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.