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Intelligent idea, poor results Why speed regulations fail

Intelligente Idee, schlechte Resultate Warum Tempovorschriften versagen

What are tempo prescriptions

About 20 years ago, we started to see training programs described as follows:

  • Bench press
  • 4 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions
  • 4020 tempo
  • 90 seconds rest

See the "4020" part? That's the tempo requirement. This four-digit number refers to the length of the four phases of each repetition, which is given in seconds.

  • The first number describes the eccentric phase (the lowering of the weight)
  • The second number describes the transition time between one direction of movement (eccentric) and the next (concentric or lifting the weight)
  • The third number describes the concentric phase (the actual lifting of the weight)
  • The fourth number describes the transition time between two repetitions

A 4020 tempo therefore means

  • Lower the weight in 4 seconds
  • Immediately switch to the concentric phase (the "0")
  • Move the weight up in 2 seconds
  • Go straight to the next repetition (the last "0")

A 3212 tempo therefore means

  • Lower the weight in 3 seconds
  • Hold the stretched position for 2 seconds
  • Move the weight up in 1 second
  • Hold the position of maximum contraction and consciously tense the muscles hard before moving on to the next repetition

Everyone jumped on it - including me

Most of the reputable trainers soon started using this system and some even recommended using a metronome to keep the exact tempo of each repetition.

When tempo prescriptions first became popular, I was studying kinesiology at university. I really wanted to see myself as a 'scientist of training', so this approach of quantifying everything appealed to me. I started incorporating pace prescriptions into my programs. This gave me another variable to play with to find the perfect program - that magical combination of training variables that would produce uncontrolled growth!

Well, this phase lasted for two months. Then I realized that pace prescriptions are pretty useless.

A stupid way to pretend to be smart

A lot of coaches love tempo prescriptions because they make them seem smart or more scientific. Come on people! Please don't forget that moving weights is not rocket science. When we talk about someone who is good at this sport, we use words like freak, beast and monster. We don't use words like precise, precisely timed or rhythmic.

Coaches are often looking for recognition. Some are desperate to prove that they have a brain in addition to their brawn. These guys will often use overly complicated language to explain their ideas. They forget that there is a difference between writing, speaking and communicating. These guys love tempo prescriptions for the same reasons.

Other coaches simply want every single variable. Sometimes this is because they truly believe it's best for their clients. But more often than not, this stems from their subconscious desire to control everything and they feel completely in charge of their client's progress because of it.

The problem? Forcing someone to stick to a certain pace is a great way to make training less effective.

Strong people rarely use tempo prescriptions

The act of moving weights should be a bit of a struggle. The moves you do are important, but how hard you train is what really determines how far you get.

Look at the strongest powerlifters. There is a controlled form of violence and aggression in their training. Do you really think they count the tempo in their mind during the reps? Most really muscular bodybuilders have the same qualities: they literally attack the weights.

I don't know a single truly outstanding bodybuilder, powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter or strongman competitor who routinely counts their tempo. Sure once in a blue moon they will use a training method where they move the weight slowly and count - but never as part of their regular training.

I know, I know. These people are better than you because of their superior genetics or performance-enhancing substances, right? It just can't be that they train harder than you, right? Well, listen carefully. I've been in this business long enough to understand this. Yes, some freaks make it to the top because they are genetically blessed and yes, doping helps tremendously. But in most cases, when someone really reaches the top (in terms of muscle mass and strength), there was a lot of quality, productive training involved.

And if everyone at the top is doing something or not doing something, then that should be taken into account. And almost no one has achieved a top notch body or elite strength level using precise tempo prescriptions.

I saw one pro bodybuilder who used a program that included strict tempo prescriptions. I asked him about it. He said that his trainer always included these tempo prescriptions in his program, but he never followed them.

High level exercisers focus on the right things: training hard and putting maximum effort into every set - not every repetition. They may perform slower repetitions or deliberately work the muscles harder to achieve a better feel in the target muscles, but this is never part of a pre-planned rhythmic scheme.

Training in a hospital

When all emotions and instincts are taken out of the training, I call this "training in a hospital". It is calm, orderly, sterile and feels overly clean. The training seems dead and emotionless.

This is exactly what a training session feels like when every single element is planned. It makes you feel like you're not in the training zone. As a result, I lose my drive to train hard.

This is the reason I always leave some training variables unplanned. The tempo of each repetition and the rest intervals between sets are two things I don't strictly control. I like to leave these open to modification based on my instincts and drive for that day.

Now, some people feel good when they can follow a very strict training plan. It gives them some reassurance, takes the guesswork and uncertainty out of training, and makes them (falsely) believe that they are following the exact formula for maximum progress. But the secret to progress isn't a set of variables on a piece of paper - it's all about how focused and intense you are in executing what's on the plan.

Anything that can compromise your focus and intensity will lead to poorer results. And pace rules do just that.

