Dave Thomas Performance360 Coach TrainerWritten by Dave Thomas
Owner, Performance360

If you are a faithful member of our gym, you have no doubt seen a lot of “3131” on the board this month for movements like the back squat, goblet squat, pull-up, and Bulgarian split squat. If you don’t go to our gym, you might be at a place that programs tempo work (good for you, it likely means you’re at a good gym) and perhaps want a bit more of an explanation of how tempo training works and why it is beneficial.

While pace moderated weight training has existed in a lot of circles for a long while, like many others I was first introduced to tempo training in the context of strength and conditioning by James Fitzgerald.

Let’s take the following example and look at each number in the prescription.

“4 x 3121 Back Squat @ 60%”

4 – The very first number is simply the amount of repetitions performed in the set. 

3 – The first number in the four-number sequence indicates the time spent on the eccentric, or lowering of the movement. So, the lifter would apply a focused three second count to their descent.

1 – The second number indicates time spent at bottom, or pause. In this case, a one second pause. 

2 – The third number indicates time spent on the concentric, or standing up. A two second count.

1 – You guessed it. The fourth number is the time spent at the top prior to starting the next rep.

So, three second descent. One second pause at bottom. Two second ascent. One second pause at top. For four reps at 60%. As Head Coach J likes to say, “Make sure you count Mississippi-illy.”

BENEFITS

  • Eccentric Strength – Working the negative of a movement in a controlled manner is very beneficial for strength gains, hypertrophy, and injury prevention. It also makes you sore as hell, so prescribe accordingly.
  • Weak Links – Often, our stronger muscles overpower the weaker muscles in movement. This is particularly the case for quad-dominant folks who have trouble activating their glutes and hamstrings. A slow focus of the movement at reduced load allows the weaker links to get to work and not be passed over by speed.
  • Bracing – Pretty much impossible to move slow and not brace. This reinforces good habits with veterans and teaches proper abdominal bracing in new athletes.
  • Technique – The mere act of moving slower reduces error rate. There’s high correlation between speed of movement and technique error.
  • Working Through Sticking Points – Most of us stick right after the eccentric, or the first few inches of the concentric. By pausing and starting from dead stop, we help increase rate of motor unit recruitment to “get us out of the hole”.

HOW TO PRESCRIBE IT?

Understand that tempo work is very taxing. The time under tension for a set of three reps at 3131 pace 24 seconds. That’s a lot of time to be under load or controlling your body weight in a dynamic movement, so less tends to be more with tempo work. I recommend no more than three or four reps. Five should be reserved for days you want to particularly self-hate.

Here are some ways you can tweak it to hit specific goals.

X – If there is an X in the equation, say for example, “31×1”, it means you explode up on the concentric, so no pause. This saves some time under tension and focuses on building eccentric strength.

0 – You don’t have to pause at the bottom. Think about the goal of the athlete and what you are asking them for this particular work piece.

Movements in which I like tempo work include:

What Are the Benefits of Tempo Training?

  • All Squat Variations
  • Pull-Ups
  • Push-Ups
  • Strict Press
  • Deadlifts – with the caveat the posterior chain is strong, the athlete has the ability to load the hamstrings (not the back), and technique is great.
  • Ring Rows
  • Ring Dips
  • HSPU
  • Bodybuilding Work

You want to avoid tempo work for high powered movements like the Olympic lifts.

HOW TO PERFORM IT

Load is secondary and technique is everything. A common mistake is to go heavier than you’re able to, and you end up rushing the counts and all of the sudden you are in this middle ground of not that much weight and not much of a tempo. Yuck.

Slow down, do it right.

Have questions, comments, or different uses for temp work? Drop a comment below.

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