What Is Tempo and Why Is It Important
by Sean McCullagh | May 1, 2013
What does that 30X1 mean?
You’ve seen the above notation before in your workouts, and this notation defines the tempo we’d like you to use for a given lift. When people think about lifting weights, or doing bodyweight exercises for strength, they usually think of sets and reps. Sets and reps are the most common notations, and they surely are important, but tempo is KING and not to be overlooked! First, you need to understand what the notation means:
The first number is the length of time of the eccentric phase, which is the lowering portion of any lift. Descending in a squat or pull-up are both the eccentric phase, as is lowering the bar to your chest in a bench press.
(WARNING: the first number is not always the first movement of the exercise – example – Strict Barbell Overhead Press)
The second number is the length of pause after the eccentric phase. This would be the pause in the bottom for a squat, or a pause on the chest for a bench, or hanging with arms extended at the bottom of the pull-up.
The third number (or letter) is the length of the concentric phase, which is what you think of as doing the work of the lift. Standing up out of a squat is concentric, as is pulling your chin over the bar in a pull-up.
The final number is the length of pause after the concentric phase. This would be standing at the top of a squat, or holding your chin above the bar in a pull-up.
As you might have noticed, not all exercises start with the same phase. Some start with the lowering of the weight (eccentric), and other start with the raising of the weight (concentric). Squats and bench press, for example, begin with the eccentric phase, and thus the tempo notation is in order. However, things like standing presses and pull-ups start with the concentric phase, so the tempo notation is not in order. Using the 30X1 notation as an example:
Back squat: 3 second descent, followed by no pause in the bottom, stand up as fast as possible, followed by a 1 second pause at the top.
Pull-up: hanging from the bar, pull you chin above the bar as fast as possible, 1 second pause with chin above the bar, 3 second descent to straight arm hang, followed by no pause at the bottom.
As you can see, a tempo that might be easy for one lift might be very difficult for another based on where those pauses happen. Standing at the top of a squat for a second to catch your breath makes things easier, spending a second above the bar in a pull-up does not!
Why the “X?”
Sometimes, we don’t want you to control the amount of time it takes for a certain phase. Because crashing to the bottom is never safe, this is always in the concentric phase of the movement. X means “as fast as possible” and is mainly concerned with your intent to move the weight than how fast it actually goes. If you want to know how X is different than 1, do a push-up that takes 1 full second to complete, and then do one as fast as you can push away from the ground. You may also see “A” in the tempo, which refers to you assisting that portion of the lift, either by jumping, bands, or manual assistance.
So why do we care about tempo?
Tempo is important because, just like sets and reps, it can affect how much weight you might be able to use for a given exercise. It can also affect how sore you might be tomorrow, how much rest you might need in between sets, and which part of a movement is emphasized.
How does tempo affect all of these things? Part of that answer lies in the fact that different phases of the movement affect you differently. The eccentric phase of a given movement is more stressful on your muscles and more likely to make you sore. Just intuitively you know that you can do 10min of rowing without issue, but that 10 minutes of air squats will leave you hobbling for many days. Both involve repeated flexing of the hips, knees and ankles, but the eccentric phase is unloaded in the row because most of your bodyweight is supported by the seat and slide, whereas in the squat, you are holding all the weight!
Tempo also affects the volume and intensity of the exercise. Volume is the amount of work you’re doing per set, and intensity can be viewed as the proximity to your one rep max. Assuming your effort is constant, volume and intensity are on two sides of a seesaw. When volume is high, intensity is low, and vice versa. You know that if we asked you to do 3 sets of 10 reps of squats, your weight would be lower than if we asked you to do 3 sets of 3 reps. So your weight (intensity) is lower for the 3 sets of 10, and your total number of reps per set (volume) is higher. By increasing the length of the tempo, we are also increasing the Time Under Tension. So 3 sets of 3 squats with a 32X1 tempo is more stressful than 3 sets of 3 squats with a 20X1 tempo, and will force you to use a lower weight, thus lowering the intensity.
So, pay attention to the tempo! Doing so will ensure that you get what we intend out of each exercise. You coaches can write the most beautiful program all day long, but you’re the one actually doing the exercises. I hope that after you read this, you will think of most strength exercises as involving not just sets and reps, but also tempo. And remember TEMPO IS KING!
Dynamic Warm-Up – Mobility
A. Strength: Tempo Back Squats
3 Pause back squats @12X1 +2 back squats
To clarify, 3 back squats will be performed at tempo, then 2 at normal speed.
Tempo, 1 second down, which just implies a controlled descent, not crashing. 2 sec at the bottom, explode up, reset at the top just long enough to breathe. Exploding up may not look or feel explosive, but that is the intent.
30 air squat
30 hollow rock
30 air squat
30 flutter kick
30 air squat
30 Russian twist
30 air squat
30 sit up
30 air squat
* Scale accordingly to maintain consistency of good mechanics, while applying intensity through rounds. Ask your coach for help.
B. ABOVE and BEYOND: