This is easily the most overlooked variable in the training and rehab of an athlete. I am well aware that whatever sport you have chosen likely requires you to do things fast. There is not a world championship for the guy who lifted all the weights the slowest or who ran the slowest or who threw the discus the shortest. This is all well and good, but if you don't have a solid base of maximal strength, it is going to be really hard to maintain the positions necessary to learn to go fast.
If you want to develop maximal levels of strength (either as you train on your own or as you recover from an injury) you have to stimulate the muscles and the nervous system in a variety of ways. You can increase the strength of a muscle through neurologic efficiency (lower reps at higher intensities) or through increases in muscular size, referred to as hypertrophy (slightly higher reps but still at relatively higher intensities, low intensities with higher reps just improve muscular endurance, which does have its place). You have to stimulate as many muscle fibers to contract as possible. To really maximize your potential or the potential of the people you work with, you have to drive up the neurologic efficiency and hypertrophy (unless you compete in a sport with strict weight classes, then neurologic efficiency will dominate).
If you are in a sport or fitness program where doing your lifting with the clock running is important to you, you need to have structured tempo work as part of your organized strength training. There are many issues in the long run with only training at a fast pace but one of the big issues up front is having people worry too much about the clock before they have gained any base of maximal muscular strength and neurologic efficiency. If your muscles, tendons, and nervous system have not been conditioned to apply appropriate amounts of force, you can expect to have all sorts of movement errors and nagging injuries surface. If you have old injuries that have never really been fully rehabbed or glaring range of motion or strength asymmetries, you can expect these issues to increase exponentially.
Working with tempo, particularly eccentric tempo (the lengthening phase of the exercise, is a great way to remodel tendon structure, increase muscular strength and hypertrophy, improve motor control around a movement, Improve the length/tension relationship of your muscles (improved flexibility) and increased anabolic hormonal response to training (I'm sure there are other things). It will make you sore for the first couple weeks but your body will adapt to the stimulus and you will be able to push even harder.
This allows you to learn to maintain control of positions as you lengthen the muscles. Eccentric control is a big part of your ability to perform and it is a missing piece in a lot of the athletes I have worked with over the years. This is especially true in the CrossFit gyms I have traveled to to teach. People have been put into training that is dictated by the clock and they do not have any level of base strength to hold the positions necessary over time and with fatigue. They are certainly working hard, but the quality isn’t there and it shows when people start to complain about nagging injuries and burnout.
In the world of rehabilitation, using tempo, especially on the eccentric, is so important for the motor control and tissue remodeling. I have long felt that most people in a rehab setting, particularly athletes, are not pushed hard enough by the average rehab professional and miss a real opportunity to create strength and control after an injury. The biggest predictor of a future injury is a previous injury so you need to take the time to stimulate the person properly to drive adaptation. Even working the uninjured side with vigor is important to healing the injured side. Don’t forget that a lot of the hormonal responses to training are systemic. For a very in depth look at how this can work, grab a copy of my newest ebook, So You Caught The Bicipital Tendinopathy.
If you are working with sports that have weight classes, this kind of work is probably best done a ways out from competition to help the athlete add muscle mass and maximal strength early before they have to (maybe) cut weight. In powerlifting and weightlifting, it is also likely best done in the early phases of meet preparation though you can maintain some strict tempo work for the supplementary exercises as you get closer as long as they don’t make the athlete excessively sore or interfere with recovery. The thing about powerlifting is the lifts you would do the tempo work with are also the competition lifts so you have to be careful with it as you get closer to a meet. For people in a more general strength and conditioning program, strict tempo work should be a part of a year round plan with many different variations. The more advanced a person becomes in their training, the more you can play with these variables as a way to continue to provide a novel stimulus to create adaptation. The novice typically just needs lots of volume with proper technique at a tempo that is sustainable.
As an example, let’s say you are working with an athlete at your clinic or you are coaching athletes at a gym and they all are floppy squatters that dive-bomb in to the hole and their legs get all crazy like they are churning butter. Many of them complain about knee, hip, and back issues from squatting. They need more efficient movement that puts them in sustainable positions to display their strength and power. How would you structure a block of torturous tempo work? First thing to do is sit down everyone in your gym and explain to them that the next six weeks are going to be pretty rough. You are going to have them squat twice a week over the next six weeks with different variations in intensity and tempo. The intensity will be in the 60-75% range with decreasing volume as the weights go up. Since tempo work does not correlate exactly with a true one rep max, it is best to have the athletes work in perceived intensity ranges. This is fine as long as they are increasing the weight throughout the six weeks. Due to the changes in tempo, as the sessions progress, the 75% you use during the last session in week six should be higher than the 75% you use during the last session of week two. Tempo will be shown in a four digit number as the great Charles Poliquin likes to do. In week one, for example, 4212 for the squat means 4 seconds to descend with the weight, 2 seconds pause in the hole, 1 second to explode up, and then stand for 2 seconds at the top before you start the next rep. Make sure people are strict with the time and that they take 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. Here is a table to show you what I mean:
Day 1 60%, 4x6, 4212
Day 2 65%, 4x5, 4212
Day 1 70%, 4x4, 4212
Day 2 75%, 4x3, 4212
Day 1 60%, 4x6, 4020
Day 2 65%, 4x5, 4020
Day 1 70%, 4x4, 4020
Day 2 75%, 4x3, 4020
Day 1 60%, 4x6, 3212
Day 2 65%, 4x5, 3212
Day 1 70%, 4x4, 3212
Day 2 75%, 4x3, 3212
By the end of these six weeks, you will have much less floppy squatters with fewer complaints of knee, hip, and back pain and increased strength, power, hypertrophy, and performance. I can not make this an absolute guarantee (much is predicated on the people actually consistently showing up and doing the prescribed work), but you get the point. Just look back at your own training over the years and the training you have given to patients and athletes and tell me the last time you gave specific directions regarding tempo. I’ll wait.
Get out there and play with this. I have done periods of training where I would just perform one heavy set that took sixty seconds to complete one rep. You can make this as interesting as you want. There is much more to be gained in the anabolic realm from the longer eccentrics so that will likely be where you control the most tempo. You can also get some good effect from having an extended concentric as it increases the amount of time you are having to apply force. Enjoy!
Here is a video of my performing a set of squats with a 4212 tempo at 305. I filmed it vertically; get over it. As you can see, this is not easy. If I go at whatever pace I choose, I can hit 305 for 15 or more reps. Putting these constraints on tempo really ups the difficulty: