For this installment of the “Back to Basics” series we are highlighting one of the most over-looked aspects of exercise program design: exercise tempo. Tempo is not just the speed of your favorite song on the radio- it also describes the speed at which resistance training exercises are performed.
At the gym it is easy to notice that exercise tempo varies greatly among strength trainers. However, the key to great results doesn’t lie in knowing if slow is better than fast or vice versa; it lies in knowing how to apply this principle to your program.
First off, a little basic exercise science. Every repetition is made up of three actions or contraction types: a concentric action when the muscle shortens, an eccentric action when the muscle lengthens, and an isometric action when either the muscle holds a position or transitions from shortening to lengthening. Each one of these phases has a different functional purpose and for this reason, a different tempo should be applied to each of the three phases.
Exercise physiologist express tempo as a three number sequence written e/i/c where:
• “e” represents the number of seconds to perform the eccentric or lengthening phase
• “i” represents the seconds to perform the isometric or holding phase
• “c” represents the seconds for the concentric or shortening phase.
For instance, if you perform a biceps curl at a 4/2/1 tempo, you would take four seconds to lower the weight (eccentric), one second to lift the weight (concentric), and two seconds to hold the weight (isometric) either at the top or bottom of the exercise.
As for how to apply this information to your program, the following are scientifically-verified exercise tempos for different training goals:
• 4/2/1: best for developing muscle endurance, burning calories, and preventing injury
• 2/0/2: best for developing muscle hypertrophy (growth)
• Fast and explosive contractions (that can be safely controlled): best for developing maximal strength and power
If you are like most exercisers, you are probably lifting too fast for your goals. Slow down your reps, feel the burn, and enjoy your results!
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