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Sets and reps. How much weight you have on the bar. Your exercise selection. Rest times and what muscles you work on which days. We always look at these when planning training routines, but rarely look at tempo.

Breaking Down Tempo and Fast Lifting

Tempo refers to how quickly or slowly you lift a weight.

You won’t always get tempo recommendations in a training program, particularly if you just pick one from a generic fitness magazine, but sometimes, particularly when it comes to bodybuilding or athletic performance programs, you might see a few numbers next to an exercise. It will usually be laid out similar to the following –

1:x:3:1

What does this mean?

The first number refers to how quickly you lift the weight. In this instance, that’s one second.

The second number is how long you pause for at the top. X indicates no tempo required – this is also sometimes shown as 0. (Note: If there are only three numbers in a tempo indicator, it will be this one – the contracted position that has been dropped out.)

Number three is the eccentric portion, or the lowering phase of a lift. With this example, a three second negative is a particularly slow tempo and you’ll need to lower the weight with great control.

Finally, the fourth number tells you how much time to spend in the stretched position at the bottom of a movement. Here that’s just one second – no need to linger, but just enough to take any momentum or bounce out of the movement.

Now you’ve had your tempo lesson 101, let’s take a look at two different tempos – fast and slow.

Lifting Explosively

You can play around with the numbers as you wish, but a fast lifting tempo will always have X or 0 as the first number, showing that you should lift the weight as quickly as possible.

This is most usually associated with power athletes. Think of an Olympic weightlifter as an example – when performing a snatch or a clean and jerk, there’s no way they could do those movements slowly. They require a huge amount of muscular force and speed in order to lift such heavy weights in such a way.

Clearly, this type of lifting builds a tonne of strength and power.

The power aspect is important, as this has a large carryover to improving performance in sporting events. Pretty much any sport, be it a contact sport such as football or rugby, and individual fighting or grappling event like judo, or even tennis, athletics and field events require power for sprinting, running, leaping, jumping and tackling moves.

Plyometric exercises (jumping and bounding exercises such as jump squats, box jumps and clap pushups) are the perfect example of moves that require a fast lifting tempo and are staple moves in almost any sports performance based training plan.

Lifting fast can build muscle too.

You have two types of muscle fibers – fast twitch and slow twitch. And guess which type responds best to lifting quickly?

Yep, your fast twitch fibers are the ones that take control when you speed up tempo and lift with explosiveness. When these fast twitch fibers adapt and grow, this is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the density of the muscle cells. This typically only occurs when you lift heavy weights in the one to six repetition range and lift with fast concentrics, writes coach Christian Thibaudeau in “The Black Book of Training Secrets.”

Fast training builds functional hypertrophy and also strength, which is why you’ll also see powerlifters trying to accelerate the bar as quickly as possible on squats, deadlifts and bench presses.

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