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The Truth About Making Training Progress: Progressive Overload- Lifting Tempo and Pauses. Part 3

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Okay! Part 3 of the progressive overload series. A quick recap- part 1 was all about adding weight to the exercise. Part 2 was about adding reps, sets or both, and today is all about lifting tempo and pauses


Lifting tempo refers to the speed in which we lift the weight. There are two common “phases” of the lift; the eccentric phase and the concentric phase. Eccentric is muscles lengthening, think the down part of the bicep curl. Concentric is muscle shortening, think curling the weight back up in a bicep curl. For this article, I’m going to add one more component of the lifting tempo-pauses. The pause can be done anywhere throughout the lift.

So, all together we are going to go through 3 phases; eccentric, concentric and pauses.

Why should we care about lifting tempo?

Why am I talking about these things? Well, lifting tempo is a tool we can manipulate to continue making progress at the gym. Besides being a useful tool that we can use to continue making progress, lifting tempo can be a helpful tool to help us master a lift. It’s funny, ask someone to slow down or pause when performing an exercise and they often find it hard to do. So, manipulating lifting tempo to help practice form is an excellent way to keep making progress. Better technique= safer lifting form and the ability to lift heavier weights.

How do we apply lifting tempo?

When looking at programs, you might see something along the lines of “4040”. Generally, the first number is the eccentric part of the lift (the lowering portion of the exercise). The second number is if there’s a pause at the bottom. The 3rd number is the concentric part of the lift (raising part of the exercise). The 4th number is whether there’s a pause before you do another rep.

So, an example will look something like this; 4040. We’ll use the bench press as an example. Let’s start with the weight at the top. Using the lifting tempo, 4s, we’ll take a 4s count to lower the weight to our chest. Since the second number is 0, as soon as we touch our chest, we’ll push the weight back up using a 4s count. Finally, since the final number is 0 as soon as we lockout, we’ll begin the next rep.

What about pauses?

Let’s do another example. This time we are using the lifting tempo 3230. We’ll change the exercise to a squat. From the standing position, we’ll take 3s to lower the weight. Now, as opposed to the bench press example, this example has a “2s” pause at the bottom. After we pause at the bottom for 2s, we’ll take 3s to lift the weight back up to a standing position. Similar to the first example since the last part is a 0 as soon as we stand back up, we go into the next rep.

How to implement lifting tempo and pauses?

If we think about it, even if there is no set lifting tempo, most people lift weights with a tempo. That’s probably the first thing we need to talk about; there is always going to be a lifting tempo even if it’s not prescribed. Most people instinctively know to control the weight in a bench press when going down, so the bar doesn’t hit the chest and cause pain/injury. So, lifting tempo is always at play when we lift weights or perform exercises.

When I am coaching clients, I usually recommend slowing down a movement. Some people may want to rush through things to finish the set as quickly as possible. For someone like this, I would simply tell them to slow it down. If that still doesn’t work, I’ll give them a lifting tempo.

Time under tension (TUT)

For programming reasons, which is what this whole series is about, lifting tempos can be used to increase time under tension (TUT). TUT=the muscle is working for a lot longer and may elicit more muscle gains. If you see bodybuilders, they employ lifting tempos more often than say powerlifters or weightlifters. Science has revealed that the eccentric portion of the lift (the lowering of the lift), causes more muscle fibre damage than the concentric phase (up portion of the lift) which may cause increased muscle size.

You know an exercise is emphasising the eccentric portion if you see a tempo guide something like 8130. Remember, the first number is the eccentric part (lowering part). For the above example, it’s an 8s count to bring the weight to the chest.

Practising a movement

I would use tempos and pauses to practice a lift. Let’s take the squat again. If someone is struggling at any phase of the squat, I will slow the lift down either by telling them to do so or prescribe a 3s count down. To help teach the technique at the bottom of the squat, I will also add a 2s pause at the bottom of the squat.

Adding a pause also helps increase TUT (time under tension). Which, for muscle building purposes, may result in more significant muscle growth.

Summary

There you have it, the different benefits of tempo’s and pauses. A quick recap:

- Tempo’s and pauses help us practice the movement

- Tempo’s and pauses are also great to increase TUT (time under tension) and thus elicit more muscle growth.

Next time you are struggling with a movement, throw in a pause or some controlled up (concentric) or down (eccentric) phases to help you learn the movement. Any questions feel free to message. Keep training hard; peace!

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