Time Under Tension, Rep Tempo & Super Slow Tempo Training
Time under tension or rep tempo is the time that muscles are resisting load during each rep in a set of a workout. Another interpretation is the muscle time under tension for the total workout. However, this is essentially more about workout volume.
Training protocols referring to a prescribed tempo usually involve a longer muscle time under tension (or a slower pace) than you would naturally do. To be clear, I would consider a slowed down and controlled tempo to be about 6-10 seconds to complete a rep. Many research studies looked at tempos of 12-20 seconds or greater per rep for the slow tempo cohorts of their studies. It is therefore often referred to as “super slow” tempo training. This distinction is an important one for the basis of this discussion.
SLOW OR “SUPER SLOW”?
Is there much evidence to suggest you should be doing “super slow” tempo training? Nope. Should you be doing controlled slow tempo training? Absolutely. Not all the time mind you, but it has its place.
Despite supporting evidence of the effectiveness of slow tempo training, if you dig deeper into the research, sources of confusion quickly become apparent. Apply some common sense, and you’ll see the flaws in some of the research promoting the benefits of “super slow” tempo training. The limitations in the training protocols and testing reduce the value of this research with these studies probably saying more about the importance of training volume and intensity.
Research suggests that traditional strength training tempos are equally valid or preferable to “super slow” training tempos for strength gains. It also indicates that traditional strength training may be considerably superior to slow tempo training for fat loss. This advantage is due to increased metabolic and cardiovascular stimulation.
HOW TO APPLY SLOW TEMPO TRAINING
A common sense approach to applying slow tempo training is to maintain a controlled movement through reps, especially the eccentric action of the exercise (lowering the load), and at the bottom of the lift. If you drop the weight too quickly, you will be letting gravity do the work and miss out on significant gains. Pausing at the bottom of a lift allows elastic energy (from the stretch-shortening cycle) to dissipate from your muscles and again improves your gains. A pause at the top of lifts like the row and pull-up helps enhance strength to the point in the lift where you are weakest.
Reasons to use slow tempo training are:
- To improve control, stability, and proprioception of an exercise.
- Help learn proper technique with relatively lower intensities.
- As part of a deload phase.
- Unintentionally due to lifting a heavy weight.
- Progressing a bodyweight exercise.
- Training specifically for slow movements with specificity.
DROP YOUR EGO AND YOUR WEIGHT LOADS
If you want to do slow tempo training and are currently doing a strength training program, then you will need to modify your weights. To achieve the same number of reps for each set, you will most likely need to choose a lighter weight/resistance.
A general guide to controlled tempo is 2-4 seconds going down, pause briefly for 1-2 seconds at the bottom, go back up at a natural pace, spend 1-2 seconds resetting or holding at the top, and repeat.
For an explanation of how to read tempo in a program, refer to how to read workout programs.
1. Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. Nicholas A Burd, Richard J Andrews, Daniel WD West, Jonathan P Little, et al. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15; 590(Pt 2): 351-362. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC..
2. Effects of regular and slow speed resistance training on muscle strength. Westcott WL, Winett RA, Anderson ES, Wojcik JR, Loud RL, Cleggett E, Glover S. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Jun;41(2):154-8. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11447355
3. Early-phase adaptations of traditional-speed vs. superslow resistance training on strength and aerobic capacity in sedentary individuals. Keeler LK, Finkelstein LH, Miller W, Fernhall B. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Aug;15(3):309-14. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed…
4. Effects of 4 weeks of traditional resistance training vs. superslow strength training on early phase adaptations in strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity in college-aged women. Kim E, Dear A, Ferguson SL, Seo D, Bemben MG. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Nov;25(11):3006-13. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/219930..
5. Effect of repetition duration during resistance training on muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn DI, Krieger JW. Sports Med. 2015 Apr;45(4):577-85. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25601…
6. Comparison of metabolic and heart rate responses to super slow vs. traditional resistance training. Hunter GR, Seelhorst D, Snyder S. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Feb;17(1):76-81. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12580…
7. Effects of eccentric-focused and conventional resistance training on strength and functional capacity of older adults. Pieta Dias C, et al. Age (Dordr). 2015 Oct; 37(5): 99. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26374…