Why Tempo Is the Missing Ingredient in Your Strength Training Workout

Photo: Stocksy/Mauro Grigollo
When you think of “pumping iron,” giant dumbbells and reps probably come to mind. But that weight lifting formula of load and repetition is overlooking a powerful component in the strength training tool belt: Tempo.

Specifically, the benefits of slowing things wayyy down.

“There's a bit of this old school idea of like, I need to lift more or move faster, in order for things to be effective,” says Thea Hughes, a Brooklyn-based strength training coach and founder of Max Effort Training. “Thinking about tempo instead is maybe not quite as sexy. But if we sort of think about why and how our bodies are moving, I think that people can optimize their results quicker by controlling those movements.”

Experts In This Article
  • Thea Hughes, Brooklyn-based strength training coach and founder of Max Effort Training. Certified in Pn1 Nutrition Coaching, Functional Strength Training, and Pre/Postnatal Pilates, and the former Creative Director at Williamsburg strength training gym SESSION.

What Hughes means by tempo in strength training is the speed at which you’re doing a rep. So instead of just quickly going down-up in a squat, the idea is that you would perhaps lower yourself in that squat while you count for three-to-five seconds. Doing this increases the time that your muscles are “under tension,” says Hughes, which means they’re working harder for longer.

“Regardless of whether you're holding a 50-pound plate, or body weight, your body is under tension, but it's actually harder to do it slower,” Hughes says.

study on tempo in the Journal of Physiology found that performing leg lift movements slowly resulted in more muscle growth than the same activity done rapidly. A meta-analysis of studies on muscle growth strategies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health wasn’t able to determine whether a slow tempo was actually more effective than performing reps quickly, but ultimately suggests that maintaining control during the resistance portion of an exercise is the best way to optimize the move.

Hughes agrees that control is an essential component of building muscle, and thinks that slowing down your moves ensures that you maintain that control.

“It requires that you are enforcing the proper movement mechanics and that you are engaging things in the correct way,” Hughes says. “This brings mind-body awareness into our workouts instead of just going through the motions.”

That doesn’t mean faster speeds have no place in your conditioning workouts. Hughes suggests pairing moments of explosive strength with slowed down resistance, such as a squat jump or a push up where you jump or push quickly, and then lower yourself back down slowly.

“Slowing down and controlling your movement is not mutually exclusive from fast-paced movement,” Hughes says. “By controlling our tempo, we're going to be able to actually do some of that higher intensity, fast movements, or jumping better because we're going to have such better control and understanding of our range of motion.”

So if you want to mix up your workout, or play with ways to get results, don’t forget to consider your speed.

“Everything has tempo, whether you pay attention to it or not,” Hughes says.

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