If you are new to weight training and have started looking into programs, you may wonder why a series of three or four numbers is often assigned to each resistance exercise. That series of numbers denotes the tempo of the exercise. Tempo is the repetition velocity: the prescribed speed at which you should be moving the weight throughout each phase of each repetition.
How to read tempo
1. Tempo is usually expressed as a sequence of four numbers
For example, 3010. Each number in the sequence represents a time in seconds. So 3010 means 3 seconds, 0 seconds, 1 second, 0 seconds.
2. The first number denotes the time in seconds for the eccentric (muscle lengthening) portion of the exercise
For a squat, the eccentric portion occurs when you lower yourself to the ground. During this phase, the prime mover muscles for the squat, being the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps, lengthen. If the tempo for the eccentric portion is 3, this means you should take 3 seconds to lower yourself into the squat.
3. The second number denotes the time, if any, to pause between the eccentric and concentric portions of the exercise
For example, a tempo of 3110 for a squat indicates that you should take 3 seconds to lower yourself into the squat, then pause at the bottom of the squat for 1 second before completing the rep.
4. The third number denotes the time in seconds for the concentric (muscle shortening) portion of the exercise
For a pull up, the concentric portion occurs as the back and arm muscles contract to pull you up to the bar. For a tempo of 3010, you should take 1 second to pull yourself up to the bar.
5. The fourth number denotes the time, if any, to pause between the concentric and eccentric portions of the exercise
For a squat tempo of 3110, after pressing up out of the squat (concentric portion), you would move immediately into the eccentric portion, lowering yourself down again, without a pause.
Power training tempo
When undertaking more advanced power training, an “x” is often prescribed as part of the tempo sequence. This simply means to lift as explosively as possible in the denoted phase.
For example, a squat tempo of 30x would mean that you take 3 seconds to lower yourself down into the squat and then immediately, with no pause, press back up as quickly and explosively as possible.
Best tempo for weight training
The best tempo for resistance exercises will depend on a number of factors, including your level of experience, training goals and the individual exercise being performed.
Beginners benefit from using slower tempos initially while they are developing their technique, motor skills, control and stability. Slower tempos such as 2020 could be used with lighter weights.
Hypertrophy programs to build muscle often include tempos such as 4020 with slower eccentric portions and longer muscle time under tension. These tempos promote muscle damage, which in turn promotes muscle growth when combined with post-training nutrition.
To build strength endurance, moderate paced tempos such as 1010 are often used with higher repetition ranges.
After mastering technique, you could also include some power training with explosive tempos such as 20×0.