Should You Lift Weights Fast or Slow?

Target your fitness goals by tailoring your rep tempo for power, endurance, or muscle mass.
Target your fitness goals by tailoring your rep tempo for power, endurance, or muscle mass. Robert McGrath / Getty Images

Both mind and muscle adapt to a familiar training plan in about four weeks, which means you have to periodically mix up your workouts to beat boredom and break performance plateaus. The proven approach to do it: Lift fast on some days, and at a moderate-to-slow pace other days. This rep-timing technique, called time under tension, helps target different goals like boosting power, growing muscle, or building endurance, simply by tweaking exercise tempo.

There are four numbers that define the tempo of an exercise. The first number is the amount of time it takes to lower a weight (the “negative” or “eccentric” motion). The second number is the transition time between lowering and lifting. The third number is the lifting portion (the positive, or concentric motion). Finally, the fourth number is how long you pause at the end of the exercise.

If a program recommends you do a barbell chest press at a tempo of 30X0, it means that you’ll take three seconds to lower the barbell to your chest; 0 seconds of transition time between lowering and lifting the bar back up; the X denotes raising the weight as explosively as possible, and the 0 means you’ll have no pause at the top of the exercise — you’ll immediately go into your next rep.

Four different timing cues might sound like a lot to remember just to lower and raise a weight. But focusing on tempo is a sneaky way to control lifts and avoid achy joints that go hand-in-hand with sloppy technique. Try this training strategy for at least a month, and we guarantee you’ll benefit from newfound focus and intensity during workouts.

Below, you’ll find three tempo-based workouts that use similar movements performed at different speeds, depending on your goal. Choose one four-week program to try, or do them in succession (12 weeks total), starting with slow and progressing to fast. Do the total-body workouts three times per week, on non-consecutive days (like Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and perform the moves like a circuit, that is, one after another without a break, then rest for 60 seconds. That’s one set. Do three total sets. For all workouts, choose a weight that you can handle with good technique and is challenging by the last rep. To avoid confusion, note that some moves start with the lifting part (think pull-ups). Just remember that the first number is always the lowering or eccentric portion of the exercise, and the third number is the lifting portion (concentric).

Slow-Tempo Workout for Muscle Balance and Endurance
Use slow, controlled tempos with deliberate pauses at critical points of the exercise to build stabilization and muscle endurance.
Lifting Pace: Slow (4210)
Reps: 16

What to do:
A. Single-leg squat
B. Overhead press
C. Pull-up
D. Suspended (use rings or TRX) chest press
E. Suspended (use rings or TRX) row

Medium-Tempo Workout for Muscle Strength
Take two seconds to lower the weight and pause for three seconds at the bottom. Next, lift for one second with no pause at the top. This technique “turns off” the stretch reflex in your muscles so you build starting strength. In other words, lifting from a dead stop prevents you from relying on the elastic energy created when you bounce the weight at the bottom of an exercise.
Lifting Pace: Moderate (2310)
Reps: 8

Do This:
A. Squat
B. Shoulder press
C. Pull-up
D. Chest press
E. Lat row 

Fast-Tempo Workout for Explosive Power
Build speed and strength using a quick lowering (negative) movement followed immediately by a rapid lift (positive), with no pause in between in order to turn on your muscle’s rebound effect (the stretch reflex).
Lifting Pace: Fast (30X0)
Reps: 3

Do This:
A. Squat jump (Use either a weighted barbell or empty bar. Low-back pain? Swap out the bar, which may increase compressive forces on the spine, for dumbbells.)
B. Romanian deadlift
C. Push press
D. Clapping push-up