- How fast you raise and lower weights when strength training is referred to as weightlifting tempo.
- While you can gain muscle and strength using either a fast or a slow weightlifting tempo, you’ll likely make faster progress by lifting weights as fast as possible (while maintaining good form).
- Keep reading to learn why a faster weightlifting tempo is superior to a slower one and the best tempo for gaining strength and muscle.
How fast should you lift weights?
Ask a group of weightlifters this question and you’ll usually get one of two answers:
- You should perform your reps slowly.
- You should perform your reps quickly.
People who advocate for slow weightlifting often say that “muscles don’t know weight, only tension,” and the more tension they’re subjected to, the more they’ll grow in response.
Furthermore, by slowing your reps down, you increase the amount of time your muscles remain under tension, and this, they claim, produces more muscle gain than faster weightlifting.
People in the other camp counter that performing your reps slowly reduces how much weight you can lift. Since getting stronger is the best way to build muscle, they say, slow weightlifting undermines your ability to gain muscle and strength.
Well, while neither side is completely right or wrong, science shows that if you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, you generally want to perform your reps faster, not slower.
Keep reading to learn the pros and cons of fast- and slow-rep training, and how to get the benefits of both.
First, let’s define what weightlifting tempo actually means.
Weightlifting tempo is the speed at which you raise and lower weights when strength training.
It’s also sometimes called rep tempo, weightlifting speed, or bar speed when referring to barbell exercises.
Typically, weightlifting tempo is written as a series of three digits which describe how long each phase of the repetition (or “rep”) lasts.
For example, you might see someone write that you should use a weightlifting tempo of “1—1—2” when doing barbell curls.
This means the first part of each rep—the concentric, or contraction phase, where you raise the bar—should take about 1 second, followed by a 1-second pause, followed by about a 1-second eccentric, or lengthening phase, as you lower the weight back to the starting position. (Some people also include a fourth digit to indicate how long you should pause after completing each rep, but this level of detail is generally unnecessary).
Sometimes you’ll also see an “X” used in place of one of the numbers in this sequence. In this case, the “X” means you should complete that part of the rep as quickly as explosively as possible while using good form. Normally an “X” is only used for the concentric portion of the rep.
Summary: Weightlifting tempo refers to how fast you raise and lower a weight during a single repetition, and is usually expressed as a series of three digits, such as “1—1—2.”
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While it’s true that slow reps do indeed increase time under tension, it turns out that this isn’t important enough to warrant special attention.
The primary reason for this is that the slower you perform an exercise with a given weight, the fewer reps you can do with it. Depending on how slow your tempo is, you might get half the reps or even fewer than you would at a faster tempo.
This is important because the total reps performed with a given muscle group over time is a major factor in muscle gain.
Some people would say that super-slow training compensates for the reduction in reps by increasing the difficulty of the reps you do perform.
While slow reps do feel more difficult than normal ones, research shows that they result in less work done, which reduces the muscle- and strength-building potential of the exercise.
Slow-rep training has also been directly put to the test in a number of studies, which show that it produces inferior results compared to normal tempo training. For instance:
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney found that people following traditional “fast” training on the bench press gained more strength than with slow training.
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that even in untrained people, a traditional training tempo resulted in greater strength gains in the squat.
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Oklahoma found that four weeks of traditional resistance training was more effective for increasing strength than slow-training.
Finally, a meta-analysis conducted by scientists at Lehman College found that very slow-rep training (>10 seconds) resulted in less muscle growth than reps performed between 0.5 and 8 seconds.
Now, if you read the study, you’ll notice that the researchers found that people who performed reps in 0.5 seconds gained the same amount of muscle as people who performed reps in 8 seconds. That is, there was no difference in muscle gain when using reps ranging from about 1 to 8 seconds.
There are a few reasons I still recommend you opt for a faster tempo, though:
- Your sets and thus your workouts will generally be shorter.
- Most people find faster reps to be far more enjoyable than slower reps.
- Faster reps will probably increase your strength more than slower ones, which will likely improve muscle gain over time.
Evidence in support of that last point comes from a study conducted by scientists at Pablo de Olavide University, which split 24 men in their mid 20s into two groups:
- A fast rep tempo group that did each rep of bench press as fast as possible.
- A slow rep tempo group that did each rep of bench press at about half the speed of the fast rep tempo group.
The nitty-gritty details of the study design aren’t worth getting into, but the long story short is that they measured the participants’ bar speed and used this data to ensure they were all lifting at either a fast or slow tempo.
Everyone bench pressed three times per week with two to three rest days between each workout day. They also used a form of linear periodization to increase the weights and reduce the reps of their workouts, until they maxed out at about three to four sets of three to four reps after six weeks.
The researchers supervised each workout, ensured each workout took place at the same time every day, and even made sure the temperature and humidity in the gym were the same for each workout.
