On tempo prescriptions

Published: 2022-04-23

Using a tempo prescription is a way to describe the tempo of a lift. Traditionally it’s been included in the name of the lift but Ian King, and later Charles Poliquin, created proper tempo prescriptions with their own columns in a typical training plan. I’ll explain them in this article, present an improved version, and briefly discuss their value or lack thereof.

Background

The first tempo prescription I’m aware of was introduced by Ian King. King used a 3-digit system, describing the eccentric phase (or ‘lowering’), a possible pause at the bottom, and the concentric phase (or ‘lifting’).

Example, King style tempo: 303

Using the squat as an example with the above tempo description, the lifter would take 3 seconds to squat down, make no pause (0 seconds) at the bottom, and take 3 seconds to stand up.

While King might have been the first to actually write something like this into his plans, various tempos have been used in training for a long time. Soviet Olympic weightlifting litterature is filled with exercises where pauses and slow lowerings are used (see Medvedev’s programs in particular). Before that Korean pressers, back when the press was an Olympic event, were known to press as explosively as possible. Certainly it couldn’t have escaped any serious trainee at nearly any stage in history that lowering a weight slowly feels different than dropping it.

Back to formal tempo prescriptions. Charles Poliquin, inspired by King, later introduced a 4-digit system for tempo. The idea was similar to King’s, with the difference that you now have a number to prescribe a possible pause at the top of the lift.

Example, Poliquin style tempo: 3032

Again using the squat as an example, the lifter would here lower the weight for the duration of 3 seconds, not pause in the bottom, take 3 seconds to stand up, and finally wait for 2 seconds before doing the next rep. As you can see, Poliquin’s tempo prescription was a solution aimed at how to deal with reps.

A more complete tempo prescription

While Poliquin’s solution is more descriptive than King’s, it still lacks much instruction that could be useful. I will present a more complete tempo prescription. I will explain some basic notation before we dig into examples.

-> (arrow) shows a reversal of direction. It’s irrelevant if the lift starts with an eccentric or a concentric phase, -> always indicates reversal of motion. If the lift is only concentric or only eccentric we can omit the right side of the arrow.

_ (underscore) indicates stop/pause and are only used when there’s a need for them. That is, there’s no default number for bottom of a squat or top of the squat.

1 (one) is the default number for “lift as you would” without tempo, sort of similar to 0 in traditional notation.

0 (zero) means as fast as possible. Traditionally, x is sometimes used for this but since numbers are less ambiguous and we won’t be moving faster than the speed of light, 0 is considered the better option.

: (colon) indicates acceleration or decceleration.

Now for some examples, I will again use the squat as our lift.

Regular squat: 1 -> 1
# The tempo is simply lift like you normally would, i.e., don’t make an effort to slow down.

4s lowering phase: 4 -> 1

3s down, 3s up: 3 -> 3

3s pause squat: 1 _3 -> 1
# _3 indicates the 3s pause. It’s placed before the arrow because the reversal of the motion hasn’t happened yet.

Speed squat: 1 -> 0
# Think Westside-style. Lower like you normally would, explode up.

CAT squat: 1 -> 1:0
# Focus on accelerating on the way up (as opposed to simply “exploding”) starting from normal tempo to as fast as possible.

3 stop, 3s pause squat: 1 _3 1 _3 -> 1 _3 1
# This could only be described as pain, I guess.
# Note the extra 1 between the _3’s. After a pause we again need to assign the tempo to resume the lift.

As you can see, this tempo prescription is much more complete than the two before, allowing us to describe the tempo of the lift in much greater detail. The arrow is more readable, we can make note of acceleration, as well as include as many pauses as we like. The only thing it doesn’t really describe is where to pause. If that’s important you’ll have to specify it in the description of the lift itself.

Comparison table

Everlifting King Poliquin Explanation
3 -> 3 303 3030 3s down, 3s up
3 -> 3 _2 - 3032 3s down, 3s up, 2s at top
3 _2 -> 3 323 3230 3s down, 2s pause, 3s up
1 -> 0 10x 10x0 Explosive up
1 -> 1:0 - - Accelerating up
1 _3 1 _3 -> 1 - - Two 3s pauses on way down

Should you use tempo prescriptions?

We have come along way from Soviet textbook’s “pause at knee”, via the tempo descriptions of Ian King and Charles Poliquin, and finally created a more complete prescription. But the question should be asked, are these things actually useful?

I rarely make use of tempo prescriptions in my training programs, rather opting for something like “Squat, with 4s lowering”. It’s more readable to the average person and lifters tend to screw up reading training programs as it is - no need to confuse them further!

While it might have worked well for Poliquin to count tempo up, pause and down, it’s just too distracting to a lot of people and I can’t even remember the last time I prescribed something like a 4s up, 4s down lift at all. If you do it often, then perhaps educating your lifters on tempo prescriptions is a good idea, otherwise I don’t see much point.

With that said, in my view this is mostly something of a theoretical exercise rather than something I implement practically. Perhaps it will be useful in some type of computer program, and indeed, some of the decisions for the notation of my improved tempo prescription reflects that. But as of now it’s mostly me exercising my mind rather than my athletes.

TL;DR

  1. Tempo prescriptions are used to explain the tempo of the lift. Old school way is to include it in the lift description, for instance “Squat with slow lowering”.
  2. Ian King created a specific way to define tempo using a 3-digit system. Charles Poliquin later improved upon it adding a fourth digit.
  3. I’ve presented an improved version, allowing for things such as acceleration descriptions and arbitrary pauses.
  4. Despite the above, I prefer to be old school when writing programs for my lifters, simply stating “Bench press, with 3s pause” or “Squat, with 4s lowering”.