Advanced training is all about concentrating on form and technique to maximise muscle use and development. Getting your tempo right is one of the fundamental steps to effectively improving gains and overall strength.

Workout Tempo Tips & Advice

Only beginners can get away with very basic training techniques. And even then, the newbie gains will stop after a while. Now that you’re an advanced lifter, you need to adopt advanced strategies to keep your training progressing. Lifting tempo can increase intensity, time under tension, and relative volume across your training sessions.



What does workout tempo mean?


Tempo refers to the time (in seconds) you spend in each section of an exercise: the concentric (muscle shortening/contraction), the eccentric (muscle lengthening/stretch) and the top and bottom of the lift.


Almost every lifter starts their training career by paying no attention at all to tempo. They just feel glad if they can complete a rep! But failure to think about tempo leads to rushed reps and lazy technique powered by momentum. Slow things down and focus on tempo, and you’ll make faster, safer, and cleaner progress.


By manipulating tempo, you can control the time under tension of each rep, and you’ll get more work out of each set. It’s one more way to add progression to your workouts, without continually adding more load on the bar (or time on the clock!)


What do you gain from focusing on tempo?


Getting strict about tempo means your reps and sets will take longer to complete, putting the muscle fibres under tension for longer. When you consider that the muscle is only working hard for a relatively small part of each lift, it makes sense to maximise the time you spent there. Rushing through a rep, or spending too long at lockout or when the joint is stacked, means you’re not working as hard as you could be.


You’ll see tempo written on training plans as a series of numbers, usually something like 202X.

Workout Tempo Example 202X

Let’s take a biceps curl as an example. The first number (2 in this instance) is the eccentric (lowering) phase. The second number (0 here) is the barbell at the bottom of the curl. The third number (2 here) is the concentric (shortening [...of the bicep]) portion. And the fourth number (X) is the end of the rep.


So in this example, you’d begin with the barbell raised, lower it over a period of 2 seconds, then immediately raise the barbell back up over a period of 2 seconds, and briefly squeeze the muscle.

Bicep Curl Example Concentric and Eccentric

You might see any combination of numbers, the important thing is to remember that they refer to different parts of the lift and correspond to seconds. (So 62X0 on squats would be a particularly horrible 6 seconds down, hold for 2 seconds, power up, and go again).


Tempo for chest and arms


Tempo training works well for chest and arm workouts, because it forces you to concentrate on form and time under tension. You won’t be able to swing weights up and down for biceps curls, or rush the stretching portion of a chest press. You’ll be rewarded by more micro damage to the muscle fibres, more blood in the muscle, and a better pump.


Try these three tempo tactics


#1 Slow down the eccentric and the concentric. That’s right, lift the weight slowly, AND lower it slowly. No more explosive lifts or lazy finishes. Concentrate on keeping the muscle under tension on the way up and on the way down. Aim for at least a 2 second concentric and eccentric, but if you can do 4 seconds then even better.


#2 Slow down the concentric, hold and squeeze, then lower under control. Aim to spend 3 seconds shortening the muscle, and then hold it whilst the tension is still on. Note, this won’t be at the very top of an exercise (using a preacher curl as an example, you should pause before the forearm is vertical and the joint is stacked). Lower the weight in 1-2 seconds, but maintain control.


#3 Finally, you can use normal tempo on the concentric, then hold/squeeze, and focus your tempo on the eccentric (stretching portion). Make this work for you by thinking about actively resisting the weight on the way down. With a chest press, this would mean pushing the weight away quickly, pausing at the top (whilst tension is still on), then lowering slowly. Take it to the next level by thinking about contracting the opposing muscle. For example, with a biceps curl, lift quickly, pause, then lower slowly, and think about contracting your triceps on this eccentric portion.


Start focusing on tempo, and you’ll automatically add more time under tension plus think about your form. Better form means a better, more effective workout and less chance of injury.


Here's some great ideas for tempo workouts using the Pull Up Mate.