Repetition Tempo and its Role in Resistance Training

Posted August 26, 2010 by

Today we’re going to talk about repetition tempo, which is of the most underrated and underutilized factors in weight training. Repetition tempo refers to the amount of time that you spend performing each repetition of a specific exercise, and the length of this time can have a significant effect on the results you see in your fitness program. Learning to manipulate the repetition tempo to suit your fitness goals is thus a critical component to your success.

In the training world, we often use a three-digit notation to refer to the tempo at which the client should aim to perform their lift. The numbers each stand for one of the “phases” of the movement:

  • the negative or eccentric phase, in which the weight moves WITH the force of gravity (in other words, “lowering” the weight)
  • the static or isometric phase, during which time the weight is changing from the negative to the positive phase (in other words, “holding” the weight)
  • the positive or concentric phase, in which the weight moves AGAINST the force of gravity (in other words, “lifting” the weight)

For example, a client might be instructed to perform barbell squats with a 3-2-1 tempo. This would mean that every time the client lowers the weight into a squat, it needs to take them 3 seconds to get to the bottom of the lift (the eccentric phase). At the bottom of the lift, the client should hold the weight still for 2 seconds (the isometric phase). Finally, the client should bring the weight back up to the starting position in 1 second (the concentric phase).

As stated earlier, different tempos will produce different results. For instance, when first beginning a resistance training program (or coming back to one after a long period of downtime), it is important to bring the nervous system up to speed so that you are able to control the weight as it moves without injuring yourself. The best tempo for this adaptation is a slower one, around 3-2-1 (3 second eccentric, 2 second isometric, 1 second concentric). On the other hand, when a more advanced lifter is training to increase strength or muscle tone, a quicker tempo of (2-1-2) or even (1-1-1) can be preferable. The key to a successful resistance program is covering all your bases, so a mixture of different tempos is useful to ensure that you’re getting a well-rounded workout.

For obvious reasons, as the length of time it takes to perform each repetition changes, either one of two other factors needs to be changed as a result (or even both):

  • the amount of weight needs to be adjusted (the longer it takes to perform a rep, the lighter the weight needs to be, all other things being equal)
  • the total number of repetitions needs to be adjusted (the longer it takes to perform a rep, the fewer the repetitions that can be performed, all other things being equal)

Typically, the weight used, total repetitions per set, the repetition tempo and even the total number of sets per muscle group are all taken into consideration when targeting a specific physical goal. Understanding the bodily effects of these factors is crucial to realizing success in your efforts.

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