6 Reasons To Use Tempo in Your Training

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Pop quiz hotshot!


When you go to the gym, do you have a general plan? If the answer is yes, then we’re off to a good start.

Do you know what exact exercises you’re going to do? Even better.

How much time does it take you to perform each exercise? Wait, you don’t know that? Then I guess it’s about time we talk about tempo training.

Tempo is another aspect of your training. It’ like how reps and sets help you design a resistance training program and distance and speed are components of a running workout. More specifically, it refers to what we call as time under tension (TUT) or the exact time your muscles spend actually doing work.

Case in point: the next time you go to the gym, watch how people work out (just don’t stare too long or you may become the local gym creeper).  Let’s say you watch people perform the bench press, an exercise that’s as American as apple pie. Maybe some guy does a set of 10 reps that takes about 20 seconds – not exactly a very long set. The next trainee comes along and she knocks out a set of 10 reps too – and the set is over before you can blink an eye. They both did 10 reps, but who did more work? While our female trainee did 10 reps, did her muscles get any stimulation at all from such a fast set?

TUT takes care of that because now you’re prescribing a specific amount of time spent on each part of the lift. Tempo considers the entire rep: this means lowering the weight, the bottom part of the movement, lifting the weight, and then what to do with the weight when the lift is completed. So a tempo prescription of 3-0-1-0 means to:

-Lower the weight in 3 seconds

-No pause in the bottom

-Take 1 second to raise the weight

-Immediately begin lowering the weight again

Now a set of 10 reps would take 40 seconds to complete. Adding a second long squeeze at the top would make it a 3-0-1-1 tempo, and that set of 10 now takes 50 seconds. It will add a whole new level of focus to your training. But if you’re not convinced to use tempo, here are six reasons why you should.

  1. It controls all aspects of your training. Since now you know how long each set should take, all other aspects of your routine can be developed. A set that lasts 25 seconds won’t have more than 6 reps – and since you’re doing less than 6 reps, you’ll be doing more than 3 sets. Change that set to 60 seconds, and you’ll probably be doing 12-15 reps. TUT also helps select the weight. A 4 second negative – the scientific term for lowering a weight- will call for a lighter weight than a 2 second eccentric. Set the tempo first and you can develop the rest of your routine.
  2. It can express certain hormones. Hormones responsible for building muscle and burning fat – like testosterone and growth hormone- are produced by different workout programs. When subjects lifted a weight with either a 2 or a 4 second tempo, the 2 second group had a higher output of a hormone called insulin like growth factor, which helps build muscle mass (1). It’s not that one tempo is better than another, it’s just something else you can control to cause specific outcomes from your hard work.
  3. It helps build muscle/burn fat. Protein synthesis is the process of a muscle rebuilding itself. Activate it with a good workout protocol and adequate nutrition, and you’ll change your body. In a study comparing a 6-0-6 tempo to a 1-0-1 tempo with a leg extension found that the 6 second tempo activated muscle protein synthesis to a higher level (2). In fact, this level was almost two times higher than the faster group. Controlling tempo resulted in twice as many gains.
  4. It helps build muscle/burn fat, part 2. I mentioned earlier about knowing the exact time it takes to perform a set. As a personal trainer, I need to give my clients the best opportunity to change their bodies. Letting them lift weights like they’re starting a lawn mower means nothing will happen to their body. Strength coaches know that each set should last somewhere between 20 to 60 seconds to help build muscle and burn fat.
  5. You can progress a workout. Find a way to progress on a workout, and you’ll see results. With tempo, you can add time to each set, so every week, the set is taking longer and longer. Try squatting for 35 seconds per set and adding 5 seconds per week – your legs are going to growm. In training you’re either progressing or regressing, and tempo helps you progress.
  6. You actually feel the weight. Sometimes your ego can get in the way and a workout simply becomes “lift as much weight as possible.” Not bad if you’re training for strength, but not great if you’re gaining mass or burning bodyfat. I remember adding weight to my back squat – going all the way from 205 to 245 for 8 reps. Each workout became all about the weight and less about the muscle – I would do anything I could to get those 8 reps. In this case, your body will use momentum and other muscles to try and complete the rep. Using tempo meant the weight had to come down, but now I could actually feel my quads when I squatted. That feeling stayed with me days later too.

Take Home Message: If you’re serious about your training, then I strongly recommend using tempo training. I wouldn’t use it for max effort strength training or PR sets, but it definitely is great tool to help change your body. Sure, the weight will have to come down, but the progress you’ll make is well worth it. Make each set last somewhere between 20-60 seconds and you’ll literally be making your training count.



1. Headley, S.A., Henry, K., et al. “Effects of Lifting Tempo on One Repetition Maximum and Hormonal Responses to a Bench Press Protocol.” (2011) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25;2. 406-413

2. Burd, N.A, Andrews, R.J., et al. “Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-Fractional Synthetic Responses in Men.” (2012) The Journal of Applied Physiology 590(pt2). 351-362

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