Updated: May 16, 2022
If you're currently training in the gym, and haven't seen too much progress or have seem to hit a plateau, it might be time to look to switch things up a little.
Your body may have adapted to the stress that you're placing it under, and you need a way to shake things up and give it a new challenge.
One (very effective!) way that you could do this would be incorporating specific time under tension (TUT) cues into your training.
By this, we mean playing around with your rep speeds to increase the total time that your muscles spend moving the weight and under stress.
You'll see many professional bodybuilders and weightlifters incorporating these techniques into many of their exercises within a given workout, if not all of them.
This is for good reason. It's because it works extremely effectively. In this post, I'll be going over exactly what time under tension is, looking into some of the science behind it and looking at how you can incorporate this training technique into your program. Let's get to it!
What is Time Under Tension?
Time under tension is the total amount of time that your muscles spend under stress. For different tempos and rep ranges, the time under tension for a given set will vary.
Generally, time under tension is proportionate to weight used and reps performed. By this we mean that if you increase the time under tension for a set, you'll either be able to use less weight for that set, or perform less reps. Likewise, if you decreased the time under tension, you'd find that you could either use more weight, do more reps, or both.
For example: many people do 3 sets of 10 reps on an exercise. Let's say that you can do a set of 10 reps at near maximal effort on the barbell bench press with 60kg or 135lb. However, your tempo for this is: 1 second on the way down, no pause at the bottom (bouncing the bar off your chest), and 1 second on the way back up.
This means that the total time for your muscles spent under tension per rep is about 2 seconds.
This makes the total time under tension for a set somewhere around 20 seconds, depending on how accurate you are and taking into account a decrease in bar speed as the reps start to get harder and harder.
Now let's say that you were to slow it down by purposely taking 3 seconds on the way down, pausing at the bottom for a second, and then pressing back up in one second as well.
Now, the total time under tension for your muscles is 5 seconds per rep, as opposed to 2 seconds in the previous example. This now makes the total time under tension throughout the set somewhere around 50 seconds, provided you're sticking with 10 reps.
However, we guarantee that you'd be able to either perform less reps (you wouldn't hit 10 reps again if you were training hard), or use less weight (you'd have to drop the weight in order to reach 10 reps again). You can go and try this for yourself the next time you bench press! It also works with the squat, the bicep curl, and pretty much any other exercise.
As you can see, playing around with the time under tension can create a very different challenge and stimulus for your muscles, even if you're using the same set and rep scheme on the same exercise.
It's important for you to understand how time under tension works, as it is a very effective way of shaking things up and ca be a great way to boost gains.
Why is Time Under Tension Important?
It's important to understand the concept of TUT as it can come in quite handy at times, and can sometimes be the only logical way to keep making gains, even when there are other factors limiting our ability to do so.
For example, we all saw the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Many of us were stuck training at home for very long periods of time, with little to no equipment available.
Many of us were stuck doing push ups, bodyweight squats and other basic bodyweight movements, and we were lucky to even have a pair of dumbbells lying around that were remotely heavy.
For stronger trainees out there who could bang out 30+ push ups in a set, or 60+ bodyweight squats in a set, these workouts became extremely long and boring, and it was hard to stay committed to these sessions.
Plus, we were more so training muscular endurance over muscle growth. The reps that we were doing weren't fully optimal for out goals either.
This is where time under tension comes into play. Aside from finding tougher variations such as the archer push up or the pistol squat, a great way to apply an extra challenge and stimulus for growth was by slowing down the reps, to place our muscles under stress for longer.
By purposely slowing down our push ups and pull ups, we were able to make each individual rep that much harder, and continue to make new gains, even when we were doing the same exercise with the exact same weight.
If you haven't tried them before, try to slow down to the negative portion of your push ups to 3-4 seconds, and explode back up! You'll feel a burn in your chest that regular push ups had never been able to provide you with before.
However, playing around with TUT is not only handy when we're working with limited equipment. It can and should be played around with in the gym as well. You'll see many bodybuilders and advanced lifters purposely slowing down their reps to engage more motor units, which will in turn create more muscle damage and ultimately growth.
Simply going through the motions is not enough, You need to be doing your reps with purpose and careful technique. Try to actually feel the muscles working.
Doing this will allow you to boost your gains, keep things fresh, and keep you motivated to work hard.
