Blast Through Plateaus with Tempo Sets

Use tempo sets to get stronger, lose fat or gain lean muscle mass.

The last thing you want when you're dedicating long, hard hours to training is to plateau in your progress. You need to apply principles of periodization, de-loading and recovery. However, making no real progress for months or years at a time is unacceptable.

That's where tempo sets come in. I will show you how to use tempo sets to increase your strength, speed up fat loss, or accelerate lean mass gain. The best part is, you might already be using tempo sets in your training without even realizing it.

RELATED: Timed Sets: Match Your Workout to Your Sport

What are Tempo Sets?

Tempo is the rate or speed at which you move a weight during an exercise. It includes eccentric and concentric speed as well as time spent at the bottom and the top of each repetition. A tempo set might read like this: 3,0,X,0, 2,1,X,1, 4,2,A,1 or 3,0,3,0, with many other variations. What does this mean? Let me break it down for you:

1st Number:

This corresponds to the eccentric portion of a rep, such as the lowering portion of a Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press or Pull-Up. It does not necessarily correspond to the initial part of the movement. A Squat starts with the lowering, or eccentric phase. But a Pull-Up starts with the concentric phase.

2nd Number:

This corresponds to the time spent at the end of the eccentric phase, such at the bottom of a Squat, the full hang in a Pull-Up or when the barbell is in contact with the ground during a Deadlift.

3rd Number:

This denotes the concentric, or lift, phase, such as standing up from a Squat or Deadlift, pressing the bar off your chest during the Bench Press or pulling up during the Pull-Up.

4th Number:

This number corresponds to the time spent at the end of the concentric phase. It is the full standing position in the Squat or Deadlift, when your arms are fully extended during the Bench Press or when your chin is over the bar during the Pull-Up.

You may see a few different numbers or letters in a tempo set. A number indicates the number of seconds spent in that phase of a lift. If the number is shown during the eccentric or concentric phase, you need to move through that range of motion smoothly over the specified amount of time. If you see an X in the place of the concentric phase (and rarely the eccentric phase), this means you must perform the movement explosively. This does not necessarily mean the speed of the weight needs to be explosive, but simply that your intent is to be explosive. And lastly, an A indicates that phase of the lift (normally the concentric phase) is assisted. This can be by way of a machine, bands or a partner

Go back to the examples above and see if you can figure out what the movement should look like. It does take some getting used to, and most people starting out go too fast rather than too slow. To avoid this, figure out how long the set should take you before you start. If the workout calls for a Back Squat @ 3211 for 8 reps, you can assume that it should take you approximately 56 seconds to complete the lift: (3+2+1+1) x 8. If it takes you less than this, you're probably speeding up the count in your head, so slow down on the next set. It takes some time to master, but you will master it.

RELATED: Build Muscle Faster With Rest Pause Drop Sets

Applying Tempo To Your Training

Now that you understand how to read and a perform a tempo set, you're probably asking yourself, "how do I apply this to my goals?" Here are some ways that tempo can improve your results.

Increased Strength

One of the best ways to improve strength is to ensure you're as explosive as possible in the concentric phase, to recruit as many of your fast twitch muscle fibers as possible. The lift may still be slow, depending on the weight, but as long as you intend to move as fast as possible (while maintaining good form, of course), you will build strength.

In most sports, you need to develop relative strength, not absolute strength. This means you need to be strong for your body type, not be able to win the World's Strongest Man competition. Assuming this is your goal, make sure your total time working is less than 20 seconds. This will maximize strength without causing you to bulk up too much. Also, minimize the eccentric phase as you get closer to your sports season; it impairs power production.

A six-month training cycle might look like:

  • Months 1 & 2 - 4,1,X,1
  • Months 3 & 4 - 2,4,X,1
  • Months 5 & 6 - 1,0,X,1

Fat Loss

If your goal is to lose body fat, you can use tempo sets to accelerate your progress. You'll want to increase your metabolic activity without overly stressing your body. Typically, if you are overweight, you already have a stressed system, and the last thing you want to do is put more stress on it.

Weight training is, for the most part, the best answer for fat loss, despite what popular media tell you. All you need to do is increase time under tension and reduce rest time between sets (do so slightly; don't go overboard.) An exercise might look like this:

  • Back Squat - 3-4x8-10 @ 4,0,4,0; rest 75 sec.. You will spend over one minute under the load of the bar with continuous movement. You will receive a great metabolic challenge, and it will encourage a hormone release that helps your body burn fat.

Lean Mass Gain

You can use many of the same protocols as someone looking for fat loss to add slabs of lean muscle to your body. The reason it works so well for fat loss is that it gives you a metabolic boost while also supporting lean mass gain. Research shows that an increase in lean muscle mass leads to a decrease in body fat, because the more lean muscle you have, the more calories your body burns just to function. The difference between these two goals actually has more to do with nutrition than with training.

RELATED: You're Doing It Wrong: Exercise Tempo

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