Can slower reps and increasing your time under tension really help you put on muscle more quickly than lifting heavy?
There’s an age-old debate as to whether your weight size, weight volume, or the speed at which you perform your reps is the best way to grow muscle.
Although different strokes work for different folks, there has to be one way that’s more effective right?
We’re diving into the concept of time under tension. it can be a little bit confusing to wrap your head around since there are many ways that you can increase your time under tension.
What is Time Under Tension?
If you think about the time you spend working out, how much of it is really valuable input for a strong workout?
Take a bicep curl, for instance. If you’re performing the movement properly, you’ll feel tension as you curl your weights up towards your chest, some relief at the top of the movement, and then more tension as you lower your weights toward your thighs.
But if at the bottom of the movement, you brace your arms and then immediately pull them back in for another rep rather let it than letting your arms go slack and hit your thighs, you keep the muscle activated for the next rep.
This is a way to maintain more time under tension. If you let your weights go slack, or relinquish your effort, the muscle is not getting the tension that it needs to continue growing In the same capacity.
The time under tension is the total time that you spend lifting your weights during a set.
Let’s look at an example. back to the bicep curls, if you start with your weights hanging down in your arms, and then take 2 seconds to curl them upward (concentric) and 3 seconds to lower them down (eccentric), your total time under tension for that curl is 5 Seconds.
If you keep going like this for a set of 10 reps, your total time under tension for that set is 50 seconds.
Let’s say we want to extend both the concentric and the eccentric by one second. So for your upward curl, you’ll do three seconds and then take four seconds to lower your weight on the eccentric.
Your total time under tension for that curl now becomes seven seconds.
Now, you extended your total set time to 70 seconds, increasing your time under tension by 20 seconds.
If we wanted to add an isometric component to this movement too (a point in the lift where you don’t move at all), we could do that as well.
So say you lift up for 3 seconds, hold for one second, and then lower for 4 seconds. You’d now be adding an isometric hold of one second to your lift, bringing your total time under tension to 8 seconds.
Once you get into the 70-second plus time zone for a set, you’re now training in the endurance exercise range.
What Is the Benefit of More Time Under Tension?
If we’re short on time we sometimes tend to bang out our reps a bit thoughtlessly. Happens to the best of us.
But eventually, if you do this day in and day out, your form is probably going to be looking pretty sloppy.
Lifting for a time under tension and taking the time to tap into your form is a challenge. Focusing on whether every step of the lift is the cleanest it can be is significantly going to help your overall form.
Not only does this make your lifts more effective and cleaner-looking, but it’s also safer to lift with perfect form.
Especially on moves with a lot of weight, consistently lifting with poor alignment is what leads to things like repetitive strain injuries.
TUT training is a great time to hit a mental reset and be honest with yourself about whether or not your technique is good or whether you could tighten up the hinges.
Doing the same thing every day is pretty boring. You probably hate using the same old routine all the time, and guess what? Your muscles hate it too.
Yes, some moves should absolutely be staples in your workout toolkit.
Deadlifts, squats, the bench press. They’re all classics for a reason. But doing them at the same volume same weight or same speed every day gets boring
And when your brain gets bored, your body tends to tune out a little bit too. Constantly repeating the same movements (although it can help if you’re using the same exercises and measuring them for progressive overload) puts a lot of the same strain on your joints.
Performing slower reps as a time under tension technique jostles your brain a little bit and allows you to switch it up mentally. This can make your workouts feel more invigorating.
You might even be able to trick your brain into feeling like you’re performing a different activity. This is a little bit more stimulating. If your muscles are experiencing a sense of “sameness” or being stuck, this is a good way to break out of a monotonous pattern.
Less Injury Risk
Better technique means you’re less likely to hurt yourself.
Slow and steady wins the race, and if you’re moving slowly enough that every rep is perfect or pretty darned near, you’re way less likely to hit the kind of injuries you experience through thoughtlessness or sloppy lifts.
Hypertrophy vs. Strength vs. Endurance
For exercises in the strength-building range, a general rule of thumb is that time under tension should be 20 seconds or less.
