– by Tania Tétrault Vrga

You will notice that our workouts often have a string of 4 digits following the lifts, for example Press @20X2.  This actually doesn’t mean that you should do 2 sets of 20.  It refers to the tempo of the lift and it usually means that I want you to slow it down or reenforce certain parts of the lift.  Tempo work was introduced to me by Coach James ‘OPT’ Fitzgerald and Coach Charles Poliquin, who have successfully used it to train elite athletes, including some top CrossFit competitors.

What does 20×2 mean?

We give tempo prescriptions as a series of four numbers representing the times in which it should take to complete four stages of the lift.  In a workout, the tempo prescription will follow the assigned number of reps, such as:

Press x 2-3 reps @ 20X2

The 1st number – The first number refers to the lowering (eccentric) phase of the lift.  Using our press example, the 2 will represent the amount of time (in seconds) that it should take you to descend to lower the bar to the shoulders.  The first number always refers to the lowering/eccentric phase, even if the movement begins with the ascending/concentric phase, such as in a deadlift or a pull-up.

The 2nd number – The second number refers to the amount of time spent in the bottom position of the lift – the point in which the lift transitions from lowering to ascending.  In our press example, the prescribed 0 means that the athlete should reach the bottom position and immediately begin pressing the bar up again.  If, however, the prescription was 22X2, the athlete would be expected to pause for 2 seconds at the bottom position.

The 3rd Number – The third number refers to ascending (concentric) phase of the lift – the amount of time it takes you to get to the top of the lift.  This might be a number or an “X”. The X signifies that the athlete should explosively lift the weight up as quickly as possible.  Note that it is the INTENT that counts, and in many cases, the lift will not  be very fast, but as long as you try try to accelerate the weight as fast as you can you will benefit from this tempo.  If the third number is a 2, it should take the athlete 2 seconds to get the lift to the top regardless of whether they are capable of moving it faster.

The 4th Number – The fourth number refers to how long you should pause at the top of the lift.  In our pressing example, this would mean pausing for 2 seconds with the weight overhead.  This might be prescribed if we want you to get stronger in that overhead stabilization position.  In the case of a weighted pull-up prescription of 20X2, the athlete would be expected to hold his or her chin over the bar for two seconds before beginning to come down.

It is important to note that 3 seconds feels like an eternity at the bottom of an overhead squat, however, if we prescribe Overhead Squat 33X1, you should do whatever it takes to stick to the tempo.  This means properly counting and reducing the weight as necessary to achieve this.  Counting is tough, one way to do this is to do the lift facing the clock so that you can actually see the seconds counting.  Another option is to count in your head, however, you’ll need to count 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand, or count bananas or whatever, as long as it’s long enough to span  full second.  Second, keep in mind that tempo work can significantly reduce the amount of weight you will use on the lift.  So if you can usually front squat 200lbs for 5 reps, expect to reduce that to around 165 or 170lbs with a tough tempo.

Why should I do tempo work?

The first reason I like tempo training is that improves quality of movement.  By slowing things down, the athlete is encouraged to be mindful and deliberate about each part of the movement.  We can also reenforce certain parts of the movement or certain positions by lengthening that part of the exercise.  For example, if you have trouble maintaining good positioning at the bottom of an overhead squat, we might prescribe a pause at the bottom.  You might use less weight but you will learn to maintain tension and improve that bottom position.

As a result of this improved quality of movement increased mindfulness, we can also decrease the risk of injury and keep things safer.  By strengthening the muscles around a joint in various positions of the lift, we can reduce the stress on the joints.  Tempo work also reduces injuries by reigning in egos.  You will see very quickly how humbling tempo work can be when you have to slow things down.

The best reason to do tempo work is that it will make you stronger.  Varying tempo on a lift is often all you need to change the stimulus enough to get you through a plateau.  It is a great tool to manipulate time under tension. In other words by changing the tempo, we can vary the exact amount of time your muscles are working in order to illicit further adaptation.  Slowing down the tempo can be a good way to elicit strength gains without otherwise increasing the volume or load, thus reducing the overall stress on your nervous system.  We can also use tempo to help you take your training to the next level by focusing on parts of the lift that might be holding you back, such as in our overhead squat example.  Another great tick is to add an isometric pause at the bottom or top of the lift in order to force you to recruit more muscle fibers.  For example by pausing at the bottom of a deadlift or press instead of bouncing, it forces you to accelerate the bar from a dead stop, helping create power and speed.

I hope this gives you a better idea of why we program tempo on our lifts.  If you have any questions, please talk to your coach or email me.