Set the tempo with resistance training

The benefits of resistance training are well-known but if you are going to do it, then you might as well do it right.


Whether you are training for strength, power, fat loss, hypertrophy or endurance, be sure to experiment with different tempos that are relevant to your training goals.

Resistance training is one of the most overlooked workouts in the gym; it also happens to be one of the techniques that enhances our fitness levels the most. You can do these moves using calisthenics (bodyweight training), resistance machines and/ or free weights. It’s a fun and effective form of exercise but there are a couple of things you need to bear in mind that will help you get the most out of your workout.

Over time, it can become all too easy to do an exercise and bang out the work as quickly as possible, especially if your muscles are screaming. So don’t get complacent or stuck in a routine. You need to employ a strict tempo system to match up with your goals.

Phases to identify

First, you need to identify the three phases of any lift. The eccentric phase is where we lengthen the muscles. Think of someone doing a chin-up, where he is lowering the body towards the ground into a straight arm hang position (until his arms are straight). The concentric phase involves shortening the muscles.

Think of the person lifting his body back up – his arms are now bent. The isometric phase is where the muscles do not shorten or lengthen during the contraction. So this would count as the person holding his weight at either the top or the bottom of his chin-up move.

The tempo is value in seconds assigned to each phase of a lift. For example, the most common tempo is 2:1:2:1. This means two seconds of eccentric, one second of isometric, two seconds of concentric and one second of isometric.

Picture someone bench pressing – he would lower the bar towards his chest for two seconds, pause with the weight just above his chest for one second, push it away from his chest for two seconds, then pause with straight arms for one second. This would be one complete repetition, with a total time of five seconds per repetition.

Time under tension

Tempo relates to time under tension (TUT). This is a great way to find out exactly how much time you need to spend on sets and repetitions.

If you do a set of 10 repetitions at 2:1:2:1, then you are under tension for a minute for that set. If your workout consists of 20 to 25 sets of 10, then you are ‘working’ for 20 to 25 minutes, so you can adjust your rest time to manipulate the intensity. It’s clear that 20 to 25 sets, done in one hour, will feel very different to 20 to 25 sets done in 40 minutes, if you keep the loading the same.

By manipulating the tempo, you can increase your nervous system responses and recruit more muscles to shift the weight. It is all too common, in a gym, to see people getting through their exercises as fast as possible, which in turn limits the adaptations (changes the body begins to make as a result of training stimulus) sought.


Goal-specific tempo choices

The most common tempos chosen by lifters are 2:1:2:1, 3:0:1:0 and 2:0:1:0. The zero value means that there is no pause at either the top or bottom of the lift.

To train for strength, take a heavy load and apply a long eccentric phase, like 4:1:4:1. This allows you to recruit more motor units and use more muscles to move the load.

To train for power, take a heavy load and try to move it quickly through the concentric phase. This means that you are using your explosive, fast twitch muscle fibres. (Fast twitch A muscle fibres are the ones you might use when push starting a car; fast twitch B (or explosive power) muscle fibres are the ones that could help you literally flip a car.)

Power is your ability to turn strength into speed, so a long eccentric phase is a good idea, ideally with a 4:0:X:0 or 4:1:X:1 tempo. The ‘X’ represents ‘explosive’, so be sure to move the weight as quickly as possible through this phase.

To train for hypertrophy, you need to overload the muscle so consider TUT, rest and workload. Hypertrophy sessions require many sets and repetitions, with moderate to heavy loading in a relatively short space of time. It’s best to employ a mixture of fast and slow tempos: Try 6:2:6:2 and 6:6:6:1 (particularly nasty tempos), or 3:0:1:0, which allows you to generate a lot of force in the fast concentric phase.

To train for endurance, you’re looking at doing longer sets and having shorter rests, with light or moderate loads. This means slow and fast tempos are effective, as long as TUT and rest times are kept in check.

The tempo you choose will be dependent on your fitness goal but don’t stick to just one. Mix it up from time to time to keep your body guessing and see your results improve.

Jamie McGregor is a personal trainer with Perun Fitness, which runs classes in Tung Chung and South Lantau. You can call him on 6443 6597, or visit