The fast rep tempo group increased their bench press strength by about 18%, whereas the slow rep tempo group only increased their bench press by 10%. What’s more, this is despite the slow rep tempo group accumulating about 50% more time under tension than the fast rep tempo group.
The researchers in this study didn’t measure muscle growth, but seeing as getting stronger is the best way to gain muscle, it’s fair to say using a fast rep tempo would likely be better than a slow one for gaining muscle.
As a general rule, then, you want to lift weights as fast as possible while maintaining good form and control of the weight. This usually means lowering the weight in a steady, controlled way, and then raising the weight as fast as possible.
What does this look like exactly? How can you lift weights “explosively” while keeping your form in?
Here’s what I’m talking about:
As you can see, Mike is lowering the weight in a controlled, consistent way (not relaxing his lower body and letting the weight drop), pausing for a split second at the bottom of the rep, and then squatting the weight up a bit faster than it took him to lower it.
Here’s what this looks like with the bench press:
And here’s what this looks like with the deadlift:
Most of your reps of most of your exercises—including isolation/accessory exercises—should follow this same pattern.
Specifically, I recommend that you follow a “1–1–1” rep tempo for all weightlifting exercises.
This means the first part of each rep (either the eccentric or concentric phase) should take about one second, followed by a one-second (or shorter) pause, followed by the final part of the rep, which should also take about one second.
Now, you may have noticed that even though Mike is pushing the weights as fast as he can, they still aren’t moving very fast.
This is because when you’re using heavy weights, your reps are always going to be fairly slow in an absolute sense—they’ll probably never feel explosive and will usually take at least a second to complete.
That said, you should still try to lift them as quickly as possible while maintaining good form, as research shows this is probably going to increase your strength more than intentionally lifting weights slowly.
Summary: Lifting weights with a fast tempo is superior to lifting weights with a slow tempo because this leads to a larger increase in strength, which ultimately leads to more muscle gain over time. As a general rule, aim for a 1—1—1 weightlifting tempo for all of your exercises.
Weightlifting tempo refers to how fast you raise and lower a weight during a single repetition, and is usually expressed as a series of three digits, such as “1—1—2.”
Although a slower weightlifting tempo will increase your time under tension—the amount of time your muscles are contracting during your workouts—research shows this doesn’t lead to more strength or muscle gain over time.
The reason for this is that by using a slower weightlifting tempo, you also have to use lighter weights. And since getting stronger (using heavier weights) is the best way to build muscle, any potential benefits of increased time under tension are negated by using lighter weights.
In other words, lifting weights with a fast tempo is superior to lifting weights with a slow tempo because this leads to a larger increase in strength, which ultimately leads to more muscle gain over time.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for a 1—1—1 weightlifting tempo for all of your exercises. You should lower the weight in a controlled manner, pause for a fraction of a second, and then lift the weight as quickly as possible (which will usually take about a second).
What’s your take on weightlifting tempo? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments section below!
+ Scientific References
- González-Badillo, J. J., Rodríguez-Rosell, D., Sánchez-Medina, L., Gorostiaga, E. M., & Pareja-Blanco, F. (2014). Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(8), 772–781. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2014.905987
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. I., & Krieger, J. W. (2015). Effect of Repetition Duration During Resistance Training on Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. In Sports Medicine (Vol. 45, Issue 4, pp. 577–585). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0304-0
- Ki, E., Dea, A., Ferguso, S. L., Se, D., & Bembe, M. G. (2011). Effects of 4 weeks of traditional resistance training vs. superslow strength training on early phase adaptations in strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity in college-aged women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(11), 3006–3013. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e318212e3a2
- Neils, C. M., Udermann, B. E., Brice, G. A., Winchester, J. B., & McGuigan, M. R. (2005). Influence of contraction velocity in untrained individuals over the initial early phase of resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(4), 883–887. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-15794.1
- Munn, J., Herbert, R. D., Hancock, M. J., & Gandevia, S. C. (2005). Resistance training for strength: Effect of number of sets and contraction speed. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 37(9), 1622–1626. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.mss.0000177583.41245.f8
- Hatfield, D. L., Kraemer, W. J., Spiering, B. A., Häkkinen, K., Volek, J. S., Shimano, T., Spreuwenberg, L. P. B., Silvestre, R., Vingren, J. L., Fragala, M. S., Gómez, A. L., Fleck, S. J., Newton, R. U., & Maresh, C. M. (2006). The impact of velocity of movement on performance factors in resistance exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(4), 760–766. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-155552.1
- Radaelli, R., Fleck, S. J., Leite, T., Leite, R. D., Pinto, R. S., Fernandes, L., & Simão, R. (2015). Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(5), 1349–1358. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000758
- Headley, S. A., Henry, K., Nindl, B. C., Thompson, B. A., Kraemer, W. J., & Jones, M. T. (2011). Effects of lifting tempo on one repetition maximum and hormonal responses to a bench press protocol. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(2), 406–413. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bf053b
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