Most lifters modify exercises to challenge their bodies by lifting more weight or performing more or fewer reps. These common changes are effective, but you’ll eventually need to change other exercise variables to continue making improvements.
One such variable that’s consistently overlooked is tempo.
Tempo refers to the pace and rhythm of each repetition. For example, an athlete may slowly lower a barbell for 3 seconds, pause for one second and then explosively press it up. This follows a specified tempo compared to traditional reps, which are often performed to move as much weight as possible without considering the timing.
Rep tempo can be slow, controlled and deliberate, or explosive and violent. Both paces have their pros and cons, and a balance of the two will yield the greatest results.
Slow Rep Tempo
A slow rep tempo emphasizes time under tension, or the time a muscle is actively contracting. A longer time under tension—especially a longer eccentric/lowering phase—creates more damage to the muscle and has been shown to yield greater strength and mass gains. Slower reps allow athletes to focus their conscious attention on active muscles to isolate them while maintaining excellent form. This heightened level of focus builds the “mind-muscle connection,” which is your mind’s recognition of individual muscles. Slow reps are perfect for athletes training to build strength and mass because both qualities are developed at the same time.
Slow reps have their place, but they’re not perfect. The increased time under tension causes the body to fatigue much faster than when using standard pace reps. The emphasis on the eccentric portion of the rep causes significant muscle damage and can take several days to fully recover from the resulting soreness. Overall volume is also compromised as exhaustion sets in quickly. The increased load on the negative phase can also increase the risk for overuse and overload injury.
Fast reps also boast some impressive benefits. The short time under tension and explosiveness of these reps improves strength and power. This type of training is perfect for sports requiring short bursts of intensity, like football. The faster tempo allows for prolonged workouts as time under tension is minimized. Recovery is also much quicker since the negative phase is far shorter.
Fast tempo reps are ideal for strength and power athletes, but they do have some drawbacks. The shorter time under tension may not build as much muscle mass, and it reduces the mind to muscle connection. Also, there’s a risk of injury from the high speed of the se reps.
Another way to adjust rep tempo is to add a pause. Pauses can be added to the concentric or eccentric portion of each rep. These pauses increase time under tension to an even higher degree. Pause reps are perfect for working through challenging points in compound lifts.