Noah Gabriel-Landis explains what tempo in workouts is and why is matters.


If I were to choose one important component of a good weight training program that most often gets overlooked, surely it’s tempo. When we say tempo, what we’re referring to is how quickly or slowly you perform each phase of an exercise. It’s arguably as important as loading, rep selection, rest, or any other parameter that comes with a training plan. In today’s post, we’ll jump into what tempo in workouts is and why it matters, no matter what your fitness goals are.


If improving strength or building some muscle is important, tempo deserves to be a part of the equation. You may have heard that the reason resistance training works is because we’re causing – in a controlled manner – your muscle fibers to ‘tear’ a bit. Your body then recovers by knitting those muscle fibers back together. This tearing process is called microtrauma, and it’s a critical part of the cycle that leads to your muscles getting stronger.
But the part that often gets left out of this maxim is that the vast majority of micro trauma occurs during the ECCENTRIC contraction. That is, when you lower the weight. So if you’re moving too quickly on the lowering phase, you’re speeding right past much of this training effect and forgoing much of the benefit that weight training yields. If you’re moving too quickly and bouncing out of the bottom of a lift, you’re missing out one of the crucial ways that we build muscle, and hence, strength.


If your training goal is to improve your overall body composition, time under tension is an important consideration. In fact, for any Priority Strength workout I can tell you, down to the second, how long your muscles should be working in any given session – how long you’re actually moving against resistance. Your workouts are designed meticulously so that we’re literally planning for every second that your body is exerting force.
But here’s the thing – I can only plan for proper time under tension by assuming you’re following the proper tempo in workouts. So if your workout calls for reps at 4010, but you’re closer to 2010 – you’re only accumulating 60% of that time under tension that’s been planned for (3 seconds per repetition instead of the desired 5). It follows that the results just won’t be what you’d want.


If you’re following a quality workout program, the vast majority of exercises that you encounter should have an assigned tempo to go with them. You’ll see tempo represented as four digits. Each digit represents how many seconds to take at each point of the lift.
-The first of the four digits is how long you take to LOWER the weight.
-The second digit is how long to pause at the bottom.
-The third digit is how quickly you LIFT the weight.
-And the fourth is how long to pause at the top of the repetition.
This sequence of 1. Down 2. Bottom-Pause 3. Up 4. Top-Pause is ALWAYS the order. Keep that in mind, because there are plenty of instances where it can be a little confusing.
Let’s take a look at an example: Say we’re doing back squats with the assigned tempo 4110.
-Take 4 seconds on the way down
-Pause for 1 second at the bottom
-Lift the weight up for 1 second
-0 means that there’s no REQUIRED pause at the top of the repetition (but a quick breath between reps is okay)
So far so good? 4 seconds down, pause for 1, up, and then no pause at the top.


What if we take the same tempo [4110] but apply it to a different exercise, say, a deadlift. As we look at this one, remember that the order of these 4 digits is ALWAYS the same.
Now for our deadlift, the barbell starts on the floor, so we begin with the LIFT portion. That LIFT should take the same ONE second. Remember, the third digit is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS the LIFT portion of an exercise. It doesn’t matter if an exercise begins with the LIFT – like a deadlift – or begins with a LOWER – like a back squat. The order of your 4-digit tempo is always the same. The first digit always represents how long to LOWER the weight, and the third is always the pacing for the LIFT. So we would conduct the exercise like this:
-LIFT the bar for 1 second.
-No PAUSE at the top (again, a quick breath is okay)
-LOWER the bar for 4 seconds.
-PAUSE at the bottom for 1 second.


If you’re feeling a bit confused, don’t worry, this will certainly take a little practice. But one thing to keep in mind is that you just about always LOWER the weight more slowly than you lift it.
Most of the tempo in workouts that you encounter at first will be fairly straight forward. Perhaps something like 4010 or 3010. If you get confused, it’s a safe bet that the bigger number is the lowering phase, because we take longer to lower a weight than we do to lift it.
Another way that you can think of the ‘lowering’ phase is this: if you’re in the middle of a lift and you were to completely let go of the barbell (or dumbbell, or handle), which way would it fall? That direction is the first digit. Always.


When we do rowing exercises, for example, it’s fairly common that you’ll be asked to pause briefly at the top of each repetition – hold the handle close to your chest for a 1-count before lowering the weight. That’s represented that with a 1 in the final digit of our tempo. In the case of the row seen here, our tempo is 3011. That ‘one’ in the fourth digit represents the one-second pause after the ‘lift’ portion of the exercise, with the handle held toward your chest.


Another digit that you might see from time to time is ‘A’, which stands for ASSISTED.
‘A’ means that you’re going to use some form of help to complete that portion of the repetition. The easiest example of this is a pullup negative. Your tempo for a pull-up negative might read 60A0. The A means that you’re not actually doing any lifting at all – you’re using some assistance to complete that phase. In this case, stepping back on a box instead of completing the FULL pull-up so you can focus exclusively on the DOWN phase.
You might also see an ‘X’ in that third digit, and X means to move as quickly as you can. Move with some OOMPH or ‘X-PLODE’. Try to move the bar quickly.
The keyword here is TRY. If you’re towards the end of a tough set and getting tired, the bar might not move all that quickly, and that’s okay. What matters the most is the INTENT. TRY to move the bar as quickly as you can.


I don’t want to generalize too much, but what ‘tempo’ is very likely going to feel like for you as you get started is moving slowly on the way down. Probably WAY more slowly than you’re used to. And make no mistake, this makes things a good deal tougher. A squat at 4010 is significantly harder than a squat at 2010, and as such it will likely necessitate less weight.
This is why I suspect that so few people pay attention to this stuff – because it is harder.
Who wants to use less weight?
Who wants to intentionally make things harder?
Well for us, harder is often a good thing. I mean, if you wanted easy, why even be at the gym? Go sit on the couch. But that doesn’t get any results. It’s supposed to be hard – it’s that difficulty that forces adaptation and gets the results that we want. So for a lot of folks, this is going to mean, using less weight than you expect. And that’s okay. Your ego can take it.
Do what’s right, follow the plan, and know that it’s the best way to get results.
So that’s tempo. This topic certainly can be a lot to take in,especially if you’ve never considered tempo as an important variable in your workouts before. That’s why we include tons of coaching videos (like this) and exercise demos (like this) as part of every Priority Strength membership. We cover topics like this, as well as dozens of other questions that might pop up during your fitness journey. So if you’ve thought about getting started with weight training but want some help along the way, we’ve got your back.

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