Why “Time Under Tension” Is Important When It Comes To Muscle Tone

November 3, 2007

“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.

Time Under Tension


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.

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Rusty Moore

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Remon van der Pol November 4, 2007 at 1:43 pm

Again, a very nice post! I always had the urge to do quite a few of my sets quickly to “get it over with”, LOL. I noticed the momentum feeling that you described too, but I didn’t forced myself to do it more slowly though. I guess that it would have brought me better results in the end, but i’m focussing on cardio alone right now so i’m not lifting weights at the moment :)

Bill November 4, 2007 at 3:01 pm

great site and post! Remon, why aren’t you doing weights right now? And a question for all– I guess I have too much muscle right now. Should I just stop doing weights and focus on cardio until I’m happy with my size, or do I do the weight program rusty suggests? I’m concerned I”ll grow or maintain even on that, since I’ve grown pretty well in the past on High Intensity Routine’s of even just one hard set done once a week…. thanks!

Jonneh November 4, 2007 at 6:30 pm

I have to admit, sadly – I have used momentum to my advantage countless times when I work out – especially if no one is around to see…haha! In fact, I sort of just do it…my mind doesn’t think about it, because I’ve created a habit out of doing it, so that means I’ll need to work extra hard to try and cut that bad habit out of my routine. I’m not saying I fling the weight around ruthlessly, but I do use momentum and I need to stop that. Thanks for the reminder and heads up! I’m basically just cheating myself, in a way.

Also… “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).” — I’ll be looking forward to that post. :]

admin November 4, 2007 at 6:35 pm

Bill,

Reduce muscle on purpose? You are going to get me in trouble with “the bodybuilding police” again…LOL! You sound like you are just naturally a bigger guy, so this doesn’t sound like excessive muscle.

If you do want to slim down a bit, I wouldn’t recommend the traditional HIT routine of Mike Mentzer. You are still training to failure and that will definitely stimulate muscle growth. Trian more like an olympic athlete that has to stay within a certain weight class…lots of cardio and a lower volume of lifting with heavier weights without training to failure.

Hope that helps,

Rusty

Mark McCullagh November 9, 2007 at 8:54 pm

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when lifting weights is performing the movements too quickly. Especially the negative part of the movement.

Other mistakes that go hand-in-glove are using too much weight, too little weight, and improper form and focus.

Good advice on this Rusty: use a light weight until you learn how to perform the movement properly.

Use a weight that you can handle in perfect form, concentrate and focus on the muscle group being trained, and keep trying to “one-up” your previous workout.

The way I always looked at it: I’m there to train my muscles, not my ego. Some dude may be benching 365, but he doesn’t look as good as me with his shirt off (what did I say about ego??)

admin November 10, 2007 at 12:44 am

Mark,

Your comments are always appreciated. Like me, you’ve been working out for 20+ years and always have great stuff to add to the articles.

Hopefully you guys keep your shirts on in the gym (of course you do)…but I ran into a weirdo one time that wanted to have a “flex-off” with me. I told him that I don’t pose…and think it is retarded unless someone plans to compete in bodybuilding. He was the same dude that stunk bad and told me that “sweat is a natural shower”, when I told him he smelled.

Funny stuff!

Rusty

Mark McCullagh November 10, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Rusty,

I remember reading about a real hardcore gym in the States that strictly FORBID anyone to wear a tank top unless they had 17″ or 18″ arms (I forget which one it was).

I thought that was pretty funny, and pretty cool.

Being stinky in the gym is just rude. Having stinky hockey equipment (I’m from Canada, eh?) is understandable.

Brandon February 2, 2008 at 2:07 am

hey rusty, you say don’t train to failure, what i do is ill do lets say 5 reps on something but that last rep is pretty tough to get up but i can get it up with good form then i end the set. Is that what i should do? Because I technically go to failure because I cant put up another perfect rep. Should I stop before i get to that point?should I still have one perfect rep left in the tank when I stop? Or am I doing the right thing. I dont do any partial reps or anything. Just wondering what you think.

admin February 2, 2008 at 4:04 am

Brandon,

You are doing the right thing for sure. You just don’t want to ever attempt a rep you can’t finish. As long as you are 100% certain you can get that rep up, then go for it. If you keep training like this you will continue to get strong with very few sticking points.

Rusty

Bertie November 27, 2008 at 12:34 am

Heya, first of all, great site and thanks for being a bit of a beacon in the internet world of ‘get big or else’, my question about this is; is it normal to feel a touch of soreness after your workout? This is a little bit subjective in my case, I have been lifting low weight high rep for about 3 or 4 months, not very well and not really pushing myself, I followed the guidelines of the articles pretty well but after doing bi’s and tri’s my arms felt a little sore the next day. Is it just my muscles adapting to a new way of being worked or did I go a little heavy? I’m gonna lift lighter next time anyway and see what the result is but I’m just wondering.

Cheers (if you still read this post ;))
Bertie

Vitaliy August 25, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Hey Rusty thanks for the workouts man, ive been doing the toning one for about 2 or 3 weeks now and im allready seeing big results but is there a plateau effect that happens when you try to tone? and if the reps are getting too easy should I increase the weight?

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