Time Under Tension Training

Walk into any commercial gym or weight-room and you will see people performing many different activities and exercises.

Some individuals use free weights, while others use machines. Some individuals use high repetition sets, some use low rep sets, while others may even train one set to failure.

These methods are all accepted by those in the strength and conditioning realm, but very few people implement one important element that we experience every day as a training factor…Time!? Let me explain.

The Missing Link

How many of you out there refer to the age old standards of repetition ranges for a specific goal?

(i.e. 1-7 reps for strength; 8-12 for size; greater than 12 for muscular endurance (1)) That is all well and good, but what if I tell you that those rep ranges may not mean that much if you do not factor in one often overlooked training variable. Most experts agree that the principle of overload states that for a training adaptation to occur, a physiological system must be exercised at a level beyond which, it is presently accustomed. During continued overload, the physiological systems of the body will continue to adapt to the imposed stress of the exercise (1). This means that a certain amount of stress must be placed upon a physiological system for it to adapt to the stress and improve. The aforementioned repetition ranges are often used to help create this overload that we are all looking for to get those big time strength and size gains. However, this technique may not be that effective. My suggestion is to disregard rep ranges and concentrate on the time of movement spent on a certain exercise as a means to increase overload. This concept is known as Time Under Tension (TUT).

Time Under Tension (TUT)

TUT is the total amount of time your muscle(s) is under stress (tension) during any movement. For example, while dumbbell bicep curling, keep your eyes on a clock (with a second hand); the moment you begin to curl the weight to the moment you stop the exercise indicates your TUT for that movement. The TUT concept implies that your muscles must be kept under tension for a certain amount of time to stimulate strength and size gains. Before we get to the TUT guidelines, there are some underlying factors that examine how TUT exactly works.

TUT and Energy Systems

Exercise is dependent upon the energy systems of the body. Our bodies must produce energy to allow us to move and exercise. The duration and intensity of exercise will dictate which fuels are used and how many motor units will be recruited to complete the movement. There are three main systems in the body that provide energy to us. The Phosphagen (ATP/CP) system provides energy for activities lasting from 0-10 seconds. Fast Glycolyis (anaerobic) provides energy for activities lasting 15-30 seconds in duration. Glycolysis and the oxidative system (aerobic) provide energy for activities lasting 1-3 minutes in duration, while the oxidative system provides energy for those activities lasting greater than 3 minutes. The intensity of exercise will determine the energy system used (see table 1 below). Intensity in the following table may be assessed in terms of the total number of motor units recruited.

Table 1

An example to help understand intensity is to perform a maximum effort 100-yd sprint. Sprinting is very taxing and difficult to perform one time. Therefore the intensity would be very high and the duration of the sprint would not be long. Your body is not able to provide enough energy to continue the fast pace, so you would slow down or stop completely to perform another sprint. As a result your total TUT for a high intensity sprint is relatively short.

Energy systems also help us to understand how their activation affects hormones. Lactic acid is a by-product of glycolysis (2). Studies have shown that there is an increase in growth hormone (GH) release with higher rep (10-12) sets and decreased rest intervals (4,7). This is primarily related to the increasing levels of lactate associated with this type of training. This increase in lactate is the “pump” that many people experience during exercise. It seems that to get the glycolytic system to provide energy to the body, it is necessary to exercise for a certain amount of time and with a specific amount of intensity. This will affect the GH response, yielding bigger and better results!   

TUT and Muscle Fibers

Hopefully you are starting to realize that TUT is a very important variable to use to increase your results from training. A sufficient amount of muscular tension is necessary to elicit a physiological adaptation to weight training. Weight training is essentially training the brain (nervous system) how to recruit motor units. Without losing too many people, a motor unit is a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it innervates (5). There are 2 primary classes of muscle fibers: Type I, and type II. The type I fibers are referred to as slow-twitch. These fibers contract slowly and are harder to fatigue (6). These are the fibers primarily used when lifting light loads. The type II fibers are referred to as fast-twitch. They contract very rapidly and fatigue very quickly. Fast-twitch fibers can be broken down into types IIa and IIb. Type IIa fibers fatigue moderately and have properties of both type I and IIb fibers. Type IIb fibers fatigue easily and are used for short, high-force production tasks such as lifting heavy weights, sprinting, or jumping (6).

The fast-twitch fibers are primarily affected by lower rep sets. A decreased TUT will be used to stimulate these explosive muscle fibers, without causing too much fatigue to the nervous system. With this type of training, the brain is learning to synchronously recruit motor units in an attempt to perform the exercise.

