Tempo and it's Application in Strength and Conditioning

In our Program Design, we lean on strength training as a foundation in order to develop higher intensity conditioning capacities.  It is easy to take an athlete and get them out of breath on a bike or a rower, or with running, but it is hard to teach an athlete to condition themselves using weight training in the same capacity.  Just imagine the way you feel in an all out :60 hill sprint, then consider how you feel doing a set of 20 heavy back squats. There is fatigue and heavy breathing in performing either activity, but the feeling is different, and that is because different systems are being trained and each activity is eliciting a different response in the body.  Now imagine taking a set of back squats and trying to elicit a feeling similar to the Hill Sprint. What key component is missing? Speed, or cycle time, is much slower in the squat. So what do we do? We lower the weight and increase the cycle time to try and elicit a similar response with squatting as we get in hill sprints.

The best athletes can use weightlifting to elicit conditioning type response similar to that of sprinting, but the rest of us struggle, and beginners will certainly struggle and it may even be dangerous for beginners to even try.  We believe that weightlifting protocols must be given regularly to all athletes in a controlled and tempoed prescription so we can ultimately give athletes the strength to use weightlifting as a conditioning tool. In essence, we believe that strengthening our athletes is the first step that what will allow them to achieve conditioning.

We prescribe tempos on just about every lift for a number of reasons:  

  1. We control the Time Under Tension to elicit the desired physiological adaptation
  2. We elongate eccentric contractions for greater increases in hypertrophy and strength
  3. We bias certain positions by adding pauses
  4. We see an increased neurological connection to the movement when a prescribed tempo is utilized (we increase mindfulness during the lift by focusing on positions and form)
  5. We ensure movements are done under control
  6. We elicit greater strength increases by utilizing tempo as another variable to progress in a strength cycle

Since we’ve discovered the value of tempos, let’s discuss how the tempo is written and utilized.  One example looks like this, 3011

The first number, 3, is the eccentric, or lowering phase
The second number, 0, is the pause at the bottom of the movement
The third number, 1, is the concentric, or raising phase
The fourth number, 1, is the pause at the top of the movement

If we wanted to work on Front Squats, and place emphasis on the bottom position, to ensure a tall upright torso and high elbows, we could use this tempo: 2321.  The second number 3 is the pause in the bottom of the movement.  By holding an athlete at the bottom, and providing the proper coaching of positions, we give the athlete a format in which to practice a vertical torso, and high elbows, and stable knee and foot alignment, while also gaining strength and better coordination through the Front Squat movement.  

As we see the position develop in our athletes after a week or 2, we can progress the tempo and reduce the Time Under Tension by going to this tempo: 2211   2 second lowering, 2 second pause at the bottom, 1 second rise, and 1 second hold at the top. We can eventually go to a 1011 tempo.  1 second lowering, NO pause in the bottom, 1 second rise, and 1 second pause at the top. This final tempo would be used to allow heavier loading now that good positions have been practiced and engrained. You can see here how we progress an athlete in the Front Squat using a progressive tempo that starts with low loading, high time under tension and a bias toward pausing and holding a weaker position.  Then we finish with a shorter tempo, heavier loading, and we allow the athlete to use their newfound steadiness in the position to drive up aggressively out of the bottom position of the Front Squat.

But how does this relate to conditioning??  Well, we discussed earlier that an athletes ability to use squatting to elicit a conditioning response is hampered by their ability to move a lighter load quickly and cyclically.  By slowing down the athlete and progressing their tempo through a cycle, we gain stronger positions (alongside stronger legs and core), a better understanding of the movement and a new ability to efficiently move that load.  We can then begin to better apply the squat in a conditioning capacity to elicit a good training response.

Therefore, all of our weightlifting protocols will utilize a tempo to bias control, build strength, and gain better positions.  In doing so we will yield greater strength training returns and will be better able to utilize these movements in conditioning environments than if they had simply done a lot of Front Squats in the past.


