If you want to build muscle faster and put on some serious size, you have to train smarter. That means choosing the right methods to use in the gym. And when it comes to packing on slabs of muscle quickly, tempo training is at the top of the list.
In the gym, it's often not what you do, but how you do it that is most important.
What is Tempo Training?
Tempo training refers to the way that you perform repetitions. There are various ways we can manipulate repetitions on almost any exercise to get a different desired effect from it (hypertrophy, strength, power, etc..)
In general, performing tempo reps means slowing down each repetition on the eccentric (way down), concentric, or both parts of the movement at a specific rate (i.e, 3 seconds up and down, 5 seconds down and quickly back up, etc.)
In this article I'm going to:
- Explain the benefits of Tempo Training
- Explain how it builds muscle better than other methods
- Give 3 specific methods you can use to implement tempo training into your workouts
- Give you a sample workout using tempo training and the methods discussed.
Benefits of Using Tempo Reps
Using Tempo reps in your training can have several benefits leading to increased muscle mass as well as reduced joint stress and nervous system fatigue.
When incorporating Tempo into my training sessions, I would do so for a specific reason, such as:
- To add volume in without stressing out the nervous system. Too much max effort lifting can be counterproductive, and tempo training can be a solid compliment to heavy work if you're looking to put on some size. Using tempo is also self-limiting: You will not be able to lift as much weight when you slow down the tempo.
- To increase time under tension: Slowing down the tempo will dramatically increase the length of each set. A set of tempo reps can easily extend beyond one minute.
- To get a massive "pump:" Slowing down reps will create an "occlusion" effect in the muscle, delaying blood from exiting the working muscle. This results in a huge pump and increased metabolic fatigue, both solid stimuli for muscle growth.
- To get in some training without over-stressing the body: Tempo training isn't as hard on the body as heavy/max effort lifting. I'd throw temp reps in on a lower intensity/recovery type day to get some volume in without crushing myself.
How Does Tempo Training Increase Muscle Mass?
Performing reps with a slower tempo can cause hypertrophy via several different mechanisms. Most importantly:
- Increased time under tension
- Increased metabolic fatigue/stress
- Occlusion effect
Increased Time Under Tension
Time under tension is self explanatory: The length of time the target muscle(s) are under tension from the exercise being performed during a set.
This is a classic way that bodybuilders have trained for decades to maximize hypertrophy... slowing down repetitions and taking sets to failure.
This isn't to say that tempo training is the only way to maximize hypertrophy. Heavy reps are equally impactful and necessary for most lifters. Tempo training is simply complimentary to an overall approach to building size and strength.
Increased Metabolic Stress
Rather than giving a lengthy explanation of metabolic stress, I'll just give you an example:
Take a heavy set of 5-6 reps on barbell biceps curls. Now, contrast that with a set of 15 reps, done at a slow tempo.. say, 4 seconds up and down with lighter weight.
The second set will be brutal, and your arms (and whole upper body probably) will be screaming and on fire. This is metabolic fatigue, caused by accumulation of various by-products of energy production and other factors beyond the scope of this article.
The important point is that metabolic stress is a key marker for muscle growth, causing a spike in anabolic hormones and increased protein synthesis.
Slowing down repetitions without giving the working muscle any rest will lead to an "occlusion" effect on the muscle. This means that blood will be delayed from exiting the muscle as it is forced to remain contracted.
Bodybuilders (and others more recently) have worn occlusion bands to create this same effect, restricting blood flow in the working muscle. Research (such as this study) has shown occlusion training to be effective at stimulating additional muscle growth using lighter weight/higher reps.
The result of the occlusion effect is a lack of oxygen in the muscle, which causes the slow twitch muscle fibers to fatigue quickly, forcing the higher threshold fast twitch muscle fibers to take over.
You're basically tricking the body into sensing a more challenging stimulus, as if you were lifting much heavier weight. This results in a greater endocrine response (release of anabolic hormones) and increased protein synthesis.
You can grab a solid, inexpensive pair of BFR bands here on Amazon (affiliate link, I've used these for years)
3 Methods to Build Muscle Faster Using Tempo Training
I want to give you 3 methods you can use to implement tempo training into your workouts to help you build muscle faster. I'll include a video demo for each one.
1 - Regular Tempo Reps
The first way to implement tempo training is to simply use traditional tempo reps on one of your lifts during your session.
For this method, simply choose a tempo (3 seconds, 4 seconds, etc..) and perform all repetitions at that tempo, moving both up and down at the desired tempo.
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps should be sufficient. If you want to be a little more hardcore, try taking the last set to failure.
The tempo contrast method is one of my favorites to implement. It combines tempo reps with regular reps within the same set, allowing you to reap the benefits of both tempo and more aggressive lifting.
To perform the Tempo/Contrast method, you'll choose an exercise, then hit 2 reps at tempo followed by 2 normal repetitions. Then repeat, 2 tempo, 2 regular, until all reps are completed.
Below are 2 examples using the Tempo/Contrast method. Back squat and DB press.
You can use the same set/rep scheme as for regular tempo reps, potentially taking the last set to failure. I use these all the time and have gotten solid results from including this method in my training.
The third and final example is what I call "Extended Contrast." In this method, we'll combine multiple methods within a single set, ending with an isometric contraction that will really test your metal.
To perform an extended contrast set:
- Choose a weight where you'd probably reach failure in 8-12 reps.
- Perform 4-6 reps with a 5 second eccentric (way down).
- When you feel like you've only got a few reps left in the tank, begin pressing regular, aggressive reps.
- When you're close to failure, take one final rep down very slowly (10 seconds or so).
- Hold the bottom position isometric contraction for 15-30 seconds.
These are pretty intense, and I wouldn't recommend performing more than 1-2 of these in a session.
You can hit 2-3 normal sets or regular tempo sets, and hit one of these as a finisher.
I also prefer to use this method with either DB presses, curls or pulldowns. Some movements would be difficult to perform with an extended isometric contraction at the end.
Sample Session (Chest/Biceps)
Below is a workout sample from the SWOLE TOWN program. I frequently like to mix in these methods in my programming, and if you're looking for solid programming I highly recommend checking it out.
The last 2 movements (deficit push up/hammer curls) are to be performed as a superset, resting 60-90 seconds after completing both. Videos are below if you don't know how to perform these.
*4 seconds up/down
**Low incline bench
|*Deficit Push ups
|*DB Hammer Curl
Here's a full video on this article if you're interested:
Adding tempo training into your workouts can have a big impact on muscle growth, and can also serve as way to limit joint stress and over reliance on heavy training.
Remember.. it's not always about what you do, but how you do it that will have the biggest impact on your results.
With tempo training, we've seen that we can increase time under tension, increase metabolic stress and create an occlusion effect, all of which are precursors to muscle growth.
Try adding in some of these methods to your current training split. If it's new for you, you'll likely find it quite challenging. But remember, the body does not respond to easy.
I hope you found this article useful. Let me know in the comments below.
Until next time, keep training hard.