Why Focusing on Your Tempo Maximizes Your Training Results

Improving Strength, Lean Muscle Mass and Muscular Endurance

Posted: February 6, 2017

Think about your squat...take a second to close your eyes and get a good visual. Picture what it looks like when you squat down and when you drive out of your squat for your repetition. Is a rep, simply a rep? Are all reps created equally? I’m here to tell you that a rep is not simply a rep. A rep is made up of something we call time under tension or TUT. When we are talking about time under tension during class, we are referring to the total amount of “time” your muscles are “under tension” during a set of an exercise.

Time Under Tension (TUT)

This is the amount of time that your muscles are being stressed during a rep. Similar to different length workouts, different TUT will give you different results. It can be split into 3 general time frames:

Strength: 0-20 seconds
Muscular Growth: 20-40 seconds
Muscular Endurance: 40-70 seconds

Time under tension can be increased or decreased in two ways.

  1. Perform more or fewer reps in a set. For example, a set of 10 reps will provide you with more time under tension than a set of 5 reps during an exercise when you are moving at the same speed.

  2. Increase or decrease the speed of the rep. If you are performing a set of 5 reps with a slower tempo and/or the set of 10 reps with a faster tempo, the set with less reps can become capable of providing a larger time under tension than the set with more reps simply by changing the speed of the rep.


When we talk about the speed of each rep, we are referring to tempo. The tempo of a rep is what makes a rep, it’s what dictates the load, the amount of reps, sets, and rest. There are four numbers that constitute the tempo of an exercise (each number accounting for one second):

  1. Eccentric component - the elongating of the muscles.
  2. Isometric component - the pause in the rep after the muscles are completely elongated.
  3. Concentric component - the contracting or shortening of the muscle, where we apply force.
  4. Isometric component - the pause in the rep after the muscles are completely contracted.

I will use an example of a back squat with the use of tempo. We look at the tempo from left to right, so a 3010 tempo indicates:
  • 3 second eccentric: the descent (lowering) part of a squat.
  • 0 second (no pause) isometric: the bottom of the squat.
  • 1 second concentric: the application of during the ascent (lifting) part of the squat
  • 0 second (no pause) isometric: the top of the squat.

Tempo and Weight Lifted

How much weight should you use when you’re squatting? Well, that depends on the tempo we are working at. As far as application goes, tempo dictates a rep and reps dictate load. What does this mean to you? Using the back squat example again, if you have a tempo of 3010; 6-8 reps; 3-4 sets, what will you use for weight? You will use the tempo and build to as heavy as you can without breaking the tempo all while performing the designated 6-8 reps. If you are able to only get 5 reps, the load is too heavy. Then on the other hand, if you can do 10 reps, then the load may be too light. The key here is to have the discipline to maintain the tempo throughout your entire workout (all sets).

Benefits of Varying Tempo and TUT

Variety is the key to overall gains in strength, increased lean muscle mass and muscular endurance. In the same fashion we want variety in our every day workouts, we want variety in our TUT. Each time domain provides different benefits, so we want to take a balanced approach to implementing this with our biological age and training. Age can play a huge role in which domain we spend the majority of our time. (Watch for more on this topic coming soon!)

As an example, a powerlifter will spend most of his or her time in the strength time frame with less time under tension. Likely fewer reps with more weight. Generally speaking, this athlete will sacrifice a degree of muscular endurance.

An endurance athlete, like a runner or cyclist, will spend more time under tension to improve muscular endurance, but will likely sacrifice speed and power.

A balanced approach will vary the time under tension to provide strength and power gains, and increased lean muscle mass without sacrificing muscular endurance. What does this look like?

In a given training period, a balanced approach may have tempo back squats (3010) on Monday with 6-8 reps for 3-4 sets. This is working in that muscular growth with about 32 seconds of time under tension for each set (4 second for each rep).

Later in the week, the workout includes 5 rounds of rowing and 15 front squats completed for time. This focuses on muscular endurance.

Early in the following week, you may build to a heavy set of 3 in the back squat. Focusing on low reps and higher weight allows us to build that strength and power component.

You can now understand that a set is not just a set and a rep is not just a rep. It’s time to put this to practice! Try different tempos and see how it changes the workout completely. Use the tempo and time under tension for a balanced approach to your training and to help where you may be deficient in movements such as at the bottom of a squat, on the descent of a pull-up, or any other variety of movements.

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