentric and Isometric Movements

Let’s dive into what’s happening during the eccentric, concentric, and isometric phases of a move so you can start to understand the mechanics of tempo training.

Research tells us that the eccentric phase, where your muscles lengthen (think lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl), is where most of the strength gains go down. Then comes the concentric phase, the muscle-shortening stage when you’re lifting that weight back toward your body. The isometric phase is when your muscle is under tension without moving, and there are usually two stops in this phase – one at the bottom and one at the top of your move.

When you see numbers like 3:1:2:0 in your workout plan, it’s not a secret code – it’s your tempo roadmap. Those numbers tell you how many seconds to spend on each part of the lift. The order is key: eccentric (lengthening), isometric (pause), concentric (shortening), and another isometric (pause). For example, a bench press with a 3:1:2:0 tempo means you lower for three seconds, pause at the bottom for one, press up for two, and chill at the top.

Here’s a quick tip – the sweet spot for total time under tension per set is between 10-30 seconds. So, with our bench press example, each rep would be six seconds long for around three to five reps to hit that sweet spot.

Not every exercise is a tempo training candidate, but it’s the secret sauce for breaking through plateaus on your big hitters like deadlifts, squats, and presses. Even curls dig the tempo vibe, along with basic bodyweight moves like pushups and pull-ups. It’s like giving your workout routine a fresh beat.

How to Use Tempo Training in Your Next Strength Session

Back Squat 4:1:2:1

This deliberate and measured tempo is perfect for lifters aiming to master their form and dial into that mind-muscle connection while tackling a squat.

Here’s the drill: Assume your standard squat stance, take a deep breath into your belly to brace your core, and gracefully lower yourself to the bottom position, counting to four. Hang out at the bottom for a second, then smoothly rise back up over a two-count to your starting position. Give a little pause at the top for a second, and repeat. Aim for three reps per set and go for three to four sets to really get into the groove.

Zottman Curls 4:1:X:0

Zottman curls are hands down my go-to arm exercise for my pull day routine, whether I’m kicking off with them or using them as a burn-out to cap off my workout. They’re like hitting two birds with one stone — a bicep blaster and a forearm scorcher. Adding a bit of tempo to the mix cranks up the intensity even more.

Here’s the lowdown on the Zottman curl: Stand tall, feet together, arms stretched out, elbows snug to your sides, clutching the dumbbell with a supinated grip (that’s underhand, palms facing up). Flex your biceps, hoist the weights towards your shoulders, and now, the twist – rotate your wrists 180 degrees to a pronated grip (palms facing outward). This is your starting point. Now, ease those weights down to your thighs in a slow and steady manner (I’m all about that four-second descent), spin your wrists back to a supinated grip, explode back up in a curl, and repeat. Shoot for six reps per set and aim for four sets to really set those arms on fire.

Push Ups 2:0:2:0

Let’s talk push-ups – often brushed aside for their simplicity, but these bad boys are a classic strength gauge for a reason, and they fit like a glove with all sorts of tempo ratios. There might be as many push-up variations as there are ice cream flavors (though maybe not as enjoyable), but my top picks are the standard, diamond, and feet-elevated decline push-ups.

For this 2:0:2:0 ratio, get in the standard push-up setup – feet hip-width apart, hands mid-chest just outside your shoulders (think more arrow, less “T” for your spine and elbows). Start with your arms fully extended in the top plank position. Bend your elbows and lower your chest for a solid two count until you’re a hair’s breadth from the floor. Without skipping a beat, thrust your arms back up to the top for another two count and dive into the next round. Knock out six to eight reps for four sets.

Coach’s Tip: Check out this article to nail your push up form and add some variation —
Getting Started with Push Ups

Timing is Everything… You Might Be Missing in Your Strength Training Program

Just like with any other workout tweak, your body gets savvy to the same tempo routine, so it’s key to mix things up in your strength training plan. A solid target is not just upping your eccentric time but also diving into static holds — be it in the eccentric, isometric, or concentric zones.

Quick heads up, though – the longer you hang out in the eccentric phase, the more likely you’ll be buddies with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). On the flip side, a deliberate tempo can squash those sneaky “cheater” habits, like bouncing the bar off your chest during presses or throwing some swing into your bicep curls. Plus, it’s your secret weapon for tackling sticking points in those compound lifts.

Time is money, right? So, let’s make every precious second in the gym work for you. Sure, you might need to bust out a bit of math, but you’ll be raking in those gains in no time.

This post originally appeared on TrainHeroic and has been adapted for TrainingPeaks.

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About Sari Terranova

Sari Terranova is a total supermom, CPT, and nutrition coach who introduces women and youth athletes to the power of weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and functional strength training. She’s got 20 years of classroom teaching experience and a lifetime of love for college football.

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