Monday, April 18, 2011

Tempo-Schmempo: Enough Already

Lately I’ve been receiving a lot of letters and inquiries from trainees regarding their programs and results. There seems to be a common thread emerging. When I am asked to review their current program and I relate it to their level of experience and development, there seems to be no connection. And worse, lately there seems to be an overemphasis on instruction; particularly tempo training. I do not want to bore people with a lot of junk science here, even though I could, so I will get to the point in this piece as to why an over-focus on tempo training is actually detrimental to both short term and long term cosmetic physique goals; whether these goals are muscle development or leanness, or both.


When I look at some of these programs and the break down of reps schemes into 3-4 various tempos per rep, I ask why? Sometimes even I don’t even understand these workouts on paper. And I couldn’t imagine trying to implement them in an actual workout. As Gambetta and Santana, myself, and so many others have put it, “too much instruction kills a workout.” This overemphasis on tempos does not enhance the trainee’s workout experience because it improperly leaves the impression that the “tempo” of each rep is the element of focus. This is an emphasis on what I call “external cues.” Yet the appropriate emphasis and the one with the better pay off for short and long term gains should always be on “internal cues” of enhancing the mind/muscle connection and working as intensely close to optimum work capacity as possible. This has nothing to do with “tempos” and everything to do with what I call performance mastery. The problem for the modern trainee is the illusion that over-instruction is somehow “advanced.” Yet the actuality is that complicated is worse, not better, for performance enhancement. To be precise, “advanced” does not = complicated and just because protocol design is simple does not mean it is easy. Yet the modern trainee continues to be persuaded that complicated is = to ‘advanced.’


There are two expressions from pro sports I use often to illustrate this point. One is “the devil is in the details.” And the second one, borrowed from both the NFL and my friend Trevor Timmins who is head scout for the NHL’s Montreal Canadians is that “stats are for losers.” If you study pro sports as closely as I have for some three decades now, you notice a pattern. When an amateur becomes pro, the first thing the coaches and trainers do at training camp is take them back to a focus on fundamentals. Let’s examine this a bit. Here is an athlete who has been working at his craft at a high level for a good 10-15 years by the time he is drafted: Yet once he turns pro, his emphasis is back on fundamentals. We need to apply this same emphasis to the modern bodybuilding trainee.

My focus is always on the training principles being properly applied to a trainee at the proper time, and in context with his level of development, anatomical leverage, and his goals. Fancy tempos have little to do with the application of protocol in this regard. My focus will yield results for 90% of trainees, 90% of the time. I think that is a good success formula to follow. Yet, the industry continues to extrapolate from the 10% deviation, where something may have been useful for an athlete in a particular and specific context. Then the attempt is made to generalize a “formula” to apply to all trainees. This once again represents slotting the person into the program, rather than moulding the program to suit the person. For instance if I have two trainees, and one is 6 ft 4”, basketball type build, and the other person is a more normal stocky frame 5 ft 7” build then having them both train with a “tempo emphasis” of say, 2 second concentric, 4 second eccentric, with a one second static hold; does not compensate for the difference in their unique anatomical leverage advantages and disadvantages. It’s an illusion of control with too much instruction.

It also leads to the question, “who decides?” Experts start arguing whether the 4 second eccentric should be 3 seconds, or maybe 5 seconds, arguing over scientific research, instead of assessing and evaluating the actual trainee’s needs. Is a 3 second eccentric phase better than a 5 second one? It doesn’t matter! That is an emphasis on minutia. It continues to amaze me how skinny little runts who have never been there, never done that, use scientific research to pontificate useless positions regarding training. Oh, but don’t they all look so smart in doing so – which seems to become the point I guess. It is rather quite ridiculous. Just another old man hiding behind a curtain calling himself the great and might Oz. But I digress...

The reality of the 90% application principle is as follows: A program should be about exercise selection and exercise sequence. A program should be about rep schemes and rep ranges. [b]And the focus of the program should be greater than the focus on the workout.[/b] Read that sentence again, 10 X’s! The program must consider not just the immediate, but the residual and cumulative elements of ongoing application as well. In terms of tempo, simple is better. We need to get back to a training emphasis that is scientific in structure but still enables more of “da fun” rather than “da mental” of fundamentals. And for building a physique there are two relevant cadences. And the word “cadence” is a far more appropriate term, than the word “tempo.”

Two Cadences

The two relevant cadences for a bodybuilding trainee or training for physique development- are the “explosive emphasis” and the “constant tension” emphasis. Explosiveness does not have to do with how fast the implement moves, but rather the “intent” of contraction. (here is the internal cue emphasis again.) Obviously if I am lifting a max weight for say 5 reps, and I have to control it through a full range of motion - this weight will move much slower than a lower percentage max load weight would move, even though my “intent” is to explode on that weight. (I suggest people see my 6 Days Hybrid video to see this implementation in action over the course of a program.)

The constant tension emphasis is to keep the resistance on the muscle through the entire intended ROM. I think this is where “tempo training” emphasis may have started and gotten off track. Within the constant tension application, a trainee should be free to “keep a workout alive” by varying cadence and rhythm from one workout to the next. (without getting too crazy with it.)

