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January 14, 2022 8 min read

Time under tension (TUT) refers to the time spent generating a certain average tension by the target muscle in an exercise. It is often touted in bodybuilding as the key to hypertrophy.

TUT is an important rule of thumb for muscle hypertrophy, or muscle growth, but it is not the only rule. The training goal should be to implement efficient and intentional length of sets, TUT, into your routine with appropriate tempo, reps, and varying ranges of motion that fit into your specific hypertrophy goals.

How to Use TUT

The overarching goal of TUT weightlifting is to maximize the efficiency of output in a given length of time. By being efficient with the time we have in a set, we make proper use out of TUT. If you have ever worked with a personal trainer, you have probably heard about TUT. This is best accomplished through a slow tempo. One of the hallmarks of TUT training is a “controlled negative,” or a slow and controlled release on the eccentric phase of the lift.

In other words, don’t let the weight fall down fast.

For example, a slow bench press with a partial range of motion, keeping the barbell above your chest without touching it, is a TUT version of this exercise. With TUT training, there is no rest in between repetitions. The tension should be felt throughout the entire set. To maximize the time spent under tension, make sure you keep the tension on the desired muscle groups throughout the entirety of the lift.

The eccentric and concentric phases of the lift should be equally strenuous.

Don’t let gravity help you bring the weight down. You want to maintain your desired average tension on both parts of the lift. Before focusing in on a specific length of TUT, practice slowing down your lifts and maintaining tension throughout the set. Then, give yourself a specific time, and see how many slow reps you can do. Find out what you can comfortably lift, slowly, for 8-15 reps. The goal is not to get more reps into a set amount of time, but rather, to spend more time under tension throughout entirety of the set.

The Optimal Length of Sets

So what is the optimal TUT for muscle growth? The answer is, it depends.  

Research shows that greater time spent under tension results in, “A robust, but delayed stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis 24-30 h after resistance exercise.” In other words, it helps you build muscle mass by facilitating muscle protein synthesis. 

For muscle hypertrophy, or growing muscle size, the optimal time under tension is 40-70 seconds.

The amount of time spent on each set will be dictated by the load and your strength level. Go lighter for more time, and heavier for less time. It is a large time frame because the ideal TUT for a set is heavily dependent on the training volume. If you are liftingbelow 75% of your max, then your optimal set length will be closer to 60-70 seconds.

If you’re lifting heavy, above75% of your max, then 40-50 seconds may suffice. 

Sets that include 60 seconds of complete time under tension, are appropriate for muscle growth. With a total tempo of 5 seconds, you can get 12 repetitions into a 60 second set. For hypertrophy, anywhere between 4-8 sets, depending on your goals and training style, is appropriate while incorporating TUT training for muscle growth into your routine.

Tempo

When you start implementing TUT training into you’re routine, you will have to start paying attention to tempo. Tempo refers to the amount of time it takes to complete the rep. Tempo accounts for the time it takes to complete both the eccentric and concentric parts of the movement. Slowing down the eccentric part of the lift is how you increase TUT.

The eccentric part of the lift the coming down, or back to starting position. 

In the example of a bicep dumbbell curl with a tempo of 2-0-3-0, you take 2 seconds to bring the dumbbell up to your biceps (concentric movement), pause for zero seconds (meaning don’t pause at all), and take 3 seconds to bring it down to the starting position. To do this, you have to resist gravity as you bring the weight down.  For TUT training, keep the pauses between reps at 0 seconds. In this example, a tempo of 5 seconds total per rep, 2-0-3-0, a set of 12 seated concentric bicep curls will be accomplished in 60 total seconds of TUT.

Range of Motion (ROM)

Time under tension training doesn’t have to limit your range of motion (ROM). You should be able to accomplish repetitions of both partial and full ranges of motion without sacrificing your time spent under tension. TUT training does not dictate a range of motion, and it is best to incorporate a variety of ranges of motion into your program. If, however, a full range of motion on a particular exercise causes you to pause at the bottom or top of your lift, thus breaking up the time under tension, then you may need to consider either limiting the range of motion on the movement to maintain the TUT.

Hacks to Increase TUT

Use Cables

Cables are a great way to control the eccentric movement, or decent, of your reps. Cables control your range of motion, allowing your to isolate your muscles better, while controlling your tempo. On a cable bicep curl, for example, as long as you have enough distance between the weights and yourself, the tension on the cable remains constant throughout the entire movement, even when you come all the way back to the starting position. This makes cables a valuable tool for increasing the time that your muscle fibers spend under tension.

Partial Reps

A selective range of motion can be a valuable tool for increasing TUT. Stopping midway through the eccentric movement of a lift causes you to work against gravity. To ensure constant tension throughout your set, try not going all the way down.

Slow Down

Slowing down your repetitions and using lighter weights is the easiest way to immediately increase TUT during your lift. Do not let gravity help you on the way down, and don’t let momentum assist you on the way up. Slow controlled movements, about 5 seconds per rep, are ideal. 

Don’t Pause at the Bottom

Watching your tempo is key if you want to build muscle and strength.  Pauses at the top of a lift are acceptable and will contribute to the time spent under tension. Pausing at the bottom of the lift, however, will abruptly interrupt your time spent under tension. A tempo of 2-0-2-1 on a bicep curl, for example, is a TUT focused strength training tempo.

