Use Time Under Tension Training to Build Muscle Mass Faster

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December 2, 2020 Guardian-Elite Fitness
We’ve all seen it. The guy at the gym that’s lifting way too fast. Just blasting through each and every rep like it is a race to some unknown finish line. To be fair, most beginner weight lifters will do this. After you’ve been lifting and building muscle for a time, the focus shifts to form and physique. Focusing on building muscle and feeling the pull and the burn of a good rep at a challenging weight. Welcome, my friend. Now that you’re here, the next step is to add some time under tension.

We’ll give a full run-down of what time under tension is, how you can use it and why time under tension training should be your new secret weapon for building muscle mass.

  • What Is Time Under Tension?
  • Time Under Tension Vs Reps
  • Time Under Tension Training
  • Time Under Tension Chart
  • Time Under Tension Workout
  • Time Under Tension for Muscle Growth
  • Time Under Tension Exercises

What Is Time Under Tension?

Time under tension broken down is simply the amount of time that muscles are under stress or load. When performing a bench press, you lower the bar down to your chest and then back up to the starting point to complete one rep. Time under tension is the amount of time the muscle is actively engaged or resisting the weight during this one rep.

When using a time under tension technique (TUT for short) you are consciously lengthening the time it takes to lower the bar to your chest, pausing and then lifting the bar back to the starting point.

What this does is increase the amount of time that the muscle is having to hold and move the weight. As opposed to pounding out reps as quickly as possible. You can use the same weight, same amount of reps and get very different results when using this TUT technique in your lifting.

We’ll explain how long each rep should last (in seconds) for maximum muscle growth, and adding up each timed rep, what the total TUT should be for the entire set to reach your goal. Whether that goal is muscle strength, muscle growth or muscle endurance. Each will have a different optimal time under tension.

Time Under Tension Vs Reps

man performing dumbbell fly with chest under tension
When lifting free weights, using machines for isolation lifts or doing any kind of body weight exercises, we perform the exercise for a predetermined number of reps and sets. There usually is not much thought given to how long these reps should take. Normally, they only take long enough to perform the movement of whatever the exercise is.

TUT takes it a step further by lengthening the time it takes to perform each rep, causing the muscles to be under load for a longer period of time.

However, a rep is not just a rep. There are three different phases of the rep that we need to take into consideration. These three different rep phases are important when using time under tension training.

Three Different Rep Lifting Phases
Each rep is made up of three different phases listed below. These are the different forms of muscle activation that causes tension. When using TUT, you’ll use a different time and tempo for each phase of the rep. More on that later. First, we’ll explain what each tension phase actually is.

  • Concentric
  • Eccentric
  • Isometric

Concentric contraction is a shortening of the muscle. Take a dumbbell curl for example. The concentric phase would be when you lift the dumbbell toward the body and the bicep shortens and bulges to form the peak of the bicep.

Eccentric contractions are the opposite of concentric. This is because the muscle and muscle fibers are lengthening and stretching while under tension. Think of eccentric movement as the dumbbell lowering away from your body when performing a curl. The muscle is still under load, but it is stretching at the same time.

Eccentric contractions are actually the culprit for what is called delayed onset muscle soreness. If you’ve ever woke up 24-48 hours after a huge squat day and couldn’t walk, this would be delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). For more on DOMS and how to treat it, go here to see a full breakdown.

Isometric is what would be considered “neutral”. The muscle is neither lengthening or shortening. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the muscle is not under tension. Think of holding a plank, or being at the bottom of your squat before you push your body back up again.

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Time Under Tension Training

man bench pressing with chest under tension
If you’ve been convinced thus far that you need to try TUT training, then lets dig into how to perform each rep and set using a rep tempo for each rep that puts a time on each phase of the rep.

Using Tempo for Time Under Tension

Rep tempo as we describe it here, will look like this:

2/1/2 or 2/1/3

What does this mean?

This is describing the tempo of each lifting phase in seconds. For example, take the 2/1/2 tempo using a dumbbell bicep curl. That is 2 seconds lifting the weight (concentric), 1 second pause at the top (isometric) and 2 seconds lowering the weight back to the start position (eccentric).

The 2/1/3 tempo is the exact same, only the eccentric phase will last for 3 seconds.

This will give the total rep a time of 5-6 seconds each. The ideal rep range for muscle growth or muscle hypertrophy is 5-6 seconds per rep for 8-12 reps each. This is the sweet spot. At this time under tension and rep volume for each set you’ll end up at about 40 to 70 seconds for the entire set.

Ideal rep range is 5-6 seconds per rep for 8-12 reps, for a total set time of 40 to 70 seconds.

