Thoughts on Tempo

If you were to spend more than 10 minutes with me, you’ll probably hear me tapping on something.  I’ve been playing drums for 16 years, but my Mom will tell you that I started out by drumming on my high chair with baby carrots.  Fortunately, there aren’t any videos of that.

Carrots are now drum sticks, and just last night I played in a concert with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra.  We played several pieces from Alexander Borodin, as well as Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet.  Below is a clip of Sir Simon Rattle from the The Berliner Philharmoniker performing the trumpet solo after the Ballerina’s Solo:


While the trumpet part is obviously the feature, the snare drum part provides a cute little intro and backing to his work.  The trumpet soloist, Walter, sounded great last night, and I’m looking forward to hearing recordings of the performance.  Hopefully the conductor doesn’t note that we played it at 108bpm instead of the 104bpm he suggested.  This leads me to the purpose of this post, which is the role of tempo in strength training.

Depending on where you look, sources are either adamant about the importance of lifting tempo, or say it’s entirely unimportant.  Personally, I take a middle-of-the-road approach.  Tempo is important, but it’s not rocket science.  There’s plenty of exercise science research that supports a variety of conclusions based on lifting tempo.  The research discusses muscle activity and anabolic response, and coaches like Charles Poliquin apply these findings with great success.  Tony Gentilcore has written about the importance of bar speed a number of times, and you can find search results from his site HERE.  You’re welcome!

The most basic suggestion I can give you regarding tempo is to lift with the intent to move quickly.  In terms of strengthdevelopment, this allows you to activate the greatest amount of muscle, and will help you pick up heavy shit.  That’s the goal, isn’t it?  Moving quickly applies to warm-up sets, speed work, max effort work, etc.  Strength is a skill, and needs to be practiced just like anything else.

I’ll note that the idea of moving quickly applies to the concentric portion of lifts; I’m not a fan of slow concentrics.  Even with maximum effort lifts, which may take a while to lock out, there is the intent to move quickly, even under heavy weight.  When it comes to the eccentric and isometric portions of lifts, that’s when things get a little more tricky.  I’ve become a fan of slow eccentrics and isometric pauses, when they’re used strategically, not ad nauseam.  For example, you may try adding a 1 or 2 second pause to your bench press when the bar is touching your chest before exploding back up,  A better example might be squatting to a box, pausing for a moment (1-3 seconds) and then exploding back up.  In terms of eccentrics, it’s more reasonable to extend the lowering portion of lifts that are not maximal effort instead of taking maximum effort eccentrics.  You’ll still be challenged, but without the necessity of a spotter throughout the set.

Adjusting your lifting tempo can provide great impact on your performance and results.  Manipulating tempo can be tricky, and for the most part it will be beneficial to practice lifting quickly.  Applying more force to the bar equals getting stronger.  As for the rest of the lift, extended eccentrics and isometric pauses can be beneficial, but too much of a good thing will burn out your CNS and beat you up.  Instead, play around with one or two of these ideas each week, and let me know how they feel!

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