TUT Friendly Exercises

1. Cable Squat


 

The cable squat is unique TUT exercise in that it offers both support and resistance. Holding onto a weighted cable supports your posture, allowing you to get a deeper squat, without falling down and without falling forward. Increasing the load on this exercise is a double edged sword.

Whatever weight you need to support yourself and prevent falling down is the resistance that you will have to lift. Cable squats can be an easier way to accomplish proper posterior chain muscle activation.  There are many leg exercises that you can do with cables

To execute a cable squat:

  1. Use a cable machine that pulls from the floor position
  2. Attach a simple bar to the cable, grabbing it with a pronated (knuckles up)  grip. (You can also you a double sided rope, or use a machine with two arms and handles).
  3. Start off weight that is about one quarter to one half of your body weight.
  4. Squat down slowly until your legs bend at a 90 degree angle, then come up, squeezing your glutes and hamstrings along the way.
  5. Repeat for 40-60 seconds, or 12-20 reps.

2. Preacher Curl

 

Time under tension style training is great for boosting bicep muscle growth. The preacher curl is a perfect opportunity to slow down your repetitions, increasing the amount of time your spend on the eccentric phase of the lift (lowering the weight AWAY from the body).

Fun fact: the preacher curl gets its name from the preacher curl bench, which looks like a podium or lectern that a preacher might use. 

To properly perform a dumbbell preacher curl:

  1. Find a preacher curl bench, grab a dumbbell (since have support with the bench, it is a good opportunity to go slightly heavier).
  2. Sit down at the bench, making sure your elbow is near the bottom.
  3. Initiate the lift with the weight in the down position. Bring it up slowly and keep your wrists strong and tight.
  4. Squeeze your biceps at the top. Hold for a second.
  5. Repeat with a tempo of  a 2-0-3-0 or a 2-1-3-1. Do not relax your muscles at the bottom of this TUT lift. Make each repetition last 5-7 seconds.
  6. Perform 10-15 repetitions.

3. Tricep Pull Down

 

If you have access to a cable machine, with a partial range of motion, a tricep pull down can be a valuable TUT exercise. 

To accomplish 40-60 seconds of time under tension in this exercise, slowing down will not do the trick. The best way to accomplish greater TUT is to complete several half reps. 

To perform a TUT style tricep push down:

  1. Use a cable machine that pulls from the top position.
  2. Attach a dual-ended rope to it. The top of the rope should be in front of your face.
  3. Lean forward and pull the rope down, separating the two ends. Put one foot out in front of the other if you need help stabilizing your core.
  4. Try to point your knuckles down to the floor on each rep.
  5. Only come up to your lowest rib on each rep, about half of a rep.
  6. Perform 20-30 half reps at a standard tempo.

4. Wall Sits

     

    Wall Sits are an ideal TUT exercise for the quadriceps.

    A wall sit is a grueling tension based leg exercise with zero repetitions, that can produce results with sets ranging anywhere from 40-90 seconds. For advanced training, weight can be added. This effectively targets your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves. 

    To execute a Wall Sit:

    1. Find a wall
    2. Place your back against the wall, push your hips and shoulders against the wall.
    3. Sit with your legs at a 90 degree angle, like there is an imaginary stool under you.
    4. Time yourself, and try to go for at least 40-90 seconds.
    5. Do 3-6 sets, with 1 minute of rest in between.

    Pro Tip: To make it easier, put your hands on your knees to give yourself support. To get the most out of this exercise, try putting your hands behind your head to totally take your arms and core out of the equation and further isolate the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.

    5. Planks

     

    Planks are a perfect TUT exercise for your core, and with continued use and proper diet, can be an important part of your 6-pack ab goal. As always, abs will not show without fat loss. You can, however, increase the muscle mass in your core, regardless of the weight you carry around your abdomen. 

    To execute a standard plank:

    1. Get down on the floor in the prone position (abdomen facing down towards the floor)
    2. Prop your body up with your forearms flat on the floor. Your arms can be pointed towards each other forming a triangle, or they can be straight, aligning with your shoulders.
    3. Brace your core and hold yourself up for a period of 1-4 minutes, depending on your goals and timing of the exercise. 
    4. Keep your back straight. The body’s natural tendency is to drop your waist down to the floor or point your butt in the air. You want your back to be as flat as a coffee table.

    Pro Tip:  Doing planks at the end of an ab workout, after you are already fatigued,  is a great idea if you don’t want to spend a lot of time planking!

    Conclusion

    Increasing the amount of time spent under tension is a muscle building hack amongst bodybuilding enthusiasts. If hypertrophy is the goal, you should incorporate tut into your resistance training routine. Slowing down your lifts, extending the length of time of your sets, and adjusting your range of motion will result in increased activation of muscle fibers.

    Due to the low weight/high rep nature of TUT, adopting this training style may cause you to spend more time at the gym. Time under tension is a valuable muscle building tool, but it is not the rule, but rather, a rule of thumb to always consider in your training.

    For increased stamina, pump, and a high quality post-workout protein, the STARTER STACK would be a great addition to your daily routine