Our Program Design and Why It Is Different

The attraction to CrossFit lies in its ability to produce results, build communities, and actually WORK as a fitness program.  There is no denying the ability of CrossFit to generate results in all athletes. It’s the intensity, and when properly programmed it can do incredible things for people.  But how do you get true intensity out of your athletes? How do you produce results in various areas of fitness. How do you target areas of weakness? The answer is, you practice.  And while this seems self evident, the best program design principles need to be applied in order for you to “practice” fitness. Coaching of course plays a huge role in determining how effectively a fitness program is applied, but our program design leans on itself to allow the athlete to come to know who they are as an athlete and begin to seriously target and practice both their strengths and weaknesses.  

Let’s look at 18.1 as a great example of a longer CrossFit Test workout.

20 minutes - As many rounds/reps as possible
8 Toes to Bar
5 Single Arm Clean and Jerks per side 50/35#
14/12 Calorie Row

This workout screams a steady state maximal AEROBIC effort to get the best out of your body for optimal performance.  How do you know what your sustained paces should be on the rower? How do you know what you can sustain for sets on Toes to bar in an aerobic state?  And how do you know how it will feel if you “tip” the bucket and go lactic during your dumbbell clean and jerks?

The answer lies in your training history.  If your program design has allowed you to practice Toes to Bar in both an Aerobic state AND an Anaerobic or Lactic state then you know how it “feels” to perform these movements in each state.  And in knowing how it should feel to be aerobic in these states you are then able to perform optimally on this workout and better than you would have, had you just “gone hard” and saw where you ended up after 20 minutes.

Here is an example of how we would train AEROBIC efforts on Toes to Bar:
4 Rounds
3:00 on / 1:30 off (2:1 work rest ratio while doing aerobic training @ 75% Aerobic effort)
4-6 Toes to Bar (sustainable rep range for the given athlete, good coaching required to determine this)
6 Box Jump Step Downs (helps limit pace with the step down to stay aerobic)
8 Kettlebell Swings (Light, relative to athlete, stay aerobic with some weightlifting in mixed modal aerobic training)

While seemingly simple, and the best programs generally are, this workout can be a good guide to help you progress your training of the Toes to bar, and see when and where the aerobic state becomes lactic.  Coaching and understanding the intent of this workout is where the magic will happen. Athletes must know that they should feel like it is a difficult but oxidative, and sustainable pace on this workout. They should track their toes to bar reps, and amount of total reps completed each round, and should reflect on their performance at the end of their workout.  If we see rounds and reps shoot up at the beginning and then plummet, this was not an aerobic effort, it was lactic and unrepeatable across all rounds. Therefore the athlete can begin to know and understand how their pace impacts their output and sustainability. If the program design and coaching co-exist to allow the athlete to know themselves, then they can begin to progress and push the boundaries of their thresholds in various metabolic states of aerobic, anaerobic/lactic.

In order to progress the understanding of the athlete’s ability to do Toes to Bar, we repeat workouts with Toes to Bar as the predominant stimulus under training and shape the workouts around the movement to ensure they are able to be targeted in the desired metabolic state, in this example an aerobic state.

Eventually, and over time, with the right program design and coaching, we can bring up the effort level, to 80%, 85% and 90% aerobic efforts.  This combination of quality coaching, and program design with progression is what allows athletes to grow and develop beyond just going hard in the gym.  Athletes come to know themselves, their gears and their paces relative to the time domains that are eventually tested: 3-5 minutes, 5-9 minutes, 10-15 minutes etc.  The options are endless and we can train to reflect as large a spectrum as required of the athlete.

Here at Chimney Rock CrossFit, our program design reflects these principles, and our athletes are able to learn and grow in a new way relative training the targeted energy systems (aerobic/anaerobic of different time frames), movements/skills/techniques, and paces.

Over the next few months we will explore program design principles as they relate to the way we strength train and condition all of our clients to get the very best results in their fitness and body composition goals.