You wouldn’t walk into a gym close your eyes, pick some random dumbbells off the rack and start curling would you? Or walk into the grocery store and just throw food in the cart at random?

Of course not..

Because everyone knows that you need to be meticulous with your weights and diet when trying to get big and strong. But controlling your variables goes far beyond your 7 daily chicken and rice meals, or your pre determined 1 rep max. One of the most often overlooked and physiologically beneficial training variables has to be tempo.


Tempo refers to the cadence in which the exercise is being performed and designates a certain time that the lifter should spend in each phase of the lift

The four phases:

  1. Concentric: This is the dynamic phase of shortening a muscle from its lengthened position under load to its shortened position.
  2. Contraction: This is a static hold in the shortened position
  3. Eccentric: Eccentric refers to the “negative” as its commonly known, and is the time spent while the muscle is lengthening under load.
  4. Stretch: This is the start and end of every rep, where the muscle is fully lengthened after finishing its eccentric and before starting the subsequent concentric.



A bench press with a tempo of 1-1-4-2, would indicate a slow 4 second negative, a 2 second pause with the bar on the chest, then a one second concentric followed by a one second pause at the top of the rep.


Slower tempo has a myriad of benefits, as it’s the least likely default tempo for lifters.


  • Slow tempo decreases the likelihood of injury- allowing the lifter to make changes throughout the movement to avoid provocation, or to abandon the movement all together.
  • Increases the neuromuscular adaptation via motor unit recruit in initial stages of training.
  • Increases ability to gain strength when loaded appropriately
  • Effective in rehabilitation of injuries to promote blood flow and reinstate range of motion.
  • Increases energy expenditure and prolongs protein synthesis post workout.


  • Has little transfer to sport
  • Not optimal for increasing power
  • Requires longer training sessions to optimize total time under tension

Fast tempo is often designated with an “X”, meaning whichever part of the lift is marked with an”X” is to be done as fast as the lifter is capable.

Fast “X” tempo might not have the laundry list off benefits as its slow counterpart but it definitely has a place in a lifters arsenal:


  • Fast tempo can build strength when compared to a “normal” tempo
  • Has a higher transfer to athletic performance
  • Recruits more type 2 muscle fibers
  • Increase neural adaptations for experienced lifters


  • Increases susceptibility to injury
  • Not ideal for building muscle mass
  • Not as effective on compound single joint exercises


We’ve looked at varying speeds of exercise, fast and slow. But what about no speed at all? If there was one practice less utilized than tempo, its pauses, or isometric holds. Pauses refer to the number value given in between concentric and eccentric phases of movement.

So either a hold in the stretch position- which is beneficial for flexion exercises eg: A bicep curl would be best paused in the fully stretched position after eccentrically loading and before initiating the concentric motion.

Or hold in a contracted position- which is more beneficial for extension exercises, eg: bench presses would best utilize isometrics at the top of the range of motion after the concentric motion and before initiating the eccentric.

It’s worth noting that pauses can often be placed within a concentric/ eccentric phases as well, a technique often used by strength athletes. But that technique doesn’t fit the 4 number tempo designation and is better left for another time.


When you consider all the variables that must be accounted for when trying to build strength and muscle, they all have one thing in common. They are all objective: reps can be counted, meals can be measured and dumbbell can be weighed. But tempo is more subjective in nature meaning that its left up to the interpretation of the lifter.
Example 1: an attempted four-second eccentric can look very different between two people.

 “one..…two…..three..… four…..”

It takes discipline on behalf of the lifter to pick an appropriate weight that will challenge him/her for the duration of the predetermined tempo depending on the neurological parameters set forth in the program. In the aforementioned example of a slow eccentric; often times people over reach, and they pick a weight that they cannot control and the weight moves faster than intended .

The opposite is true with fast tempo.


Lifters have a hard time checking their ego at the door when training for speed, and don’t reduce the weight accordingly. What they’re left with is just the intention of speed and not the actual product of a barbell moving fast. This negates the purpose.



Whether you’re training for a sport, or training is the sport, tempo cannot be neglected. It’s the one variable that is closest linked to the actual execution of the exercise and lays the metabolic framework for how your body is set to respond. Erratic tempo means erratic progress, and is no different than throwing random weight on a bar and beginning to train.

Stay Strong,


Dr Jordan Shallow DC