How to Increase Muscular Gains: The Application of Time Under Tension
Over the past year or so, I couldn’t help but notice how small the number of guys are that lift properly while training in the gym. You’d think when you spend the time and energy to workout to improve your body and make muscular gains you’d want to execute proper form and technique to get the most from your workouts.
I mean, doesn’t everyone want the most they can possibly get from their efforts?
There are many things I’d rather be doing than hanging out at the gym, and when I workout I want to make damn sure every rep counts.
What baffles me even more is some people train month after month without noticeable improvements to their body, yet continues doing their routine with the same poor form. At some point you’d think observing how others perform the exercise they’d take notice and question their own exercise form.
In my book The 9 Principles for a Lean & Defined Body on Amazon, I devoted almost a chapter to this topic where I discuss improper exercise form being more of a male-related issue than female.
I’m sure there are a lot of guys that will be pissed off for me saying this, but it’s important to let go of the ego-thing and decrease the poundage’s until you can properly handle the weights you’re using.
No one really gives a crap the size weights you’re throwing around so you might as well get results from your efforts and start making noticeable muscular gains. To do that, you’ll need to place your muscles under increased tension.
That brings us to the topic of this article. The concept of Time Under Tension, or TUT.
TUT is a hot topic in the world of bodybuilding and fitness industry. TUT refers to the total of time a muscle is under stress (tension) during an exercise movement.
TUT is a method of calculating the total amount of work you place on a muscle.
Even though research is weak indicating proof of a “best” TUT for growth, there are a few rules that most industry professionals agree on, including me.
To give you an example exactly what is meant by TUT, let’s use the barbell squat as our example exercise.
TUT is placed into what’s referred to as a tempo structure for a specific fitness goal. Tempo is defined as; a sequence of seconds that are allotted to the rhythm at which you raise and lower a weight during a rep. To develop a particular physical quality such as strength, muscle mass or speed, tempo is changed accordingly.
The most popular tempo structure is a 4-digit tempo that was developed by Charles Poliquin, a world-renowned strength and conditioning coach. Each of the 4-digits corresponds to a specific part of the rep of the exercise movement.
Here is an example and breakdown of a tempo structure using the barbell squat:
- The first digit is (3)-Eccentric part of the movement. This is the time it takes to lower the weight to the bottom of the squat position (negative movement).
- The second digit is (1)-Pause at the bottom of the movement of the squat
- The third digit (2)-Concentric part of the movement. This is the time it takes to go back up from the bottom of the squat (positive movement).
- The fourth digit (1)-Pause at the top of the movement at fullest extension of the movement before beginning the next rep.
We can sum up our tempo example as 3-1-2-1. This means each rep you go down for 3 seconds, hold for 1 second, come back up for 2 seconds, then hold at the top for 1 second to complete one-full repetition. If your goal is to perform 8 reps, then you repeat this same thing 8 times.
Using our tempo of 3-1-2-1, we can calculate the TUT:
Multiply the total time it takes to perform one rep times the number of total reps for that set of exercise as: 7 seconds per rep x 8 reps = 56 seconds TUT
I will discuss the meaning and relevance of this number in a minute.
There is a lot of discussion about what rep range is better for strength gains vs. muscle gains, and although the number of reps, sets and rest period are important variables in workouts, TUT can be equally important even though it’s not often discussed when designing a weight training program.
This chart demonstrates how repetition ranges are associated with various training goals
The question that many lifters want to know is, “What is the best tempo structure and TUT for muscular growth?”
Although few controlled studies have been done on this subject, Polloquin and many others suggest the best TUT ranges for specific fitness goals are the following:
Strength: 4-20 seconds TUT
Muscular growth: 40-60 seconds TUT
Endurance: 70-100 seconds TUT
The basis of TUT training is focusing on sets that last for a certain period of time based on your training goals.
If you want to maximize your muscular gains, you should perform sets that target the 40-60 second range.
It’s generally accepted that the best muscular gains are achieved while lifting heavier weights with fewer reps, but only if the time it takes to complete the reps (TUT) falls within the range of TUT for muscular growth to occur.
Since my personal teachings and philosophy are aligned for gaining muscular growth and preservation in individuals over 35 years of age, I believe this is the best TUT-range to consider. My own personal research and experience over the past three-decades also support these findings.
Tempo structure should be applied to your workout routine to achieve the greatest muscular gains. The rewards out-weigh only taking into account the number of reps you’re performing for each set of exercise like the majority of individuals that lift weights do.
Here are a few of the major benefits of applying tempo:
- Increases basal metabolic rate (BMR)
- Increases hormones that contribute to muscular gains (growth hormone, testosterone)
- Reduces chance of injury due to better exercise form
- Stimulates different range of muscle fiber-types
- Improves the shape and aesthetics of the muscle (my theory, not proven)
What does all this have to do with our earlier discussion about the execution of poor exercise form during workouts?
