If you have been around the gym for awhile you have often heard discussed the proper lifting tempo when training. Everyone has different theories on the matter and varying reasons for their beliefs. Weight lifting tempo refers to the number of seconds it takes for the lifter to complete the full range of motion for a single repetition. Lifting tempo can be expressed using three or four numbers. An alternative to lifting tempo is lifting for speed. When training you need to decide where you fall on the issue of lifting tempo/speed. The mistake often made by individuals is to listen to fellow gym goers who give counsel to others without even considering the goals, experience, or even medical history of the person whom they are doling out their advice.
If you are considering using lifting tempos or speed lifts you first need to be honest with yourself. Decide what your goals are, take into account how long you have been training for, consider your age, and evaluate any injuries you may have.
Goals – If you are an athlete training to build dynamic power to help better prepare you for your on the field / court performance you want to avoid slow tempo training as much as possible. In order to become explosive and powerful you need to train that way. This means when performing an exercise such as the bench press you need to lower the bar (the eccentric phase) quickly, and reverse the direction (concentric phase) rapidly. The transition from the eccentric to concentric phase should be as fast as possible.
If your goal is to be built like a body builder, slow tempo may be something you may want to try. This method of training results in sarcoplasm hypertrophy. Basically you are inflating your muscle size with adding little in the sense of contractile speed or force production (relative when compared to lifting for explosive power). Some would argue what is the point, but if you want to get bigger and don’t care that much about how much you can lift then maybe this is the best approach for you. An example of this would be a 4/1/3/0 tempo. This would mean four seconds on the eccentric phase, one second pause at the bottom, and a three second concentric, with no pause at the top. You can very the pauses depending on the exercise and how much tension is placed on a particular muscle during the exercise.
I am not a huge fan of this approach, but that is because I have different goals. For some people I think it makes sense. Do what makes you happy and gives you the best results.
Experience - Although you may be training to enhance your quickness, power, and improve your athletic ability you do however want to remain as controlled as possible while lifting. This is especially true if you are a novice lifter. When first learning the mechanics you want to make sure you have sound technique and have built a strong enough base before lifting for speed. I never have beginners train to failure and I never have them lifting for speed. (This does not include Olympic lifts which I would be using a light bar, broom stick, or nothing at all, as we practice dropping from the hips to get below the bar). Develop the skills, ingrain the movements into your body, build strong stabilizing muscles, and then advance to the quicker lifts.
Age – As you get older you may want to consider being less ballistic with your lifts. Lifting with excessive speed can cause injury both acutely and cumulatively. These injuries can occur in the bone structure, connective tissue, fascia, and to the muscle tissue itself.(These examples given are extreme cases and if they were to occur it would most likely be during heavy Olympic lifts). Still it is always better to air on the side of safety, my advice is to slowdown the tempo and avoid using momentum as you age.
History of Injuries – Your past medical history needs to be examined when considering lifting tempo. As mentioned previously if you are lifting to improve your speed and power on the athletic field you must train accordingly. However, it is important to measure the risk versus reward. An athlete with a shoulder injury may not want to be lifting heavy weights for speed during the bench press, and would most likely want to avoid exercises such as plyometric push ups. The internal forces encountered by a given joint are increased when momentum is used. The faster the weight is lifted, the greater the internal forces become. These forces are greatest during the acceleration and deceleration phases. When the forces produced exceed the structural limits of a joint than an injury will occur. If an injury already exists than the athlete is just playing with fire if they are lifting ballistically and using momentum.
When recovering form an injury slow down the tempo, rehab the injury, and strengthen the joint. It is more important at this point to reinforce the area rather than to train for explosive power.
For beginners, aging trainees, and athletes recovering form injury concentrate on form and keeping a steady tempo throughout (e.g. 1/1/1/1) rather than worrying about increasing time under tension or lifting ballistic fashion. For the beginners when they have advanced to intermediate, and for the athletes who have recovered you can change and play around with your speeds once a base has been established.