Tempo Training: Why You Should Add Tempo and Pause Variations into Your Routine

Tempo training involves any instance where you purposefully slow down or even pause a portion of a movement. This could be the concentric phase (shortening of a muscle), eccentric phase (lengthening of a muscle), or even adding an isometric hold (static hold of a muscle contraction) somewhere in the movement.

Tempo variations are an excellent way to change up your routine, and provide a variety of additional benefits. Here’s some of the reasons why you should be adding tempo and pause variations into your training today!

(For even more lifting variations you can try, check out this article!)

1. Tempos are A Great Learning Tool 

Tempo and pause variations are a go to for strength coaches as they can be a fantastic learning tool for new lifters.

It can often be mentally overwhelming for a new lifter to try and remember every single cue a coach just threw at them, all while there’s heavy weight on their back to boot. Tempos give a lifter the time to think through things step by step in a slow and controlled manner. It’s much easier to be cognizant of a cue such as “keep your knees out” in a squat, when you’ve got 5 seconds to think about it on the way down.

Likewise, since the lifter is moving slower during tempo variations, load is going to be forced off the bar. So, in addition to having more time to think about their lift, lifters will also be less fearful of the weight on the bar allowing them to focus in even more on their cues and technique. If you have a specific new cue you want to learn, or just need to get rid of a bad habit, slowing things down with a tempo are a great way to do it.

2. Increase Time Under Tension 

For those of you concerned with building bigger muscles, great news. Tempos can be an excellent hypertrophy tool.

In addition to hypertrophy trainings main tenant of “increasing volume to increase muscle growth”, another variable that plays a role in increasing hypertrophy is increasing time under tension. “Time under tension” refers to the amount of time a muscle is under stress. Ideally, to increase hypertrophy of a muscle we are looking to increase the amount of time that muscle is under stress and that’s exactly what we are doing with tempo variations.

Tempos force a lifter to slowly control their muscle contractions inevitably leading to increased time under tension. It’s for this reason you will often see tempo variations featured in hypertrophy programming. Even when a tempo isn’t specifically stated for a workout, bodybuilders will still put a lot of emphasis on controlling the movement, much like a tempo and now you know why.

3.  Fatigue/Load Management

As we stated above, slowing down a lift is going to end up reducing the amount of load you can put on the bar. This is not a bad thing.

Load management is a crucial part of program design and plays a big role in managing an athletes overall fatigue, and in the long run their likelihood of getting injured. Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t looking to load up a bar with as much weight as is physically possible every single time we step into a gym. We are shooting to develop just enough stress that will create a stimulus for the body to adapt and get stronger to. Tempos give us the ability to do just that.

Tempos allow a lifter to lift at high overall intensity, without high absolute load on the bar which is fantastic for fatigue management. For example a lifter may perform a normal set of squats at 315lbs for 8 reps and rate it as an RPE 8. They could do that same set of squats at 275lbs for 8 reps but this time with a 3 second tempo on the way down and still rate it at RPE 8. The overall intensity is the same “RPE 8” leading to a quality training stimulus, but because the load is reduced with the tempo, we can manage how fatigued the athlete will be by the training.

4. Pain Management

Tempo variations in addition to being great for fatigue and load management, can also be great for working through instances of pain or injury.

For many instances of “nonspecific pain” (think your general aches and pains of the gym not a more acute injury like a torn bicep) treatment can often be as simple as decreasing load on the bar for certain movements for a given period of time to achieve “pain free reps”. This is usually great for shoring up an athletes pain, but can be extremely boring. Athletes will often question what the point of showing up to the gym is if they are going to be lifting such light weight. Tempos can help make things more challenging in these instances. Maybe an athlete finds a particular weight too easy, but it’s all they can lift pain free. What if they have to control that same weight 5 seconds on the way down, pause at the bottom for 5 seconds, and then control for another 5 seconds on the way up? Now they are both lifting pain free, and challenging themselves.

Additionally, tempos can help “ease” an athlete into certain positions that may be uncomfortable during an instance of pain. Maybe dropping into the hole on a squat feels painful, but taking a controlled 3 second tempo on the way down feels better.

5. Tempos and Pauses are CHALLENGING 

If for no other reason, you should be adding tempos and pauses into your training because they are DIFFICULT.

If you train tempos for an extended period of time you will quickly gain a new found appreciation for the “normal” variations of your chosen movements. Tempos force you to remain diligent in your training. You have to hold proper positioning for extended periods of time, you will have to brace for a lift longer than you are used to, and in general the total amount of time you spend in a particular set is going to be increased. Tempo variations are harder than your normal lifting variations in just about every way, save for the absolute load that’s on the bar.

You’d think lifting lighter would make these a more pleasant experience, but even seasoned lifters will know they are in for a tough time when they see tempos coming up in their program. That being said your hard work will be rewarded. Tempo and pause variations are hands down some of the most effective training variations you can do, and I guarantee you’ll be happy with the strength and performance gains you’ll see through training them.

(For more on tempo variations check out this training video!)


Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.