Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts On Tempo Prescription

In the last year or so it has become increasingly popular to prescribe tempo to any number of lifts; Charles Poliquin has used them for years and Cal Dietz made them popular again with Triphasic. If you've ever performed one of my programs over the last few years then you know that I personally use a lot of tempo stuff during the A-tier (primary lifts) portion of the lift.

how you feel after tempo front squats
First off, what is tempo? Tempo simply refers to the pace of the lift. Tempo prescriptions (should) have 4 parts: the eccentric/lowering phase, the amortization/isometric phase (ooooh big word), the concentric/lifting phase and the period of rest at the top of the lift. When written out, it could look like this "5873". This would ultimately be the worst tempo in the world: a 5 second eccentric, 8 second pause at the bottom, 7 second concentric movement and a 3 second pause at the top. That would suck donkey balls, truthfully.

If tempo sucks, why do we use it?
Great question! Tempo-ing a lift can do a lot of things for a lot of different people. For beginners, it can allow them to feel their way through the particular positions that you want them to learn on a lift; sitting their hips back, keeping their elbows tight, keeping their core braced, etc. Since they are going to be moving in a controlled fashion, it will limit the amount of weight they can use which will, again, allow them to focus more on their technique than on mashing their way through reps.

For an intermediate lifter, it will increase the time under tension (TUT) of a lift, which will help make you stronger and bigger. There have been a bunch of studies done on eccentric training that show significant increases in strength and force production. This is because your muscles have to produce more force to slowly control a weight on the way down, rather than simply produce some force and using your lever system to lift the weight up. This can help intermediate lifters break through some plateaus in various lifts.

Advanced lifters can use tempo for all the same reasons, and also for a change of pace. You can't just always hit it hard and aim for X reps at Y percentage, you'd run yourself out. Switching it up and using some tempo for a phase or two here or there will keep bodies healthy and keep training fresh.

This has nothing to do with anything.
Con's of Tempo
Despite how much I like using tempo for various populations and at various times in a programming phase, there are some legit negatives to it. The first is that it does indeed force you to use a lower weight, which is good sometimes and bad sometimes. You will, occasionally, want to work at a normal pace to see what sort of weights you can push. If you increase that weight, then the weights you can do a tempo with will also increase (obviously). Another con is that if someone can't control their bodies during a tempo'd lift, they are just going to end up ingraining a poor movement pattern. If you bench with your elbows flared way out normally and don't understand HOW to keep them in, then this isn't going to help clean up your form. It's not a replacement for good coaching.

Probably the biggest con of applying tempo to lifts (dependent on which phase the athlete/client is in) is the overall stress it provides to the body. Heavy eccentric work will often leave the trainee with significant soreness in the affected body parts; I did some tempo front squats yesterday and my legs and upper back are feeling it today. Ask anybody who does 5-second negative pushups for the first time with me how their upper body felt for the next couple of days! The soreness you experience diminishes when you do them more, but if you're doing them right you'll still feel the systemic "tiredness" that you get when you're really taxing your CNS. Make sure your athletes/clients are aware of this so they understand how they are going to feel and make sure you're programming it at the appropriate time of year (i.e. not an in-season prescription).

How to Apply Tempo to Your Lifts
In the most literal sense, you can apply a tempo to any lift that you want to; but you really should be considering the muscle groups and actions before just throwing a tempo at anything you happen to be doing. If you start doing that you're just going to have a lot of sore muscles and a big pot of Shit Soup.

Traditionally, tempo is best with big compound exercises. Some of my favorites include: squats, pushups, pullups/chinups, bench press, bodysaw, RDLs and Trap Bar Deadlifts. These are lifts where you can go (relatively) heavy with good form and reap all the benefits of the increased TUT. Pullups are tough, you've gotta be pretty damn good at vertical pulling to be able do them; I'd more likely start someone on a cable pulldown first.

Some exercises that I really don't like doing a lot of tempo on are conventional deadlifts (too big a ROM), vertical pressing (DBs or Barbell), and most rowing variations. The reason for most of these is that it puts your body in such a tough position to create and resist force. You end up compensating a lot and using poor positions that will (again) create bad habits or, worse, put you at risk for injury. There's no serious benefit to adding a tempo to a bent over barbell row.

I suppose you can derive benefits by adding a tempo to curls, triceps exercises and other bodybuilder style exercises, but it's not something that I personally would do. If that floats your boat then go for it.

Regarding the tempo prescription itself; there's no hard and fast rule. I personally prefer 3-5 second eccentrics with various pauses at the bottom depending on the desired training effect. This is enough of an eccentric component to create a change, but not so much that it will drastically reduce the training load or put form at risk. For some more advanced clients, 8-10 second eccentrics can produce some pretty serious strength advantages, but I think that beginners won't really benefit because the load used will be so minimal. All in all, my most used tempo is 31X0 and 53X0.

don't tempo this
Remember that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with tempo, but there needs to be a time and a place for it. Take everything into consideration and as long as you can give a good reason about why you're doing it, then you're ok.

If you have any questions or comments, hit me up below. Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit.

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