Workout Tempo

What is tempo – and how to use it to get strong without destroying your body.

Recently I got a question that applies to a LOT of you. It was from an experienced lifter, who wants to lift smart. But when it comes to lifting with control, it’s too easy for them to “cheat” by lifting at any old speed, rather than following the tempo in their workout. They wanted to know how to feel like they’re making progress when they’re lifting less weight than ever before.

Workout Tempo: Don't Make This Ego Mistake

It’s amazing how adding even a couple extra seconds to your lift dramatically changes how it feels. Often it makes a lift much harder. The weights you’re used to slapping on are fine for a simple up and down squat. But add a pause, or more control on the way down, and suddenly you’re in trouble.

So a lot of people skip over this part of the exercise. Because it’s humbling to strip weight off the bar. They just want to lift the number they’re attached to.

But in the process, they’re missing out on huge gains in muscle development, strength, joint health, and even recovery from old nagging injuries. So today I’m going to make the case for why you need to Go Slow to Grow.

What Is Tempo? A Refresher

Tempos are 4-digit lifting prescriptions that describe the cadence of a lift. By following the workout TEMPO you will know precisely how fast or slow to lift in different phases of an exercise.

  • 1st Digit – Down – Lowering the weight
  • 2nd Digit – Bottom – The bottom position of a lift
  • 3rd Digit – Up – Raising the weight
  • 4th Digit – Top – The top position of a lift

TEMPO Example: Back Squat, 30X1 Tempo

  • 3: Lower the bar smoothly for a full 3 seconds

  • 0: Do not pause at the bottom of the squat

  • X: Explode up as fast as possible! (Or at least try)

  • 1: Pause 1 second at the top before your next rep

Not Everything in Your Workout Has a Tempo

In my Persist training program, you’ll find tempos most often in our Strength Intensity and Strength Balance sections of training. Within our strength work, we like to emphasize slower lowering phases of lifts.

Think about if you ever learned to do pull-ups by doing slooooow negatives. Tons of strength gets built on the way down – an area most people rush through in their hurry to get the weight back up.

So we use longer lowering phases in the 2-5 second range – which can feel like an eternity. Additionally, pausing at the bottom and top of lifts emphasizes certain positions of strength. Think about hanging out at the bottom of a loaded Back Squat while still remaining tight – your body will gradually adopt this position better. Pauses help you build stability and mobility.

Any lifter, no matter their training age, can benefit from TEMPO work. As I have gotten older and more advanced as a lifter, I gravitate towards specific tempos on lifts that work very well for me. But it is still valuable for advanced lifters to vary tempos from time to time for the sake of progression and variation.

TEMPO lifting in your workout is a powerful way to get maximal stimulus in my lifts without having to go super heavy. This helps me at age 40 to avoid punishing my joints.

With beginner and intermediate lifters, TEMPO lifting is even more crucial. These are the years when you are learning proper movement patterns and developing your motor control. These are also years when you want to remain safe and keep yourself away from injuries that could be avoided with smart lifting practices. TEMPO is a fantastic tool to build strength for more novice lifters.

Many of us, myself included, came up in a culture of lifting weights where you were told how many reps and how many sets to do. If you checked those boxes, you were done and moved on. As we have become more educated on good lifting techniques, we have added more variables to the equation.

Adopting TEMPO into your lifting doesn’t mean you remove the focus on any of the other benchmarks that matter. Meeting your prescribed tempos is another marker of your success in each workout (or an opportunity to learn for next time).

Details Matter! The 6 Signs of Progress:

  1. Completing all prescribed sets in the workout
  2. Completing all prescribed reps (or within the given ranges)
  3. Following the prescribed rest periods (not tacking an extra two minutes on between sets)
  4. Working at the prescribed RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort)
  5. Progressive overload – could you add a little weight since last time? (This doesn’t have to happen every time, but when it does, you know you’re getting stronger.)

Reps, RPE, and Progressive Overload all still matter very much. Those variables are the foundation of effective lifting programs and you should still pay very close attention to them.

BUT they all come after you commit to HONORING the tempo in your lifting. TEMPO is nothing more than an additional variable that we add to lifting so that we can CONTROL for the cadence of a lift. By using TEMPO we can get all of the benefits of lifting, on top of having a very consistent and repeatable cadence that we execute all of our reps and sets at.

Do You Bro Rep?

Would you cut your range of motion short to lift more weights on the bar?

Most people would say no when asked this question because in theory, they know the value of full range of motion. I could use that same line of questioning with workout TEMPO. Would you speed up your TEMPO in order to lift more weights on the bar?

Now that you know the power of TEMPO in your workout, in theory you probably say you would prioritize your form and honor the speed of the tempo. Yet it is so common to see people cut range of motion and speed up to keep putting weight on the bar.

EGO is a powerful thing. When we have been told that you only get gainz when you progressively overload, we all want to chase heavier weights or more reps at all costs. Even if that means going against what we know to be important, like hitting full depth and sticking to the TEMPO.

We all need reminders to keep our egos in check. We also need reminders from time to time why the principles of our training matter and why we shouldn’t cut corners. I hope that seeing the 6 reasons above why TEMPO is so valuable will remind you to get back to HONORING the tempo if you have fallen out of the habit.

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