In this article will explain the concept of time under tension, why it’s important for building muscle mass, and how you can use it in a quick 10 minute routine at home to build strength and mass in your whole body.
The 10 minute workout:
- 60-90 seconds of squats
- 60-90 seconds of push-ups
- 60-90 seconds of planks
- Repeat until you hit 10 minutes.
The key is to maintain tension throughout the entire duration of each exercise. When you’re doing your squats you want to focus on squeezing your butt, squeezing your quads, and squeezing your hamstrings. It should feel like your legs are screwdrivers and you’re constantly trying to rotate your legs and push through the floor. Here’s a more detailed explanation for how you should be squatting.
Same with push-ups. Squeeze your pecs and your triceps and at no time during the 60-90 seconds do you release that tension. Not at the top(don’t transfer the load from your muscles onto your joints by locking out) and not at the bottom(don’t let yourself rest on the floor). Your pecs and your triceps need to be constantly squeezed the whole time.
And again same concept with the planks. Squeeze your whole body. Everything should be tense. If you’re doing it right you should be shaking.
What is time under tension and why does it matter?
Time under tension is the amount of time your muscle stays tensed under a load(barbell or your bodyweight). If you’re doing a bench press and it takes you 4 seconds to lower the barbell and 2 seconds to push the barbell back up then your total time under tension was 6 seconds. The idea of time under tension training is to increase that time. So instead of a 4 second eccentric phase you’d increase that to 8-10 seconds and increase your concentric phase to again 8-10 seconds. If you’re watching someone do this it would look like they’re lifting in slow motion.
Here’s a study from the Exercise Metabolism Research group in Ontario, Canada:
We report that leg extension exercise at 30% of the best effort (which is a load that is comparatively light), with a slow lifting movement (6 s up and 6 s down) performed to fatigue produces greater increases in rates of muscle protein synthesis than the same movement performed rapidly (1 s up and 1 s down). These results suggest that the time the muscle is under tension during exercise may be important in optimizing muscle growth; this understanding enables us to better prescribe exercise to those wishing to build bigger muscles and/or to prevent muscle loss that occurs with ageing or disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
Research studies do show that decreasing the load and increasing the time it takes for an athlete to complete a rep does seem to increase protein synthesis(muscle growth). Now how much it increases, and whether switching to a complete time under tension training method is superior – that’s all up for debate. Trainers have taken this concept of time under tension and turned it into all sorts of “fitness revolutions” that are supposed to change the way we workout and increase our results a hundred fold. I think most of this is bullshit hype to sell books. Because if lifting super light weights for 60-90 seconds was superior then all the elite athletes would be training this way. And of course elite athletes aren’t doing that. They’re lifting heavy, with high volume, following the same simple principles of periodization and progressive overload.
So with that said I still think time under tension is an important principle to understand. Especially because it can be deployed in a traditional program that has you lifting heavy with incremental increases in volume. And also time under tension is beneficial because it forces you to consciously focus on activating all of your muscle groups. Not activating the correct muscle groups was a HUGE problem that I saw when I was running my CrossFit gym. Across the board beginners were using compensatory muscles and generally performing lifts without fully activating the muscle groups that they were supposed to activate. This can lead to injury, poor mechanics, and overall less effective workouts.
For example when people squat for the first time they are almost always quad dominant. This leads them pitch forward thus putting more strain on the knees. It also means that they’re under-activating their glutes and hamstrings and not getting the full benefit of the exercise.
Alright we’re getting too into the weeds there. Let’s get back to time under tension and how you can use it to help grow bigger, stronger, faster.
We know that increasing our time under tension does tend to help muscle growth. But we don’t want to take the concept to the extreme and lift extremely light weights for insane periods of time either. Because people have tried it, and their results have sucked. Like most things in life we get the best results when we find a happy medium.
So how can we use the time under tension concept to our benefit?
- Consciously squeeze your muscles on every lift, every time. When I squat I am consciously squeezing my glutes, my core, my hamstrings, and my quads. Think about what muscles should be activated and consciously squeeze them.
- Build in high rep lifts to the end of your workouts. Take legs – my favorite leg hypertrophy workout is to do 5×5 heavy squats followed by 3 sets of 12 with lighter weight. In those 3 sets of 12 I will follow a 4-0-4 tempo. That means I lower the weight for 4 seconds, have no rest at the bottom, and immediately drive up for 4 seconds to complete the rep.
- During your hypertrophy sets(these would be your low weight, high rep sets) don’t allow tension to release after each rep. Take bench-press. Most people will tend to lock out at the top of the rep and allow their chest and triceps to momentarily relax before starting another rep. Don’t do this. Maintain tension in your pecs and triceps for the entire 8-12 reps. This will likely mean that you need to reduce the weight but that’s okay because you’ll get more benefit.
- Consider adding 1-2 super slow reps to the end of a hypertrophy set. For example if I’m doing a set of squats with 135lbs I may do 12 at a normal tempo and then finish it out with two super slow reps where I’ll take 6 seconds to drop down into the squat and another 6 seconds to come back up.
There you have it. Let me know if you have any questions.