Workout Tips

Time to Grow Muscle

How to maximize muscle breakdown and growth by utilizing time under tension training.


Get through the set. Get through the set. Get through the set. This is usually what runs through your mind when trying to hit a target number of reps. The problem, however, is that you become more concerned with reaching rep 10 than with crushing reps 1-9. If you’re concerned at all with muscle growth, this is a bad practice. By simply “getting through” the set, you’re failing to take advantage of all the benefits each rep has to offer.

Make Use Of Time

To slow things down – while speeding up growth – try taking stock of your total muscular time under tension. Reps will still count but now they will count for a lot more. Read on to learn how to make time under tension, or TUT, work for you. 

Scientists have hypothesized that muscle hypertrophy is not purely function of rep ranges but the actual duration of the set. One recent study from McMaster University in Canada published in the Journal of Physiology seemed to confirm that, concluding that prolonged muscle contraction was the most important variable for increasing muscle size. The study compared light loads using a tempo of one second up and one second down or using slow reps of six seconds up and six seconds down. The study found the slow reps were superior because of the amount of time that working muscles were under tension.

However, the findings of armchair academics and lab geeks must be done with grain of salt. Studies can have flaws, typically because they are performed on malnourished, sleep deprived, hard-partying college kids looking for research dough, not the old heads that have been slanging iron in the trenches for years.

The aforementioned study compared explosive repetitions and slow repetitions with 30 percent of the subject’s one-rep max. No one serious about getting stronger or packing on as much muscle as possible is doing 30 percent of their one-rep max for serious work sets. To put it in perspective, that would mean if you bench press 200 pounds, you would workout with 60 pounds with a goal of packing on serious muscle. 


TUT is King

So what’s the right approach when it comes to time under tension? We favor looking at it in the full context of growth-influencing factors.

Mechanical tension is related to exercise intensity (the amount of weight you are lifting). In other words, to get big you have to train heavy. Eight-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, once said, ”The key to building massive, powerful muscles is to doggedly increase the training weights you use.” Science backs Haney, as does anecdotal evidence. I am not going to argue with Mr. Haney — neither should you.

Muscle damage is associated with muscle soreness; this inflammatory response aids in the muscle-building process, of course, assuming the lifter recovers properly.

Metabolic Stress is a result of the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism in the 30-60 second range of set duration. In other words, lifting all-out for this duration of time, scientists believe, causes a huge spike in the anabolic hormones -- growth hormone and IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor). Adding icing to the cake, metabolic stress increases excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC, allowing you to burn more calories at rest, expediting fat loss.

The previously mentioned study isn’t a total farce. However, it only sheds light on metabolic stress. To get the full beef-building payoff, you have to utilize time under tension training, with a close eye on mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. The following workout gives you the chance to do all of that.

TUT-Plus Program

Here are some guidelines for utilizing this workout.

1. Control the negative reps and explode on positives.

2. The goal is to keep the weight moving the entire time. If you reach momentary muscular failure (MMF), continue with partials but do not decrease the weight.

3. Start with weights you can do for a true rep max of 7-11 reps and shoot for 10-15 included partial contractions.

4. On each successive set, reduce load by approximately a third. So if you start with 90 pounds, set two would be with 60 pounds and set three with 40 pounds.

5. This technique is very high intensity; do it for  a maximum of three to four weeks before taking a light week.

6. Weekly progression can be varied by adding 5-10 seconds per set, keeping the rest interval the same or keeping the time constant but increasing weight.

7. Use primarily bilateral movements (those that use two limbs); dumbbell movements would be with both limbs contracting simultaneously. There are exceptions to this rule, but use it as a majority of the time, not all the time. You will see two effective unilateral movements below.

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