What is rep tempo and how you can use it to increase strength and build muscle
Updated: 4 days ago
You might be asking yourself what is rep tempo? If you are an avid gym goer or have been strength training for a while you may have come across the word “rep tempo” or “rep cadence” when looking at a strength training training program. Simply put, rep tempo is the speed or time it takes to complete a repetition in all phases and throughout the entire range of motion. It tells us how long the muscle is stressed or is under tension. You will see rep tempo described with a 4 digit number. These numbers represent the 4 phases of a repetition and are represented in seconds. To understand rep tempo you need to understand what these 4 phases are.
The first number represents the first phase of a repetition. This is the eccentric or the negative phase. This is the part when you are lowering the weight, when the muscle is lengthening. For our example we will use the squat. The negative is the part when you are lowering yourself down to the bottom position. Now the first phase always represents the negative phase of the movement. This can sometimes be confusing to people because many movements like the barbell curl start with the concentric or positive phase of the movement and people may mistakenly think this is the first number in the rep tempo. In a barbell curl you start the movement with the arms extended at the bottom and the first phase of the
movement is the positive or contraction. But since the first number always represents the negative or the lowering of the weight after you completed the positive phase it is actually the first number in the rep tempo. But regardless of if the movement starts with the positive part of the movement or the negative the first number in a rep tempo prescription always represents the negative.
Using rep tempo on barbell curls is a great way to break past strength plateaus
The second number represents the transition phase between the completion of the negative phase and the start of the positive phase of the movement. In the squat this is the bottom part of the movement after you finish lowering yourself down to the bottom position.
The third number represents the concentric or positive phase of the movement. This is the contracting of the muscle or the shortening of the muscle. Some refer to this as the lifting phase where you are actually lifting and driving the weight through and contracting the muscle. In the squat this is where you are extending up out of the bottom position and lifting yourself and any additional weight or resistance up.
The fourth number represents the end of the positive phase or the completion of a repetition. In the squat this is the phase when you finish the positive phase and are back up to the starting position again.
Now let’s put this all together. Say you have a repetition tempo prescription of a 4110 for a set of 6 reps of dumbbell squats. This would mean on the negative phase you would lower yourself down to the bottom position for a 4 second count. Since the second number is 1 that would mean you would pause for 1 second in the bottom position or transition phase between the end of the negative and start of the positive phase. The third number is a 1 so that would mean you would take 1 second to complete the positive phase of the movement and drive yourself and the weight all the way up.
The fourth number is 0 so that would mean there is no pause at the end of the completion of the positive phase of the repetition. So since rep tempo tells us how long the muscle is stressed or under tension we can tell that in this exercise the muscle was stressed or under tension for a total of 6 seconds per repetition. 4 seconds on the lowering phase or negative, 1 second holding the pause at the bottom position and 1 second on the positive lifting the weight up. For 6 repetitions that would be a total of 36 seconds of time under tension (TUT) per set.
For reference a “1” on the concentric phase of a movement represents driving the weight through forcefully but under control. A “0” in a rep tempo represent no pause in the movement and an “X” represents an explosive movement where you drive the weight through as explosively and forcefully as possible. Even though you are lifting the weight explosively with an “X’ tempo you are always in control of the movement and using strict form. All the other numbers represent seconds.
So why is rep tempo important and why should you use it? Like previously mentioned, it tells us how long the muscle is under tension or worked. People always count their reps but they rarely count or factor in the rep tempo. Factoring in your rep tempo tells us what muscle fibers are being worked and what training zone we are in. Using a rep tempo that has a low amount of time under tension will get a different training effect and work different muscles than using a longer time under tension.
Let’s break it down. If you are in a time under tension for a set from 0 seconds to up to 20 seconds you are in more of a strength zone. If you are in a time under tension zone from 20 seconds to up to 40 seconds you are in a functional hypertrophy zone (muscle building and strength). If you are in a time under tension zone in a set from 40 seconds for up to 70 seconds you are in a hypertrophy zone (muscle building). If you are doing a set for longer than 70 seconds you are in a strength endurance zone.
What does this mean? This means that although you should always count reps you should also factor in how much time under tension each set takes to ensure you are in a zone that works towards whatever your training goals are.
Does this mean you should always have a set rep tempo for every exercise that you do? No, I do many programs where I don’t prescribe specific rep tempo. As long as the client is doing the exercise in strict form and controlling the weight I often times don’t use rep tempo. I think focusing on rep tempo too much can take away from the aggression of weight training and cause some over thinking when training. Rep tempo though is an important workout variable that can be changed and manipulated in workouts to add change and variety in workouts to break past plateaus and to help make strength and muscle size gains. An exercise I find it particularly helpful with is with chin-ups. Adding in a slower rep tempo on the negative phase is a great way to break past strength plateaus. Also going from a 3010 rep tempo on an exercise to a 4010 rep tempo is causing you to create more time under tension and adding more time under tension is another way of adding a progression to an exercise just like adding more weight, reps or sets.
A couple rules of thumb when using rep tempo. For olympic lifts or exercises for explosive power you always want to use faster rep tempos with an “X” tempo. For exercises for lower reps and strength you can use slower rep tempo’s, especially on the negative phase because the body is always stronger on the negative than it is on the positive phase. This and isometric or static pauses added into your rep tempo are another great way to help break past strength plateaus. For higher reps (15 or more) you wouldn’t want to use a real slow rep tempo (5 or 6 seconds on any phase of the rep) as the set would take way too long to get the desired training effect. For higher reps rep tempos like 1010 or 2010 would probably be the better rep tempo to choose.
Try adding rep tempo into your training programs and varying it from time to help enhance your workouts and break past some training plateaus.