Coincidentally, ideal TUT range for hypertrophy is 40 to 70 seconds. It’s not a one-size-fits all though. Different goals use different total time under tension. See the chart below for different time under tension ranges depending on muscle strength, muscle growth and muscle endurance.

Time Under Tension Chart

time under tension chart
Time Under Tension Workout
There are no specific workouts for TUT, but instead this is more of a technique or enhancement to boost your typical workout. Before you start your workout using TUT, there are some guidelines to follow.

Cut down normal weight range by 20%

Any workout using TUT is obviously going to require more muscle contraction and microtrauma in general to the muscle with each rep. By doing this you can build more muscle, but you also won’t be able to lift quite as heavy as you normally would.

Start by reducing the weight that you would normally use by at least 20%. Sometimes you can even reduce further to 30%. Your muscles will fatigue more quickly using TUT, so dropping the weight slightly will still allow for finishing the workout.

Partial reps
What are partial reps you ask? A partial rep is important when using TUT because it helps to keep the muscle under tension as you reach the isometric phase of the rep.

What we mean by this is, say for example, you are performing a bench press. Instead of locking out your elbows at the top (isometric) part of the movement, you will only do a partial rep. This means that you never lock out but still pause for the isometric phase, keeping your muscle under tension the entire time.

By locking out during a rep, you’re taking tension off of the muscle.

Drop Sets
Drop sets are not completely necessary for TUT training, but a drop set can be an important tool when using time under tension training, or even when you’re not using time under tension training.

The idea behind drop sets is that you want to train your muscles to failure. After the initial set is completed using time under tension you might feel like your muscles are completely fatigued. Surprisingly, they are probably not 100% fatigued.

You can take this one step further using a drop set. The drop set will typically cut the weight you were using for your set in-half. You will then perform the same exercise to failure using half the weight.

The idea is to fully fatigue the muscle fibers. As a bonus, you are continuing to place load on the muscles. By using time under tension training right along side with a strategically placed drop set, the potential is there to explode muscle growth.

Time Under Tension for Muscle Growth

man holding weighted barbell with arms under tension
We’ve pretty much covered in depth how TUT with added drop sets and partial reps can maximize strength and muscle growth, but how does time under tension compare to other weight training concepts used to build muscle mass?

We’ll take a look at a few examples below to see how they compare.

Time Under Tension vs Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is at the very backbone of weight training concepts and gaining muscle. You can’t do the same thing every time you work out and expect to progress and gain new muscle. Your body will adapt to the training and progress will stop.

For those who aren’t familiar with this rock-solid training concept, progressive overload is continuously increasing workload placed on the musculoskeletal system. As our body is introduced to training stimulus, it adapts.

For muscle to continue to build, new stimulus must be introduced to progress. We’ve done a complete deep dive on what progressive overload is and how to use this principle.

Time under tension and progressive overload aren’t mutually exclusive. They actually work well with each other. Use time under tension while also using the progressive overload principle to maximize your muscle gain over time.

Time Under Tension Vs. Volume

Heavy volume during a workout might mean lighter weight and higher reps, but using time under tension you can still work at a higher volume without significantly decreasing the weight or increasing the number of reps.

Why is this?

Because 8-12 reps using TUT and a higher weight might actually take the same amount of time as a lighter weight at a higher rep. Refer back to the time under tension chart if muscle endurance is your goal and adjust your time under tension accordingly.

Time Under Tension Vs. Heavy Weight

There is merit to lifting heavy weight with lower reps. This will increase muscle gain. However, using heavy weight when also using TUT training won’t have the same effect.

You should be decreasing the weight you normally lift by at least 20% to avoid early failure, since your muscles will be under additional load from more time under tension.

Time Under Tension Exercises

man holding weighted barbell with arms under tension
Not sure what exercises to use with time under tension? As before, you can pretty much add this time under tension technique to any of the normal exercises that you do.

For the best effect though, using time under tension with weights is the best bet. Here are some of the exercises you can do using a TUT technique.

Time Under Tension Bodyweight Exercises

  • Body Squat
  • Lunge
  • Close Grip Push-Up
  • Classic Push-Up
  • Dips

Time Under Tension Leg Workout

  • Barbell Squat
  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Leg Extensions
  • Leg Press

Time Under Tension Chest Workout

  • Bench Press with Barbell or Dumbbells
  • Dumbbell Fly
  • Reverse Grip Press with Barbell or Dumbbell
  • Decline Bench Press with Barbell or Dumbbell

Time Under Tension Arm Workout

  • Dumbbell Curls
  • EZ Bar Curls
  • Triceps Extensions with Dumbbells
  • Triceps Extensions with Rope
  • Hammer Curls