Is Time Under Tension A key Ingredient Of Building Muscle? Or Should You Just Keep It Simple And Lift Heavy?
So you've found your way to this article because you've been hearing whisper of this thing called time under tension. The word around the power rack is that it's the secret to building more of that precious muscle you crave. But you have your doubts. First of all, what the fuck is it? And second, is there any actual science and theory behind it, or are we in the realms of Bro-science 101 again?
Well, you're in luck my friend. Because in this article you'll get the short, sharp lowdown on everything you need to know about time under tension.
So let me tell you what you're going to find out.
- What time under tension actually is.
- What the research says about time under tension.
- Whether or not time under tension is worth including in your training.
- How to practically apply proven and effective techniques into your training.
That's exactly what you're looking for, right?
So let's do this my friend.
What The Fuck Is Time under Tension?
A quick search on Google for the term 'time under tension' will yield a billion hits. Well, about 300,000,000 to be precise. but you get the drift.
But let's get to the broad definition and save you some time.
Time under tension (or TUT for short) refers to how many seconds your muscle is under tension during a set while lifting weights.
For example, let's say you're doing a little bench pressing. You take 1 second to lift the weight and 2 seconds to lower it. A grand total of 3 seconds per rep (yes, I'm a maths genius). Now let's assume you do 10 reps, that makes 30 seconds of time under tension.
Typically you'll see 30 to 60 seconds quoted as the magical hypertrophy sweet-spot for TUT. Any more or less and effectively you've wasted your time. Or have you?
Is It Really Time Under Tension?
Here's the thing. Simply lifting the weight doesn't equate to maximum tension. Hell, sometimes it doesn't equal ANY tension.
No doubt you've seen guys and girls in the gym launching weights off their chest and bouncing out of a squat like an Easter Bunny on acid. Basically, spending very little time under tension, despite a set lasting the magical 30-60 seconds. So can you really count this as time under tension? To me, it seems more like some time spent under tension...maybe.
And let's not forget, load drives a degree of tension too. The concepts aren't actually mutually exclusive.
Here's what I mean.
When you think about it logically, if performed at the same speed, lifting 100% of your 1RM for 1 rep creates infinitely more tension than 50% of your 1RM for 1 rep, agreed? It's simply going to take more muscular effort to shift the heavier weight.
So by now you should be building up a picture that simply counting the number of seconds per set is massive over-simplification of the process. And you and I need to delve a little deeper to get under the skin of this one.
And let's start by looking at some research. Don't worry, I'll try not to make it boring for you.
Is There Any Research Into Time Under Tension Training?
A good question. Truth is, specific studies into building a more muscular physique are limited. In fact, they pale into insignificance compared to other areas of research. And quite right too. It seems very logical to place valuable funding into cures and preventions for disease and illness as opposed to how jacked you can get.
But that doesn't help you with your quest to find out more about time under tension, right?
Thankfully, there are some studies for us to look into. Here's one.
This study took 8 untrained men and had them perform leg presses at 5 x 10RM, and comparing that to 5 x 1RM in terms of muscle growth. Indications were that the 5 x 10RM exercises were the most effective for building muscle. So a win for time under tension!
But hold on my friend, I need to add a little tension to those reigns and pull you back in for a second.
The study had its limitations
First off, these dudes were untrained. Often a problem in this type of research. Let's face it, no advanced lifter wants someone fucking with their training programme for a couple of months. Not to mention taking chunks of muscle for biopsy in the process. Seems like a shit deal if you ask me.
So the study was carried out using untrained participants with no real training experience. Now I don't know about you, but in my experience, a beginner's ability to execute an exercise effectively, is pretty hit and miss. And that's being generous.
Plus, the fact there was only 8 of them, makes broad conclusions difficult.
In addition to that, the two training protocols weren't equated for training volume. And given more training volume is a huge factor for building muscle, the conclusions you can take from the study and apply in your own training are limited.
Are there any better studies out there?
Brad Schoenfeld's lab completed a study using 17 resistance-trained men and divided the into two distinct groups. Group 1 focused on a more traditional bodybuilding-style method (3 sets of 10 reps), while Group 2 carried out a powerlifting-style (7 sets of 3 reps) routine.
Group 1, let's call them the bodybuilders, used a time under tension of c. 30-40 seconds. Group 2, let's just call them "strong as fuck" spent c.9-12 seconds of time under tension. Training was carried out 3 days a week for 8 weeks.
What were the results?
Simply put, both groups saw almost identical increases in muscle growth! A key factor in this was that training volume was matched (the limitation of the previous study). Therefore, indicating TUT isn't the be all and end all for your training.
So Is Time Under Tension A Worthless Concept?
Woah! Now hold on there skinny-britches. Now's not the time to throw the baby out with the bath water. Tension. And time spent under it still holds value in your training, in my opinion.
To make my point, we need to revisit the process of building muscle.
The main process for building muscle is progressive overload and an increase in mechanical tension, ie how hard your muscles are working. This process of progressive overload can be achieved in a number of different ways. More weight, more reps (probably a multitude of rep ranges too), and more sets being the most common.
But better execution is often overlooked in this equation. So you should be striving for a technique PB, just as much as a PB for the weight you can put on the bar.
Simply put, if you can't use the muscle you're intending to work and create tension and intent, well then you're leaving some huge gains on the gym floor. Solely focusing on load with disregard for intent and maintaining tension throughout the rep, is arguably an ineffective way to build muscle.
So here's my take on TUT.
The Iron Paradise Fitness Take On Time Under Tension
Lifting heavy weight and tension are not opposing forces that can never be married together. In fact, striving for these two concepts to be combined within your training is the ideal.
