Build More Muscle with Time Under Tension

When you’re busy zoning in and out during the walkthrough, you may have heard your Coaches utter the phrase ‘Time under tension’ before – especially on Friday Build Days. While it may seem like it refers to things like being in the same room as your ex, office birthday parties, and running into that person whose name you can never remember, time under tension is actually a very beneficial training practice and simply refers to the duration of time that your muscles under load/stress in any one given set of movements. The longer your muscles are under stress in a given work set, the more physical adaption you will see in:

  1. Builds Muscle & Strength – High reps recruit more total muscle fibers and make them bigger and stronger.
  2. Supercharges Your Conditioning – By putting your muscles in a prolonged state without oxygen, otherwise known as ‘anaerobic’ conditioning.

Two primary concepts are behind the concept:

  1. Metabolic Stress – where the muscle fills with lactate, hydrogen, and other metabolites that lead to the muscle growing in size (adaptation).
  2. Muscle Fiber Recruitment – the more time you spend in a movement, the more total muscle fibers you are going to recruit.

Take the following two sets of back squats to illustrate the concept.

  • 3R Back Squat @ 90%: Heavier weights, but less time under tension. This set would likely take you 30 – 45 seconds.
  • 10R Back Squat @ 60%: Moderate weight, more time under tension. This set would likely take you a 60 – 90 seconds.

While it might seem insignificant, over the course of five sets you’re talking about an extra 3-4 total minutes under tension in the 10R squat. The idea here is not to pit these two squat schemes against one another, they are both excellent in what they bring to the table, but the 10R set is going to challenge your body in ways it isn’t used to due to how long you will be under tension. This concept is quite literally what adaptation is, and why your body changes. 

We can use time under tension in the following ways:

  1. 10R+ Heavy lifts.
  2. High rep conditioning movements – ie. ‘Giants’ format days that call for 50 reps, or ‘Densities’ where we perform a ton of work in little time.
  3. Tempo Training – Performing regular movement slowly and deliberately.
  4. Intervals – ie. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off repeated for six sets.
  5. Farmer Walks – ie. longer efforts of 150m+ where we are under tension for 45″+.
  6. Isometrics – any time we are holding a fixed position

As always, the point of this article is not to say that any form of training is inherently superior, only to make you aware of the balance needed in your training and when you see these type of schemes in your class, show up.

Your results will thank you for it.