Someone that performs an exercise with poor form greatly reduces TUT of the muscle being worked, therefore won’t achieve the muscular gains that could otherwise be achieved.
It makes no difference whether someone is lifting heavy weights and performs sets in a lower range of six repetitions when total TUT is very short. Your strength will likely increase, but muscle hypertrophy won’t be maximized.
This has been my observation for years watching guys push weights they can’t control and using poor form while not achieving significant muscular gains as a result.
Consider this example:
If someone were to perform a set of six repetitions of the bench press with a tempo structure of 1-0-2-0, the TUT would be 18 seconds which is only about 40% of the TUT that’s required for optimal muscular growth.
You might ask how I concocted the tempo numbers. If we refer back to the chart we used earlier up top, you can see what these numbers correspond to.
For the sake of easier understanding, I’ll repeat the order of the tempo numbers for our example-guy that uses poor lifting form, and what these numbers correspond to. This time let’s use the bench press as our exercise example instead of the squat.
Remember that in the following breakdown analysis, I’m critiquing an example of someone that is incorrectly performing the bench press in order to demonstrate how TUT is affected during all four parts of the rep.
Eccentric phase (1)-weight is lowered too quickly to the chest therefore effective stimulation of the muscle does not occur because of poor form.
Pause (0)-pause at the bottom of the bench is avoided because of worry about moving the weight from point A to B.
Concentric phase (2)-weight is properly pushed up to the starting position. This is the only part of the rep that’s properly executed.
Pause (0)-pause at the top of the bench press is avoided because the bar is immediately dropped again to put emphasis only on the concentric (positive part of movement) phase of the movement.
My example may seem extreme or exaggerated, but it’s not uncommon to see, even amongst avid lifters in the gym that should know better than to lift with such poor form while cheating their body of making optimal muscular gains.
Tempo and TUT deliver a much greater stimulus to the muscle and help you focus on controlling the weights so you lift with proper form. Even though your poundage’s will decrease a bit, I believe the muscular gains you’ll achieve will significantly increase due to adjustments in TUT and improvements made to exercise form and technique.
Hopefully I haven’t confused you too much and you have better understanding about the concept of placing your muscles under tension and how that contributes to increased muscular gains.
I believe it’s important to put principles you learn into practice so the information you’re getting serves to improve your workouts and overall health.
Here is a summary of how you can start applying TUT and tempo structure to your future workouts:
- Since the majority of my followers workout to increase muscle, use a tempo structure of 3-1-2-1. This will ensure maximum growth.
- Choose a weight for each exercise performed so that tempo can be adhered to for the desired number of reps. With most sets, you’ll stay in the 6-10 rep range. The goal is to perform each rep so that it takes you 7 seconds to complete, each set will take a total time of between 42-70 seconds. Recalling that optimal muscular growth TUT is 40-60 seconds, our goals will be met.
Here’s how it looks when you break it down:
3-1-2-1 = 7 seconds x 6-10 reps = 42-70 seconds TUT
- Pay attention to your form at all times. Applying your tempo structure and TUT goals will all but ensure that good form is executed. Expect your poundage’s to drop quite a bit if you were used to using poor form.
If you don’t know how to perform the movement correctly, search YouTube for the specific exercise. If you don’t know the name of the exercise, check my blog in the tutorial section for the proper name here:
There’s no reason to make this more complicated than it really is. The reality of implementing this practice is you’ll end up performing “text-book-perfect” movements. As a result of executing great form, your TUT conveniently falls within the range that maximizes muscular gains and achieves our goals.
There’s one last issue that I didn’t address which I know many of you will want to know which is “how do you accurately time your reps without using a clock or meter?”
Simply use the old-fashioned, low tech method of counting, one one-thousand, two one-thousand, etc. But personally, I don’t count because if you move the weight through the full-range of motion, and pause at the top and bottom, you only need to concern yourself with the negative and positive parts of the movement.
So for example, doing the bench press you would lower the bar for a count of three (the negative part) and press the weight back up for a count of two (the positive part). The pause at the top and the bottom will fulfill the one second requirement and that’s it.
After a couple weeks of training, your tempo will become automatic and you won’t have to continue counting. It will become second nature.
If you still prefer to impress others by throwing heavier weight around, then there’s no reason to consider this discussion
But, if you’d rather develop an aesthetically-pleasing body with increased lean muscle, I think you’ll be happy with your results using these techniques.
Your chances of losing belly fat and achieving a set of six-pack abs will also increase dramatically by applying the principle of TUT to your workouts.
How? By stimulating muscle fibers more effectively you’ll increase the release of fat-burning hormones associated with muscle growth while increasing your BMR 24/7. Of course this also requires eating proper foods to help you decrease body fat levels. That is a topic for another article though.
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Send me an Email if you have any questions! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’ll see you at the gym.
Philip J. Hoffman MS, MBA
Certified Sports Nutrition
Certified Fitness Trainer
Expert Fat Loss Coach
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