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Tempos are prescribed in exercises to ensure a muscle is under tension for a set amount of time.
Time Under Tension (TUT)

Time under tension is used as the unit of measurement which a muscle is put under tension for a set time to elicit a specific energy system.

The chart below shows the correlation between reps, TUT and rest guidelines which should be used when programming exercises to target specific energy systems.

Below is a breakdown of each energy system:

Relative Strength

Relative strength is trained between 1-5 repetitions and a TUT of less than 20 seconds with the emphasis being on the athlete lifting heavier loads (80%+ of 1RM).

Essentially, the goal is to make the body more efficient at lifting heavier weights by adaptations in the nervous system. Longer rest periods up to 3mins+ are often used between sets to allow the body to work at a higher intensity combined with a higher number of sets per exercise.

The technique of training lower reps with a heavier load is a very underrated tool that all athletes both male and female will benefit from allowing the athlete to work at a higher intensity in the other zones. This technique should be utilised once you have built a strong foundation in all of the main lifts.

Functional Hypertrophy

Functional Hypertrophy uses repetition ranges of 6-8 with a TUT of 20-40 seconds. This mixture of strength and hypertrophy, i.e. muscle growth, allows the body to become stronger and build muscle at the same time.

Rest times of 2-3mins and less sets are required than training strength.

This style of training will add muscle that has function and performance. This is beneficial for both sexes and in all areas of life.


Hypertrophy (8-12 reps), at 40-70 seconds of tension, allow the body to tone effectively and build muscle (providing nutrition is sufficient). Lifting a weight for this amount of time will result in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), following your workout and and is beneficial for males wanting to gain muscle and females aiming to achieve a more toned and defined look. Rest periods are generally between 90-180 secs.


Endurance training uses repetition ranges from 12+ reps) with a time under tension of 50-120 seconds trains the aerobic system and results in glycogen depletion, minimal rest periods (10-90s) are needed for recovery and lighter loads.

Tempo explained

Tempo training was made popular by Ian King and Charles Poliquin and is the least understood of training variables to manipulate.

Training with a tempo allows athletes to train within certain strength parameter. Within most commercial gyms, this training parameter is rarely used correctly.

We use a four digit system to explain tempos when prescribed in exercises.

The first number represents the lowering phase against gravity or eccentric motion (lengthening of a muscle).

The second number represents the pause in the lowering phase against gravity (the end range of the eccentric motion)

The third number represents the upward phase against gravity or concentric motion (when the muscle shortens and contracts)

The fourth and final number represents the pause in the upward phase against gravity or the point when the muscle is fully contracted.

Below are some examples of various tempos:
  • 32X0 Tempo: 3sec lower, 2sec pause at bottom, X (explosive) drive upwards and no pause at the top.
  • 3111 Tempo: 3sec lower, 1sec pause at bottom, 1sec drive upwards and 1sec pause at the top.
  • 2020 Tempo: 2sec lower, 0 pause at bottom, 2sec drive upwards and no pause at the top.
  • 5010 Tempo is 5sec lower, 0 pause at bottom, 1sec drive upwards and no pause at the top.
Using tempos for specific exercises

You also have to take into consideration the start position of an exercise. Lets look at the tempo 30X0…

Note: the use of the letter X is used to prescribe the motion be used explosively or as fast as possible by the athlete.

Below are two example exercises; the Goblet Squat and the Chin Up using a 30X0 tempo:

The numbers in tempo always represent the motions against gravity as explained above but for certain exercises the start positions may be different but let’s not get confused.

If we are set up for a Goblet Squat at 30X0, then the first movement is to squat down against gravity. So we would lower for 3 seconds, have no pause, then drive upwards as fast and controlled as possible with no pause at the top.

Now if the same tempo was prescribed for a Chin Up, all we have to take into consideration is the start position.

The first movement of a Chin Up would be to pull yourself up against gravity, so you would simply start on the third number which for this tempo is an explosive contraction. With no pause at the top position we would then bring ourselves back to the first number and lower for 3 seconds with no pause in the end range or start position.


This is just a small part of what goes into programme design but by using the main principles explained above you can create effective programmes for your athletes to elicit specific energy systems.