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Building Muscle

Time Under Tension: Benefits, Uses, Safety, and More

If you’ve spent your fair share of time lifting weights, you’re probably already aware of how frustrating it can be to hit a plateau, where no matter what you do, it just seems impossible to build size and strength.

However, by incorporating the principles of time under tension in your training, it's not only possible to start building more muscle, but you can also start avoiding those pesky plateaus altogether.  

From how exactly you can benefit from it to how to incorporate it safely and effectively into your routine, here’s everything you need to know about the concept of time under tension.  

What is Time Under Tension?

The term “time under tension” (TUT) refers to how long a particular muscle group is held under tension throughout a single set on a given exercise.  With a TUT-oriented workout, you’re going to be focused on increasing the time it takes you to perform a set by lengthening the phases of the movement.  

Resistance exercises have 2 phases; every movement has both an eccentric and concentric portion.  The eccentric phase is where you have to resist gravity as you lower the weight down closer to the ground – think of lowering yourself into the squat position.  

The concentric phase, on the other hand, is where your body has to overcome gravity in order to lift the load.  In the squat, for example, it happens when you stand up and lift the weight further away from the floor.  

The eccentric portion of the motion is where you’ll be adding most of the extra time into the movement with TUT training.  For instance, going back to our squat example, instead of getting down into the squat position and standing back up as quickly as possible, you’ll be taking 2, 3, or even 4 seconds to get down into position before standing back up in a slow and controlled manner.  

By slowing the movement down and increasing your time under tension, you place more strain on the targeted muscles, forcing them to work harder, which in turn can lead to positive adaptations over time.  

What Are The Benefits of TUT Training?

The primary benefit associated with increasing time under tension is that it may help you to maximize hypertrophy – AKA muscle growth.  

Muscle growth ultimately occurs when your muscles are challenged to work outside of their comfort zone.  A really demanding workout can actually cause microscopic damage to your muscle tissues, which must then ultimately be repaired by your body.  

In simple terms, the more muscle tissues you’re able to tear up with your workout, the greater your muscle-building potential will be.  That’s because when you cause microscopic damage to your muscles, your body’s inclination is to go in and rebuild those muscles to be better suited to handle the demands of your workout – over time, that means growing bigger and stronger.

Slowing down your reps and increasing your time under tension in each set is a tried and true way to up the demands of an exercise, which in turn, can help to create the necessary conditions for muscle damage – and ultimately growth – to occur.  

So, instead of burning through as many reps as you can in 30 seconds, for example, focusing on extending the time it takes to perform the eccentric portion of the movement can help to improve your muscle-building potential.  

For example, one recent study found that compared to those performing the bench press in traditional fashion, individuals who added 2 seconds to the eccentric portion of the movement saw increases in both muscle activation and blood lactate response, leading the researchers to conclude that increasing time under tension can be an effective way to increase the effectiveness of your workout.

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How to Use Time Under Tension Safely and Effectively

In order to reap the full benefits of adding TUT training into your routine, there are some things you’ll need to take into consideration. From maintaining good form to prioritizing your recovery here’s how to use time under tension safely and effectively.  

Good Form is Essential

When it comes to getting the best results, and staying safe while you’re doing it, good form is essential.  Ultimately that means selecting a weight you’re able to lift correctly each and every rep you perform on a given exercise

First, in order to maximally target and stimulate the muscles you’re going after, you’ll need to be working with a weight you can control throughout both phases of the movements – a slow pace on the eccentric portion of the movement, in particular, is something you’ll need to take into account when selecting an appropriate weight. 

On top of allowing you to slow down the pace and ramp up the demands on your muscles, selecting the right amount of weight will also help to protect you from musculoskeletal injury.  At the end of the day, while you want to be challenging yourself with TUT training, pushing yourself too far outside of your comfort zone is an easy way to get yourself injured.  

Use Drop Sets

As we’ve already discussed, increasing time under tension ultimately makes an exercise more difficult, which in turn, can make it harder to get those final few reps in, especially when trying to maintain good form.  

However, drop sets can help you to safely and effectively push on through your TUT training, keeping the intensity level high while still getting in the kind of training volume you need for muscle growth to occur.  

So instead of ending a set early when you’re not able to perform those last couple of slow and controlled reps, reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting by somewhere between 10 - 30% and jump right back on the exercise until you’re set is complete – you should be able to squeak out those last few reps with good and you’ll be further increasing your time under tension.  

Prioritize Recovery

On top of maintaining good form and using drop sets to your advantage, prioritizing your recovery is also important when it comes to using TUT training safely and effectively.  

In terms of maximizing your muscle-building potential, what you do outside of the gym can be just as important as your workout itself.   Sure, increasing time under tension can help to make your workout more challenging, but to actually respond to your training, there are certain things your muscles need.  

First and foremost, your muscles need plenty of protein coming in through your diet in the hours and days following an intense workout like TUT training.  That’s because as we’ve already discussed, intense workouts cause damage to your muscle tissues and your body ultimately relies on the protein coming in through your diet to make repairs.  Without enough protein, it will be very difficult to build any size and strength at all.

For the best results, most bodybuilders shoot to consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day to support and encourage muscle growth.  So for example, if you weigh 185 pounds, your goal would be to consume at least 185 g of protein per day.

On top of eating plenty of protein, you also want to give your muscles plenty of time to rest after TUT training.  Especially when you’re first starting out with it, you probably don’t want to do more than 1 session of TUT training per muscle group each week, and ideally, you’ll want to split up those training sessions across 3 - 5 days. 

While it can be easy to think that doing more than that can lead to better results, in reality, it can lead to non-functional overreaching.  When you’re muscles aren’t able to properly recover from your training, it can lead to decreases in performance, stunted progress, and even injury.

Wrap Up

The term “time under tension” refers to how much time a specific group of muscles is held under tension during a set of an exercise.  With TUT training the goal is to increase the duration of time your muscles are working by lengthening the phases of the movement – particularly the eccentric phase.

The main benefit to increasing time under tension is more muscle growth.  Increasing time under tension can help to create more muscle damage, which in turn, can ultimately help to create the necessary conditions for muscle growth to occur.  

In order to do incorporate time under tension training safely and effectively into your routine, good form is essential.  Drops sets are a tried and true way to maintain good form on those final few reps, where the original weight you were working with may become to much to maintain your form.  

Finally, prioritizing your recovery is also essential.  You’ll need to be taking in plenty of protein to fuel the muscle growth process and you’ll also need to be giving your muscles plenty of time to recover following an intense TUT training session. 

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