This is why the speed of movement is very crucial. If you were to attempt to perform a set of 10 reps on the bench press, performing the concentric (positive) portion of the lift as fast as possible regardless of load, it would be impossible to replicate the same velocity on each rep. Consequently, fatigue results, and the quality of work is compromised. If the number of reps were limited to 2 or 3, the quality of work would be much higher.

Conversely, if you are training for hypertrophy (where an increase in muscle size is the main goal), then a greater time must be spent under tension to elicit a GH response, fatigue motor units, and produce contractile breakdown of muscle tissue. This will help to provide the body with a stimulus for muscle growth.

Another important issue to mention at this time is a concept referred to as Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT). CAT assists in creating a greater amount of muscular tension by voluntarily attempting to recruit the fast-twitch motor units (10). When using this in your training, you must attempt to accelerate the weight as fast as you can during the concentric part of the lift. Don’t worry if the weight is heavy or moderate, if your intent is to move the implement as fast as you can, a greater proportion of fast-twitch motor units will be recruited. This is very important to athletes that perform in sports where speed is a determining factor. This can also benefit bodybuilders. The fast-twitch muscle fibers have a greater ability to hypertrophy. What better than a way to attempt to recruit them on every single rep.

TUT Guidelines and Training Goals

Now that you have an understanding of how the energy systems and muscle fibers are related to TUT, we can get to the stuff that you can use. Refer to table 2 below:

Table 2

According to table 2., Power and Explosive Strength Training refers to a training goal where speed and rate of force development are stressed. As stated earlier, quality and speed must be stressed when training in this manner. Some examples of this type of training include medicine ball throws, dynamic strength exercises such as speed benches and speed squats, and the Olympic lifts. It is very important to accelerate the weight (CAT) with this method to create muscular tension.

Maximal Strength Training refers to a training goal where maximal strength is stressed regardless of bar speed. Loads of 85% and greater of a 1RM are most typically used in this method of training (1). You must still attempt to accelerate the weight during the concentric portion, but due to the increased load on the bar, it will appear to be moving slower.

Hypertrophy Training refers to a training goal where an increase in muscular size is stressed. The typical loads used with this method of training are dependent upon rest intervals, muscle group(s) being exercised, and tempo (speed of movement).

Muscular Endurance Training refers to a training goal where consistent force production can be maintained over a prolonged interval. Lighter loads are typically used with this method of training.

How and Why Should I Use TUT?

Now you will see how you can use those guidelines. Let’s say that you are in a phase where the primary goal is hypertrophy. Traditional rep ranges would recommend that you perform a set of 10 reps. However, if you complete your set at a blazing speed, you may be done in only 20 seconds. According to the TUT guidelines stated above, you would not be imposing a great deal of tension upon your muscles to elicit an adaptation. However, if you had your partner time your set (instead of completing a specific number of reps) you could ensure that you were training the proper energy system to attain your training goal.

Rep ranges are still an option, especially if you work out alone, but the number of reps performed depends upon the tempo of execution. Tempo (speed of movement) is vital in developing exercise technique, developing eccentric strength, increasing connective tissue strength and busting through stubborn training plateaus. It is an excellent way to monitor your total TUT. Very few people pay attention to the tempo. Next time you go to the gym, look around and see how many people actually control the weight. It looks more like the weight is controlling them.

The notion of using a tempo comes from strength coaches Ian King, and Charles Poliquin. It is a 3 number system, where the first number indicates the length of the eccentric portion (with gravity). The middle number is the length of the pause in the stretched position, and the third number is the length of the concentric portion (against gravity). For example, a 3/1/X tempo in the bench press, would require the lifter to lower the weight in 3 seconds, pause for a second, and then press the bar as fast as possible (X). Following this approach it would take 5 seconds to execute one repetition. If training for power, you only perform about 2-3 reps (10-15 seconds total TUT), but if you were training for hypertrophy you would perform 6-12 reps (30-60 total seconds TUT). As you can see, the tempo and reps can be manipulated depending upon your training goals. Try to change your rep tempo about every 3-4 weeks. Muscles gain faster strength if you train them at various speeds, rather than using the same speed all the time (8,9). Tempo should be changed just like any other training variable to force the body to respond to a different stimulus. A general rule of thumb is that a faster tempo is usually used for power and explosive strength training, while a slower tempo is used in hypertrophy to increase the TUT. Refer to the training tips table below.

Use these guidelines as a scientific means of monitoring progress and overload. TUT should be used as a change of pace to your athletes, clients, or even your own workouts.

