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Training Facts and Fallacies – Part Two

Written by: Jason Stella, Program Manager, Life Time Academy, CPT

Have you ever wondered why some people get results with a specific workout and others do not?  Certainly, every individual is different, has different levels of fitness and pre-, during and post-nutrition, but there are some common and vital behaviors that people often overlook in training.  Even if two people have the same program on paper, it doesn’t mean they will perform it as intended. 

The three areas of a workout that many people do not pay close attention to are:

  1. Repetitions to failure: Selecting a weight that’s heavy enough to bring you to a failure point each set
  2. Tempo/Time under tension: Will discuss below
  3. Rest intervals: The time between sets of an exercise that allows your muscles to partially recover before beginning the next set.

These three areas make the difference when it comes to getting consistent results from your workout.  


Tempo is the speed/cadence at which you perform each repetition. It is the factor that controls the duration of the stimulus (the stress required for a body to experience adaptation).  It is most often displayed in workout programs by a three-digit number; e.g. 3-0-3.  

This example would indicate that each individual repetition would be completed in six (6) seconds.  If the program specifies you need to do 10 repetitions, then the total time your muscle would be under tension during the set would be six (6) seconds x 10 repetitions = 60 seconds.  To explain this further, I will explain each number.

When performing a bench press, the first motion of lowering the weight (w/gravity) is the eccentric action (three (3) seconds) because the main muscles involved (chest, triceps and anterior deltoids) are lengthening while under tension.  When you get to the bottom of the lift, just prior to pushing the weight up, you have a pause (0 seconds, called an isometric pause).  Then you push the weight against gravity in the concentric action (three (3) seconds), and your muscles are shortening under tension.

Here’s the problem.

Most people, if they follow a tempo only use a three number tempo, when they should have four. When you perform an exercise, you can pause twice, not just once. The first pause comes between the lowering and raising of the lift, and the second pause comes after raising, and prior to lowering again.

I know many of you may be asking, “Don’t I just need to complete the number of repetitions the program asked for?”  Well, yes, but the number of pauses affects the overall tempo and total time your muscles stay under tension. This plays a vital role in the result you will get.

Try this — if you’re injury free.

  1. Complete 10 body weight squats at a normal speed, under control. 
  2. Rest for one minute.
  3. Complete 10 more squats with a tempo of 3-1-3.  Lower your body for three (3) full seconds, pause for one (1) second at the bottom, then raise your body for three (3) full seconds.  Rest for one (1) minute.
  4. Complete 10 more squats with a tempo of 3-1-3-1.  Make sure you rest for one (1) second on the top of each movement.
  5. Finally, complete 10 more squats with a tempo of 3-1-3-0. The fourth number represents ZERO pause at the top of the squat. This time, be sure you do not rest when you get to the top. Immediately lower your body.

Did you feel a difference? You may be sore tomorrow just from doing this.

One of the most important reasons to consider paying closer attention to the tempo and time under tension of each exercise is because: Slower speeds of movement aid in releasing hormones (testosterone and growth hormone) that are necessary for body composition change (losing body fat or increasing lean muscle). 

Hopefully, you experienced the difference that tempo and total time under tension has in getting you results from a workout. With that, here are important takeaways for applying these principles to your workouts:

  1. As with any other variable in a workout, your body will adapt to the stress you put on it (i.e., the SAID principle), so you should not use the same speeds all the time. 
  2. Change your tempos every two-three weeks.
  3. The first time you use tempo will probably make you very sore.
  4. With respect to the number of repetitions you do: You won’t use the same weight when using slower tempos. Ten (10) repetitions with a 1-0-1-0 tempo is not the same as 10 repetitions with a 3-0-3-0 tempo. Adjust the weight to complete the number of repetitions at the specified tempo. Don’t adjust the tempo to accommodate a specific weight. 

Strategic variation, or structured change, is what will help you get consistent results. Ask a trainer to help you plot out the best way to achieve results according to your goals — with efficiency, without injury and without guessing.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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