The Most Frustrating Gym Mistake I See as a Personal Trainer

One of the most overlooked components of resistance training is tempo. You can lift all the weight in the world, but if you aren’t paying close attention to your rhythm, you simply won’t be maximizing your muscle growth. I can confidently say that this oversight is one of the biggest mistakes I see in the gym. Period.

Fortunately, reversing this bad habit is extremely easy. By lifting the weight with a proper tempo, you will find you need to do fewer reps to get to failure. In other words, you won’t be sacrificing any time to receive the gains you want. The question is, why is lifting tempo even important?

If you’re already getting the weight to its desired destination, does it really matter how long it takes?

The answer can be found within the scientific research. There’s a little phenomenon called ‘eccentric training’ that will flip the way you think about weight lifting. It’s time to take a deep dive into this important training principle and outline how you can maximize your muscle growth by taking advantage of it.

Lifting Tempo is (Almost) Everything

When we look at lifting tempo, four numbers must come to mind (see photo). Please note that these ratios will change depending on volume and exercise — there is no one right answer. The overall goal here is to go through the eccentric phase for approximately twice as long as your concentric phase. At the end of the day, don’t overthink the numbers too much. Simply working towards actively lowering your lifts will make a huge difference, and you’ll find that the time will take care of itself.

If you’re unclear about what these numbers mean, let me use a quick example. Say you’re doing a bicep curl with dumbbells. You have two main options here. Firstly, you can curl the weights up and then let them drop back down to the hips. While you’re clearly exerting yourself to get the weights up, you’re missing out on increased muscle stimulus by letting the weights lower passively. This would result in something like a 1–0–2–0 tempo. Your second option is to curl the dumbbells up, and then take 3–5 seconds to actively lower the weights. In the meantime, you take a 1-second pause at the bottom and top to reset. You will immediately notice a spike in difficulty with this shift. This is going to resemble more of a 4–1–2–1 lift.

New to this type of training? Try a 4-1-2-1 lifting tempo and see how it changes the game!

Here’s the trick. It’s easy to visualize this pattern when we’re lifting an object. What about when we’re doing a lat pulldown, however? This is when understanding the difference between concentric (muscle shortening) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) phases come in handy. This concept is simple as long as you lift with good form on the shortening phase, and then actively slow down the lengthening phase. Make sense?

Keep in mind that your tempo may shift depending on your goal. There is solid evidence to show that a ‘slow eccentric’ method will elicit more strength adaptations, while a ‘fast eccentric’ approach will result in greater hypertrophy. This effect may vary based on your trained status and exercise choice, but the overall theme rings true.

Before we move on, let’s quickly clarify some language. ‘Eccentric training’ is commonly only done on the eccentric phase. For example, if you were to do an eccentric pullup, you’d use a step up to guide you to the top, and only focus on the lowering phase. What I’m suggesting for the majority of us, however, is slightly different. I’d encourage you to still go through the concentric (shortening) phase, but just put more emphasis on the lowering portion.

We’ve now covered the basics behind training tempo, but we still have one question to answer. Why does it matter if we control the lifting tempo on the way down? Let’s dive into the research to find the answer.

What Science Has to Say About Slowing Things Down

If you look at the literature, the benefits of adding a controlled eccentric phase to your training go far beyond muscle gain. Upon reading several studies, here is a quick summary of what you can expect from slowing your lifting:

  • Increased muscle breakdown (more damage to muscle fibers)

  • Enhanced motor control and neural benefits

  • Strength and hypertrophy gains (depending on tempo)

  • Strong rehabilitation effect for injury recovery

  • Boosted coordination and muscle recruitment

“We conclude that eccentric training is the most effective for muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.” — Farthing & Chilibeck

One benefit that should not be overlooked is the mindfulness aspect of resistance training. By controlling your lifting tempo, you will be much more focused on the task at hand, rather than mindlessly rushing from one exercise to the next. Yes, this eccentric phase will deliver on the physiological front, but it is also much more mentally stimulating as well.

If you want to take a deep dive, I’ve linked a few papers for your reading pleasure: Journal #1, Journal #2, Journal #3

In Closing,

Research proves that one of the best ways to maximize muscle growth is to slow things down. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but you’ll quickly realize why this is true once you start training this way. Whether you’re performing a bicep curl or a lat pulldown, choose to decelerate the lengthening phase of each rep.

By making this small adjustment in tempo, you’ll experience greater hypertrophy, strength, neural control, and more. These benefits don’t come without a cost, however. This training shift will feel like an absolute grind at first, but your future muscle gains will thank you immensely!