The training “fact” involved here is that “muscles stretched with resistance, receive the most overload.” This necessitates an emphasis on “training the muscle, not the movement.” And the trainee “fact” involved here is that subjective trainee experience of protocol is more important than blind adherence to objective instruction.
This is what I refer to as “training economy.” There seems to be a popular trend in the industry to dismiss the modern pro bodybuilder as being a result of a lot of drugs and tremendous genetics. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. All the steroids do is enhance the effect of the cumulative aspects of training protocol. So there are great lessons here for learning by example. If anyone was to peruse some of the pro bodybuilder video clips, you would see almost entirely a focus on the two cadences I mentioned above; with little to no focus on “tempos” being written down in a book like some biblical ten commandments. It’s this “feel” for the training experience which the high level bodybuilders establish. This is that mind/muscle connection referred to above. So in application, simple but not easy cadence would look something like this, let’s say in a shoulder workout:


1) DB Bent laterals - 4 X’s 8-15
2) Seated DB Side Laterals - 3 X’s 15, 12, 10, 8
3) BB upright rows - 3 X’s 20, 15, 12, 10
4) Overhead Cable Rear Delts - 3 X’s 15
5) Seated DB or Machine Press - 3 X’s 12-15

So in adhering to the proper cadence application of explosive reps, and constant tension reps, here’s how it applies:
The first one or two exercises of each workout has an emphasis on being “explosive” meaning controlling the weight implement in the eccentric phase but “exploding” on it to complete the concentric portion of the lift. Exercises 3-5, switch the emphasis to constant tension with no pausing at the bottom or top of the movement performance from start to completion of each rep within the set. Then, and this is important: Next workout, merely switch the order of the above exercises and stick to the same application of cadence and rep schemes in exercises 1-5. This is how the smart and intuitive pros do it. Simple, but not easy!

Occam ’s Razor

All this over-instruction and fancy recipe applications for workouts is very frustrating for me as a coach. Complicated is not better, and complicated is not advanced! I’m reminded of the scientific premise of Occam’s razor which should serve as a reminder to keep all experts in this industry focusing on what’s relevant instead of what’s new. The premise basically dictates that "when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better." And when it comes to the principle of Overload, the two cadence application is simple, and will apply to 90% of the trainees 90% of the time. The other way of expressing the rule of Occam’s razor is that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” The warning of the rule of Occam’s razor is to make things as simple as possible while still holding true to the general principles involved. For me, “tempo” training is just a further emphasis of the industry of making things unnecessarily more complicated than they need to be, sometimes at the actual expense of the principles involved. But again, I emphasize, simple, does not mean easy!

Or to sum up the emphasis of this article another way, “it’s hard to teach a young dog, old tricks.”

Real-World Example

I’ve had the benefit of training many top pros or alongside top pros in my day. Many examples of this come to mind. One year, the weekend of the Arnold Classic I was training early one morning alongside Dorian Yates who came in with Steve Weinberger to do legs. After a concentrated warm up Dorian set out to do leg presses. He progressed from 8 plates to 11 plates per side over the course of a few sets. I watched like a hawk of course. As soon as I knew there was value to be gained I instructed my own training partner at the time to watch and learn. It wasn’t like Steve was yelling crazy tempo’s to Dorian. Instead what you could observe was a concentrated effort of constant tension on the leg muscles. The muscles were working the weights; the weights were not working the muscles. The reps flowed with a symmetrical cadence of concentrated effort. Again, with no external cues like tempo’s to “think” about, instead the focus was all about “concentration” on the working muscles: The mind/muscle link to “feel” the every inch of every rep of every set quality.

Again, not everything that counts can be counted! But you could witness and observe the leg muscles were getting hammered with concentrated efforts where the amount of resistance being used, was secondary to the constant tension emphasis of working to failure. Intelligent training need not be complicated training.

I had to laugh as this lesson was so sorely missed on almost everyone there who “expected” Dorian to “lift” a lot more. In fact, one guy walked up to him after his last set, and said, “Just leave the weights on there, for me.” This guy, with his pipe-stem legs, then proceeds to “add plates” to the machine, and do ¼ reps, yelling and screaming as if to say, “look at me, I just out-lifted Mr. Olympia.” Good for you Pinhead, you’re a weight-lifter, Dorian isn’t!

Lessons: simple is not easy. Too much instruction, giving trainees too much to think about, rather than concentrate on, kills a workout; it does not enhance it!

I would suggest you take the time to read my book, “The Abel Approach” to further enhance your knowledge on such things. A good adjunct to the Abel Approach is my MP3 audio lecture, “The Truth About Training.” You can listen to a sample clip of that project on my website. But for full visual expression of how these two cadences would be applied over the course of an actual program for muscle development, you really should check out my video, 6 Days Hybrid Program. You can see a clip of it through that link.

Too much focus on external cues like “tempo” can have the opposite of intended effects and kill both a workout and a program – but as usual...

Some of you will get it, some of you will not.

Monday, April 04, 2011