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Why lifting tempo is bullshit

by Alec Enkiri | 11/1/19

Introduction

Modern day bodybuilding is a shitshow. You've got these bloated up, muscle-bound freaks of nature who know far, far more about how to build muscle and burn body fat through the usage of copious amounts of numerous drugs than through proper weight training protocols and a healthy diet. That's just at the top of the game though. It's 2019 and everybody knows these guys are on drugs - perhaps they don't all realize the full extent of it - but at this point the cat's pretty much out of the bag in that regard. Beneath the top guys though are the fitness models, and the physique competitors, and even the "natural" bodybuilders, and whatever other non-open divisions they've come up with at this point. Now these guys are a bit more sinister. They're super jacked and they're ultra lean, to be motherfucking sure, BUT they're not jaw-dropping human abominations like the big dogs. They still look like human beings. Some of them could almost even make a lay person believe they don't use drugs to achieve and maintain their peaked physiques, which almost even look kind of, sort of achievable. And these guys are well aware of this fact so, like a bitch in heat, many of them jump on the opportunity to label themselves as "all natty."

This picture just makes me laugh so expect to see it often.

It's a lie though. If they're competing in a show that matters or they're on the cover of your favorite "fitness" publication then they're not natural. In fact, in all likelihood they're using far more types and amounts of drugs than you would have ever thought would be necessary or would even consider to be sane. That is simply what the endeavor has (d)evolved to. So what does this rant about the prolific nature of drugs in modern bodybuilding have to do with lifting tempo? Well, given the history of the "fitness boom" in the United States beginning some half a century ago and its close ties to bodybuilding enthusiast Joe Weider and his star showman, bodybuilder extraordinaire, Ahhhnold Schwarzenegger, the endeavors of "weight training" and "bodybuilding" have been conflated as one by the casual fitness crowd here ever since their initial explosion in popularity. Thus, like many of the archaic training concepts that have somehow clung to the fitness and weight training world far past their expiration date, the idea of lifting weights with a certain tempo (e.g. a common tempo prescription would be something like "313" - that is you take 3 seconds to lower the weight, pause for 1 second in the fully contracted position, and then take 3 seconds to lift the weight back to the start) originates from the annals of bodybuilding methodology. Do you see where this is going now?

Bodybuilders are jacked, ripped, shredded, and freaking swole, man. They build muscle and lots of it. But, as a matter of course, they also take boatloads of anabolic drugs because you can't build OR maintain the amount of muscle mass and achieve the insanely low levels of body fat that are required to be competitive in that endeavor without the use of these drugs. The problem here is that there is a large disconnect between bodybuilders and the layperson who just wants to get fit because when you take boatloads of anabolic drugs you can build muscle in ways that a normal, non-drug aided individual simply cannot. That is the sciences of chemistry and physiology at work. That's why these drugs exist - to prevent muscle wasting in people who cannot perform the normal activities that generally preserve muscle or who's systems have been compromised to such a degree, generally due to disease, that their body is beginning to waste away.

Basically, if you're taking copious amounts of steroids you can build muscle doing pretty much anything - recent research has even shown that you can build it doing absolutely nothing (1). Therefore, it is simply bad practice to emulate the training methods of a group of people whose endeavor requires them to take large amount of these drugs in order to be successful because those people operate under a different set of rules and their methods simply no longer apply to you. Their physiology is now different from your physiology. And one of the primary methods of training practiced by this group of people (bodybuilders), that has bled into pretty much all other forms of general weight training and fitness culture, is lifting weights with a prescribed tempo in order to maximize time under tension (TUT) within each set and therefore, hypothetically, maximize muscle hypertrophy. Now, with all the background knowledge accounted for let me explain why this method is bullshit when it comes to building strength and muscle.

Why Lifting Tempo Is Bullshit

If your objective in the weight room is to build as much muscle and strength as possible then tempo lifting as a training modality is not going to be congruent with your goal. In spite of this, largely thanks to the magical compensating powers of anabolic drugs, the presumed effectiveness of this protocol is still hardwired into the bodybuilding lore, thus this protocol is very common amongst bodybuilders and their ilk. As alluded to earlier, however, the prolific conflation of generalized weight training and "bodybuilding" style training by the lay-populace has also lead to many other people outside of the direct bodybuilding world practicing this method as well. The result for these misinformed enthusiasts is generally nothing but a lack of progress.

The primary reason for this is due to a lack of adequate training intensity (note: "intensity" in strength training is not a subjective measure, as many people would have you believe. It merely refers to the percentage of your 1RM that you are lifting. It is as objective a metric as can possibly exist), and this is really where the main failing of the tempo lifting theory rears its head. Generally accepted ideology says that if you are lifting to maximize hypertrophy then your sets should last somewhere between 30-60 seconds or perhaps even longer (2) (constant tension broooo). Proponents of tempo lifting generally argue something like this:


A normal rep takes about 3 seconds to perform. So if you do 10 reps at 3 seconds each then that set only took 30 seconds to complete, which barely reaches the "hypertrophy zone." On the other hand, if you were to perform this set using a 303 tempo then each rep would take 6 seconds to perform, double the length of the normal rep! This means that the whole set will now take 60 seconds to complete which puts you firmly into the hypertrophy zone for all of your sets! Hooray for you!

