The “tempo squat” is when you perform the lowering phase of the movement with a slower than normal tempo, usually 3-4 seconds vs 1-2 seconds. They are one of the most effective and squat variations you can use to build strength.
But what makes them so useful?
The main reason to do tempo squats is because they are a ‘self-limiting’ exercise, which means that with a lighter load you get a higher training effect since it feels harder than it normally would compared with a regular tempo. The slower tempo can improve squat technique and increase hypertrophy (muscle gain).
In this article, I’ll go over exactly when you should program the tempo squat, how to perform it, and who is going to benefit more from doing this movement (and who should avoid it altogether).
What Is A Tempo Squat?
A tempo squat incorporates a deliberately slowed down portion of the lift.
When most people refer to a tempo squat, they usually mean slowing down the eccentric (downward) phase of the movement.
However, some strength and conditioning coaches will also use the tempo squat to slow down the concentric (upward) portion of the lift.
This is why it’s important to read tempo properly when you look at a workout program so that you know whether you need to slow down the eccentric or concentric range of motion, or both.
Let’s discuss how to read tempo now.
How To Read Tempo?
Tempo training is typically displayed as 3 or 4 numbers.
For example, 4-0-1 or 4-0-1-0.
- The first number represents the eccentric tempo – the downwards portion of the lift.
- The second number represents the bottom of the lift – indicating whether or not there’s a pause, and how long that pause should be.
- The third number then represents the concentric tempo – the upwards portion of the lift.
- If there’s a fourth number, this will represent the top of a lift – how long to take between reps.
In the above example, 4-0-1-0, you would perform a 4 second eccentric, no pause in the bottom, a 1-sec concentric, and then a ‘zero’ second wait between reps.
Some coaches may use an ‘X’ in place of a zero to represent a standard tempo, as you would usually perform the reps.
So if you see, 4-0-X-0. The ‘X’ just means push as fast as possible, i.e. your normal tempo.
7 Reasons Why You Should Do Tempo Squats
The 7 reasons to do tempo squats are:
- It slows down the movement
- They are self-limiting
- They reward good technique
- They expose your weaknesses
- They help you fix hip shifting
- They help you address chest fall
- Increased time under tension
1. It Slows down the Movement
The number one reason why you should incorporate tempo squats is that it slows down the movement. While this may be obvious, it’s the foundation for the other reasons.
It allows you to have the time to feel changes to your position, apply cues, and be aware of how you are moving throughout the lift.
The phrase ‘move slow to learn fast’ is what comes to mind when I think about tempo squats.
2. They Are Self-limiting
By “self-limiting” I mean they reduce the absolute load needed to achieve a sufficient intensity and allow you to feel like you are still training hard, even with lighter loads.
A load that ‘feels heavy’, despite the load being lighter, can be achieved through varying tempos – the longer the tempo, the less load required.
Even though the load on the bar may be reduced and lighter than a regular squat, the perceived effort of the lift is still high.
This has benefits on maintaining position and applying technical or cueing changes as they will both be easier with lesser loads.
3. They Reward Good Technique
Tempo squats will feel significantly better if you maintain the technique and positions you want to be achieving.
- Appropriately timing your hip and knee flexion during the eccentric (downwards) phase.
- Keeping over your mid-foot rather than shifting to the toes or heel.
- Maintaining a full brace with a stacked ribcage and pelvis.
The tempo allows you time to feel these positions and apply the changes you want to make far more easily.
4. They Expose Your Weaknesses
You’ll be made very aware of deviations to technical aspects throughout the lift and changes in loading.
This offers instant feedback into your rep quality and allows you to make those technical adjustments or work on applying cues as raised above.
5. They Help You Fix Hip Shifting
Shifts are apparent in various ways, but often these tend to appear as either an eccentric or concentric issue separately, or a bias to one side throughout the entire lift.
Using a tempo can have benefits in allowing you to feel any shift more consciously due to the increased time moving through the shifted position and also to feel the differences in tension from side to side.
If you are shifting to one side during the descent, then an eccentric tempo will benefit you in addressing this, whereas if you are shifting as you come out of the hole a concentric (or both) tempo will benefit you.
If you believe your hip shift is caused by uneven legs, then check out my article on How To Squat With Uneven Legs.
6. They Help You Address Chest Fall
The chest falling in the squat often occurs due to poor weight distribution.
As mentioned above, tempo squats help improve the distribution of weight over your midfoot and lessen this shift onto the forefoot and toes.
Not only this, but with the improved overall positioning and tension throughout the eccentric there is a reduced chance of the load shifting forward as you move into the concentric.
A strong eccentric is the foundation of a strong concentric.
To learn more about fixing the ‘chest fall pattern’, then read my article on How To Fix Leaning Too Far Forward in the squat.
7. Increased Time under Tension
With the increased tempo, you also increase the time your muscles are under tension.
Time under tension is a commonly manipulated training variable within bodybuilding and has been for many years. With a heavy emphasis put on the eccentric phase of the lift and its muscle building properties.
