Manipulating lifting tempo to your advantage

Macgregor McNair Training Methodologies 0 Comments

An often neglected variable in strength training, the speed or tempo, at which the lift is performed through the different phases of movement, can have a profound impact on how effective the particular exercise is at getting you toward your goal. Whether you are training for relative strength, functional hypertrophy, rate of force development, power or speed - I encourage you to examine the finer details of your lifting tempo and potentially skyrocket the effectiveness of your workouts.

The principles you need to be familiar with, when considering lifting tempo, are “intensity” and “time under tension”. Intensity is a commonly misused word in the context of strength training. In this context, intensity refers to the amount of weight being lifted in a given set, in relation to the 1 rep max for that lift. For example, if an athlete is squatting 85kg/187lb for 5 reps, and their 1RM on the squat is 100kg/220lb, then the intensity of the 5 rep set at 85kg/187lb is 85% 1RM. Time under tension (TUT) refers to the amount of time the targeted muscle groups are exposed to a certain training stimulus in a given set. In the example of the athlete squatting 85kg/187lb for 5 reps, if the tempo at which the reps are performed is “3010”, then the time under tension for the set would be 20 seconds. Naturally, there is an inverse relationship between the intensity of the load being lifted, and the amount of time under tension per set. For example, the heavier the load, the less time under tension an athlete will be able to effectively lift that load for. Conversely, the lighter the load, the more time under tension the athlete will be able to lift that load for.

For fight athletes, there are a number of different strength qualities which need to be developed in order to ensure optimal athletic performance. Most specifically, relative strength, functional (myfibrillar) hypertrophy, and rate of force development (power).

* Time under tension used to elicit relative strength - generally speaking, up to 20 seconds of time under tension per set is optimal for developing relative strength. Provided the intensity of the load is around 85% of 1RM or above, up to 20 seconds of TUT will provide enough stimulus to elicit relative strength development.

* Time under tension used to elicit functional (myfibrillar) hypertrophy - an increase in new lean muscle tissue can generally be stimulated by keeping the TUT per set to the lower end of 20-70 seconds. While at the upper end of 20-70 seconds TUT per set, you will generally find enough mechanical stress to the muscle fibers to flood them with fluid and energy substrates, causing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Although this sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will not necessarily cause an increase in new lean muscle tissue, it will cause a lot of cellular swelling which results in the muscle looking bigger and fuller.

* Time under tension used to elicit rate of force development - lifting fast and heavy for a TUT of under 10 seconds per set, with maximum recovery time between sets and minimal accumulation of fatigue is a great way to stimulate power or rate of force development. It is very important to use a method of measuring bar speed to ensure the right adaptations are occurring, and the bar speed is indeed increasing.

4 main components for measuring time under tension per rep/set
* Eccentric - this refers to lowering of the load against gravity, or resisting against the load as the working muscles are lengthened. In the Back Squat for example, the eccentric phase of the lift is the downward resistance against the bar as you lower the load from standing position down to the bottom position or the ‘hole’ of the Squat. There are mountains of studies which suggest that eccentric strength levels are naturally up to 40% greater than concentric strength levels, meaning that if your 1RM in the Back Squat is 100kg/220lb, you should be able to effectively lower a load of up to 140kg/309lb in the eccentric phase of the lift. There are numerous benefits for supramaximal eccentric training, although it is one of the more overlooked methods in modern strength training.

* Pause in the the lengthened position (bottom end range) - a great way to increase TUT and eliminate the elastic ‘bounce’ out of the bottom position of a lift, is to pause for 2 seconds or more at the bottom or fully lengthened position. This will help develop strength control profile during the lift, increase your ability to stabilise the load, as well as develop the bottom end of the strength-curve in the lift.

* Concentric - commonly thought of as the only portion of the lift which matters, the concentric phase of a lift is the propelling of the load upwards from the bottom, or lengthened position, to the top or the shortened position. In the Back Squat for example, the concentric phase is the upward movement from when the bar is down closest to the ground, returning to the upright standing position.

