With all of the different training variables such as sets, reps, exercise selection, rest period, how many days to lift per week, etc. it’s no wonder that a training concept such as rep tempo often gets overlooked.
In this article I am going to talk about the basics of rep tempo, who should use it, how to incorporate it into your training program, and if it is even necessary to reach your goals.
What is Rep Tempo?
Tempo is defined as the rate or pace that an activity is performed. Therefore rep tempo (also known as rep speed, lifting speed, lifting tempo) is the rate at which you perform reps in a given set.
On paper, it is typically shown as a 3 or 4 digit code that looks something like this: 3-1-3-0. Each number denotes the amount of time in seconds to perform a specific portion of the exercise.
- The first digit (3) is always the eccentric (‘lowering’ or ‘negative’) portion of the lift. In a bench press that would be bringing the bar down to your chest for a count of 3 seconds.
- The second digit (1) represents the mid-point of the lift. Again, in the bench press you would hold the bar on your chest for 1 second before pressing.
- The third digit (3) would then be the concentric (‘lifting’ or ‘positive’) portion of the lift. This would be pressing the bar off your chest for a count of 3 seconds.
- A fourth digit (0), which will not always be used, represents the time at the top of the lift. When there is no fourth number, or in this case with a 0, there is no time spent at the top of the lift.
Why Use Rep Tempo?
Rep tempo is something that I’m sure has been around for many centuries, but didn’t become popular until sometime in the early 90’s during the golden age of bodybuilding. The common belief then was that by varying the speed at which you lifted a weight, you would elicit muscle growth or ‘hypertrophy’. More specifically: you force your muscle to spend more time under tension.
While this is partially true, there are also many other important benefits to varying your rep tempo while you lift. Here are a few of the basics:
- Improved development of connective tissue
- Improved body awareness and control
- Improved motor control of the lifts
- Improved stability
- Spice up your training
I have also read that using rep tempo can aid in fat loss but I will go ahead and say that this seems like a myth. There are no studies that say lifting more slowly aids in metabolism or fat loss. As always, when aiming for fat loss you will benefit more by focusing on your nutrition and decreasing your rest period between sets, not by rep tempo.
Who Should Use Rep Tempo?
For general “all around fitness,” I strongly believe it is good to have the ability to control various weights at varying speeds. That said, I think anyone can benefit from using rep tempo.
I typically recommend most beginners utilize a slower and more controlled eccentric (lowering) and a faster but still controlled concentric (lifting) movement while lifting. This would be a tempo of roughly 4-1-2-1. This can also be used for someone who is trying to learn a new lift or become better at a certain lift.
As I mentioned above, this will aid in improving motor control, body awareness, stability and aiding in the development of connective tissue, which is extremely important for someone new to lifting. Setting up a solid foundation now will help you achieve greater success later. There is even some research1 that shows that lifting at a slow tempo will increase strength gains in untrained individuals.
Although slower lifting will benefit a beginner, it may not work as well for a more experienced lifter who may benefit more from lifting heavier weights more explosively. For more experienced trainees I recommend using a faster (but still controlled) eccentric and an explosive (but still controlled) concentric lift. This could be 1-0-1-1 for most lifts.
How Can You Incorporate Rep Tempo Into Your Workouts?
Rep tempo can technically be used for any lift, though 9 times out of 10 it may not even be necessary to include. Again, beginners will benefit from using a slower, more controlled tempo where experienced lifters may benefit more from a controlled, explosive lift. Intermediate lifters will fall somewhere in between.
Here are a few examples of how to include other forms of rep tempo into your training:
#1 – Paused Reps
Tempo: 1-3-1-1 or 1-5-1-1
Recommended Exercises: Bench or squat variations
Why this works: The benefits of performing paused reps are twofold. For one, they allow you to significantly increase your TUT (time under tension), which will create massive hypertrophy when performed properly. More importantly, pausing a rep at the bottom will teach you how to remain tight at what is considered the toughest point of the lift.
I have a love/hate relationship with heavy paused squats, which are seriously one of the most challenging exercises that I have ever done. Try a heavy set of 6-8 reps with a 5-7 second pause at the bottom and you will feel like you just ran a marathon!
#2 – Controlled Eccentrics
Recommended Exercises: Any
Why this works: The eccentric portion of a lift typically places the most amount of stress on your muscles and connective tissue, which make focusing on this portion of the lift excellent for beginners and anyone looking to really develop muscle and connective tissue strength. It also allows you to focus on proper control of the weight as it is being lowered, which will vastly improve your technique.
I am a huge fan of doing this type of work with beginners or clients who are new to an exercise. It also seems to work really well to improve people’s technique with push-ups and pull-ups, which are typically more difficult to master technique and control.
#3 – Speed Work
Recommended Exercises: Bench, deadlift, squat
Why this works: Working on explosive speed effectively teaches your body how to apply greater force to an object or in some cases the ground. Once you learn how to apply force quickly and efficiently you will become much stronger and faster.
I typically recommend speed work to athletes or more advanced lifters but it can be used by some beginners as well. Once you have mastered basic technique with an exercise like the deadlift you can start to implement speed to add a new stimulus to your body. Start by using 50-60% of your 1 rep max (you can estimate this) for only 1-3 reps focusing mainly on technique and speed.
So, Rep Tempo Can Help Me Improve My Strength Training?
When used properly, using rep tempo can be a fun way to spice up your training and help you improve control, create hypertrophy and help you push past strength plateaus. Now go pepper some of these into your training and let me know what works well for you.
- Westcott WL, Winett RA, Anderson ES, Wojcik JR, Loud RL, Clegett E, Glover S. Effects of regular and slow speed resistance training on muscle strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Jun; 41(2): 154-8. ↩