The Importance of Lifting Tempo

In an Age where most of us remain driven by the pressure of societal standards, process too often gets pushed to the edge of the seat in favour of an end product in sight.

It is not surprising to consider that a vast majority of fitness enthusiasts therefore relate to Resistance Training in similar terms – approaching it purely as a ‘means to an end’. Weight lifting is an outright expression of strength and power and, undoubtedly, an activity that holds great virtues in optimising body composition, overall health and athletic performance. Yet beyond the ideology of sculpted bodies and the notion of moving a load from point A to point B efficiently, not many people think about adding the element of ‘Tempo’ into this equation. Let alone understanding the relation between weights lifted, the progressive increase in load, and how it all links back to the number of reps and sets prescribed in their training program. Thinking about “how” a lift is performed beyond ‘good form’ and technical cues tends to be virtually non-existent in the mind of someone new to resistance training. As a junior coach in the field, one of the most challenging aspects to bring across on the gym floor is teaching new trainees to lift with intent, steadiness, and control. Asking anyone to “squeeze his or her gluteus mindfully”, chances are, they will completely loose the plot… true story. The importance of connecting body and mind in lifting is real, and it has been credited by some of the most epic human physiques ever walking the face of this Earth. Arnold himself talked about maximizing muscle development through strong ‘mind-muscle connection’ whereby he could visualize the muscle being trained, accurately feeling it working through its range of motion. Now research confirms this: mind-muscle connection significantly improves muscle recruitment and is not exclusive to the elite lifter. Describing this ability as “putting your brain into the muscle you are working” is just not exactly the best way to make it tangible to the layman. There are better ways to explain it and tempo is one of them. Tempo directly allows you to apply mind-muscle connection by providing a step-by-step foolproof approach for anyone serious about making sustainable gains through their lifting. Understanding the importance of lifting tempo not only gives you ownership of your movement, it also gives you the ability to develop focus and control in recruiting higher thresholds of motor units and the correct muscle fiber type for improved quality and output, spearing you the endless hours spent at the gym ‘going through motions’ without any noticeable change over time. Lifting Tempo refers to the speed at which you lift weights and it is what enables you to manipulate time under tension in order to achieve increased strength gains, lean muscle mass or better performance in a safe and effective manner. Depending on your specific goals, controlling the amount of time a muscle spends under a certain load, you will demand of your central nervous system for the neuromuscular adaptation best to suit to the modality you are training for. Let’s take a quick look at one of the most popular tempos you would likely come across, the 4010, and how it translates in written form.  A lifting tempo is recorded as a four-digit sequence in which the first number represents the time in seconds to lower the load towards gravity, also called the eccentric phase of the movement, thus a slow and controlled 4-seconds lowering phase. The second number is an isometric contraction, a pause in the movement, which holds the muscle in a stretched position and translating into no pause here since the second number reads 0-seconds. The third number is a 1-second powerful and fast lifting motion against gravitational force, also called the concentric phase. Lastly, the fourth digit of the sequence, again a 0 seconds phase in this case, is the pause held at the top of the movement. An example of the importance of prescribed tempo can be illustrated by a recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Medicine, which compared the effects of a fast tempo and self-selected tempo on the bench press, from two test groups across duration of three weeks. The results displayed an impressive 10% increase in maximal bench press strength from the fast tempo group after only six sessions of training as opposed no gains at all from the self-selected tempo group. That is not to say a fast tempo is the ‘one-size fits all’ solution. While it procures the best adaptation for strength gains, a slower tempo is of better use to novice trainees because it promotes hypertrophic adaptations – hence lean muscle mass gains – without compromising good technique that may result from lifting too heavy, too soon. No one tempo is THE best. Rather, a tempo proven by results is – it all depends on your intention. Taking some time with your trainer to learn and familiarize yourself with the tempo adapted to your level of experience and training goals is invaluable. Not everyone would go as far as saying that Weight Lifting is an art form, but there is something much more indicative of the craft than all ideals linked with the practice. Mind-muscle connection is key to meaningful results and more efficient force output. Tapping into it doesn’t require a lifetime of lifting experience. One of the best tools for bettering the benefits of resistance training is nailing your lifting tempo.