“Time under tension” is the amount of time your muscles are working during a specific set. Simply put, a set of 5 reps that takes 60 seconds to complete has a time under tension (TUT) of 60 seconds. If you did that exact same set in under 30 seconds, it would have a different TUT and it would effect your muscles differently.
Why Does Tension Matter When it Comes To Lifting?
So if you have been a reader for any period of time to my blog, you realize that I follow Pavel Tsatsouline’s (former Soviet Special Forces Instructor) school of thought on muscle tone. Mainly that muscle tone is a function of “residual tension in a relaxed muscle”. The way to increase muscle tone is to subject your muscles to high tension workouts. I recommend lower reps with a heavier weight to create this higher tension.
High Tension is Important, But Time Under Tension is Important as Well
The rate at which you perform your sets is extremely important. You will gain much more from a set if you lift at a slower rate. Instead of throwing the weights around like you see many people do in the gym, why not focus on generating maximum contractions in the muscle? The greater your ability to contract your muscles hard, the greater your ability to display muscle tone. Again…this isn’t mainstream bodybuilding advice, this is the type of stuff Pavel covers in Power to the People.
You Will Have to Use Lighter Weights in the Short Term
Here is what is interesting about lifting at a slower pace and focusing on generating maximum tension…you will start off at a lighter weight, but get stronger in the long term. The reason guys like to lift at a high speed is that you are using the “stretch” in the muscle to do some of the work for you. When you drop a weight quickly in a bench press for instance…your pecs will be stretched out a bit at the bottom of the lift. This stretch position acts like a stretched out rubber band and can help you fling the weight upward a bit before your muscles fully kick in and use the momentum to get that weight to the top.
Avoid Momentum to Generate Strong Contractions in the Muscle
The best way to avoid momentum is to lift at a slower rate. Taking our bench press example…when someone lifts quickly, they are basically throwing the weight at the beginning and they keep that weight moving with a strong push…their is a very small window of time where their muscles are contracting hard and generating tension. If you want each rep in each set to work for you, then you really need to slow down the tempo of your lifts.
Lifting at a Slow Rate Creates a Higher Time Under Tension
Obviously if it takes you twice as long to finish a set, your TUT is higher…but as discussed above, without momentum you must generate tension in the lift the entire time. The nice thing about a higher TUT is you will get better results. Another benefit is that your lifts will be much safer and easier on your joints.
How Slow Should You Go?
You want to go slow enough to avoid momentum, but not so slow that you have to lift much lighter weights. To be honest, you could stick to light weights and get good results as long as you are really focused on generating strong contractions (I’ll discuss that in a future post). Take benching…I would go 2-3 seconds down, 2-3 seconds up, with a 1 second pause at the top in between reps. This isn’t set in stone…it really depend upon the lift you are performing as well as how long your limbs are, etc.
“Going Slow” Will Eventually Make You Stronger
I mentioned before that you will have to lift lighter at first, but after a while you will surpass any previous bests by lifting in this manner. Using the pre-stretched method of flinging the weights up will only get you so far…it really depends on your tendon strength as to how strong you will get using this method. When you are focusing on getting better at creating strong contractions, you are creating a stronger mind-to-muscle link…this is the long-term technique at getting stronger as well as displaying more muscle tone in a given muscle. If you have ever seen someone lift really impressive numbers in any given lift it is always slow and controlled.
Note: Even if you chose to lift lighter weights, it makes sense to slow down the tempo. You will notice that your muscles have to work harder and you will get better results from the time you spend in the gym.