Tempo: More Than Just a Beat

Reviewed By: Kevin Kucko, MAPT, ATC, Director, Licensed Physical Therapist, Certified Athletic Trainer - K2 Sport Therapy & Performance, Mooresville, NC


Most people listen to some sort of music while exercising, whether it’s at the gym, in your home, outside for a run, or mountain biking through the woods. Why do we want to listen to music? Maybe it is to escape the silence or stress in our daily lives or to tune out our inner voice. Or subconsciously, perhaps when we are running or training, we find that a beat helps us stay on track, or it keeps us at a steady pace for our mile run. Yes, we love listening to music, but training to a beat is much more beneficial for your body than you might initially realize. 

Tempo in Training 

 You will often see trainers and athletes using eccentric, concentric, and isometric tempo training techniques but might have wondered what the benefit is in doing so. 

  • Concentric: Type of muscle contraction where the force generated by the muscle is greater than the opposing force; thus the muscle length shortens during a concentric contraction. 
    • Real-life example: Lifting weights in a bicep curl would be a perfect example of this type of contraction. By curling the weights up into a bicep curl, your muscles are contracting and shortening.
  • Eccentric: Type of muscle contraction where the force generated by the muscle is less than the opposing force thus the muscle length will elongate during an eccentric contraction. This is the exact opposite of a concentric contraction. 
    • Real-life example: Using the same example as above, coming out of a bicep curl to lower the weight back down would best describe this type of contraction. Another example would be lowering into a squat.  
  • Isometric: Type of muscle contraction where the muscle does not change length while contracting; it remains constant. 
    • Real-life example: This type of contraction would best be described while holding a squat position or holding a plank. Your muscles are contracting, but the length of the muscles that are at work are not shortening or lengthening.

concentric - train centric  eccentric - train centric isometric static hold - train centric

By slowing down the pace of your exercise, for example, lowering into a squat position with a tempo that takes 3-seconds to go down with a pause at your lowest point then come out of your squat with another 3 second tempo, will ultimately lead to optimizing muscle strength and power. By doing so it can help increase your overall strength, aid in decreasing the risk of injury and give you a competitive edge. The Train Centric app is the perfect tool for this.


Tempo in Physical Therapy

These types of outcomes are what many physical therapists are aiming to achieve when rehabbing their patients. Just as trainers, athletes, or any person trying to maintain a healthy state of living, patients in physical therapy can benefit from this tempo training. Physical therapists can use this type of tempo training on their patients who are rehabbing an injury, which will help them slowly progress back into their sport, their normal exercise routine, or simply getting them back into a more active lifestyle. The physical therapists can modify tempo training exercises to fit their patients’ needs and use it as a great stepping stone to get their patients back to where they were before their injury, and hopefully even stronger than that. 

You might be wondering how does this “actually” helps decrease your risk of injury?

 Now let us look at an example comparing the risk of injury between an eccentric single leg squat exercise (which is slowly lowering into a single leg squat position then rising back up) and a normal single leg squat exercise using a heavyweight. To express how the eccentric exercise has a lower risk of injury let me present a scenario. Imagine we have two motorcyclists approaching a stoplight and they are trying to make a right turn. If the first motorcyclist took the turn going 10 mph and the second motorcyclist took the turn at 50 mph, who do you think would have the highest risk of crashing and getting injured? Let us use this example to portray the difference in exercises. The first motorcyclist will be our eccentric exercise patient and the second motorcyclist will be the other patient using heavyweights to perform a single leg squat. Even thinking of a motorcyclist going around a tight corner at 50mph makes someone cringe, and rightfully so. By slowing the vehicle down the chance of that person crashing decreases dramatically and the same goes with exercises. If you take an eccentric single leg squat the person performing the exercise is moving a slow and controlled manner and is actively focusing on the muscles that are being targeted. Whereas a patient who is performing a single leg squat with heavy weights is putting much more pressure on their joints and has another element to control (i.e. the free weights they are using) that could potentially put them in a position where they could injure themselves. If we are talking about trying to increase muscle mass and decrease the risk of injury during the process of rehabbing a pre-existing injury, tempo training is a valuable tool. 

