Why Tempo Squats?

July 27, 2018

Let’s first touch on the breathing. It’s unrealistic for you to be holding your breath for a nine second tempo squat, taking one breath at the top and doing that for five reps. It’s not going to be doable for you. So what you need to do is you need to be breathing when you can. And you need to be holding your breath and maintaining that intraabdominal pressure for the hard parts of the lift. And that’s the concentric, that’s standing it back up. So, my advice would be, control that eccentric with no breathing, so you’re lower is controlled and there’s no breathing there. At the bottom, you’re going to have to breath, but you can’t be breathing out completely ’cause as soon as you empty your lungs of air, your diaphragm will rise, which starts to reduce the pressure in your abdomen and you lose a lot of spinal stability.

Now listen, from an injury point of view, this isn’t optimal but also from a strength point of view, it’s not right. So the bottom of that squat, you need to be breathing enough that you don’t pass out, but half breathes. So that sort of top half, half breath out, half breath in. Half breath out, half breath in. You don’t want to be breathing out completely. Then big breathe of air for the concentric, as you stand back up. And then take a breathe at the top and resume from there. Hope that answers the question on breathing.

In terms of why we do tempos squats and what sort of tempo you should be looking at. Firstly, let’s do a bit of an intro on contraction type, a muscle contraction type. Three things your muscles can do. A muscle can shorten and contract, which is called concentric. It can lengthen and contract, which is called acentric, where you’re slowing lowering a load. Or there can be an isometric, where you’re held at a certain position. So, a tempo movement, in this case we’re talking about tempo squats, but this can be done for almost anything. A tempo movement is based around these three types of contraction.

So why do we do it like we do? Firstly, we have acentric. So the acentric, which is that slow lower should be about five seconds. It needs to be long enough that you’re not letting gravity pull you down, but you are controlling how fast you’re going. You’re controlling the descent. Now, what happens with acentric exercise, and the reason this is so important for strength gains. If you get what’s called sarcomere popping, so if you think of the individual elements within your muscle fibres as like the hooks and ropes of something like Velcro. As you pull them apart, that Velcro can then so to reattach along the muscle lengths. What it does is creates a lot of muscle damage, which is good when we’re trying to create a stimulus to become stronger. So because we’re creating a lot of muscle damage, our body then adapts and responds by helping to replenish that muscle through photosynthesis, therefore making you stronger. So, acentric exercise is great to increase strength but it also increases the range over which you can become stronger.

So to understand how this works, you need to understand the relationship between with length of a muscle and the strength of a muscle. When a muscle is at a very shortened length, it’s not able to generate a lot of power. When a muscle is at an extended length, it’s not able to generate a lot of power. There’s this sweet spot in the middle where you’re able to optimise the amount of strength and power that you’re able to produce. It’s where those individual elements in the muscle fibres are overlapping to and extent where they can generate a lot of force.

So if we can start to widen this curve, it’s basically like an inverted U, where too short or too long, we can’t generate power, but that Goldilocks’ area where it’s just right, we can have a lot of strength development there.

So if you do eccentric exercises, what it does is it actually fattens this inverted U. So it means that instead of being very weak at the very extremes of range, you start to develop more strength at these extremes of range. So not only will a acentric exercise, that lowering phase, make you stronger, but it will also make you stronger over a greater range. And if you think of a movement like the overhead position. And a lot of people are very weak overhead. It’s not because their pressing strength is an issue, because they can bench press a lot. The issue here is that because their shoulders are so tight through shell deflection and through their thoracic spine, they’re sitting at the end of this length-strength curve. They’re on that descending arm of the curve where they’re no longer able to generate a lot of force. Acentric exercise, because it fattens this curve, will increase the range over which you can generate force and therefore allow you to actually apply strength that you have. Instead of just being stuck in this pattern of being able to generate strength only through the mid point and through the mid range of the muscles. So that’s the acentric. I would recommend a five second acentric. Needs to be long enough that you are controlling the descent. You’re not using gravity to pull you down.

Then we have a pause at the bottom. My recommendation for this is three seconds. And here’s why: with the three second pause, you’re completely dissipating the elastic energy. So the elastic energy is a bounce. And this bounce can be used to our advantage in things like Olympic weight lifting because it’s important to build that excitability of the neuro-muscular system to be able to store energy in the muscles and then relate that energy to stand back up out of a squat. Your ability to store this energy in the muscles has a half life of a single second. So if you squat, you pause for a second and then stand back up, you’ve still retained 50% of how much elastic energy is stored in the muscle. Now if you pause for two seconds, in the first second you wipe off 50%. In the second second, you wipe off 50% of what’s left. So after two seconds, you’re not down to 25% of that stored elastic energy.

What the research tells us is that a three second pause is going to dissipate all of the elastic energy. So you pause at the bottom for three seconds. You’re then having to concentrically stand up with no bounce whatsoever, purely under your own muscle strength. And this is why a three second pause is important. And this is why using a timer to time out that three second pause is really important, because three seconds counted out in your head when you’re in pain, sitting under a heavy load is probably not three seconds. So you should be setting up a timer for a tempo squat where you have a five second acentric, a three second pause and then two seconds to stand back up and begin that acentric again. It means you’re not going to be spending a lot of time standing at the top. And the time and the tension is always time loaded on the tension, not standing passively with that bar on your shoulders.

Now of course we can learn from this acentric strengthening work that we’ve talked about in terms of things like injury rehab, and also in terms of being able to train and not cause too much muscle damage. So with our acentric exercise is the best way of increasing muscle damage and therefore creating strength, it’s also the easiest way to overtrain. So we can look at people who are injured or who are prone to over training or who want to do some extra training on more of a recovery day and we can look for forms of exercise which are going to be less acentric based. Therefore they cause less muscle damage. These are forms of exercise that cause less of these micro tears in the muscles and yet you still get a decent strength benefit.

So, some ideas for this would be using a prowler or a sled, which contains almost no acentric loading and is purely concentric. If you’re looking to work on the anterior chain, doing some sort of backwards sled or prowler, if you’re looking to work on the posterior chain, some sort of forward prowler or forward sled drag, making sure that you’re heel striking and that you’re going to be pulling on the ground, not pushing on the ground behind you.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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