If you’ve ever seen a professionally written training program, you might have noticed something unusual next to the typical list of exercises. Often, it’s a numerical sequence that looks like “1-0-1-1” or something similar. Wondering what that’s all about? Simply put, it’s the prescribed tempo for an exercise. Lifting tempo is something a lot of lifters talk a lot about—and here I’ll break down what it’s all about, how much it matters, and a couple of tips to keep in mind when you’re in the gym. Let’s get into it.
What is Tempo?
Generally, lifting tempo reflects how much time a lifter spends in each phase of a repetition. If we take the four-sequence number from above, 1-0-1-1, we can break it down into four parts or phases of an exercise rep.
That first “1” is the number of seconds you spend lowering the weight (the eccentric phase of the rep). In this example, it’s one second.
The second digit reflects how long you hold the weight at the bottom of an exercise. In this example, it’s zero, which means you don’t pause at all. However, if you had a mean coach who was programming pause squats for you, that number might be two, three, or worse….
The third digit represents how long the pressing, pushing, or pulling motion (the concentric phase) should take. In this case, it’s one second. This particular number is the one I have the biggest problem with, but we’ll get to that more in a second.
The final number is your pause between reps. If you imagine a bench press, how long do you hold the weight at the top of each rep before starting your next one? In this example, it would be one second. For some exercises, like lat pulldowns, the higher this number is, the more of a stretch you get between each rep.
Why Might Tempo Matter?
So, as you can see, a lifting tempo generally has four parts: down, pause, up, pause. Easy enough, right? But why does it matter? Well, there are a few reasons:
The biggest reason a coach might prescribe a tempo is to ensure their client maintains control of the weight during a given exercise. If you’ve ever seen newbies in the gym before, you might notice that their repetitions look a little inconsistent. Using a specific lifting tempo helps control that inconsistency and allows exercisers to hit more identical repetitions.
Lifting tempo might also matter due to the old-school belief that eccentric contractions (the lowering part of the exercise) have secret powers in regard to muscle growth. We’ll touch on that more in a second.
And finally, there’s also a rampant belief in bodybuilding that time under tension is key for muscle growth, and slowing down the concentric (pushing, pressing, pulling) part of an exercise enhances this time under tension.
If you’re reading between the lines here, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not super-sold on some of these. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
What The Science Says About Lifting Tempo
While the first reason for prescribing lifting tempos is legit for obvious reasons, the science doesn’t necessarily agree about the second two.
First off, many lifters believe that eccentric contractions (lengthening contractions) have some sort of superpower when it comes to muscle growth. Old-school bodybuilders, like Dorian Yates, have been quoted as suggesting that the eccentric part of the rep is key for muscle growth. Scientists used to agree, as well, because eccentrics are generally the portion of the exercise where muscle damage occurs the most. And 20 years ago, we all thought muscle damage equaled muscle growth, but now we understand that it’s more nuanced than that.
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When it comes to eccentrics and muscle growth, there’s a ton of science to dig into. I’m going to spare you a master’s degree in skeletal muscle physiology and make it easy: The bottom line is that eccentrics are not the most critical part of a repetition for muscle growth. In fact, our muscles are stronger during the eccentric phase of a movement. This means that if you’re benching 100 pounds for a set of ten reps, your muscles might be working at 40 percent capacity during the lowering portion, but closer to 70 percent capacity during the pressing part of the rep. Which sounds more conducive to growth?
Think about it this way: When do you know that you’ve hit failure on an exercise? When you can’t push the weight anymore. At that point, you could probably lower it several more times without issue, which means you haven’t even tapped into the difficult reps from an eccentric standpoint. Eccentrics in normal lifting reflect the easiest part of the lift, which means they’re not the end-all-be-all for muscle growth.
Now let’s talk about time under tension. While this theory can certainly hold up to some scrutiny, it’s important to understand the nuance here, too. The slower you push the bar during a bench press, the more time under tension you accumulate, right? Well…what if you just pushed an empty barbell for 60 seconds straight? Would that give you a ton of muscle growth?
Absolutely not. See, there’s an inverse relationship between lifting duration and muscle activation; the slower you lift a weight, the less muscle you need to recruit in order to move the weight. What’s that mean in the long run? Poor muscle gains, unfortunately.
Best Gym Practices
So, with all that in mind, is tempo important? Yes! Just maybe not in the way you think. Here are my two recommendations for how to think about tempo while you lift.
1. Control, control, control
The eccentric portion of a normal lift may not be as important as many old-school bodybuilders make it out to be, but that doesn’t mean you should just slam your weights around all willy-nilly. The most important thing when it comes to growing muscle is longevity, which means you need to stay healthy and consistent—and controlling a weight during the eccentric phase will almost certainly reduce your injury risk in the gym.
2. Keep The Concentric Quick
As long as you have control of the weight you’re lifting, let it and your fatigue dictate your pressing, pushing, or pulling tempo. That said, your goal should be to push, press, or pull the weight as quickly as possible, as this will maximize muscle activation. Of course, if the weight is heavy or you’re super fatigued, the weight won’t actually move that fast—and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, super-high effort and super-slow movement velocity is the perfect formula for muscle growth. It means that every active muscle fiber gets a lot of growth signals from each repetition.
The Bottom Line
While getting specific about lifting tempo can be a useful tool for gym beginners, I rarely prescribe it for folks who have a few years (or more) of experience. Rather, I’m more interested in you using a weight that’s difficult for eight to 12 reps and in you controlling that weight while letting fatigue or gravity slow you down. If you’re stuck lowering a weight for 10 seconds or trying to push pink dumbbells super-slowly for extra time under tension all in the name of tempo, you’re leaving gains on the table, I promise you. Control the weight, let it dictate your tempo, and keep growing.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.