What is Tempo in Exercise? - How to Use It

What is Tempo in Exercise? - How to Use It

The reason why we as coaches use tempo is to specifically control the athlete. Tempo is an important tool which can not only help the athlete learn the movement but also develop appropriate motor patterns and body control.”  – James FitzGerald

Tempo, also known as time under tension, is a programming tool that allows the coach to specifically alter and target specific results in an athlete’s program. Coaches who master tempo can use it to work the athlete’s position, mechanics, movement progression, metabolism, control, and absolute strength. It is critical to your success as a coach that you understand how to use tempo.

What is Tempo in Exercise?

Tempo is a way to control the rate at which an exercise is performed. It refers to how much time the muscle spends under tension in the isometric, eccentric, and concentric portions of the exercise.

Manipulating tempo can change the complete intent of the training program. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you understand this concept. Tempo is part of the foundation of how OPEX Coaches write programs.

(Coach’s Resource: Along with tempo OPEX Coaches use other principles to prioritize the intent of the exercise for each client. Learn our foundational program design principles with this course.)

Before we discuss how to write a tempo ‘prescription’ you need to understand the different types of muscle contractions.

Tempo and The Three Types of Muscle Contractions:


An application of force to a muscle in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction. I.e: The bottom and top of a squat, as well as a plank.


A contraction where the muscle elongates while under tension due to opposing force being greater than the force generated by the muscle. I.e: The lowering portion of the squat.


A type of muscle contraction in which the muscle shortens while generating force greater than the external load. I.e: The standing portion of the squat.

How to Write and Read Tempo in an Exercise Program

Now that we understand the definitions of the various contractions. Let’s take a look at how to write a tempo. Tempo should always be written as a 4 digit prescription like the example below. @42X1

You may be scratching your head at what exactly that means. But let’s break it down.

Digit 1 Represents the Eccentric
Digit 2 Represents the Isometric Bottom
Digit 3 Represents the Concentric
Digit 4 Represents the Isometric Top

The way in which and the amount of time the tempo ‘prescription’ is written changes the intent of the piece. There are four main categories of intent that change depending on the tempo.

  1. Position/Mechanics By slowing down the movement, you are forcing the athlete to develop an awareness of what the body is doing and should be doing in each muscle contraction or even one specific muscle contraction within the piece.
  2. Metabolic –  If you increase the total amount of time under tension, you increase the amount of work required, which in turn increases the metabolic demand of the actual contraction. (I.e. @7530 is a significant amount of time under tension as compared to @21X2.)
  3. Progression You can keep the tempo the same for the movement and gradually decrease the amount of time under tension in the sets to force weight progression and advancement. (An example of this would be @4010 to @3010, @2010.) Learn how adaptation effects progression in this course.
  4. Control –  Tempo requires the athlete to utilize every muscle in order to meet the demands of the tempo. This forces the athlete to remain in control and develop muscles to maintain it.

Tempo Explained:

Tempo plays a critical role in the success and effectiveness of an individualized program. However, there is much more than just tempo that goes into designing an individualized program. Learn our method of Individual Design with our free course, The Professional Coaching Blueprint.

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