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How Tempo Training Can Maximize Your Strength- And Muscle-Building Routine

Been lifting for a while and ready to level up your training strategy? A few simple tweaks to your approach can reset your progress. Tempo training, for example, can help you reach new heights in muscle and strength gains.

What Is Tempo Training?

Tempo training is a method of changing up the speed at which you move through an exercise, says Dominick Mangine, C.P.T., founding coach at Rowgatta in New York City. It’s most commonly used to emphasize the eccentric (or negative phase) of a movement, in which you slowly allow muscles to lengthen (typically by lowering a weight with control). However, it can be used to emphasize the concentric (or lifting phase) of a movement as well.

If you’re using tempo training to work the eccentric phase of a biceps curl, for example, you might curl the weight up to the count of one beat and slowly lower it to the count of three beats. (You may see this written out in training programs as 1-0-3-0. The first number refers to the concentric phase, the second number to the mid-point of the exercise, the third number to the eccentric phase, and the fourth number to the end-point.)

There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to how many beats is best, says Clark. You can lift and/or lower for as many as five or six beats.

Tempo Training And Building Muscle

Tempo training can be used by (practically) anyone, but it’s especially beneficial for people with sports-specific goals, like bodybuilders, says Josh Clark, a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach at LoHi Athletic Club in Denver.

Bodybuilders, for example, often incorporate slow tempos into their lifts. Taking more time to move through an exercise keeps the target muscles under tension for longer, according to Mangine. This then leads to more muscle damage, which equals more muscle-building potential (so long as you give your muscles the fuel and recovery to rebuild and repair, of course).

Read More: How Long Does It Take To Build Muscle?

Research backs up the concept: A small 2012 The Journal of Physiology study found that men who performed leg extensions using a tempo of six seconds up and six seconds down saw greater increases in muscle protein synthesis (the muscle-repairing process) than those who used a tempo of one second up and one second down. These results suggest that time under tension may indeed be an important factor in building muscle, the researchers say.   

Tempo Training And Gaining Strength

Tempo training can also be used to help you build strength in a particular lift, such as the barbell squat or bench press.

Powerlifters, in particular, use tempo training to help them get through their sticking point when using a heavier weight in a lift, says Clark.

For example, many lifters get stuck when their thighs are about two to six inches above parallel to the floor when coming out of a barbell squat. To address that, a lifter might perform a few sets of squats using a lighter weight (about 65 percent of your one-rep max) and pause for about five seconds at the sticking point during each rep. “That will build strength around those joint angles,” Clark says. 

How To Add Tempo Training To Your Routine

Whether you’re looking to add muscle or strength (or both!), tempo training can bring a new challenge to your workouts. 

That said, make sure you have all your basics in place before trying it. “Adding tempo training into your workouts is simple, but make sure all of the key components of a movement are near perfection before adding in another element,” Mangine says.

Read More: 5 Mistakes People Make When Trying To Build Muscle

If you’re ready to try tempo training, Clark recommends using it only for exercises you need extra help in (like mastering pullups or getting through your bench press sticking point). Start by extending just your eccentric phase for two to five seconds.

Keep in mind that working the eccentric portion of an exercise typically causes more muscle damage than the concentric portion, Clark says. You may be surprised by how sore you are the day after your workout.

When in doubt, a personal trainer or strength coach can help you figure out how to utilize tempo training to reach your individual goals—without being overly sore all week long.

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