Regardless of your reason to exercise at home, be it to save money, save time, or perhaps coronavirus related, bodyweight exercises are likely one of your go-to's. Even though they can be very effective, bodyweight exercises can get boring fast. Try sprucing up your current workout routine with some tempo training, and maybe even venture into the world of German volume training.
This article will break down what tempo training is, how to use it with bodyweight exercises, and give you five ways you can incorporate it in your own program at home to build lean muscle mass (including German volume training).
What is Tempo Training?
Tempo training is when you control the speed or cadence (tempo) of your movement during exercise - all four parts of the exercise, to be specific. You may not have paid attention to it before, but every exercise is made up of four phases - the eccentric portion, the bottom of the movement, the concentric portion, and the top of the movement. Those four phases can be in a different order, depending on the movement. For example, a squat and a pull-up are reversed:
- Pull-up: concentric phase - top of the movement - eccentric phase - bottom of the movement
- Squat: eccentric phase - bottom of the movement - concentric phase - top of the movement
In tempo training, this becomes very important because it is all about manipulating how fast or how slow each of those phases happens. You may have also heard it called 'time-under-tension' training or 'continuous movement training'.
When you look at a tempo training program, you will see four numbers - always in the same order. For example:
Push-ups: 3x5 using tempo: 3/1/1/1 (or sometimes written simply as 3111)
The numbers dictate the amount of time (in seconds) you should spend in each phase:
- The first number is always the eccentric phase. In the example above, this would be when you are lowering down to the floor in the Push-up.
- The second number is always the pause at the bottom of the repetition. In this case, it would be a 1-second pause at the bottom of the Push-up.
- The third number is always the concentric phase of the movement. Continuing with our Push-up example, this would be a 1-second ascend to the top of the Push-up.
- The last number is always the pause at the top of the movement. In this example, it would be a 1-second hold in a plank position before beginning the next Push-up.
Notice that if you were to use the same numbers for a Pull-up, you would start with the third number, which represents the concentric phase, since that is where a Pull-up starts. A 3/1/1/1 tempo for a Pull-up means you would take 1 second to ascend to chin over the bar, 1-second hold with chin over the bar, 3 seconds to lower back down to hang, and a 1-second pause in the hang position.
Identifying the eccentric and concentric phases of your exercises is key when using tempo training.
Why Do Tempo Training?
As you can imagine from the example above, a 3/1/1/1 Push-up would be more challenging than your typical quick Push-up. This is due to a scientific principle called time under tension (TUT).
A study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics reported that increasing the amount of time a muscle is under constant tension also increased the resulting muscle hypertrophy.
You don't need studies to prove it to you, though- just try one session of a tempo workout, and you'll both notice the difference in how your muscles feel immediately after a set and the next day.
You'll also notice that most tempo training programs include a slower eccentric portion. This is because slowing down the eccentric phase has a greater effect on muscle hypertrophy than slowing down the concentric portion (1).
Besides increasing hypertrophy, tempo training has various other benefits, including:
- Learn or perfect the proper technique of the move. Slowing down the motion gives you the chance to think and correct more.
- Improve and protect joint health - for two reasons. First, tempo training lends itself to lighter loads since greater TUT increases the workload. Lighter loads are easier on your joints. Second, tempo training helps train the connective tissue and fascia surrounding muscles. An article in IDEA Fitness Journal states that "varying the tempo of your training allows different fascial structures to build strength and elasticity."
- Develops smaller core-stabilizer muscles, especially when pauses are held
- Makes bodyweight exercises more challenging
Who Can Benefit from Tempo Training?
Pretty much anyone can find value in adding tempo training to their workouts. Beginners should use it to learn proper movement mechanics and build a solid base of muscular and connective tissue strength. Novice athletes can build it into their off-season hypertrophy workouts. Even experienced lifters and power athletes could throw it into their program every once in a while to burst through a plateau or uncover weaknesses.
5 Ways to Use Bodyweight Tempo Training
Here are some different ways to implement bodyweight tempo training into your program, depending on what additional goals/needs you have. All of the methods below will help you build lean muscle mass also - since that's a goal for pretty much everyone.
1. Make use of pauses to increase stability.
Written in tempo training language, this would look something like 2/3/2/0 and works well on exercises like Squats or Lunges, or try a 2/3/2/3 tempo for Push-ups. Holding the bottom position of a Squat requires extra core control and gives you time to reinforce good Squat forms such as an upright torso, knees pressing out, and weight in your heels. Using this technique on a Push-up engages your shoulder muscles even more, which helps promote scapular stability.
2. Spend more time on the eccentric phase for greater hypertrophy.
Try an 8/1/2/1 tempo on any bodyweight exercise, and you are likely to feel like you were training with a heavy barbell. A slow eccentric phase is no joke, and as mentioned above, studies show greater hypertrophy gains from slowing down the eccentric phase compared to the concentric. This works especially great for Push-ups, Pull-ups, and Static Lunges. Limit your repetitions to under 10 per set since it drives up the total time under tension.
3. Pause, then pop to build explosiveness.
Plyometric exercises like Jump Squats or Jumping Lunges are great as typically performed, but to take your explosive training up a notch, add in a slower descend, and hold the pause. For example, 2/4/0/0 - meaning control the descend for a two count, hold the bottom position of the Squat or Lunge for 4 seconds and then explode up out of the bottom as fast as you can. By adding the pause, you remove any momentum, which makes the exercise more challenging.
4. Add a burn-out tempo set after strength training.
After using weights to train a specific muscle group, pick a bodyweight exercise that works the same muscles, and do a tempo set using 3/0/3/0 to failure (or no more than ten repetitions). It is the perfect way to burn out a muscle group, and achieving momentary muscle failure helps signal your body to begin the muscle growth process.
5. Give German Volume Training a go.
Popularized by the late Charles Poliquin, German volume training (GVT) was initially used with weightlifting, but it turns out it is a super-effective way to build muscle even without resistance. Warning: it is not for the faint of heart! In GVT, you pick an exercise and aim to complete ten sets of 10, with a 60-second rest in between sets. If you are a seasoned-athlete, that might not sound too terrible - but wait, there's more! The tempo should be 4/0/1/0, keeping you in continuous movement with elongated eccentric phases.
Be sure to do only one exercise per muscle group and be prepared for a longer recovery time than usual. Don't be fooled if the first few sets seem easy - the slower repetitions and short rest time will catch up with you about halfway through. As you fatigue, you may only be able to safely complete 9, 8 or only 7 repetitions per set. That's ok! Stop just shy of muscle failure, take the 60 seconds to rest, and keep going. Keep track of your numbers to compare when you try the same exercise a week later.
Tempo training is a great way to revamp bodyweight exercises. It makes them more challenging, and different tempos in the eccentric or pause phases of an exercise can help increase core stability, hypertrophy, and connective tissue strength. Pick one of the five methods listed above based on your current goals and let us know your results!