If you can lift the heaviest weight possible, while maintaining tension on the target muscle through a full range of motion, this will do wonders for your training.
So much so that the Iron Paradise Fitness principles of training are built around them.
Allow me to walk you through the L.I.F.T concept I teach in my online coaching programme, The Lean Life Method.
L.I.F.T stands for Lock It, Intent, Force, and Tension.
And before we delve into how it works, let me show you the results it delivers.
Here's Jacques. Now Jacques was a semi-professional Rugby player who came to me with the goal of building muscle and losing body fat in the run up to the new season. So over a 12 week period we worked together on doing exactly that. And the results speak for themselves.
But using the L.I.F.T principles of The Lean Life Method isn't just for the dudes. Check out Hannah's transformation. She dropped 2 dress sizes and built a leaner, stronger body using the exact principles I'm going to walk you through.
And you can see more amazing transformation, just like these, right here. Oh. And not to mention, it helped me out quite a bit too...
Not a bad result for 2 years of hard graft, even if I do say so myself.
In all seriousness though, the L.I.F.T concept of training. And when combined with personalised nutrition and 1:1 coaching, The Lean Life Method is a truly powerful and transformational programme, I'd love for you to check out.
But for now, here's your those L.I.F.T principles in more detail.
#1. Lock Your Setup In Place
Setting up correctly for an exercise is hugely important. Because if you get it wrong you're not just risking injury, you're also at risk of not building any muscle.
So take the time to make sure you're positioned to perform the exercise correctly. Is the target muscle aligned with equipment or machine you're using correctly? Clearly, I can't go through every single exercise in this article. That would just be impractical. Instead, head over to my Instagram account where you'll find useful content on exercise execution, plus a whole host of useful information. And don't be rude, say hi while you're there.
With your position locked in place you've prevented other muscle and joints taking over which could detract from the focus on the muscle you're actually trying to work. Now we move on to INTENT.
#2. What Muscle Are You Trying To Work?
When you're performing an exercise as yourself this question. "What muscle am I trying to work and do I feel it there?"
Now, this is not to be confused with, "What muscle do I feel working?" Because there's a high probability it's the wrong one. So here's a top tip for getting it right.
Think about the muscle you're trying to work. And think about how it moves. Hell, if you want to get really geeky, research what its job is. Trust me, this will help so much. For example, the job of the Pec Major (your chesticles) is to bring the arm across your chest. Once you know that, a bench press is less about lifting weight in the air, and more about bringing your bicep across your chest.
So concentrate on what you're doing. Don't think about just lifting weight. Think about the muscle and contracting it before the weight moves. It all makes a difference.
#3. Produce Force Mindfully
Ok. So this is where you do get to "lift that tin."
Despite me telling you about the importance of setup and intent, here's where that usually gets thrown out the anabolic window. But don't be THAT fool.
You're not the training equivalent of a caged baboon throwing his or her shit around. It's not about throwing as much weight around as possible and saying balls to form.
Produce force with purpose. Yes, work hard and lift as much weight as possible. But do it mindfully and make sure you're channeling your efforts to the muscle you're intending to work.
Bottom line is you want to get stronger within a given exercises. But remember, lifting mass through the air at all costs is not a sign of strength.
#4. Use The Right Tempo To Create Tension
Tempo and tension are the last pieces of the puzzle. But they're no less important for building muscle.
Your ultimate goal is to maintain tension throughout the entire rep and through a full range of motion. Let's use the lat pulldown as an example.
At the top of the movement your lats should be at full stretch. You should feel your back muscle tugging at your side. At that point you start to bring the bar down, using a controlled tempo. When at the bottom of the movement, it's time to squeeze. Contract those lats as hard as possible, even spending 1-2 seconds in that position really 'feeling it'.
After that, it's time to return to the starting position. And this is where it can get difficult.
To maintain tension through the eccentric part of the exercise, think about resisting gravity as much as possible. That weight stack wants to crash back down to Earth ASAP. But your job is to stop that from happening. Actively resist the bar for a count of 3-4 seconds. When the lat is at full stretch, start the next rep without a single nanosecond of rest.
And if you do that for a couple of sets, your lats will feel like they're going to explode.
As you become more adept at training and feeling the muscle, different tempos can be used to great effect. Don't feel like you're stuck in this time under tension, slow-ass training approach in perpetuity.
Ultimately, as with anything, experiment with the principles and apply what works for you.
The Bottom Line On Time Under Tension
Lifting incrementally heavier weights while creating and maintaining tension throughout the range of motion is the goal.
Does specifically counting the amount of seconds spent under tension truly matter? To me, it's a level of detail and nuance that's probably not worth considering for the majority of people. A focus on getting stronger while being able to truly make the target muscle work through every inch of the rep is what you should be striving for.
Sometimes this will necessitate a slow tempo. Other times it won't. And on certain occasions, for certain exercises your tempo and time spent on a given set will vary wildly.
So focus on technique and those form PBs. Then go lift some heavy ass weight.
Want A Free Training Programme And Sample The Lean Life Method?
Here's what to do next to get on the fast track to a leaner, healthier, stronger body. Simply click the link below and I'll send you my Lean Life Kickstarter Pack. In it you'll find a free 4 week beginner's training programme (complete with exercise videos and a workout tracker), a guide on calculating your calories, plus so much more.
If you want it, grab it here. It's a perfect way to practise exercise execution, wit a programme you know works.
But for now, all I'll say is... Keep living the Lean Life and I'll see you soon.