Fortunately, this isn’t just a bodybuilding theory, and has been actively displayed within the wider research as well.
Roig et al. (2009) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis comparing the effects of eccentric and concentric training upon muscle strength and mass.
Eccentric training was shown to promote increased muscle mass and overall size measurements.
Wondering whether you should slow down the eccentric or concentric tempo? Check out my article on the Eccentric Squat vs Concentric Squat: What’s the Difference?
How To Perform A Tempo Squat?
Here are my 3 tips on how to perform the tempo squat properly:
1. Be Consistent with the Tempo
If you’re programmed with a 4 second eccentric, do a 4 second eccentric.
You can hold yourself accountable by either using a metronome app, getting a training partner to count it out loud for you, or videoing yourself and making sure you’re being consistent set to set.
As well, a 4 second eccentric should be split evenly over the range of motion, don’t spend 3 seconds in the top quarter of your descent, and a second in the remaining three quarters.
2. Stay over Your Midfoot
You want to keep your centre of mass over your midfoot.
Tempo squats make it far easier to feel changes to your centre of mass due to the increased time spent moving throughout the range of motion. Ensure you’re not shifting too far forward onto your heels, or too far back onto your toes.
If you want to externally check this, try filming your lifts from the side. You should see the barbell lining up with your midfoot.
Learn more about staying over your midfoot in my article on What Is The Best Bar Path For Squats?
3. Break at the Hips and Knees Evenly
Due to the increased time of the lift, many lifters are seen to initiate the lift by breaking at the hips first to almost try and ‘cheat’ the tempo by making it initially easier for themselves.
Aim to move at the hips and knees at the same time as you begin the lift.
How To Program a Tempo Squat
Here are 4 considerations you need to make when programming a tempo squat:
Rep and Set Ranges
Tempo squats are better programmed as lower reps and higher sets.
For example, a single rep of a 4-2-0 tempo is 6 seconds of work each rep.
As you can imagine doing a set of 8 tempo reps isn’t going to be the most fun, nor the most productive.
Due to this, I prefer to program them as 3-5 reps for 3-6 sets. Starting with 3 sets of 5 reps and reducing the reps and increasing the set count as you increase the load over a block.
Higher Squat Frequency
Tempo squats work great as a second squat session during the week.
Firstly, they’re self-limiting. If your first squat session is a heavier squat day, this allows you to have another squat day with lower absolute loads, whilst ensuring training still feels hard.
They also allow you to address technical aspects more easily than a heavier squat day. Due to the lower load and increased time throughout the movement, it’s easier for you to apply any technical issues that may have been highlighted with your primary day.
For those that are already squatting twice per week, they’re a great way of introducing a third day. Due to the reduced load, tempo squats allow you to increase your overall frequency with less of the initial repercussions where fatigue is concerned.
They could also be performed after a heavier deadlift day for the same reason.
Check out my article on How Many Days Per Week Should You Squat?
RPE vs Percentage
You can use either rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or percentages to prescribe load for the tempo squat.
If you prefer percentages, I would recommend starting at around 60% of your 1 rep max, and building towards 70% over the following weeks. You may also have room to build this further if you start to decrease the reps and increase the sets as I suggested.
If you want to use RPE, this is a measure of reps in reserve, or how many reps you feel you have left until you reach failure.
Your first set can aim for an RPE 7, so if you’re doing a set of 5 reps, you’re doing the set with a load you could do for 8 reps. You can then remain at this load for the rest of the sets.
If your first set felt too easy, say you could still do 4 or 5 reps, you will want to increase the load for the remaining sets.
You can then increase this over the course of the coming weeks from RPE 7, to RPE 8 as you progress.
Phase of Training.
There are three key phases the tempo squat is beneficial:
- When you need to make more drastical technical changes and need to be more aware of your overall positioning.
- Phases where you are looking at introducing an additional squat session due to being able to use a lower load whilst adjusting to the higher frequency.
- Deadlift focused blocks; this way you can prioritise recovery for your deadlift sessions due to the lighter load needed for tempo squats.
Whilst tempo squats are a great exercise, there’s one phase of training I would avoid them if you are a competitive powerlifter or weightlifter:
- The phase directly before a competition as you will see more benefit from prioritising the heavier squat exercises.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A 2010 Tempo?
A 2010 Tempo is a lift with a 2 second eccentric (downward) phase, no pause at the bottom, a 1 second concentric (upward) phase and with no pause at the top of the lift.
What Is A 3010 Tempo?
A 3010 Tempo is a lift with a 3 second eccentric (downward) phase, no pause at the bottom, a 1 second concentric (upward) phase and with no pause at the top of the lift.
What Is A 4010 Tempo?
A 4010 Tempo is a lift with a 4 second eccentric (downward) phase, no pause at the bottom, a 1 second concentric (upward) phase and with no pause at the top of the lift.
The tempo squat is one of my favourite variants to programme, and with its wide range of benefits and applications, I’m confident it will quickly become one of yours as well.
Want more exercise ideas? Check out my article on 20 Exercises That Improve Squat Strength.