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Time under tension (TUT) is a very important, and often underrated, concept for hypertrophy gains. While heavy weight, total volume, rep cadence, and more are all significant when it comes to putting on muscle mass, many erroneously neglect to consider time under tension as a part of their overall strategy. This article will look at TUT, why it’s important, and how you should considering applying in your workouts.
Time under tension is a very simple concept. It’s simply just the length of time in which a muscle is under load during a set of an exercise. However, one could extrapolate out further to consider total TUT for an entire workout.
Time under tension is important because when it’s being applied, you’re generally talking about slower, more quality reps that can be directly attributable to building muscle. For example, exercises rooted in developing maximum explosive power (e.g. – snatch, box jump) should have as little TUT as possible. This is because the goal is to get from “point A” to “point B” as quickly as you can.
Conversely, when you’re moving more slowly, you’re eliminating any benefits derived from momentum or inertia. This means it’s only the muscle that’s responsible for moving the weight rather than cheating. This is going to lead to more muscle fibers being stimulated, and in turn, said fibers being built larger.
At the same time, if you’re keeping your form on point, you know you’re not cheating by using surrounding body parts to help because the weight is too heavy. For example, if you were doing slower lateral raises, you should feel the burn in the lateral head of your deltoids. If you’re feeling it in your traps, biceps, or even forearms, you know the weight is too heavy and you’re not using the appropriate muscle.
How (and how much) you decide to use TUT really depends on what sort of workout program you use and why. There is an entire offshoot of HIT (High Intensity Training – the one all-out set to momentary muscular failure originated by Arthur Jones) called “SuperSlow” that’s dedicated to maximum time spent under muscular tension.
This type of program would have you doing only 2-5 exercises per (usually) full-body workout. You’d do one set each, with the lifting portion of each rep taking 30 seconds, and the negative taking 30-60 seconds. You’d do one set per exercise, going until muscular failure. Your minimum is 2 reps, and increase the weight once you hit 4 reps. This would mean a single set could take as long as six minutes to complete.
Many trainees aren’t quite ready to go “all in” with this style of training as it’s very demanding, can be tough on the CNS, and can be limited in the scope of development. A much better and more doable approach would be to monitor how long your muscles are under tension during your secondary compound and isolation movements in a strength-based hypertrophy workout.
For instance, say you’re training chest. Your first exercise could be a bench press variation for sets of 6-8 reps, focusing on a mix of strength and hypertrophy. After that, you might do dumbbell incline press for sets of 8-10 reps. A decent rep speed for these would be 2-3 seconds up, followed by 2-3 seconds down. Keep maximum tension on the muscle by never locking out and by pausing for a moment at the bottom of each rep.
This would mean a “standard” rep should last you anywhere from 5-7 seconds. Extend that over 8-10 reps, and your sets should last roughly 40-70 seconds. Then you just keep an eye on how long your sets take you on average, comparing that to how many reps you’re doing. Meaning if you’re in the 40-50 seconds range, you should be nearer to 8 reps. If you’re doing 10 reps, you should be up around 60-70 seconds.
This is important because if you’re in the 40-50 seconds range, but are doing 10 reps, then you’re moving too fast, not putting enough tension on the muscle possibly using surrounding body parts when you shouldn’t, and in the end, short-circuiting your hypertrophy efforts. On the flip side, if you’re up around 60-70 seconds while only doing 8 reps, you know you’re moving too slow and could produce greater tension on the muscle by increasing the weight.
After your dumbbell incline press, you could finish off with cable crossovers or dumbbell flies performed in the same fashion. The time being on point plus the isolation nature of the exercise should have you feeling it only in the chest. If you do, you know you’re doing it right and are on the way to building more muscle.
Time under tension certainly isn’t the only characteristic you should worry about in your muscle building workouts. However, it is one that when applied properly can ensure you’re targeting the muscle with better quality reps done with near perfect form.