Tempo is the most underrated and oft-forgotten factor in programming.
If a training program is presented to you that involves strength work, lifting, or calisthenics, and it does not even address tempo at all, I suggest you don’t bother with it.
What is Tempo and What Does It Mean?
Tempo specifically refers to the speed of each phase of movement and contraction time in an exercise. It’s sometimes referred to as TUT or Time Under Tension. The speed at which you’re expected to do a movement dictates the sets/reps, and by extension, the load. All of that translates to the desired response of the workout in the first place. Because of this, it is as important of a consideration as sets, reps and load when discussing strength training.
Translated further in an example: if you have very low weight on a bar and you’re meant to do it for a high rep count, you should probably be slowing down the tempo quite a bit to create muscular stress and NOT throwing weight around quickly. (*There are exceptions in power training of course, but this is outside the scope of this article).
In general, the longer your TUT or during particularly slow eccentrics, you are likely getting hypertrophy (or muscular size) benefits. One added bonus to an extremely slow tempo is that it has a very therapeutic/corrective effect to the muscles at certain low intensity percentages: because you are moving slowly, your brain and muscles have that extra time to “communicate” and you can increase motor unit activation to muscles that may be lagging as they’re increasingly placed under stress. This is why isometrics are often used in sports rehab settings or for sticking points in some athlete’s lifts.
Extremely slow tempos, in my book, would be defined as anything over 6 seconds in either phase of movement or contraction.
Conversely, the shorter your TUT or Tempo, the more you’re looking to move bigger weight.
In strength sports, it’s pretty cut and dry as to when/why you would train with faster tempos and bigger weights. But in jiu jitsu, you must always be making careful tradeoffs for your body in terms of what strength qualities to train. For example, if you are only able to back squat or deadlift 40% of your bodyweight, I would definitely want to bring that up quite a bit and would call that a glaring area of need. However, if you’re lifting past your bodyweight in a big indicator lift (your bodyweight past 40% at least), we would definitely be looking to add more stability, identify any potential muscular imbalances, etc, and NOT turning you into a powerlifting hybrid athlete. In this case, you would train with longer tempos and moderate loads/intensities.
Applied to Grappling
In the video below, Marcelo Garcia brown belt Leigh Cohen is demonstrating a very slow Heels Elevated Front Squat. Leigh tests more than adequately in raw strength, and his trainable qualities/needs lie more in mobility and muscular endurance, all of which are qualities very trainable by slow tempos.
To illustrate further, if Leigh’s absolute strength was the goal and his mobility was A+: we’d lose the slant board, have him lift much quicker, and probably add about 50lbs to the bar for sets of 3 or 4.
We use tempo extensively in my training programs and in Jiu Jitsu Strength because it may be the most important variable for a Jiu Jitsu athlete to understand in their strength training. Raw weight and putting big plates on the bar feels good to your ego, but think about what helps your training the most. Sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s not.
It may mean being Eddy Coan one day, Ronnie Coleman the next, but Ido Portal on Friday. If that analogy didn’t land: it means be smart, lift heavy when you need to, get bigger in size if you’re too small and often injured, or work your mobility if you’re stiff as steel.
— Mark DiSalvo