Mini Study Results: Percentage-Based Progression Beats Tempo for Strength, No Difference Between Interval and Negative Pull Up Progressions, More Work Needed on Aerobic Base Development


By Rob Shaul, Founder


A standard, percentage-based strength progression outperformed a Tempo-based progression to increase back squat strength, but bench press strength improvements were the same. Interval-based, concentric pull up and negative pull ups resulted in similar max rep pull up gains. Three weeks of 3 day/week, aerobic-base running resulted in unconclusive results for aerobic-base assessment improvement.

Background and Study Design

This Mini Study asked three questions:

  1. Does Tempo Strength beat standard Percentage-based progression to increase 1RM strength?
  2. Do Negative Pull Ups beat regular pull ups to increase max rep pull ups?
  3. Can we increase aerobic-base with 4 weeks of 3x day/week of slow running?

(1) Tempo strength training dictates the time the athlete spends at the top of the lift, on the drop to the bottom, on the bottom, and on the way back up.

A common Tempo strength protocol used is “3/1/X/1” which means …

  • 3 second eccentric drop
  • 1 second isometric pause at bottom
  • Explosive concentric lift up
  • 1 second pause at top

A portion of this mini-study tested a Tempo-based strength progression against MTI’s “Rat 6” progression, which is a traditional percentage-based progression base on a 1RM (1 repetition maximum) assessment. The Rat 6 progression does not dictate barbell speed or pauses for the athlete.  To exercises were assessed – back squat and bench press.

(2) “Negative” pull ups are eccentric pull ups – where the athlete jumps to get his chin above the pull up bar, then slowly lowers himself back down to full elbow extension. Anecdotally, I’ve found negative pull ups better than using bands to help athletes get their first pull up, but I’ve never studied their effectiveness to increase max rep pull ups in fit athletes.

(3) “Aerobic Base” is a very important fitness element for endurance performance, however, there is no set assessment, standard or definition in the endurance coaching world of exactly when an athlete has achieved an acceptible level of mode-specific aerobic base in a training program. So I developed one  – MTI’s Aerobic Base Assessment – which can be completed for any endurance training mode where the athlete can monitor his heart rate. For all the prescribed running in this study, the lab rats used a heart rate monitor and were instructec not to run any faster than 180-Age … so a 40 year old athlete could complete the prescribed running no faster than 180-40 or 140 heart rate beats per minute.

Twelve remote, paid, experienced MTI lab rats were randomly chosen and placed into a Rat 6 / Interval Pull Up and Tempo Strength / Negative Pull Up groups. Both groups completed the same aerobic base training during this 3-week cycle. Here was the weekly schedule:

  • Monday: Bench Press, Back Squat, Pull Ups
  • Tuesday: 45-60 Minute Easy Run (Aerobic Base Run)
  • Wednesday: Bench Press, Back Squat, Pull Ups
  • Thursday: 45-60 Minute Easy Run (Aerobic Base Run)
  • Friday: Bench Press, Back Squat, Pull Ups
  • Saturday: 60-90 Minute Easy Run (Aerobic Base Run)

Day 1 of the Mini Study cycle was a 1RM Back Squat, 1RM Bench Press and Max Rep Pull Up assessment. Day 2 was the 60-minute MTI Aerobic Base Assessessment.

After four weeks of programming, all Groups re-took the total body strength assessment and results were compared.

Results & Discussion

See results below:

Note on the Tempo Progression: Lab Rats used the “3/1/X/1” Tempo cadence for this study, but unlike the Rat 6 group, their specific loading was not based their individual 1RM assessments. This is because we were unsure of what percentage-based load would be managabile for a tempo format. Instead, each strength session, the athletes worked rapidly up to their “hard but doable” tempo load over 8 sets. Here is an example:

8 Rounds
5x Back Squat at a 3/1/X/1 Tempo, – increase load each round until 5x is hard, but doable. Work up rapidly, and aim to reach your “hard but doable load” by round 4, and complete rounds 4-7 at your “hard but doable” load.

However, the reps per round were progressed over the course of the cycle.

  • Week 1: 5x Reps/Round
  • Week 2: 4x Reps/Round
  • Week 3: 3 Reps/Round

Fewer reps per round should have resulted in more load being used as they cycle progresses.

Note on the Negative Pull Up Progression: Unlike the Interval Pull Up Group, specific reps per set based on the individual athlete’s max rep pull up assessment was not used to dictate reps. Instead, reps were prescribed and athletes were instructed to wear a backpack and add weight to increase difficultly. Here is an example:

6 Rounds, Every 90 Seconds
2x Negative Pull Ups – Increase Load Each Round until 2x is Hard, but Doable
Wear a backpack and use dumbbells/iron plates for load.

For this mini study, the standard percentage-based strength progression based on 1RM outperformed the Tempo progression for Back Squat 1RM improvement by about 2%. However, the differnces in Bench Press improvement (4.99% vs 4.35%) was negligible. Also negligible was the max rep pull up assessment change between MTI’s proven percentage-based interval progression and negative pull ups.

Does this prove that tempo-strength training and negative pull ups aren’t effective? No … however, based on this mini-study, they were less or no more effective than more simple and direct percentage-based progressions.

The aerobic-base run assessment results were inconclusive, with some athletes actually having a worse performance on their re-assessment. However, weather had a factor for some of the lab rats.

Next Steps

Over nearly two decades of strength and condioning programming, rarely have I found that simpler is not better, and this mini-study’s results seem to continue this finding.

However, to make the comparison better, we could have completed two 1RM assessments for the Tempo strength group. First – the standard 1RM assessment, and second, a “3/1/X/1” Tempo 1RM assessment. That way we could prescribe a specific percentage-based load for each set instead of deferring to the “hard but doable” method. This approach would perhaps have pushed the athletes more and increased the final 1RM assessment loads.

As well, we could have tested and developed a negative pull up progression at bodyweight (no extra load) based on their max rep pull up assessment. I’m not exactly sure how we could have done this, but with testing would be able to develop the protocol.

Both these steps add complication, though, which often brings with it opportunities for mistakes. I doubt I’ll return often to Tempo Strength training, but may work on a perctage-based negative pull up progression.

Concerning aerobic base run improvement, there is much work to be done in this space. The ultimate goal is to clearly identify an aerobic base assessment, poor, average and excellent assessment results, and the most efficient programming methodology for improvement.

One confounding element of aerobic based programming is that the level of aerobic base required likely differes with event duration. So … it’s likely a runner completing a 100-mile ultra would need a higher level of running-specific aerobic base than a runner completing a half marathon.

More work to do …

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