Picture of a postpartum athlete performing an incline chest press in a home gym.

Here’s a tip almost everyone can benefit from:

Slow down your reps.

The time your muscles spend under tension matters.

That’s where progress happens.

Whether you’re trying to build muscle mass, endurance or strength, you have to load muscles over time to induce a training effect.

What Is Tempo?

Tempo is the variable that determines the total time your muscles are contracted under load (the time under tension). Think of it as the rate at which you’re lifting and lowering your weights.

You can get technical and break tempo down into phases:

  • The time spent lengthening or lowering (the eccentric phase)
  • The time spent at the transition between the lowering phase and the raising phase (the stretch phase)
  • The time spent contracting or raising (the concentric phase)
  • The time spent at the top of the movement (the contracted phase)

Using a squat as an example:

  • Eccentric phase: Lowering into the squat
  • Stretch phase: The bottom of the squat
  • Concentric phase: Rising from the squat
  • Contracted phase: Standing at the top of the squat

Tempos are often written like this: 4/2/0/1 where the numbers refer to time (in seconds) spent lowering/pausing/rising/pausing.

For folks with specific strength or mucle-building (hypertrophy) goals, we manipulate tempos purposefully. For example, someone more focused on building muscle mass might emphasis a slower eccentric phase while someone focused on building max strength might focus on a very short concentric phase.

Tempo can also be manipulated to add a cardio element to lifts (lift faster!) or create power (lift as fast as possible). You can also use it as a progression variable (lift the same weight slower).

But tempo alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Time Under Tension And Load Matter Too

Time under tension = # reps x # sets x tempo

Your total time under tension is a function of tempo AND the number of reps and sets you perform.

And as you might guess, we choose sets and reps to compliment training goals as well.

Just to complicate things further: you can time your reps properly, but if you aren’t lifting enough weight, you won’t get a training effect either.

For loaded exercises (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells etc), you want to use a weight that is heavy enough that at the end of the set you feel like you could only do 1 or 2 more reps. But not 4 or 5 more reps.

Yup, it’s subjective. But this guideline works pretty well.

Slow Reps vs. Fast Reps: Practical advice

For the most part, we don’t need to get super technical when it comes to assigning tempo during pregnancy and early postpartum.

For the work we do during the childbearing year, you’ll get good bang for your buck with something approaching a 2/0/2/0 tempo.

Your coach or program will assign your sets and reps (which are likely to be in the 3 sets of 8-12 reps range). You’re only job is to slow yourself down (and of course, show up and lift the weights).

So unless your workout prescribes something different, try this:

Take 2 seconds to lower, pause for a beat, take 2 seconds to rise, pause for a beat. Repeat.

Easy peasy.

Slow Your Reps To Maximize Your Progress

Over and over, I see folks inclined to race through their reps and their workout.

When you race through reps, you’re using momentum rather than muscle to move the load.

Not only will the reps feel EASIER, but you’re cheating yourself out of potential muscle and strength gains.

It’s about QUALITY. Not quantity.

And consider this:

Your desire to rip through your workouts MAY be a reflection of the tempo of your life outside the gym. (–> I’m just guessing.)

We live fast paced lives, trying to pack as much as we can into limited time. Speed is an asset.

But our muscles and our nervous system benefit from taking it slower.

Use your workouts as an opportunity to practice showing up for yourself. Slowing down. Pausing for a beat.

Your workouts are a laboratory where you can experiment and practice managing load. Physically and metaphorically. Take advantage.

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My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I also offer personal training services and consultations to folks locally (Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and online.

Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach and Postnatal Fitnesses Specialist.

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