I haven’t been in the fitness industry for overly long, but one doesn’t need to be a 30-year veteran in the space to see that people eventually get bored with their training. Most can only stick to a solid routine for so long before they start looking for the next thing. They've stopped seeing as much progress from standard lunges, so the circus act begins of squatting while standing on a stability ball because they saw their favorite Instagram star do the same. I always tell clients - we do the same things because the same things work and will always work. There are plenty of ways to add intensity to your routine once you’ve plateaued, and one way is with tempo.
Tempo is the rate in which you perform the exercise. Look at it this way - a set of 10 repetitions on a squat can last 10 seconds, or last 45 seconds. Which do you think would be more taxing? One is not outright better than the other, simply serving a different purpose for a training goal. Here are a couple of ways to take those same big lifts (squatting, pushing, pulling, deadlifting, etc.) and change them up without throwing out your back falling off a stability ball.
Slow Negatives. The negative, or “eccentric” portion of the rep is the lowering of the weight or lengthening of the muscle. We are up to 1.75 times stronger in this phase of the lift, which is why we can lower that heavy bench press weight but might need a spotter to help complete the lift. Take advantage of slower negatives (try 3-5 seconds to start) on exercises to increase intensity - just remember to use lighter weight than accustomed to, given the long time under tension.
Pauses. The “isometric” portion of the rep is where the muscle is contracted but doesn’t change length. Removing the ability to “bounce” out of the bottom of a squat makes the exercise more difficult in nature and creates better control and time under tension for the muscle. Next squat day try implementing a 3-5 second pause at the bottom of your rep and see how the same amount of reps you're used to performing feel now.
Outside of simply increasing the difficulty or intensity of a given lift, there are many added benefits to leveraging tempo in your training. You improve body awareness by controlling the movement throughout, instead of simply dropping quickly in a squat. There is also an increased focus on the muscle versus the connective tissue. In other words, the muscle is contracted throughout the lowering portion instead of bouncing out of the bottom. Lastly, you increase your overall work capacity and ability to handle heavier weight when going back to max-effort work.
At the end of the day, most goals are rooted in strength, muscle building or fat loss. Resistance training is a simple process of stress and adaptation - meaning, you lift weights and your body compensates by increasing muscle mass and strength. To maintain progress, you can progressively overload your body and change the stressor. Next time you feel like your workouts are getting stale, joints are barking or looking to break through a plateau - add some tempo!