Tempo Training: Lifting Fast VS Lifting Slow

By on June 10, 2022

Variety is key to effective training but that mustn’t only apply to the variety of movements that you are using. Just as important is to utilize variety in the way those movements are executed. Case in point: tempo.

Plate Curl Tempo Training

Tempo training refers to the speed at which you lift weights; during the concentric and eccentric portion, as well as during the pause at the top and bottom. Seeing as most of us tend to train fairly quickly when we aren’t thinking about it, tempo training often refers to moving the weights much more slowly.

Why Train Slowly?

This is a great way to not only increase the intensity but also the time under tension. Moving a heavy weight slowly is generally more difficult than “exploding” through the lift and it will also mean you increase the cumulative amount of time you spend with your muscles contracted.

This latter point makes tempo training an interesting proposition for those interested in hypertrophy. Time under tension equates to mechanical tension and we know that this can stimulate protein synthesis even in the absence of other signals (such as increased testosterone (study)). Slow movements with a partial range of motion may also increase hypoxia in the muscle, further encouraging growth via metabolic stress, and potentially forcing the faster motor units to take over (seeing as they are more anaerobic).

See also: The Surprising Benefits of Using Partials (Range of Motion)

Slowing down also offers a number of additional benefits. For example, it forces you to control the descent – the eccentric portion of the movement – rather than simply letting it drop. This is important, as it appears that the eccentric portion of the movement is superior for increasing sarcomeres in sequence (study).

Controlling the movement more will also help you to address any sticking points in your movement patterns. By removing the element of momentum, you can no longer “skip past” your weakest points. Instead, you’ll need to grind through them and get stronger in those positions. The ultimate expression of this is the “quasi isometric” where you perform a movement extremely slowly so that the whole thing takes about a minute. There’s no hiding from your weak areas now!

Curl Tempo Training

Tempo Training for Performance

And finally, going slowly will recruit more slow twitch muscle fibers. This is why it’s so hard to lift a heavy weight slowly (other than the strength curve thing, of course), it’s because your telling your body to use the smaller and weaker motor that usually come into play when lifting things like spoons and phones. These are great for creating precise movements via tiny gradations of force… but they’re not so good at explosive power.

As Pavel Tsatsouline explains, there are plenty of good reasons to train slow twitch fiber. While weaker, they also take up less space, meaning that they can generate just as much power per square inch as their faster cousins. This may explain a study by Selouyanov that found experienced athletes could increase their squat 1RM by 25.6% over six weeks by training with extremely light, slow squats.

The very same Selouyanov also explains that, despite lower max power output, slow twitch fiber still contributes greatly to running, jumping, and throwing. Why? Because most athletic activities actually don’t require the maximum contraction speed and therefore benefit from both types of fiber. This may even include sprinting.

Carrying Weight Plate

Speed Training

At the other end of the spectrum is “speed training.” This technique was used by Bruce Lee to engage more fast twitch fiber and to create greater neural drive where appropriate.

I’ll spend less time on this as we’re already familiar with how this works: essentially we’re doing the opposite thing by encouraging more fast twitch fiber recruitment: even when using lighter weights. We’re learning to better create the neural drive necessary to access the true explosiveness of muscle, and we’re  building the thicker, more powerful fast twitch fibers.

See also: Bruce Lee’s ACTUAL Training Routines Analysed and Tested!

More commonly, we refer to lifts with a very fast tempo as ballistic training or plyometric. This can translate to higher jumping power and running speed – when utilized with the correct amount of rest and recovery between sets, at least. Powerlifters may use a strategy called “compensatory acceleration” where the objective is to exert 100% max force, despite using a sub-max amount of resistance. Seeing as very heavy weights can cause us to slow down, this strategy ensures that the optimal neural drive is delivered alongside the max strength.

See also: How to Get Stronger – Hulk Training

Tempo training typically uses a slightly odd and complicated form of notation consisting of four numbers.

For example:

2-1-2-1

These numbers refer to the eccentric contraction, bottom pause, concentric contraction, and top pause, respectively.

So, in this case, we take two seconds to lower the weight, we pause at the bottom for one second, we take another two seconds to lift the weight, and then we pause for a further second.

Implementing Tempo Training

There are many ways you can introduce tempo training into your own workouts. For many, simply slowing down the movement will make a big difference. You’ll likely be surprised just how game-changing this can actually be! I am a huge advocate for quasi-isometrics.

But there are other options, too. You can play around with increasing the pause at the bottom of a movement for example: as when performing the pause-bench press. This is significantly harder as you remove the “bounce” from the bottom of the movement and thus rely purely on your own power generation.

Cadence in Training

Many people focus on slowing down the eccentric portion of the movement and exploding during the concentric.

But there is ANOTHER option. One that I think is actually rather game changing. That is to vary the tempo within a single set.

This is something I did intuitively for years. For example: you might perform 10 reps of a movement explosively, then perform a single extremely slow set, then repeat.

My “Secret” Protocol: Time Manipulation Training

Another protocol I often used was a descending tempo. The first repetition would last for 20 seconds, the next 19, the next 18, and so on.

Or you perform as many reps as you can to failure and then perform an isometric hold to failure. Or vice versa! Perform extremely slow repetitions to failure and then try and blast out a few extra fast ones. You may be surprised to find you can do this!

Time Manipulation Training

I used to call this “Time Division.” That’s kind of a lame name, so I’m redubbing it “Time Manipulation Training.” It works particularly well with bodyweight movements but it can be adapted to any type of training.

What does this do? Firstly: it offers the benefits of all these types of training in one convenient package. This ensures that you develop a more complete and all-round performance: capable of control and finesse but also explosive raw power.

Better yet, we can switch between these “modes” at will – just as we must when responding to a dynamic environment.

For hypertrophy, you may well find you respond better to one tempo than another. This way, all your bases are covered! We’re creating muscle damage, mechanical tension, AND metabolic stress in a variety of cruel and unusual ways.

Tapping Into Greater Performance…

Finally, though, altering your tempo within a single set could even allow you to tap into even greater strength by gaining more control over the muscle.

If you perform a series of extremely slow repetitions to failure and THEN try to perform a single explosive movement, you will now be forced to rely only on the fast twitch muscle fibers.

If you perform a series of extremely slow repetitions to failure and THEN try to perform a single explosive movement, you will now be forced to rely only on the fast twitch muscle fibers – seeing as all the slow twitch fibers would be fatigued. Your body has no choice but to call upon the most explosive motor units, potentially helping you to better call on that strength at will in future.

Note that this IS hypothetical… but it makes a lot of logical sense to me. I’d be very interested to know your results, if you try something similar!

The opposite is also true of the slow twitch fiber.

I honestly think this method was game-changing for me as a kid.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.