Are you curious about tempo squats?
Tempo squats are a very valuable training method. They are a great way to build bigger, stronger legs. They also go a long ways in improving your exercise technique.
So what are tempo squats, and why are they so effective for building size and strength?
Tempo squats are an advanced training method where you slow down the lowering phase of the exercise. With tempo squats, you could spend 3-10 seconds just doing the lowering portion of each rep!
These slow lowering phases increase the eccentric stress on your muscles, which creates a powerful stimulus for size and strength gains.
For example, here is a video of the Olympic weightlifting guru Dmitry Klokov performing some slow tempo squats:
In this video, he uses a 5-second lowering phase, and a 5-second isometric pause in the bottom position.
In the rest of this article, I will show you the most effective ways to use tempo squats in your workout programs.
Now let's get started!
What Is Exercise Tempo?
Your exercise tempo is nothing more than the speed at which you perform your lifts.
Even if you have never heard of the term tempo, you are using a tempo on all of your exercises!
After all, how could you perform an exercise without moving the weight at some sort of speed?
The idea of precisely manipulating the tempo of your lifts was introduced to the strength training world by the late Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin in the 1980s.
When writing a training routine the tempo of an exercise is always written using a four-digit formula.
4 / 0 / X / 0
Let’s examine each of these four digits separately to get a better understanding of how to read tempo.
The first digit
The first digit refers to the speed of the eccentric contraction of an exercise.
The phrase “eccentric contraction” is just a fancy way of saying the negative or lowering phase of an exercise.
For example, if you are squatting, the eccentric portion of the exercise would be when you are squatting down towards the bottom position.
In our example the first digit is the number “4.”
This means that it should take you four total seconds to squat down to the bottom position of the exercise.
And yes, the number 4 really does mean 4 seconds.
That is a long time if you are just use to dive-bombing into the bottom position of a squat and hoping things work out alright!
The second digit
The second digit in our tempo equation refers to the amount of time that you pause in the bottom position (or stretched position) of an exercise.
This is known as an “isometric pause” in the stretched position.
It is not always necessary or recommended to pause in the bottom position of an exercise.
In fact, it is much more typical that you do not pause in the bottom position. In that case the second digit would read “0,” just like in our example.
However, there definitely are instances where an isometric pause in the bottom position is warranted, so don’t count out this method.
One of the sample routines below uses this method!
The third digit
The third digit in our tempo equation refers to how quickly you complete the concentric range of the exercise, or how quickly you lift the weight from the bottom or stretched position.
For example, during a set of squats the third digit would indicate how quickly you stand up from the deep squatting position.
Let’s go back to our example where we are squatting with a 4 / 0 / X / 0 tempo. You may have noticed that the “X” is not really a number.
What the “X” means is that you should lift the weight from the bottom position to the top position as quickly as possible.
You want to focus on accelerating throughout the entire movement.
Lifting as quickly as possible during the concentric range of an exercise can be a very useful strategy as it helps to fully recruit the higher-threshold motor units.
You know, the fast-twitch fibers that have the greatest potential for strength and size improvements!
The fourth digit
The fourth digit refers to the amount of time you should spend paused in the top or shortened position.
In our example the fourth digit refers to how much time we should spend standing upright in between each rep.
To recap our example uses a tempo of 4 / 0 / X / 0. The fourth digit is a “0,” which means that we should not pause in the top position. Instead we should immediately proceed with the next rep.
There are advantages and disadvantages to including pauses in the top or shortened position during an exercise like squats.
Some training methods are even built around these intra-set rest periods in the shortened position!
For example, a properly designed cluster sets routine takes full advantage of the benefits of pausing in the top position in between reps.
Putting it all together
Let’s go through our example one more time. Our squatting tempo in this example is 4 / 0 / X / 0.
This means that we want to squat down over a period of 4 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position, explode back up to the starting position as fast as possible, and pause for 0 seconds in the top position.
Congratulations, you now understand exercise tempo!
Now that we’ve got the basics covered let’s dive right into the main topic of this article: tempo squatting.
