What does 21X1 mean?
When you see the Workout of the Day and it reads: A. Back squat @21X1; 5 reps x4 sets; rest 2:00, what the heck do I do? What does that all mean?
We’ll break this down piece by piece to explain what you’re seeing and why you’re doing it. The first thing you see is the actual movement. In this case, back squats. 21X1 is known as the movement tempo. The way to read this is as follows:
2- The First Number – refers to the lowering (eccentric) phase of the lift. Eccentric means the lengthening of the muscle. In the back squat, it should take you two seconds to get to the bottom of the squat. A simple ‘1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi’ is how you would count your decent.
1 - The Second Number – refers to the amount of time spent in the bottom position of the movement. In the back squat, you would pause one second in the bottom (1 Mississippi).
X - The Third Number – refers to the ascending (concentric) phase of the lift. Concentric means shortening the muscle. In the back squat, you would try to stand back up as fast as possible or exploding up from the bottom. Keep in mind, you may not be moving fast but the idea is to move as fast as possible.
1 - The Fourth Number – refers to how long you should pause at the top of the lift or between reps. In the back squat, you would stand at the top for one second or ‘1 Mississippi’ before starting the next rep.
The beauty of tempo training is we can use this for just about everything we do in the gym. All squats would follow the example listed above but you could also do tempo training with shoulder press, bench press, pull ups, bent over rows, deadlifts and even pull-ups to name a few. You just need to know where the lengthening and shortening (eccentric and concentric) pieces are in the movement and you can apply the same knowledge.
A couple key reasons as to why we would do tempo training are control, safety, and time under tension. Control covers a broad spectrum, but here, we're referring to controlling the speed of the movement. There are several reasons why we would want to control the speed. One is to protect you from crashing to the bottom of a back squat and squirming to stand back up. During this example, there’s a good chance you failed one or more points of performance of the back squat (loss of midline stabilization, loss of lumbar curve, or knees caving in). By slowing you down with a tempo, you are now able to maintain those positions in a controlled manner to safely execute the back squat.
We also control the movement so we can focus on areas of weakness. In the back squat, most people’s weakness is getting out of the hole or the bottom of the squat. By applying a tempo, we are able to effectively strengthen this weakness by lowering at a slower tempo and/or holding an isometric position at the bottom, will increase the use of muscle fiber thus building strength.
Tempo training also provides safety for athletes because they will be using a lighter load which is easier to lift. This also lessens the central nervous system hit or drain when lifting maximal load. It’s easier and safer to work in the 70-85% range varying the time under tension than constantly working in the 97-100% range. We need hits of maximal load but not regularly. Working sub maximal loads also keeps athletes fresher so they can continue training regularly.
Controlling time under tension allows us to prescribe how long an athlete will be working in a particular set. In our back squat example of ‘A. Back squat @21X1; 5 reps x4 sets; rest 2:00’, the tempo for 5 reps equals :20 of work. The athlete will then rest 2:00 before starting the next set. To complete this piece, after a comfortable warm up, it will take an athlete 7:20 to complete. From a programming perspective, this amount of time under tension is in the middle to high range for most experienced athletes. This is in the muscle building phase but also trains muscle endurance. Using tempos allows a variation in diversity, volume, and intensity of a particular lift or movement.
Hopefully this sheds some light on what you will see in programming at Bainbridge Island CrossFit. We will post more informative blog pieces with regard to our programming in the coming weeks.