Using Tempo Training in your strength training program…

Something that I’ve been playing around with in my training programs lately is the use of Tempo to guide the speed of my reps. It is something I have used on and off for almost a decade now and some of you that have the second version of the Ultimate MTB Workout Program may recognize it from there.

It isn’t a great idea for the beginner or when you are learning a lot of new exercises but once you’re past that stage it is something you should try for yourself.

At the heart of Tempo Training is the use of a 3 number system to tell you the speed to perform each portion of the rep. Without getting too technical, each time you perform an exercise there is an eccentric (lowering), isometric (pause) and concentric (lifting) phase of the movement.

So, a common tempo prescription for me is 3-1-1. This means that you would come down to a count of 3, pause for a count of 1 at the bottom and them raise the weight back up to a count of 1.

By assigning a specific speed to each portion of the rep you can achieve a couple things. First, different rep speeds deliver much different results. For example, a 1-0-1 tempo is going to give you much different results than the 3-1-1 tempo example I gave above.

The faster tempo is going to build more power, the slower tempo will build more starting strength. Understanding those differences allows you to build a deeper level of sophistication into your workouts.

Also, controlling your rep speed ensures that you are not just moving faster and using more momentum as you get tired. It is very common for you last few reps to be moving at a much different speed than your first few and Tempo Training controls for that variable better.

However, as good as it sounds in theory I have found it to be troublesome to implement with every client all of the time. The biggest problem is that thinking about your tempo means that you, well, have to think about your tempo. This adds to the list of things going on in your head and you need to have the free brain power to handle it.

In other words, Tempo Training is tough to use with riders who have just started strength training or are learning a lot of new exercises. You have to know an exercise really well in order to be able to shift focus to your rep speed without losing your posture or execution on the exercise itself.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be thinking about your rep speed even if you aren’t using Tempo Training. Unless you are performing a power exercise (in which case you should be moving as fast as possible) you want to lower shoot for something like a 2-1-1 tempo, which basically boils down to a controlled descent, short pause at the bottom and a fast but controlled ascent.

However, if you have been training for a while and have a few key exercises on lock-down you should consider controlling the tempo of a few exercises in your next workout. I’ve mainly been using it to create a greater isometric effect and more starting strength, which is the ability to lift a weight with no assistance from momentum.

This means I’ve been using 2-2-1, 1-3-1 and 1-4-1 tempos, mainly in my Secondary Circuit with my assistance exercises. I mean, I still don’t want to think about tempo too much when I’m pulling some heavy deadlifts or doing some heavy shoulder presses in my Focus Circuit.

Here is an example of a workout I’ve done using this method…

Focus Circuit

Deadlifts              6 Sets of 3 Reps using my 5 RM weight

Chin Ups              6 Sets of 3 Reps


Secondary Circuit

TRX Push Ups               2 Sets of 8 reps/ 1-3-1 Tempo

Stagger Stance Squat    2 Sets of 8 reps/ 1-3-1 Tempo

Farmers Walk                 2 Sets of Max Steps


Hopefully this gives you an idea of how to structure a workout using the Tempo Training method. Just remember not to mess around too much with the lifting phase – a.k.a. the third number – as you want don’t want to lift slowly on purpose. Being an athlete is about speed and so you want to lift as fast as you can control most of the time.

By giving you another variable you can control Tempo Training offers some unique benefits, which is why I think I keep coming back to it. Like I said, it isn’t a great idea for the beginner or when you are learning a lot of new exercises but once you’re past that stage it is something you should try for yourself. Smart use of Tempo Training can fine tune your results, giving you an even better return on your training time investment.

BTW, I’m starting to use Tempo Training more in the program I write for my Personal Coaching Members Website. Since a lot of the members there have completed one of my other workouts (or one of the dozens of other workouts on the site) then Tempo Training fits in well there since it is building on the exercises they already know. If you’re interested in getting a new program each month based on my latest training “experiments” then check it out at

-James Wilson-

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James Wilson
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James Wilson