* Pause in the shortened position (top end range) - this refers to the rest/pause taken in between reps, at the fully shortened or lock-out position.

4 digit tempo prescriptions
Popularised by the great Charles Poliquin and the Poliquin Group, the following 4 digit tempo prescription method is a perfect means for measuring and prescribing time under tension per set. Take, for example, the bench press, performed at 55 per cent of your 1RM for 20 reps, at ‘3010’ tempo (which can also be written as 3-0-1-0). First, let me explain ‘3010’ tempo:

* In this example, the first number, ‘3’, refers to the eccentric phase of the lift – or the lowering against gravity. The ‘3’ represents three seconds, the prescribed time for the eccentric phase of the lift.

* The second number, ‘0’, refers to the amount of pause you are required to take at the bottom range of the movement or the fully lengthened position for the working muscles. In the case of a ‘0’, you don’t pause at all at the bottom and immediately transition into the concentric phase.
The third number, ‘1’, is the concentric phase. This is the main component of the lift, propelling the weight upward against gravity to the top range of the movement. In this case, one second is fairly standard for a concentric contraction – if it were required to be an explosive contraction, the third number would be written as an ‘X’.

* The fourth number, ‘0’, refers to the amount of pause you are required to take at the top range of the movement before beginning the next rep. If this fourth number is a ‘0’, that means NO rest or pause between reps.

In the example of a bench press, performed at 55 per cent of your 1RM for 20 reps, at ‘3010’ tempo, each rep should take four seconds, and 20 reps should equate to approximately 80 seconds of ‘time under tension’ per set.

Using eccentric tempo to your advantage.
During the eccentric phase of a lift, you will generally find that there are less of the muscle fibers or motor units being recruited than in the concentric phase. Even though there are less muscle fibers being used in the eccentric phase, the working muscle fibers are subjected to higher levels of tension or force, this results in advantageous muscular/metabolic stress for adaptations like protein synthesis - necessary for hypertrophy. Fewer fibers are receiving more stress and more metabolic damage, triggering higher levels of hypertrophic adaptations.

Additionally, using supramaximal eccentric training, or lifting up to 140% of your 1RM for only the eccentric phase of the lift, has been shown to increase maximal strength. This is mainly due to the high neurological demand of this type of training. While I am yet to see a study showing that supramaximal eccentric training alone will translate directly to rate of force development and power, the theory goes that if you train the two modalities concurrently (supramaximal eccentric & rate of force development) you will see a high degree of carry-over into explosive power and athleticism, as well as maximal strength.

Using concentric tempo to your advantage.
“Train fast to become faster, train slow to become slower”, specifically in regard to concentric training there is a lot of truth to this saying. For the purpose of athletic development and explosive power generation, fight athletes might be best keeping their concentric contractions as fast as possible. While there are benefits in using slow concentric work to pre or post-exhaust a particular muscle group for metabolic adaptations like hypertrophy or body composition improvement, for true athletic development and transmutation of strength into the fight sports - keep the concentric phases as fast and explosive as possible.

Using isometrics to your advantage.
Unlike the concentric and eccentric phases of a lift, where the working muscles are lengthening or shortening, an isometric contraction refers to creating high levels of contractile tension while not changing the muscle length. Using isometric pauses at strategic points within the strength-curve of a lift is a great way to overcome ‘sticking points’ within a lift, or to build strength in the weakest points within the joint angle curve. For example, if the weakest part of an athlete’s bench press is somewhere in the middle range of the joint angle curve, you might consider performing an “isometric press into pins”, whereby you would set up the spotting arms on the bench press rack so that the athlete is pressing the bar upwards into the spotting arms, or ‘pins’, positioned at the halfway point of the movement for around 6-8 seconds of isometric contraction per rep.

isometric press into pins

isometric press into pins

As you can see, there are many different ways to manipulate lifting tempo to suit your training outcomes. I encourage you to investigate the tempo at which you are lifting, and how you might be able to optimise your training to break through plateaus, eliminate weaknesses and become the most dominant fight athlete possible. If you are interested in knowing more about what we do at The Unknown, have any questions or feedback - please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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