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Why we use tempo and progressive overload.

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“Constantly varied functional movement at high intensity” is a key phrase within the CrossFit philosophy of fitness. It’s exciting to think about a training plan that offers lots of variance. If you have exercise ADD the premise of never getting bored by doing random workouts must be appealing. However what is the solution when you hit training plateaus? Is it more randomness? Do you need to just go harder at your random workouts? No.

At GW Performance, whether you’re in a group class for CrossFit or completing a customised training plan, you will notice two things in your strength and power components: tempo prescriptions and consistency in prescription of movements. There is nothing random about what we do and planned variety helps athletes continue to improve and bust through plateaus!


I’ve been exposed to tempo training from my time working with different weightlifting coaches, in my coaching education from well known strength coaches like King & Poliquin and other excellent CrossFit programs like Invictus and OPEX.

CJ Martin, head coach and owner of CrossFit Invictus, says:

“Tempo training is important at all stages of an athlete’s development – from beginners who simply want to learn to lift weights and shed a few pounds to Olympic calibre athletes of all disciplines”

Why is it important to prescribe tempo? Not only does it give the sets x reps context but also helps improve movement quality and therefore reduces risk of injury. Instead of going at a kamikaze speed under your back squat, when we slow it down to 3111 an athlete can feel what is working vs what isn’t – helping correct technique and body awareness. The tempo prescribed dictates the type of training phase you are completing: a slower tempo places emphasis is on technique, stability and hypertrophy: faster tempos emphasise the strength, power and neural components .

Martin continues:

“(By prescribing tempo), it allows us to shore up weak links by overloading certain areas of movements.  For example, how many of you feel more comfortable with your second and third deadlift reps than your first?  I am guessing a lot, and it’s because you are using the benefit of either or both the elastic “bounce” of your stretch-shortening cycle or your rubber plates hitting the hard floor”

Progressive overload

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. Using progressive overload in strength training is simple: gradually add stress to the body by adding weight or adding volume. At some point your tendons & ligaments will no longer be able to handle the load and you plateau as they take time to adapt (more so than muscle).

How do we continue to improve then? We get creative by varying the main lifts (i.e. we don’t back squat 52 weeks a year), accessory lifts (i.e. isolate different weak points) and tempo! Over time this leads to greater gains and constant progress.

Here are three ways we vary strength training for long-term progress

  • Lengthen the eccentric phase: add 3 seconds to the descent. Initially someone who has never used tempo training before will be surprised at how difficult this is!
  • Progress volume load, not just volume: adding sets over a few weeks is a great way to increase total tonnage without adding reps per set. For example:
    • Week 1: 5×5 @ 30X0
    • Week 2: 6×5 @ 30X0
    • Week 3: 7×5 @ 30X0
  • Hypertrophy, strength, peak – block periodisation. Give your body time to adapt to the goal and program the sets, reps and tempo accordingly!