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Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

Extending the length of your sets may be the best way to build big muscles

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There are lots of reasons to have an eye on the clock when you’re training. Timing your workouts and rest periods will make sure that you aren’t taking too long between sets; it will guarantee you finish your training with enough time to get to work; and it will even get you back on track when you are staring too long at the cute girl wearing yoga pants in the squat rack.

But there is one aspect of timing in your workouts that you may be missing out on completely. One that will ensure that you are working your muscles in a way that optimizes growth. A method that has you time out the length of each phase (lowering, lifting, pausing) of each rep and, ultimately, each set in order to promote the greatest amount of muscle gain. This technique is simply called Time Under Tension (TUT) training.


TUT can be achieved in two ways. The first is to set a timer—say, for 40 seconds—and continue to perform an exercise for that amount of time without stopping. A more effective way, and the one this program will focus on, is to use a tempo prescription for each rep. Why is this more effective? Because it allows you to specifically slow down the eccentric or lowering phase of each rep. And there is much research to back up that slow eccentric phases are an effective way to build mass.

In our program charts, tempo is laid out as a four-digit number. Each number correlates with a specific phase of the movement and represents the number of seconds you will spend in this phase.

  • The first number represents the lowering phase (for example, the descent in a squat, lowering yourself in a pullup, or bringing a bench press down to your chest).
  • The second number refers to any pause at the bottom of the movement.
  • The third is the lifting phase in which you are overcoming gravity to lift the bar or your body.
  • The final number is any pause that might occur at the top. So a 4-1-1-0 tempo for a back squat would have you lowering for a four-second count, pausing for one second at the bottom, taking one second to stand up, and then not pausing at the top.
  • Using tempo this way will force each rep to last six seconds (4+1+1+0 = 6). If you maintain this tempo for eight reps, then the entire set will take 48 seconds, which falls right in the middle of the ideal time under tension range to build muscle (40 to 60 seconds).

And while it may take a workout or two to get used to using tempo, the benefits are worth it. Here’s how to shorten your learning curve.

  • Most TUT programs (this one included) focus on a slow lowering phase and a fast lifting phase. So even if you lose count of the seconds for each, remember that you should go down slow and come up fast.
  • You are going to want to cheat the rep speed and move faster as you fatigue. Don’t. Get a training partner to count the tempo for you. Three or four seconds is a long time.
  • Be conservative with your weight selection. While you may be able to bench 225 for 10 reps normally, the longer lowering phase will make things much harder. Cut 20% off the weight you use. While this may not be great for your ego, controlling the TUT will ultimately give you the size you want.
  • You will likely be very sore the first week or two of training this way. Prepare appropriately.

The Program

Directions: Perform each workout once per week, resting on two nonconsecutive days.

You will also need to scale your weights appropriately from week to week. When the number of reps per set goes down, weights should increase over the previous weeks. When the number of reps per set goes up, weights will likely have to decrease.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4