Here's a video by Bodybuilding.com of IFBB Pro Jason Poston emphasizing the importance of time under tension for your tricep isolation exercises!
The Science Behind It
This isn't just us speaking from experience. There is science that supports this idea of playing around with time under tension in order to bring about new gains.
For example, this study conducted by Paulo Eduardo Pereira and colleagues concluded that: "Controlling the eccentric portion of the rep seems to lead to greater muscle and strength gains."
This supports the idea of not just going through the motions in a fast tempo, but instead purposely slowing the reps down to feel the muscles working, and ensure that we're really giving them a chance to do the work.
Another study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld concluded that: "From a practical standpoint it would seem that a fairly wide range of repetition durations can be employed if the primary goal is to maximize muscle growth."
From these two studies, it can be understood that incorporating time under tension techniques can have a good impact on your ability to stimulate muscle growth, and is a great way to create a different stimulus and challenge.
However, it is important that you do not make the mistake of using too much time under tension. You see, while it is a good idea to control the weight on the eccentric (lengthening phase) of an exercise, you should not purposely slow down the concentric portion of a lift. Ensure that the weight is controlled and you are not cheating your reps, but that is it.
This study conducted by Juan José González-Badillo looking into the effect of slowing down the concentric portion of a lift found that: "BP [Bench press] strength gains can be maximised when repetitions are performed at maximal intended velocity."
Other popular fitness influencers such as JPG Coaching and Jeremy Ethier have supported this idea as well.
The idea is that pressing the weight up with as much force as possible (keeping control) recruits the most motor units and muscle fibers, which will in turn lead to the most muscle damage and ultimately more muscular hypertrophy.
If you purposely slow down the concentric portions of your lifts, you're limiting your own gains, and creating unnecessary fatigue that's not driving any extra growth.
A study conducted by Mark D Schuenke and colleagues compared differences in muscle gain between using a 10s concentric and 4s eccentric and a 1-2s tempo for both the concentric and eccentric portions of various lower body exercises such as the leg press and squat.
The study found that the slow tempo group (10s concentric) resulted in an 11% increase of muscle size, whereas the faster tempo group (1-2s concentric) increased their muscle size by 36%.
While this is quite an exaggerated example, it does suggest that purposely slowing down the concentric portion of a lift with too much control will drastically reduce your gains, and that you'd be better off performing the exercises with as much force as possible on the contracting portion of the lift.
So How Do You Incorporate Time Under Tension?
The best tip for you would be to do the following: always ensure that you are controlling the eccentric (lengthening) portion of the lift, and not just letting gravity do the work for you. You need to ensure that your muscles are actively resisting the weight.
For example: do not simply let the bar drop to your chest on a bench press. Think about 'rowing' the bar down, actively resisting the weight. And don't let the bar drop down during a bicep curl. Resist the weight and feel your biceps working hard.
You also need to ensure that you are keeping the weight controlled, but moving it with as much force as possible during the concentric portion of a lift.
The only exceptions for be certain exercises where you have to go slow, to ensure that you're not engaging the wrong muscles. Otherwise, for most people, you're limiting your gains by slowing down the concentric portion of your lifts.
Let's take the bench press for example again. Don't slow down the bar speed on the way back up. Press it back up with as much force as possible, provided you're able to keep your body and the weight in control.
Ideally, most, if not all of your exercises should be done with specific TUT cues. Exceptions could include going beyond failure on your final set, and cheating the reps a little to help your muscles get the weight up and take them past their limits.
If you use these tips in your training, you're on your way to making great gains, and boosting the rate that you progress in the gym if you hadn't already been utilizing TUT in this way.
Continue to lift in all your different rep ranges, and continue to play around with the time under tension. Take your sets close to failure (within 1-3 reps), and you'll be well on your way to reaching the body of your dreams!
To sum it up, time under tension is a great training technique that you should definitely grasp the concept of, and look to incorporate into your training. It will help you boost your gains and can come in extremely handy when you find yourself working with limited equipment, which we all will at some point in our lives.
It's important that you incorporate TUT techniques correctly, as failure to do so can not only waste your energy, but create negative returns for your hard work as well.
There's lots of science behind time under tension, and it's up to you to incorporate it correctly into your program and take advantage of this amazing training technique.
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