For hypertrophy, a set should take about 40 seconds using the principle of time under tension. And for endurance exercises, 70 seconds is considered a benchmark.
In terms of training techniques, many people think fewer reps per set at heavier weights with less TUT constitutes a powerlifting technique. Compare this to longer time under tension and more volume percent, which is known as a bodybuilding technique.
What Techniques Can You Use to Get More Time Under Tension?
Using TUT allows your muscles to get an increased amount of mechanical stress.
Let’s look at a few ways to increase the amount of active work that your muscles get when you exercise:
When we talk about time under tension, the actual speed at which you complete your reps can be a little bit confusing to put in context. We may automatically jump to the conclusion that slow workouts equal more time that your muscles spend under mechanical stress in a more effective way than other techniques.
Doing your workouts more slowly of course puts your muscles under stress for a longer period, but it’s not the only way.
Getting a higher number of reps per set or just overall, of course, leads to your muscles spending more time under tension.
Because your muscles are at work anytime you add a rep, more reps overall equals more time spent working.
The same principle applies here as to your reps. Increasing your number of sets puts your muscles under tension for a longer time since you get a longer overall time performing an exercise.
How to Maximize Time Under Tension
Evidence shows that the eccentric portion of your movement (the part where you lower a weight and extend your muscle) is more significant to muscle growth than the concentric part of the move.
Concentric movement is exactly the opposite of eccentric, so shortening your muscle. In a bicep curl, this is the part where you bring your arm up towards your torso and bend your elbow.
Because the eccentric part of your move is more correlated with hypertrophy, it can be beneficial to spend more of your time focusing on elongating and extending your muscles if you hope to achieve growth.
Although you should always be focusing on proper form for your safety in the gym, let’s be real. Many of us get a little bit lazy during our workouts, especially when they tend to be very repetitive exercises.
If we’re working at high volume, we’re not always concerned about doing every rep with perfect form.
Time under tension training though is a great time to hit reset. If you’ve been slacking off, think a little bit more deeply about your form during your TUT training.
Not only is this a time to correct mistakes in your form, but it could also help your muscles grow bigger if you’re maximizing the time under tension through proper reps for hypertrophy.
Think about it. Maybe bad form is limiting your range of motion. In that case, you wouldn’t be getting full reps in so your muscles wouldn’t be spending as much time under tension. That’s a bit of a waste of reps not only for increasing your joint mobility and flexibility but also for increasing your hypertrophy to make gains.
Dropsets or Supersets
Dropsets or supersets can be fantastic ways to increase your time under tension because they require very little rest.
How do you add these techniques to your workout? In a dropset take a set to failure and then drop the weight by 10 to 30% before your next set. Ideally, with this technique, you should be taking no rest between sets although you can take a breath or two if you need to.
Dropsets are a great way to train to failure but use them sparingly. You shouldn’t be dropping weight in every exercise. Aim to only use a drop set once or twice a week and on one specific exercise.
Supersets work a little bit differently in that they’re a paired set technique.
That means you do one set of one exercise combined with another exercise back to back with no break. The two exercises compose one superset.
In between supersets, you can take a 30- to 90-second rest break.
Time under tension is A technique but not necessarily THE technique.
Although it can certainly get you results, no evidence suggests it’s vastly better than lifting at a quicker tempo but with heavier weights.
That being said, don’t click away from this article thinking that time under tension is useless!
If you feel stuck in your workouts or maybe have plateaued, this can be a great way to bring a little bit of excitement back into your gym days.
The more sustained movement pattern can force you to think about every rep and make each one count.
Is it a myth that time under tension is the best way to build muscle? Kind of sort of. Saying that the best way to build muscle is making each rep last longer by performing slow sustained movements isn’t the whole truth.
Remember, you can also increase your time under tension by:
- Performing more sets
- Performing more reps
- Doing exercise more times per week.
All of these are ways to increase your time under tension.
So people who say doing slow sets is the only or best way to increase hypertrophy aren’t giving you the full picture.