You focus on the wrong things

Let's say you want to do a set of heavy squats - a set with your 3RM weight. You move under the bar, mentally psych yourself up for the set and lift the weight out of the rack in one aggressive movement. You take a step back and prepare to struggle with the weight. The heavy weight is already compressing your spine, so you tense all your muscles to fight the weight. Then you start to move downwards and...

Stop. What are you thinking right now? Are you thinking "Okay, the program says to take 4 seconds for the downward movement. One, two, three, four...pause for a second and then move the weight up...And one, two..."

Or do you think "Hold the tension and beat the weight!"

I can guarantee you that 99.9% of exercisers who have achieved useful results in terms of strength and muscle mass think the latter. The former is used by people who are too weak to use a weight on squats that requires intense focus and mental aggression.

When you're under a heavy weight, it's completely impossible for you to remember to count the seconds of each phase of the movement without it interfering with your exercise execution. It's not fucking possible. You can make better use of your focus by perhaps concentrating on one key technical aspect or, probably more effectively, simply focusing your mental resources on fighting the weight.

What about isolation training with light weights?

In this case, counting seconds for pace is probably less harmful. However, you'll still be better off focusing on working the target muscle as hard as possible and making sure it gets the most stimulation.

And let's look at this from a practical perspective. If you perform a set of 12 repetitions, will you really do the following...

  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2... Repetition 1
  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2... Repetition 2
  • 1... 2... 3... 4; 1... 2... Repetition 3

...until you've done all 12 reps? It would be difficult to focus on this if you're training really hard, which is why people who train really intensely never do.

Counting the tempo will make your set less effective

Let's say you want to do 8 reps with 70% of your 1RM weight at a 4020 tempo. By repetition 6, your muscle fibers will be too fatigued to perform their task at a 4020 tempo, but if you speed things up a bit (while still maintaining proper exercise execution form) you will be able to perform those two additional repetitions.

What would you do? Stop at 6 reps with a 4020 tempo even if you know you could do 2 more reps if you speed things up a little?


You do those two reps to finish the set by doing those reps a little fast (without faking it). Wouldn't these two reps help to make your muscles bigger and stronger, even if you deviated from the strict tempo parameters?

What is the purpose of the training session? To complete a specific task within some precise parameters or to stimulate muscle growth?

Pace guidelines are rarely adapted to the exercises

A squat may involve a range of motion of about 60 centimeters. For shoulder raises or calf raises, the range of motion is more likely to be in the region of 5 to 10 centimeters. So how can it be that you are using the same tempo guidelines for both exercises? Let's compare a squat with a range of motion of 60 centimeters with a standing calf raise with a range of motion of 10 centimeters.

If you use a 4010 tempo in both cases, the eccentric part of the movement is performed at the following speed:

  • 15 centimeters per second for squats
  • 2.5 centimetres per second for calf raises

Although you use the same tempo for both exercises, you will move six times faster for squats. Will this result in the same type of growth stimulus in both cases? Probably not.

While the above seems obvious, I still see a lot of trainers prescribing tempos like 5010 or 4020 on shoulder raises and calf raises - the same tempo they prescribe for squats. This shows that these trainers don't have a correct understanding of how a muscle contracts.

It's not about how long a muscle is under tension (which will be related to range of motion) but at what contraction speed a muscle needs to function. If you are going to use tempo rules, at least use them intelligently.

So what should you do?

Tempo prescriptions are a good idea applied incorrectly. Changing how the repetitions are performed can be an important way to vary the training stimulus and achieve better gains. Dr. Dietmar Schmidtbleicher has written the following:

"Muscles get stronger faster when they are exposed to varying tempos of exercise execution rather than always being trained at the same speed. Movements at slower speeds will expose the neuromuscular system to higher tension due to the absence of momentum, thereby preferentially stimulating the tropism of muscle size and strength. Training at high movement speed with heavy weights (85 to 100%) is another way to achieve a high level of muscle tension by recruiting a greater number of rapidly contracting motor units."

This is true, but precise tempo prescriptions are not the way to go. Instead, you should use qualitative guidelines for the repetitions instead of an exact rhythm. This way you can focus on the right feeling during the set instead of counting seconds.

I use the following guidelines for the concentric and eccentric part of the movement:

  • Explosive
  • Fast
  • Normal
  • Controlled
  • Slow

I only add a target for the transition point if I want the athlete to incorporate isometric holding into the exercise. I say "Hold the weight at the lowest point for 2 seconds" or "Consciously contract the muscle at the highest point for 2 seconds to the max."

Yes, this is longer than just writing down 4012, but it gives the exerciser a good mental picture that allows them to focus on the right thing. This also adjusts the rhythm of the exercise. "Slow" may mean less time on shoulder raises than squats, but it will still be slow. That's what's important, not the duration itself.

So if I'm telling someone how to do the reps, I might say something like:

"Lower the weight in a controlled manner, hold the lowest position for a second, and then perform an explosive concentric movement."


"Perform the upward movement slowly while tensing the muscle. Control the weight on the way up as you contract the muscle hard." See? This is easy to communicate, easy to understand and puts the focus on the right thing.


By Christian Thibaudeau

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