What are tempo sets?  You may have heard of people talking about this in the gym or you may have seen it in our free daily programming on the blog.  If you’ve never used tempo sets in your training, it will take your performance to a whole new level.   So what is it, why do we use it, and how does it work?

What Are Tempo Sets?

A tempo set is simply a set of repetitions done at a specified speed (i.e. tempo).  It will normally be displayed with 4 alpha-numeric symbols, such as 30X1 or 31A2.  It describes both the eccentric and concentric phase of the lift as well as the pause, or absence of a pause at the top or bottom of a lift.

Why Do We Use Tempo Sets?

We use tempo sets a lot, especially with our remote exclusive coaching clients, so that we can control exactly what it is they are doing in training and by doing so ensuring that they are getting the dose response required.   Think about it this way: if I were to tell you to do 10 repetitions of a high bar squat, with no other direction, what would that look like?  For you, it might be a slow and steady set taking you 3 seconds to lower and 3 seconds to stand up.  You might have a 2-3 second pause between each repetition.  For someone else, it may look like a piston pumping up and down in a car engine.  They might be fast on the way down, bounce out of the hole, explode up, and then take little to no pause at the top of each repetition.  You can imagine that the result on the body, the CNS, and the various tissues and muscle fibers would be greatly different with these two approaches.  So in order to ensure the athlete is getting the results that we want them to get (which is based on the outcome of the initial and ongoing assessment) we do everything we can to control the training stimulus.  We determine reps first, based off factors such as biological age, training age, goals, exercise chosen, and other factors.  Then we determine tempo.

How Do Tempo Sets Work?

In order to understand how tempo sets works, we need to have an understanding of what each of the 4 alpha-numeric symbols mean.  Let’s start with a tempo of 30X1.  In this case the tempo would read as follows:

  1. The First Number

    The first number in the group dictates the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift.  This is where the muscles elongate.  Examples of this would includes the lowering to the ground in the squat, the lowering of the bar to the chest in a bench press, or the lowering of the body away from the bar in a pull-up.  It does not necessarily dictate the start of the lift, as the pull-up does not start from the top position, but rather from the bottom position.  Keep this in mind as you read the tempo. If the number is a 3, it means that you need to take 3 full seconds to move through that range of motion in an even, continuous, and fluid manner.

  2. The Second Number

    The second number dictates the pause at the end of the eccentric motion.  In this case it’s a pause of 0.  This does not mean that you should “bounce” at this portion of the lift.  It simply means that when you reach end range during the eccentric motion, you must turn around and immediately begin the concentric portion of the lift at whatever speed the tempo dictates.  If this second number were a 2 or a 3, then you would be required to pause for 2 or 3 seconds.

  3. The Third Number

    The 3rd number (or letter) dictates the speed at which the concentric portion of the lift is to be performed.  This is where the muscles are shortening.  It could be the pressing motion in a bench press, the standing motion in a deadlift or squat, or the flexing of the bicep in a bicep curl.  An X means that the lift is to be done explosively.  The bar speed does not matter however.  It is simply the intent to move the bar or weight as fast as possible.  The concentric portion of the lift could take 4 or 5 seconds and still be considered explosive in relation to the demands of the tempo, as long as you make every effort to move the weight as fast as possible.  This becomes much more demanding on the CNS but is key for relative strength gains.  You might also see a number here indicating the amount of time that the concentric phase should take, or an “A”, indicating that the concentric phase should be done assisted.  Assisted could mean somebody helping you with the lift (usually during a simple lift such as a bicep curl or tricep extension), using bands, or even a dip and pull-up machine.

  4. The Fourth Number

    The last number in the group dictates the length of the pause at the end of the concentric phase.  If the number is a 1 then there should be a pause of one full second before beginning the eccentric phase of the next repetition.

What Advantages Do Tempo Sets Have?

There are many advantages to using tempo sets depending on how we use them.  Here are just a few:

  1. Fat Loss

    More time under tension (TUT) equals higher metabolic demand.  If an athlete wants to drop body fat, one method is to increase the eccentric portion of the lift (5010).  This increases the amount of time that the athlete is under tension and thereby increases energy expenditure and excess post-exercise energy expenditure (EPOC).  This results in your body continuing to burn calories at a higher rate for up to 48 hours post-exercise.  A higher metabolic demand will also increase growth hormone expenditure which is one of the key hormones that you want to increase for fat loss.

  2. Strength Gains

    If your goal is strength, then an explosive concentric phase can help you achieve increased strength gains.  A good rule of thumb for maximizing relative strength gains is to keep the time under tension to under 20 seconds.

  3. Safety

    Tempo sets can ensure safety and efficacy of the movement while the athlete develops their neuro-muscular efficiency and spacial awareness.  A particularly difficult movement for slightly more advanced yet relatively untrained athletes is the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) performed at a 3010 tempo.  It requires great CNS control, hip stabilization, strength endurance, and balance.  When a relatively untrained athlete masters such an exercise, it translates very well to many of their other lifts. For a true beginner or an older athlete, tempo sets can provide safety by setting a limit on the ballistic loading during the repetition.

  4. Improving Weaknesses

    In more advanced athletes, tempo sets can be used to emphasize weaknesses and improve problem areas.  Adding a 2-3 second pause in the bottom of the front squat can be a great way to improve an athletes catch in the clean.

As the athlete becomes more advanced, we can begin incorporating things like cluster sets (inter-repetition rest), iso-metric holds, and other more advanced measures in order to elicit further performance gains.

Next time you create a training program for yourself, or have a coach create one for you, ask yourself or your coach what your goals are, and what type of tempo sets best match the results you want.  There are a lot of methods in this article that you could apply to your training, but which is right for you?  Train smarter, not harder, and you will experience not only improved performance but increased longevity in your sport.

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Buitrago, S., Wirtz, N., Yue, Z., Kleinöder, H., & Mester, J. (2012). Effects of load and training modes on physiological and metabolic responses in resistance exercise. European journal of applied physiology, 112(7), 2739-2748.

Newton, R. U., Hakkinen, K., Hakkinen, A., McCormick, M., Volek, J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2002). Mixed-methods resistance training increases power and strength of young and older men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(8), 1367-1375.

Newton, R. U., & Kraemer, W. J. (1994). Developing Explosive Muscular Power: Implications for a Mixed Methods Training Strategy. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 16(5), 20-31.

Poliquin Group Editorial Staff. (2012, June 21). Ten Things You Should Know About Tempo Training. Poliquin Group. Retrieved from http://main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/898/Ten_Things_You_Should_Know_About_Tempo_Training.aspx