Rep Tempo: An Essential Loading Parameter
Why tempo is one of the most important loading parameters
The reason being that it affects all the others. Rep tempo is one aspect of my training programs that has helped me get ahead in the Iron Game for the last 34 years. During that time, I have focused on precisely controlling all aspects of the time under tension prescription. I have done this by determining the exact length of time of muscular stimulus during all phases of a repetition.
Addressing tempo as a loading parameter in all my workouts is of paramount importance to me. I used this for the workouts of my athletes for the last Rio Olympics. Both Helen Maroulis, gold medal in wrestling, and Will Claye, silver medal in triple jump had precise tempo prescriptions throughout their entire Olympic preparation
Let’s start with some definitions. Speed of contraction refers to the rate of movement of the implement or limb involved in any given strength exercise. In sport science circles, it is normally described or measured in terms of degrees per second. For simplicity, I measure speed of contraction as the amount of time it takes to complete each phase of a repetition. I use the term tempo collectively to describe the total amount of time it takes to complete an entire repetition. Here’s how I do it.
The First Number – Eccentric Contraction
An eccentric contraction occurs when your muscles lengthen under load. An example of this is when you lower the resistance during the descent of the squat. Eccentric training is often neglected by American strength coaches. This is unfortunate, as it is to the detriment of their strength training programs. In fact, research by renowned biomechanist Tom McLaughlin showed that the most successful powerlifters are the ones who have the best control of the load eccentrically.
The Second Number – Pause in the Stretched Position
This pause usually occurs between the eccentric (lowering) phase and the concentric (lifting) phase of a repetition. The moment the barbell makes contact with your chest during the bench press is a good illustration of this isometric pause. Pauses in the “disadvantageous” position (i.e., poor leverage) of a lift, such as the bottom position of a squat, increase intramuscular tension. This can further boost your strength development.
The Third Number – Concentric Contraction
The concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens, such as when you curl a barbell to your shoulders. If X is used in the formula, it implies explosive action with full acceleration. Obviously, it would be dangerous to use X for the eccentric contraction of exercises. This would mean you would lower the load too fast in lift as squats and bench presses. This is why you will only see the X used as the third number in my prescriptions.
The Fourth Number – Pause in the Shortened Position
This is the type of contraction that occurs at the end of the concentric phase, such as when you lock out your bench press. Pauses in this “advantageous” position (i.e., good leverage) also increase the recruitment of more fast-twitch fibers. Those fast-twitch fibers are the fibers that will provide the most increases in strength and power. In my early years as a strength coach, I used a three-digit formula that ignored this pause. However, I eventually concluded that it is essential in the formula to determine the precise training stimulus.
Rep Tempo in Practice
Putting it together, a 4212 rep tempo prescription for the bench press would go like this. You would lower the barbell to your chest in four seconds. You would then pause for two seconds when the bar makes contact with your chest. Right after this, you would press the weight to extended arms in one second, and finally, rest two seconds when the barbell is locked out. This is done before performing another repetition.Of all loading parameters that can be manipulated to design resistance-training programs, speed of contraction is probably one the most misunderstood and neglected aspects of training.Click To Tweet
But if you master the application of rep tempo prescription, you will enjoy greater control of your program. This will in turn result in faster and greater gains in strength and muscle development.
Coach Charles R. Poliquin