Training Tips Table

1. When training the nervous system (power, strength), quality must be stressed over quantity.

2. An intention on moving the weight as fast as possible is imperative. No matter if the implement is heavy or moderate. If the intent is to move the weight as fast as possible, a greater proportion of fast twitch motor units will be activated, which is vital for those sports where speed is crucial (i.e. explosive-strength and power).

3. When training for hypertrophy (size, mass), volume must be stressed. This ensures that the muscle(s) will be fatigued and all motor units will be activated to stress muscular hypertrophy.

What Time You Got?

Realize that TUT is simply a variable that can be used as measuring training progress. It may be used for variety by those who have run into a plateau, or to spark up a dull program. Keep in mind that these guidelines are not written in stone, and some people may need to experiment using different time ranges per set. Hopefully, this has stimulated your interest in this underused training variable as a means of maximizing upon your particular training goal. Next time you hit the gym, stop wasting your time and keep your eyes on the clock!

I would like to thank my good friend, Charles Maka, with his input on these TUT guidelines.

Written by Brijesh Patel 

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Time Under Tension Training discussion thread.


1. Baechle, T.R., and R.W. Earle (Eds). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 2nd Edition. National Strength and Conditioning Association. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics, 2000.

2. Bergeron, M.F. Lactic Acid Production and Clearance During Exercise. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 13(5): 47-50, 1991.

3. Dudley, G.A., and T.F. Murray. Energy for Sport. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 4(3): 14-15, 1982.

4. Hoffman, J. Growth Hormone. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 12(5): 78-81, 1990.

5. Howard, J.D., M.R. Ritchie, D.R. Gater, and R.M. Enoka. Determining Factors of Strength: Physiological Foundations. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal (7)6: 16-21, 1985.

6. Karp, J.R. Muscle Fiber Types and Training. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 23(5): 21-26, 2001.

7. Kraemer, W.J. Influence of the Endocrine System on Resistance Training Adaptations. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 14(2): 47-54, 1992.

8. Poliquin, C. Five Steps to Increasing the Effectiveness of Your Strength Training Programs. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 10(3): 34-39, 1988.

9. Poliquin, C. Loading Parameters for Strength Development. Forcelite Inc. 1990.

10. Siff, M.C. Supertraining. Supertraining International, Denver, 4th edition. 2000.

The Top 25 Ways to Pack on Serious Mass – Part I

Note: You can find Part 2 and Part 3 to this article series here: Part 2 | Part 3

As you probably already know, I work as a sports nutritionist working with a variety of professional athletes including bodybuilders, power lifters, weightlifters, strongmen, arm wrestlers, football and hockey players among others. I have always had a large percentage of my nutritional clientele being power lifters, but as of late it has really increased.

I receive numerous emails regarding proper nutritional planning on a daily basis. Sometimes I have a hard time just keeping up with all the mail I receive from our readers.

One of the most asked questions that I receive is how to gain lean muscle tissue while maintaining their current body fat percentage. Well, this month you are in luck! I will be discussing with you the Top 25 Ways to Pack on Serious Mass. For all the lightweight lifters out there looking to go up a class, or you mass monsters looking to put on yet more size, this will definitely get you on your way to some serious mass!

1. Eat 5-6 Times per Day

What did you just say? Eat 6 times per day? Yes, that’s right! Don’t think that you are going to gain quality size eating 3 square meals per day. The only type of mass you will put on eating this way will be the fat type, and this is not our objective. There is no way that you can reach your caloric or your macro nutrient needs eating 3 meals per day. If by some magical reason you can eat them in 3 meals, than you will be so full and bloated, you won’t be able tie up your own shoes let alone pound out some heavy dead lifts. Get rid of the mentality that power lifters can optimize their performance on three meals per day, it’s scientifically impossible. Eating 5-6 times per day will also keep your blood sugar levels stabilized and your metabolism elevated. Eating several times per day instead of the “Big 3” that most are used to, will provide your body with a constant supply of nutrients that you need to recover from your hard workouts. This will cause you to increase your lean tissue, while reducing your body fat percentage. Our goal here is to put on lean muscle mass, not take our body fat level to new heights.

2. Drink Water

Water is very important for many reasons. Water is good for you believe it or not. It has many health and performance benefits. It keeps your organs functioning properly, clears toxins, reduces excess sodium from your body, and it hydrates your muscle cells. It even liberates fat stores on your body so they are burned off as an energy source. Dehydration will cause a major decrement in performance. Even a 2% state of dehydration will cause your performance to go out the window. Just because most power lifting events aren’t out in the heat, it doesn’t mean that proper hydration isn’t important.

