Walk into your local gym and you’ll inevitably see athletes on the Bench Press bouncing the weight off their chest or rushing through partial Squats in a rack. Most young athletes haphazardly move through workouts with very little concern for the quality of their reps. But for athletic success, rep tempo is as essential a training variable as weight, intensity and reps per set.
Rep tempo refers to the duration of each part of a rep. Reps are split into three parts, listed below as they apply to the Bench Press.
- Eccentric – Lowering the bar to your chest
- Isometric – Pause at the bottom of the rep
- Concentric – Pressing the bar off your chest.
Too often, athletes completely ignore parts 1 and 2 and focus only on the concentric movement. It makes sense. If you don’t do two-thirds of the work on a rep, you will be able to lift more weight. However, there is never any value in adding weight at the expense of form. By ignoring two-thirds of a rep, athletes miss the benefits of training each type of muscle contraction. Let’s review those benefits:
Isometrics are muscular contractions where the muscle is activated but not allowed to lengthen or shorten. In other words, you hold a position of resistance with no movement. For young athletes, isometrics are king, because they teach them to tense and integrate their muscles into one cohesive unit and create strong connective tissue. Isometrics strengthen the muscle in that specific movement range, and they are immeasurably valuable for developing understanding of proper form and creating stability.
For example, most of today’s chair-ridden athletes struggle in their first attempts to squat to parallel and then drive out of the hole. The solution is usually stability, not flexibility. Western youth have not spent time in a deep squat, and their brains fear this awkward position. The only way to build better fundamental movements is to spend considerable time at the weak point of each movement. This should be the backbone of early training. It comprises the bulk of NFL Strength Coach of the Year Joe Kenn’s Block Zero program for youth athletes. With athletes new to a program, or right at the beginning of an off-season, I highly recommend bodyweight isometric circuits. Choose 6 movements you want to teach and have the athletes hold these movements at the weak point for 3-5 rounds. Chooses exercise for each body part, and progress holds to 5 seconds longer. For example:
Push-up Hold, Counterbalance Squat Hold, Glute Bridge, Right Leg Lunge, Left Leg Lunge, Plank. The first workout has 4 rounds with 15-second holds per round; and by the fourth workout, athletes will hold each for 30 seconds.
Even if you believe your athletes are elite, you’ll be amazed by the benefit of stripping the weight down and holding a Squat at the bottom for several seconds on each rep. It provides a new degree of comfort coming out of a stance or a low athletic position. It’s especially important to do this early in an off-season while setting a tone for the quality of movement and attention to detail you will expect.
Eccentric strength, or negatives, are the lengthening of a muscle, usually associated with lowering the weight. This has been pigeonholed as a tool for bodybuilders, but it also has great value for athletes.
First, it is another great tool for young athletes to gain an understanding of form and stability through ranges of motion. When I teach large groups, I use the Dumbbell Goblet Squat with a slow eccentric to accelerate the learning curve of proper Squat technique.
Even for the most advanced athletes, this has significant utility. Athletes can lift 20-50% more weight in the negative. This translates to greater strength, which translates to higher numbers at the 30-60% power range. Furthermore, change of direction greatly depends on an athlete’s ability to plant and absorb force under control: eccentric strength. This should be programmed in the early off-season.
It’s especially important to add negatives to hamstring exercises before adding a lot of high intensity sprinting. I like to RDL early in the off-season with a 3-second negative and also work in Nordic hamstring negatives and towel hamstring negatives with a 3- to 5- second eccentric.
We all love the concentric phase. It’s the main event! The pull in the Pull-Up, the drive up in the Squat, the push in the Bench Press. Still, it’s important to execute them with focus. Sports are about power, yet we often give the concentric phase only as much effort as needed to move the weight and coast after moving through a sticking point. For greater gains in power, cue your athletes to accelerate the bar as if it weighed 1,000 pounds. Athletes must move the bar with maximal force throughout the entire range of motion.
Putting it All Together
Incorporating a variable rep tempo in your warm-ups is great to emphasize form and prepare the body for all of its capabilities. Simply assign rep tempos to a couple of warm-up movements. I like the Overhead Squat at a 3-3-1 tempo—a 3-second eccentric, a 3-second pause at the bottom, and a fast concentric. This can be equally effective in re-energizing a lifting session that lacks energy or has gotten sloppy. I move the athletes to a slow command tempo. This demands focus, effort and a commitment to execution.
Athletes want to see big numbers on the bar, but sometimes checking their egos is the first step toward making great progress. Each lift should be done with purpose and focus. Master the secrets of tempo to train smarter and get greater results.
- ACSM: https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/eccentric-resistance-exercise.pdf?sfvrsn=4