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Controlling Tempo – High Tension Posterior Chain Training

Changing the tempo for any exercise can change the exercise and the training effect dramatically.

Let me explain.

As a quick review, tempo is:

Tempo is defined in seconds and can be broken down into the time it takes to perform each phase of a repetition. If you add up the time it takes to perform each repetition and multiply that by the total number of reps in the set, you will get your total time under tension or TUT. This variable should be monitored to manage fatigue and keep the quality of the repetitions high. As a side note, tracking the total time under tension vs. rest periods for the entire workout can provide you with a baseline of your work capacity.

Tempo Explained

Eccentric – time it takes to lower (in seconds), muscle lengthens

Isometric – time between the eccentric and concentric phases (in seconds), no change in muscle length

Concentric – time it takes to raise (in seconds), muscle shortens

Isometric – time between the concentric and the eccentric phases (in seconds)

Example: Bench Press, Tempo 3111

Eccentric – 3 seconds to lower the weight

Isometric – 1 second pause

Concentric – 1 second to raise the weight

Isometric – 1 second pause

Special Note: If someone specifies an “X” tempo, that implies as fast or as explosive as possible. You typically see this with dynamic, ballistic or compensatory acceleration training (CAT, Dr. Fred Hatfield) efforts

As you can imagine, the intensity of the exercise can vary greatly just by changing the duration of one of the phases of the lift, i.e., changing the tempo.  Think of the difference between banging out a set of curls at a fast to moderate pace OR lowering and curling the weight for 3-5 seconds each way.  You can go from being able to perform 12 repetitions to barely getting 3-5 reps with the same weight!

I talked about how ‘good form’ will mess you up.  The message was that when you really focus on tempo and strict form, everything changes.  Sloppy form can get you more reps and give you a false sense of strength.  It can also potentially lead to a pretty devastating injury.  But, it is when you do things the right way, that your true strength will be revealed.

But like I stated in the ‘good form’ article, the right way is typically the ‘hard way’.  You will need much more control during the exercise, you’ll have to use less weight, and you’ll have to check your ego at the door.  That is why most lifters and athletes opt to perform the exercise poorly.  It is not as cool to be doing less weight, especially when you’re lifting with your friends and everything turns into a competition.

Let’s look at a fundamental movement pattern – the hip hinge – and how changing the tempo can elicit different training effects.

Changing Tempo for the Hip Hinge

In the video below I perform a Romanian deadlift or RDL.  Typically this movement is not performed off the floor, but in this example, I use the floor as a guide (you’ll see what I mean when you watch the video).  Also, I don’t see any issue with a fuller range movement for the hip hinge assuming the athlete has the appropriate mobility, a good neutral torso position, and solid core strength / bracing mechanics.

In the first example in the video, you’ll notice how I ‘bounce’ the weights off the floor.  This is pretty common in most weightrooms around the world and in most athletic preparation facilities – when performing this (or variations of this) exercise.  The eccentric phase of the movement is shorter (faster) and the ‘bounce’ interrupts the eccentric-concentric chain – or the flow from one phase to the next.  There is still tension and control, but the movement is more dynamic.  This type of tempo will help to create a faster concentric phase improving dynamic hip extension, RFD, and intramuscular coordination.

For the second example in the video, you see something different.  Instead of ‘bouncing’ the weight off the floor, I slow down and hover the weight about an inch off of the ground.  The eccentric is much slower and controlled and the deceleration of the hip hinge is MUCH more powerful.  Tension is not lost in this example either, in fact, it is accumulated.  This slower and more controlled eccentric phase improves deceleration and absorption mechanics (this is huge for athletes), reversal strength, isometric strength, starting strength (you have to pull from a dead stop at the bottom), and bracing proficiency and core stability endurance.

Simply by changing the tempo for an exercise can change the training effect and the intensity.  Dependent upon the athlete’s needs, the tempo can be one of the most important factors in their development to overcome weaknesses.

By on August 13th, 2012


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Comments (4)

  1. Posted by - Paul Flint on August 13, 2012

    used to do something very similar to this in the 70’s. Then they were known as “Dead Hang Cleans”, just extending the exercise you’ve shown. Very hard work,could do it when I was younger.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Posted by - Grant Lofthouse on August 14, 2012

    Nice stuff Smitty.

    I personally don’t like tempo training if you have to think about it and apply a specific number eg. 3030. I got other shit to worry about.

    However you’re spot on with applying a tempo to completely change the effect of the exercise.
    I’d much rather cue someone to simply either go slower or faster rather than giving them a specific number.
    Thanks for the reminder bro.

  3. Posted by - Jared on August 15, 2012

    Thanks for the post Smitty, tempo plays a big part in my successes when working out and like one of the other comments on here I get strange looks when using these methods. I say change the tempo and change your attitude!

  4. Posted by - Mario on August 15, 2012

    Great article man.

    Tempo is something most people aren’t even aware of and it is probably a factor that will make the different between effective and ineffective workouts.

    Muscle grows in different ways depending on your time under tension and this is where tempo plays a big role, a vast majority people in the gym hits a plateau after a couple of month because the rely mostly on fast tempo or rest pauses to push more weight rather than real strength and mass gain.

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