Slow down ...It might be your key to avoiding injury and getting stronger.
Tempo training is not just for bodybuilders. Olympic caliber athletes from all over the world use tempo training to become stronger, faster and more powerful. The benefits of tempo training have been touted for years by the likes of Bulgarian Olympians and their coaches to internationally renowned strength coaches Ian King and Charles Poliquin. I was introduced to the benefits of tempo training by my coach and mentor, James Fitzgerald, who uses it very effectively to train many of the top CrossFit competitors.
Tempo training is important at all stages of an athlete’s development – from beginners who simply want to learn to lift weights and shed a few pounds to Olympic caliber athletes of all disciplines. Here are my top 3 reasons for including tempo prescriptions with lifts:
Improved quality of movement
Quality of movement should be your first priority. Intensity comes only after one can consistently demonstrate the proper mechanics of a movement. Proper tempo prescriptions can help athletes develop awareness and body control by giving them an opportunity to “feel” which muscle groups are activating to keep them in proper positions.
We work with a lot of kids, and kids tend to be fearless. They think nothing of plunging into the bottom of a squat, secure in their belief that their young, elastic connective tissue will catch and help propel them back to the top. The problem is, as they descend their knees often collapse inward, their chest sinks in and their pelvis rolls into a posterior tilt (the dreaded “butt wink”). By requiring a tempo, for example, we can help them learn how to keep their chest up, knees out and lumbar spine neutral by allowing them the time to “feel” those positions throughout the four phases of the lift. If the student is unable to control the descent and perform the movement at the prescribed tempo, we know the load is too great.
In more experienced athletes, tempo can be used to emphasize problem areas and shore up weak links in technique. For example, if you struggle in the bottom position of an overhead squat, a prescription forcing you to spend some time in that position will help solidify your technique, create more comfort in that weak position, and permit greater improvements down the line.
Reduced Risk of Injury
Improving the quality of the movement obviously helps to reduce the risk of injury for athletes. But in addition, slowing down the tempo of lifts can ease the stress placed on joints and shift that additional stress to the muscles powering the lift. More stress on the muscles and less on the joints is a good thing. Muscles are far better at adapting to increased loads. Connective tissue typically takes longer to strengthen and adapt to the increasing loads, so by slowing down the tempo you can give your connective tissue some rest while still strengthening the surrounding musculature.
Tempo prescriptions also naturally control intensity (and perhaps, rein in egos). Let’s use the bench press as an example. If you excessively load the barbell you might be tempted to speed up the lowering phase and bounce the barbell off your chest – don’t lie, you do this. But if you know that the prescription calls for a 3 second descent and a 2 second pause at the bottom, you’re not going to be tempted to load anywhere close to the same amount. Don’t believe me? Give it a shot.
Improved Strength Gains
Proper tempo prescriptions can lead to vastly improved strength gains.
First, different tempo prescriptions permit for greater training variety and stimulus. This means fewer plateaus and more adaptation.
Second, they allow us to shore up weak links by overloading certain areas of movements. For example, how many of you feel more comfortable with your second and third deadlift reps than your first? I am guessing a lot, and it’s because you are using the benefit of either or both the elastic “bounce” of your stretch-shortening cycle or your rubber plates hitting the hard floor. But if your tempo prescription called for a slow descent and a longer pause at the bottom, you might actually have to get stronger through your weak points.
Third, slowing down movements with tempo prescriptions can allow for greater amount of time under tension with less overall stress on an athlete’s central nervous system. This can be particularly important for CrossFit athletes, who are often pushing themselves to the limits with maximal effort lifts and workouts, by creating a way to continue training and making an athlete stronger without overtaxing his or her system.
Fourth, isometric pauses at the top and/or bottom of lifts force you to recruit more muscle fiber, and more muscle fiber recruitment (particularly more fast-twitch fibers) equals greater strength gains. I know that sounds like coach’s geek-speak, but here’s how you will know you’re recruiting more muscle fiber – it will be really hard.