Tempo – What is it? Is it important?

The inclusion of tempo as a training variable is certainly more on the advanced side, so if you are a beginner, adjusting tempos will not be something that you should really be too focused on at all. Tempo however is a key consideration once you start to get a little more advanced with programming, and it is worth having a good general understanding of what tempo is and a few key ways that it relates to strength training for footy, as well as why it is important to consider.

Tempo is essentially the speed of a repetition. So now there is not just a squat with sets, reps and rest times, but rather a squat which also includes the tempo of that squat. In more specific programs that you will see that have tempo listed it often looks something like this;

Exercise         Sets         Reps       Tempo           Rest

Squat                    4                  6               3:0:2          2 minutes

That 3:0:2 is basically the time in seconds for each portion of the movement;

  • 3 seconds for the eccentric (downward part)
  • 0 seconds for the transition (the part at the bottom of the squat)
  • 2 seconds for the concentric (coming upward part.)

The fact that tempo would be listed indicates that it is an important variable – but it makes sense that it should be – as like we said before – tempo is basically speed of movement – and athletic quality is often based on speed of movement or speed of execution of a task.

Because this topic, like any other discussion on programming, has the potential to become very long-winded if we try to cover too many things, lets focus purely on a quicker tempo of programming in order to highlight the importance of this variable. This also ties in nicely with other discussions we have had on things like plyometric movement and fast twitch muscle fibers.

Generally speaking, the quicker the tempo of an exercise, the more that speed and power – or rapid firing of motor units and muscle fibers – is the aim of the set. The slower the tempo, the more the set is aimed at strength or hypertrophy (depending of course on the weight and number of repetitions being done.)

Tempo becomes more important to include in a program if a particular goal demands such attention, and where speed of movement in an exercise is important to execute, this would constitute a time when tempo should be taken into consideration. Lets stick with the squat;

Squat              4               6            1:0:1         2 minutes

This is all of a sudden a very explosive set, clearly aimed at moving the bar as fast as possible, and you would not be able to move anywhere near as heavy a weight as you would in a similar rep range, with no specific tempo programed. That’s 2 seconds per rep, meaning it only takes 12 seconds to complete the set! The weight on the bar would be no more than 30-50% 1RM (and that is if you are a very experienced and well trained lifter.) In such a set, it is speed of the squat movement that is the primary aim, not strength development.

Generally, the heavier the set, and the more aimed at pure strength, the slower it will be. This is because it takes longer than a split-second to maximally contract and recruit all the motor units and muscle fibers needed to lift such a maximal amount. By contrast, when lifting a load quickly, it isn’t possible to recruit as high a number, as the movement is over much quicker – and this is why the design of a program with tempo is important, as adjusting it will adjust the response from your body.

This topic of tempo and speed of movement in weights ties in nicely with plyometric training if you need a clearer picture of what we are getting at. Plyometrics are a much quicker tempo and more aimed at power and speed of movement rather than strength. However plyometric movements normally do not list the tempo, as it is automatically assumed that they are being performed as quickly and explosively as possible – since that’s what they are designed for. However with normal strength training, the exercises selected can take on any range of looks when a programming variable like tempo is adjusted.

A set like the one listed earlier (which is extremely quick and advanced a movement, even with no weight listed);

Squat                 4                6              1:0:1           2 minutes

Is a very different exercise to something like;

Squat                 5                8              4:0:3          90 seconds

Both are squats, both have similar numbers of sets, reps and rest times (and depending on the individual, the weight being used would be different but not as different as you may think), however the execution of the movement will look very different and produce a very different training response from the body.

So which is better or what should I do? There is that question again that we covered in another article. Neither is universally better than the other, either could be better depending on a few factors, none more so than the goal of the exercise. But generally speaking you want a program where both are used at various stages (periodisation again.) You should lay a foundation of base conditioning, with exercises executed in a slow and controlled manner focused largely on movement mechanics and quality and simply getting the body to adapt and be prepared for the harder stuff, followed by heavier more maximal loads in order to recruit a higher threshold of motor units and fast twitch fibers, and then transfer this maximal strength development to power and speed of movement with the quicker tempos.

I didn’t want this to be a long and technical discussion on tempo, merely an introduction to get you thinking, and to understanding that it is an important variable to adapt and adjust if you are an advanced strength trainer with a couple years worth of experience, and if you have specific athletic goals that you are aiming for. It is the least often considered variable in a program layout (rarely listed in programs at all), and this may in part be due to its initially overly technical look on paper. But if you understand what the numbers mean, it is more so an indicator of the rough speed of movement that each part of an exercise should be.

However like with all other forms of more advanced programming, fast tempo’s are just that – and should not be done by a beginner or even intermediate trainer. Only once you have a couple years of consistent experience in a broad range of functional movements would you even consider such quick tempos with an additional weight. If you have any questions or would like help with personal direction, send us a message.

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