By no means am I saying to never use free weights to train again, because I do believe free weights are incredible tools physical therapists use. Not to mention tempo training and weights are often combined but requires knowledge, guidance, and strength to attempt such exercises. But adding tempo training is another useful customizable tool a physical therapist can use to rehab their patients because no person’s rehab journey is the same! I would advise consulting with your physical therapist or physician before attempting any form of exercise after an injury.


5 Common Tempo Exercises Used in Physical Therapy
  1. Sit-to-stand: an exercise used to work on a person’s ability to get from a sitting to a standing position and visa versa. This exercise requires the patient to lower slowly into a squatting position then fully stand back up. This can be modified in many ways but most often seen in the gym as a slow lowering squat. This exercise aims to strengthen the legs, glutes, and core as well as work on balance.  

physical therapy train centric physical therapy train centric physical therapy train centric  

  1. Single leg heel lowers from an elevated surface: this exercise requires a small elevated surface like a step-up box that is stable and will safely support the weight of your body. Keeping one foot planted on the box and the other leg extended and hanging off the edge, the goal of this exercise is to use the leg on the box to slowly lower the other leg hanging off the box to touch your heel to the ground. This exercise requires a lot of control, balance, and strength. The difficulty of this exercise could be modified by the height of the box which makes it a great tool for a physical therapist to use with their patients!

train centric physical therapy train centric physical therapy  

  1. Bridge with a hold: after getting into the highest bridge position, hold that position for a count (some therapists have you hold it for a 3-second count or vary it based on the level of difficulty).  

physical therapy train centric

  1. Balance board holding a squat position: isometric hold in modified squat position using a balance board, half ball balance trainer, foam pad, or even just holding a squat position on solid ground (depending on difficulty level). Isometric hold works on strength training and adding a balance aspect to the exercise also works on control, stability, and mobility. 

train centric physical therapy

  1. Swimmers (prone overhead reach): an exercise performed over an exercise ball with an overhead reach to a tempo that engages the core all while strengthening the upper body and back. The physical therapist can modify this exercise using a tempo to adjust the level of difficulty.

 train centric physical therapy train centric physical therapy


Benefits for Tempo Training in Physical Therapy

Physical therapists want their patients to do their exercises and stretches to help them rehab their injury and get back to the life they want to live. Sometimes that means making a home exercise program that is as convenient, yet effective as possible, and tempo training and exercises can fall under that category. If your physical therapy gave you the option of getting a gym membership 20 minutes away(because it has the equipment you need to use to rehab your injury) or use a list of prescribed tempo training exercises and stretches that you can do in your living room, which do you think more people would do daily? Yes, the gym might have great equipment and might be a solid option for many people, but if your schedule is simply too busy to make it to the gym and you can rehab your injury in your living room, that would seem like the simpler option to me. To the physical therapist, it is about making an exercise program that is specific to the patient, doable, and beneficial for their rehabilitation process, which is why tempo training can be beneficial. 

During the rehabilitation process at physical therapy, physical therapists will often use eccentric, concentric, and isometric exercises for rehabilitation because it puts less stress on the joints and muscles while maximizing the most out of the muscles being worked. Using a tempo to control these exercises will help the patient stay at a steady pace and get the most out of each repetition. Slowing movements down allow you to have better control over your body. Your muscles will recruit more muscle fibers and will help aid in your recovery through this process! This supports a phrase that most of you have heard that “it is not how many reps you can do but how well you can do each rep that will make a difference.”

As always, it is essential to listen to your body and your physical therapist. Just because it might “seem” as if you are doing fewer reps or not using any weights during your exercise does not mean you are not putting your body through strenuous exercise. Time under tension significantly impacts your muscles, and the need for proper stretching and recovery is necessary to maintain a healthy body. I am not sure about you, but I am ready to work on some tempo training, who is with me?

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