If you really want to get stronger, stop speeding through your workouts.
What is tempo training in weightlifting?
Have you ever seen a workout with an @ sign followed by four numbers? That’s tempo.
If you didn’t know before, you, like most people, probably just ignored the number sequence and did the lifts as you normally would. Little did you know, you were missing out on serious strength and muscle gains!
Those four little numbers are the magic behind effective resistance training. They specify the duration of the eccentric phase and concentric phase, as well as how long you hold the top and bottom positions.
In short, tempo training basically defines how fast or slow you move through an exercise.
How to read weightlifting tempo training
Each of the four numbers in a tempo correlates to a specific part of the lift: The first number is the eccentric phase; the second number is a pause; the third number is the concentric phase; and the fourth number is the second pause. It’s helpful to remember the acronym EPCP.
The eccentric phase of a movement is the lowering or extension phase — when the muscle is lengthening. The eccentric portion is usually the descent of an exercise. Think: the descent on a squat, the descent on a push-up or pull-up, the descent during a bench press.
The first pause is what happens at the end of the eccentric phase. This usually happens to be the “bottom” of a lift, but not always.
In a squat, the first pause is the bottom of the squat, where your thighs are at parallel or below. In a push-up, the first pause occurs when your triceps become parallel to the ground. In a pull-up, however, the first pause is at the top, when your chin hovers above the bar.
The concentric phase of a movement is the contracting phase — when the muscle is getting shorter. This can get kind of confusing when visualizing multi-joint movements, so think about it in the simplest way: The concentric phase is usually the “up.” A leg extension is generally the easiest way to visualize concentric contractions: When you do a leg extension, your quadriceps muscles actively shorten from the beginning of the movement to the end.
In a squat, the concentric portion is when you stand up from the bottom. In a deadlift, the concentric portion is when you pull the weight off of the ground. In a pull-up, the concentric phase is the pull; and in a push-up, the concentric phase is the push.
The second pause is what happens at the end of the concentric phase. For most exercises, this is what you would conventionally think of as the "end" of the lift. In a squat, for example, the second pause is full extension of the hips after you stand up.
So let’s put it all together. For a squat, this is how tempo would play out:
One very important caveat to keep in mind: Though tempo is always written EPCP, not all movements flow that way. Take the pull-up example from earlier. The movement sequence of a pull-up is CPEP, but tempo for pull-ups is still written EPCP.
For pull-ups and other pulling movements, including deadlifts and deadlift variations, make sure to apply the tempo to the proper portion of the lift.
Another thing to keep in mind: If you see an “X” in a tempo, it means to move as quickly and with as much force as possible. A squat tempo of @ 30X1, then, is instructing you to come out of the squat and fully extend your hips as fast as you can.
Example of weightlifting tempo in a workout
To help you visualize tempo training, I’m providing part of a workout from our Smarter Sweat Foundational Strength program, one of our Core Six programs that’s currently undergoing beta testing (you can sign up for early access to the complete program here!).
Let’s look at a squat example.
Tempo Kettlebell Goblet Squats @ 3311
To follow that tempo:
Now let’s look at an upper body example.
Tempo Double Kettlebell Row @ 0130
To follow that tempo:
Remember, tempo training is always written in the same order (eccentric, pause, concentric, pause), but not all exercises begin with an eccentric phase or contraction. Make sure you understand the flow of each exercise to properly apply the tempo.
Tempo training helps build muscle and strength
You might wonder what the point of tempo training is. It induces strength gains and helps build muscle mass, that’s what! Tempo training also prevents you from practicing poor technique, which can happen when you move through exercises too quickly.
Just in case you’re not convinced that tempo training works, take it from the scientists:
There is some caution to be had when incorporating eccentric training, though: A recent 2019 review of studies cites evidence that people who are unaccustomed to eccentric training may induce more muscle damage than what is healthy (i.e., if you do too much, too soon, you could end up with severe muscle soreness that impedes your ability to perform later).
Applied properly, though, eccentric training or tempo training is integral to establishing healthy movement patterns and building strength, which is why we (smartly!) include it in our Smarter Sweat programs.
Science disclaimer: Keep in mind that there are limitations to most, if not all, studies, including: the sample size of participants, the athletic and health backgrounds of the participants, and study methods. We do our best to choose and cite studies that are accurate, well-designed, and relevant to the topic at hand.
How to add weightlifting tempos to your workouts
You can add tempos to essentially any weightlifting or resistance training exercise, as long as there’s an eccentric contraction and a concentric contraction.
You’ll get the best results from tempos on the big compound lifts — squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press — but you can also maximize muscle and strength gains by adding tempos to other multi-joint movements, such as rows and Romanian deadlifts, as well as calisthenic exercises including push-ups and pull-ups.
Even your isolation moves can benefit from weightlifting tempos. Try throwing a tempo on your next set of bicep curls and see what happens! (Spoiler: a massive pump).
If you’ve never done tempo training before, start with just one or two movements. Adding tempos to every exercise in all of your workouts is a good way to ensure you’re sore for at least a week.
Generally, my advice to true tempo beginners is to add a two-second descent to their first compound lift in the workout. So, if your workout calls for back squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and then some single-joint exercises, give your back squats a tempo of @20X1 and then perform the rest as you usually would. That’s it!
Which weightlifting tempos are best?
The best tempo you can add to your workout is the one you never do. No, really: Overcome adaptation and increase strength by speeding up or slowing down from your usual tempo.
I’ll continue with the squat example. Let’s say I tend to back squat at a tempo of 1111 — pretty average pace for a barbell squat. There’s not much I can do except slow it down (or lower the weight and attempt a tempo full of zeros, but that’s not the smart route).
Because my usual squat tempo is so fast, I’ll gain strength and muscle simply from slowing down the eccentric phase just a little. Even a 2121 can accelerate hypertrophy if my body isn’t used to it.
On the other hand, if I tend to squat at a tempo of 3300 (TBH, it’s unlikely that many people do this without being told to, but it’s a possibility), going faster could result in strength and improved muscular endurance.
The bottom line is that your body adapts to new challenges. Adding tempo training to your weightlifting routine can be the catalyst you need for muscle growth, strength gains, and enhanced performance.
We hope this post helped clear up any confusion about tempo training. If you still just want someone to lay it all out for you, day-by-day, sign up for early access to our Smarter Sweat programs, which include smartly implemented tempo work.
Amanda is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat. She's a certified personal trainer, health coach, and functional fitness coach. She also owns another business, where she writes about all things fitness, nutrition, travel and lifestyle.
About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.