What Are Tempo Squats?
A tempo squat refers to the practice of using extremely controlled eccentric or lowering phases in the squat.
Of course lifting speed is all relative. What is considered “fast” to one lifter might in fact be quite “slow” to another!
However, as a general rule of thumb, a tempo squat refers to the practice of using a 5-10 second eccentric phase in the squat!
Sometimes isometric pauses lasting anywhere from 1-6 seconds are also taken in the bottom position of the squat!
There are many benefits to using slower eccentric tempos and prolonged isometric pauses in your squat routines.
But before we cover these benefits, let’s take a look at some examples of some different squatting tempos.
I hope you payed attention in Part 1 of this article because we are going to draw heavily on this information!
Olympic weightlifting world champion turned strength coach Dmitry Klokov has done more than perhaps any other athlete to popularize squatting with slower tempos.
In fact, he is so famous for the way he structures his squat training that many of the world’s best strength coaches including Wolfgang Unsold call a squat performed on a 7/6/X/0 tempo a “Klokov Squat.”
To perform a squat on a 7/6/X/0 tempo you would lower the weight over 7 seconds, pause in the bottom position for 6 seconds, and explode out of the whole. For example:
Talk about a perfect demonstration!
Here is a slightly less extreme version of a tempo squat performed by Dmitry Klokov himself!
As the 4-digit tempo formula implies, Dmitry Klokov squats down for three seconds, pauses for three seconds in the bottom position, and explodes back up.
Talk about impressive!
What Are The Benefits Of Tempo Squats?
There are many different benefits of playing around with your squatting tempo.
In fact, there are so many benefits that I am going to have a hard time covering them all here!
The bottom line though is I am extremely confident you will make much faster strength and size gains if you start playing around with your tempo on front and back squats.
I have seen it over and over with my online coaching clients: once I get them to start varying their squatting tempos (including doing some routines with very slow eccentric phases) their gains go through the roof!
Benefit #1: Improved Squatting Form
It is absolutely true: slow eccentric squats improve your squatting form!
One of the biggest reasons people have poor squatting form is that they lack the eccentric strength necessary to control the weight at all times.
Because of this they have to rely on bouncing out of the hole if they want to have any chance at lifting the weight.
By slowing down the exercise you really force yourself to “think” while you are performing the exercise.
I guarantee you the first time you try slow eccentric squats you will be surprised at how much harder you have to concentrate to stay in the right groove on the way down.
This will translate into improved squatting form when you return to your regular squatting speed!
Benefit #2: Enhanced Eccentric Strength
Squatting with a controlled eccentric tempo is fantastic for improving eccentric strength!
We know from research that the concentric and eccentric portions of an exercise are actually separate skills that can be trained.
In other words, by slowing down the negative phase of a lift, you really are able to get dramatically stronger at lowering the weight with somewhat less of an improvement in the concentric range!
Improved eccentric strength has many benefits including enhanced muscular hypertrophy and a greater potential for long-term strength gains.
Benefit #3: Increased Your Strength Out Of The Hole
This is a massive benefit! In my experience 9 out of 10 lifters get stuck in the hole during a heavy set of squats.
Part of the reason for this is they rely too much on the stretch reflex.
If you are not familiar with the stretch reflex, it is a phenomenon whereby you are stronger lifting a weight if you first have to lower the weight to the bottom position.
For example, this is why pin presses (where you do a set of bench presses with the weight resting on pins at chest level) are so much harder than regular bench presses.
They take away the stretch reflex!
When you squat a 2-4 (or more!) second isometric pause in the bottom position you practically eliminate the stretch reflex from the lift entirely!
This means your muscles have to work overtime to get the bar moving.
The latest research confirms that these isometric pauses in the stretched position are a great method for increasing the motor unit recruitment within a particular muscle group.
Then when you return to regular squatting you will have the benefit of your newfound muscular strength out of the hole AND the stretch reflex working for you!
Basically, you are setting yourself up for a massive squat PR right after a short 2-4 week cycle of slower tempo squatting.
