Fortunately, for those without any weight room experience, one can almost just look at a weight and grow. The stimulus needed to overload the muscles of a fresh lifter could be almost anything that is halfway intense. However, as one becomes more advanced, the steady progression begins to slow down and one must find other alternatives to spur growth. Generally, if overload is applied by a new lifter, it is in the form of increasing weights in the same movement pattern. Yet as an experienced lifter or someone that has gone through a rigorous contest prep phase, you surely realize that adding weight is not a linear and indefinite process. Individual biomechanics can affect the limit strength of certain exercises, putting a halt to hypertrophy gains when that is met. Furthermore, increasing weight on a calorie deficit is generally not going to happen to a significant degree. But what if there was a way around these “hypertrophy dead zones”? Enter tempo training.
Although it might sound complicated, tempo training is fairly simple. In this instance, “tempo” is just the speed at which one completes a repetition. Typical tempo training protocols opt to increase the time that a muscle is under tension, by decreasing the repetition speed through any or all of the movement pattern; this includes the eccentric phase, or lowering of the weight, the concentric phase or raising of the weight, and both the pause at the bottom and top of the movement. To represent this, we simply use numbers that represent the seconds that that particular portion should be completed. A flat barbell bench press prescribed a 4:2:2:1 tempo would have one lower the weight for four seconds, pause at the bottom for two seconds, raise the weight for two seconds, and pause at the top for one second—it’s that simple! The only exception to the use of numbers is when we utilize an x; i.e. 4:2:X:1 tempo on the same movement. The only difference in this version of the bench press is that the X represents moving the weight during that part of the movement as quickly as possible. So the eccentric portion of the lift would be as explosive as possible. When the X is allotted to the position that dictates the pause at the top or bottom, it just means that no rest is given to that period. One last note–the first number in a prescribed tempo will always be the eccentric portion of the movement.
Most research has shown that time under tension should be between thirty to seventy seconds per set to maximize hypertrophy. To determine time under tension, simply add up the total seconds per rep, and multiply that by the reps in one set. So a 4:1:2:1 tempo would dictate 8 seconds per rep. If we have 7 reps per set, our total time under tension would be 8*7, or 56 seconds.
One last pointer—consider implementing a significant time in the stretch position of some movements. A lot of back movements fit this category: most rows, lat pulldowns and pullovers. Other candidates are calf raises and the bench press. A 1993 study in the April issue of the Journal of Applied physiology (1) sought to see if simply stretching a muscle for time could induce hypertrophy. They attached weight to the wings of quail that equaled 10% of its bodyweight. After five days, biopsies revealed an increase in muscle mass and length by up to 50%! Although we certainly wouldn’t be in a stretch position for five days, anecdotal evidence can also tell us that a greater pump can be perpetuated by stretching a muscle in between reps or sets. It can also allow us to utilize less weight—thus reducing the chance of injury– while keeping the same intensity by taking the stretch reflex out of the movement. Any powerlifter will tell you that a paused bench press feels a lot heavier than one that is not.
1. Antonio, J. O. S. E., and WILLIAM J. Gonyea. “Role of muscle fiber hypertrophy and hyperplasia in intermittently stretched avian muscle.” Journal of Applied Physiology 74.4 (1993): 1893-1898.