Change of Pace: Why Switching Your Exercise Speed Matters
Sunday, November 16, 2014
LifeTime WeightLoss in Cliff Edberg, Exercise, Exercise Rate, Maximizing Fitness Gains, Pace, Performance Enhancement, Rest Periods, Tempo, fitness advice, interval training, recovery

The human body will always choose the path of least resistance, meaning it will only adapt enough to perform the task at hand – and nothing more.

We can apply this understanding to our daily exercise routine and thereby anticipate essential principles for our fitness success. For one, if we don’t change up our exercise variables, we’ll inevitably undercut our fitness progress.

One key variable that garners little to no attention is the pace at which we perform our exercise. Our rest periods, our running pace, and the speed at which we lift and lower weights all create different physiological responses. These speed related factors are powerful enough to improve our performance or render us stagnant.

How Pace Figures into Strength Training

The typical resistance training approach is to select your weight, sets, reps, and crank them out. Rarely will people consider their pace as a factor in their programs. A more effective way to approach your resistance training would include all of the following questions.


Lifting at a specific speed during the eccentric and concentric movements during exercise is one way to manipulate the amount of time your muscles are under tension. The duration of tension your muscles are under will help determine the adaptation that takes place.

With a heavy work load (strength being the goal), the tempo will be much faster, reps will be lower, and time under tension decreased. With a light work load (muscular endurance as a goal) the tempo will slow, reps will be increased, and time under tension increased.

Tempo is usually depicted in 3 or 4 digit numbers. Today we will define the 4 digit version. The first number is the portion of the movement where you lower the weight (eccentric). The second number is the amount of time you hold the transition portion of the movement – from lowering to lifting. The third number is the time it should take to actually lift the weight (concentric). Lastly, the fourth number is the amount of time you hold the transition portion of the movement, from lifting back to lowering the weight.

Example: Adding Muscle Mass

A longer time under tension is much more appropriate for this specific goal. A usual recommendation I have for this specific outcome is a 4010 tempo. On a bench press, you would lower the weight for four seconds and immediately transition to lifting the weight, which would take you approximately 1 second. Let’s put this into perspective with the typical approach using tempo. The typical tempo would look more like 1010. For example, if I am completing 12 reps on a bench press, my entire time under tension would be 24 seconds, which is not ideal for muscular growth. If I implement a 4010 tempo, I have 60 full seconds of time under tension – over double the typical approach.

Rest periods

Your rest periods are critical to maximize objectives from your resistance training. These periods will help elicit hormonal changes in your body and allow for your muscles, fuel stores, and central nervous system both to receive necessary recovery opportunity and to continue performing the appropriate work.

If the goal is strength gain, then 3-5 minute rest periods allow for your body to fully replenish its short term energy store (phosphagen), allowing for maximal performance. Extended rest between will also allow your central nervous system to recover, which will then fully permit you to recruit maximal amount of muscles fibers.

Finally, heavy loads with longer rest periods have been shown to improve post-workout testosterone levels, which will assist you in gaining muscle and strength.

If the goal is muscle mass gain, then 30-60 second rest periods will stimulate the body to produce more metabolites like lactate, which stimulate muscular growth. Short rest periods also increase the amount of work that can be done during any given amount of exercise and therefore maximize muscle breakdown, which (in an ideal situation) causes your body to compensate and put on muscle mass.

Finally, short rest intervals are associated with increased levels of IGF-1 and human growth hormone, which will stimulate the body to increase muscle mass.

Cardiovascular Training and Pace

The average person’s attention to cardiovascular programming is usually as poor, if not poorer, than it is for strength training. The primary focus is usually calories burned or specific mileage. When designing your cardiovascular program, you should ask the same critical questions:

The goal should be to become more efficient during your exercise. Whether that means improved speed, improved work capacity, or enhanced fuel partitioning, a plan that varies your pace is essential to create the physical stimulus for change. Three critical factors for any good cardiovascular program include spending sufficient time to build your aerobic capacity, increasing cardiac output, and targeting VO2 max at the pace that creates the needed stimulus.

Building Aerobic Base

This is a slow to moderate pace that can be maintained for a long period of time, usually described as Zones 1 and 2 from an Active Metabolic Assessment. Spending efficient amounts of time in this heart rate range trains your body to utilize mostly fat for fuel, which in turn enhances your overall efficiency during cardiovascular exercise. Approximately 80% of your overall weekly cardio time should be dedicated toward this intensity of cardiovascular training.

Increasing Anaerobic Threshold

This is a much faster pace at which your body begins to accumulate a carbohydrate byproduct called lactate. It is often associated with a “burning” feeling in the legs. The zones that begin to assist in pushing up this threshold are usually labeled as zone 3. It’s important to spend adequate time in this zone to ensure you train your body to better metabolize and buffer this product to avoid hindering your progress.  

Exercise at this intensity is best done as interval training with intervals generally lasting 4-15 minutes, depending on current fitness level and goals. Recovery time between intervals is best at a 4 to 1 “work to rest” ratio. For example, a 4-minute interval is followed by 1 minute of rest, and a 6-minute interval is followed by 1.5 minutes of rest. Each interval should be done at the same speed. Interval time can be adjusted to not exceed the top of Zone 3. Recovery time should be adjusted to allow your heart rate to drop down to at least the top of Zone 1. Approximately 12% of your overall weekly cardio minutes should be dedicated toward this intensity of cardiovascular training.

Increasing Cardiac Output and VO2 Max

Cardiac output is defined as the amount of blood the heart can pump each minute. VO2 max is defined as the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use per minute relative to your body weight. By increasing both of these, you will be able to perform at much higher intensities for longer periods of time. To improve cardiac output and VO2 Max, your pace needs to be increased significantly, and your time needs to be spent in Zones 4 and 5.

Exercise at this intensity is best done as interval training, with intervals generally lasting 1-5 minutes, depending on current fitness level and goals. Recovery time between intervals is best at a 1 to 1 “work to rest” ratio. For example, a 1-minute interval is followed by 1 minute of rest and a 2-minute interval is followed by 2 minutes of rest. Recovery time should be adjusted to allow your heart rate to drop down to at least the top of Zone 1. Approximately 8% of your overall weekly cardio minutes should be spent within these zones

Thanks for reading. Does your current program fully consider pace in optimizing your fitness gains? Talk to a fitness professional today to see what adapting your pace can do for your progress.

In health, Cliff Edberg, National Education Manager, Nutrition, Metabolism & Weight Management, RD/LD, NSCA, BioSig, CISSN, Pn1

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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