Tempo squats involve using different speeds of movement throughout different portions of the squat. These style of squats have a wide variety of benefits and use cases. In this article I will define tempo and show you how and why to use it in the squat movement pattern.
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Tempo is part of any strength coaches vernacular, however a lot of general trainees or gym going enthusiasts may not know what it is or how it should be applied to a resistance training movement.
So what is a tempo? It is when we alter the speed at which we perform a movement pattern. In order to alter the speed or cadence of a movement we need to break the movement into four different parts.
1 - Eccentric (lengthening of the muscle)
2 - Isometric (bottom)
3 - Concentric (shortening of the muscle)
4 - Isometric (top)
This allows us to apply a different cadence to all different parts of the movement. Tempo is written as four numbers that represent the number of seconds spent in each phase of the movement, for example 30X1. The concentric portion of the movement is written as X as it is performed at speed. Do not let this confuse you, it just means perform the concentric portion of the movement at the traditional pace.
If we were to apply this tempo to the squat movement pattern then it would mean the eccentric (downward) phase would last 3 seconds, the bottom of the squat would have no pause, the concentric phase would be performed at speed and there would be a natural 1 second pause at the top before performing the next repetition. Once we understand how to use tempo in our training we can apply it to any movement pattern, including the squat.
Tempo squats are when we apply the principle of tempo seen above to the squat movement pattern. Tempo can be applied to all squat varieties and should not be limited to jus the back squat variation where is it seen the most.
Tempo squats can be one of the most effective ways to ingrain good squat positioning, through slowing down different portions of the movement we are able to target parts of the squat that may be technically challenging. Using a tempo during the eccentric phase, especially at the top of the movement as the hips start to move towards the floor, can be very effective for individuals who have a habit of shifting the hips back. Tempo’s can be added to all squat variations, from counter-balance squats , box squats , to back squats. They can be very useful when learning a new squat variation to help feel out the new movement and become accustomed to it.
Tempo squats allow for increased time under tension, that can help us build more muscle mass, especially when the tempo is added to the eccentric part of the squatting movement. These long eccentric tempo squats will result in a dramatic increase in time under tension and help with the hypertrophy process. Tempo can also be used for increases in strength, using pauses at the bottom of the squat will require extremely high levels of muscle activation.
Resistance training for health or for strength sports requires extremely high degrees of consistency, this puts us at risk of finding training a little boring or dull from time to time. Changes from cycle to cycle can dramatically help us finding our training to be fun and dynamic, and changes to tempos can be a part of these tactics used for keeping training engaging. With a huge variety of tempo variations, from pause squats to aggressively slow eccentric phases, there is always a novel tempo variation we can use to mix up our next training block.
Using tempo’s or pauses to work on particular sticking points within the squat movement is a great way for advanced lifters to target particularly weak points in their squat movement. If you have trouble getting out of the bottom of the squat, you may want to improve this by performing a cycle with a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of the squat with a load you find manageable yet challenging. This is for more advanced lifters as beginners will be so far from their genetic potential that sticking points will not be an issue.
People who have had lower back injuries, knee injuries or hip injuries can often benefit from using tempo squats. It can be daunting and more difficult on the body coming back to a very dynamic back squat movement where we move into the bottom of the squat at speed. This is where tempo squats come into play, helping us build back strength and confidence before attempting the more challenging speed of the traditional back squat.
Aggressive tempos and pauses are great, but they should never be considered a more effective exercise than the traditional back squat. Moving through back squats with speed, with heavy weights or for high number of repetitions are all extremely effective in their own right, so although tempo squats are effective, never forget about the original movement.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.