Benefit #4: Improved Vastus Medialis Strength
The vastus medialis is an incredibly important muscle group.
It is one of the 4 quadriceps muscles and the only one that actually crosses the knee joint.
The vastus medialis plays a critical role in squatting performance and for keeping your knees healthy in the long run.
This critical muscle is most heavily recruited in the very bottom position of a deep Olympic squat (not a powerlifting-style squat).
This is especially true if you are squatting with your heels slightly elevated.
Tempo squats often involve an isometric pause in the bottom position, so we are increasing the amount of time under tension in the most important part of the squat for improving vastus medialis strength.
What this means for you is that tempo is a fantastic tool that you have at your disposal to boost the strength (and size!) of your vastus medialis muscles!
Benefit #5: Reduced Risk Of Injury
This is another massive benefit of squatting with a slow tempo. This style of squatting literally forces you to exercise with extremely good technique, including no bouncing out of the bottom position.
This is an extremely good thing in terms of the long-term health of your hips and your knees.
I have written quite a bit before about how paused squats can help you recover from an irritated hip labrum.
I should know, as I had this very issue for many years until I started incorporating Klokov Squats into my routine. Thanks, Dmitry!
Dmitry Klokov Squat Routine
- A1: Back squat, 6-8 x 1, 7/6/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Standing unilateral leg curl (feet plantarflexed / neutral), 6-8 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat, 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: 90 degree back extension, 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/2, 75 seconds rest
If you are having any trouble reading this routine then please read the following article:
This routine is absolutely fantastic for boosting strength, particularly strength out of the hole in the bottom position.
There is a reason Dmitry Klokov uses this type of squatting routine on a regular basis!
I recommend you complete between 6-8 sets of back squats on this routine.
Make sure you pick a weight that you think will allow you to get all 6-8 sets!
If you have to reduce the weight halfway through the workout then consider using a more manageable weight the next time you do this routine.
Mechanical Advantage Drop Set Squat Routine
- A1: Front squat, 3-5 x 3-5, 5/0/X/0, no rest
- A2: Back squat, 3-5 x AMRAP, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A3: Lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointed in), 3-5 x 5, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree back extension (holding barbell snatch grip), 3 x 6-8, 4/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
This is an absolutely AWESOME routine. Seriously, I highly recommend you give this one a try for 2-4 weeks!
The squat portion of this routine is technically a mechanical advantage drop set. Here’s the idea:
First complete a set of front squats for between 3-5 reps. After you complete your set of 3-5 reps immediately rack the bar and position yourself under the bar in preparation for a back squat.
Now walk the bar back out and complete a set of back squats (using the same weight!) and just complete as many reps as you can.
This will probably get around 1-3 reps on the back squat.
Supersets such as this are a great way to cause tremendous damage to the quadriceps.
And the slow 5-second eccentric tempo used in this routine is sure to thrash all available fibers in your quads!
Weight Releasers Routine
This routine utilizes weight releasers to allow you to overload the eccentric portion of the exercise with supramaximal weights.
Check it out:
- A1: Back squat with weight releasers, 5-6 x 1, 10/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Seated leg curl 2/1 method (feet plantarflexed / pointed out), 5-6 x 2, 10/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Reverse hyperextension, 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/2, 120 seconds rest
If you are not familiar with weight releasers then I highly recommend you check out the following 2 articles:
The hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle and as such respond incredibly well to eccentric training.
The 2/1 method is one of my favourite ways to do this. All you have to do is lift the weight with 2 legs and lower the weight down with 1 leg under control.
Verdict | Tempo Squats!
Tempo squats are an incredibly valuable tool to have in your training toolbox.
The benefits are numerous: improved form, enhanced eccentric strength, more strength out of the hole, and a much stronger and healthier vastus medialis muscle.
I don’t recommend you use this specific training method in every single lower body workout year-round.
Instead, you should rotate them in just like you would any other training method.
After all, a routine is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it!
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training endeavors!