Never mind that someone referenced a study this dumb in their article. I'm more concerned about the fact that someone actually conducted it. Pretending that the weight will be equalized across conditions can only be either disingenuous or idiotic (3).

Here's the problem with this logic, rooted in the fallacy that TUT in and of itself has some sort of magical hypertrophic value: it could never actually happen this way. If you double the length of each rep, artificially doubling the duration of the set to reach this arbitrary amount of consecutive time under tension that you think you need to reach for muscle growth, then one of two things will inevitably happen:

Intensity > Tempo

  1. You will use the same weight you usually use and get SUBSTANTIALLY less reps with it. Meaning the TUT of the individual set won't actually be all that different anyway than if you had just performed normal fucking reps.
  2. You'll realize that by using the same weight you usually use you could never get the same amount of reps as usual so you'll reduce the weight instead, likely being forced to do so by a significant margin. Now you'll be able to get the same number of reps as usual and you'll be able to artificially increase the TUT of the set, however, along with the substantial reduction in weight will come a substantial reduction is muscle tension.

If you chose Option 1 then that would defeat the entire purpose of the method because the TUT would remain relatively equal in both scenarios. You would just be doing exaggerated tempo reps for no reason, but getting less total reps and therefore actually doing less work (Work = Force x Displacement). And if you chose Option 2, you would at least be remaining true to the spirit of the method, but the lessened intensity would inevitably yield lackluster long term results in spite of the increased TUT. This is part of the problem with modern day "bodybuilding" style training. The people who subscribe to it act as if the amount of weight being lifted doesn't matter, but the weight being used during a given exercise directly affects the amount of tension that is placed on the muscles responsible for executing it. You can flex and contract your biceps non-stop against the air all day long and they will never grow even though they are under perpetual, constant tension. The fact is, maximal voluntary contractions and contractions against only mildly challenging loads simply cannot generate high enough muscle tension to create a meaningful stimulus for the body to adapt to, no matter how long those contractions last.

Thus, TUT as a sole metric is meaningless. Instead, time under adequate tension is what dictates muscle hypertrophy. Generating adequate muscle tension requires using a meaningful amount of weight relative to your current capabilities (just look at any EMG study: as weight increases muscle activation tends to increase quite linearly, often far exceeding maximal voluntary contraction capabilities and far exceeding muscle activation during lighter sets) and lifting that weight enough times during the session that your muscles accumulate a sufficient amount of time flexing and extending under that stimulating and adequate load. Just pumping out reps all day long using candy ass weights ("chasing the pump") is never going to achieve this, no matter how slowly you lift the weight or how much time your muscles spend under that impotent level of tension - unless of course you have that *cough cough* "assistance" that I discussed earlier.

Definitely adequate tension here.

Conclusion

Rather than obsess about the TUT of individual sets, these lifters would be far better off if they concerned themselves with the total time under tension of a muscle group during an entire training session. When you look at weight training from the latter perspective, you begin to see how silly it is to perform tempo reps and actually think they have any sort of value for increasing strength or hypertrophy. Why would they? When you understand that the total TUT of the training session is what is really important, rather than the TUT of the individual sets, and that the amount of tension placed on the muscles is actually kind of important for maximizing strength & hypertrophy - and tension is directly related to weight - then you realize that, rather than jerk off with ultra-submaximal weights, you are far better off simply using more truly challenging loads and doing more normal reps to equalize the total TUT under both conditions. This is going to have several advantages over performing tempo reps:

  • For starters, and most importantly, you won't look like a numbnuts who performs tempo reps.
  • Secondly, you will no longer be completely ignoring explosive power and rate of force development training (which are kind of a big deal) by deliberately slowing down the speed of the bar during your concentric reps.
  • Thirdly, you will no longer be BLEEDING out undue energy with every single rep you do, forcing you to use subpar and lackluster training weights for all of your sets thereby creating much lower levels of tension and activation throughout the target musculature.

Instead, you'll now be able to do more reps, with more weight, while simultaneously improving your rate of force development instead of dampening it. And we can achieve all of this magic by simply performing normal fucking reps! If you've been doing tempo reps and not seeing the results you were hoping for try this instead: don't.

Yes, control the eccentric phase. Don't divebomb the fugg out of your squats and don't crash the barbell onto your sternum during a bench press. Control the bar, but don't exaggerate the lowering phase to a painful degree. And then during the concentric phase - EXPLODE! Don't go slow, go fast! Press or pull or squat against the bar as hard and fast as possible on every single rep. This is called compensatory acceleration training, i.e. CAT (fuck TUT, CAT is where it's at), and lifting this way is going to build more muscle and more strength in natural trainees while also not ignoring the ENTIRE FUCKING CONCEPT of explosiveness. So if you're tired of spinning your wheels in the gym leave the tempo reps for the bodybuilders.

In conclusion, just lift weights like a person.

References

  1. The Science of Steroids: The Physiology and Psychology of How Steroids Make You Stronger - Greg Nuckols, 10/8/14 (https://www.strongerbyscience.com/the-science-of-steroids/)
  2. The New Science of Time Under Tension: What's the Optimal TUT for Muscular Gains? - Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, 11/25/15 (https://www.t-nation.com/training/new-science-of-time-under-tension)
  3. Lift For Length: Build Muscle With Time Under Tension - Hunter Labrada, 4/30/15 (https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/lift-for-length-build-muscle-with-time-under-tension.html)

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