Water plays a major role in cell volumization. This is where nutrients are pulled inside of the muscle cell causing a multitude of reactions that leads to muscle growth. Water is very important in many processes including digestion, transportation and the absorption of nutrients. So how much water should you drink on a daily basis? You should drink on average at least 1oz of water per kilogram of body weight. This is a figure that can be increased depending on many factors that affect your hydration level. This amount will start as your baseline from which you can build upon. A 220 pound (100kg) power lifter would need to drink 100 ounces or slightly over 3 quarts of water per day as his minimum daily water intake.

There are also many benefits to drinking water. They include lowering your chances for high blood pressure and kidney stones. Both of these nice little health problems can really cause havoc on your training. Try banging out some box squats when you’re passing kidney stones the size of jawbreakers. It’s not going to happen..

3. Sleep

Sleep is not considered a food group so why am I talking about it in my nutritional column you ask? The reason why sleep is going to be discussed here is that it is essential in gaining lean mass. Your body repairs and recovers from your workout as you sleep. During this time, your muscles grow! Remember this, if you aren’t sleeping you aren’t growing and getting stronger. Think back to a time when you couldn’t get optimal sleep either during university exam time, or another time when sleep was of the essence. Think back how your strength level was, or how you were actually losing size. So how much sleep do you need per day? You should be getting at least 8 full hours of sleep per day. If you can get a 1-2 hour nap per day on top of this it would be even better. Getting proper sleep is a must for muscle growth. Without it, you can kiss gains in strength and size goodbye!

4. Consume Enough Protein

“I eat enough protein. I probably ate around 50 grams today.” Now if this sounds like you, we are in some serious trouble. That is unless you are a 60- pound child whose major energy expenditure for the day is playing with your Tonka Trucks. OK, down to the serious stuff here. If you don’t eat optimal amounts of protein, you will never put on the muscle mass that you so much desire. You are also hindering your strength gains as well. If you are going up a weight class and you aren’t eating the proper amount of protein, guess what? You will put on a nice extra layer of fat around your waist, instead of gaining lean muscle tissue. When trying to put on size, you have to make sure you constantly supply your body with essential amino acids throughout the day. You should consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. I have some of my athletes consume between 1.25-1.5 grams of protein per pound when trying to pack on size. If you just jack up your carbs and fat without supplying your body with the protein that it needs, you will end up looking like “Mr. Marshmallow” instead of a strength athlete. Amino acids are the building blocks that you will need to gain lean muscle tissue and to ensure that going up a weight class will be muscle, not fat.

Protein helps in the recovery of your muscles from the intense training you perform as a power lifter. As you probably already know, protein is the main nutrient responsible for increasing lean muscle tissue. You can work out all day long but if you don’t eat the right amount of protein for your specific needs and activity expenditure, than you will never reach your peak in strength, that’s guaranteed! I highly recommend At Large Nutrition’s Nitrean protein powder as a high quality protein supplement to help you get all of the protein you need to grow.

5.  Maximize your Carbohydrate Intake

Carbohydrates…You gotta love them. Yes we all know that they are definitely the tastiest of all the macronutrients, but how do we incorporate them in putting on size. If you are familiar with my previous articles “The Carbohydrate Manifesto” series, than you already know about the different types of carbohydrates and their function. Make sure that when you are trying to gain solid weight, you consume plenty carbs. Now don’t think that there is only one way to do this. I have had great success with my clients using diets that include both carbs on a daily basis, and plans that restrict them for a certain number of days and then are super compensate for a specific number of days. What you need to know is that there is more than one way to get the job done.

Now when trying to put on size with a nutritional plan where carbs are going to be consumed on a daily basis, you should consume 1.5-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day. You must be thinking, how can I eat all that? This doesn’t all have to come from food, as there are many good glucose polymer drinks available that can help you fulfill your daily requirements. One glucose polymer drink can supply 100 grams of carbohydrates in as little as 12-16oz of water. I just made this a lot easier didn’t I? The majority of carbohydrates that you should consume when you are trying to go up a weight class should come from complex carbohydrates. These include oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, potatoes, yams, brown rice, ancient grains including quinoa, amaranth, millet, and teff. I gave you an in depths look into these ancient grains in the last issue of PL USA. What’s nice about these grains is that they provide variety in your diet and are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates.

Let’s not forget your fibrous carbs including your salads and vegetables. These are very important and should be consumed with at least 3 of your daily meals. Fiber is very important in the digestion process and eliminating toxins from the body. If you are not getting adequate amounts of fiber in your nutritional plan, it is now time to increase your daily intake. It’s hard to pack on size if you have a severe case of constipation. You may laugh, but this is one of the first things that happen to someone trying to gain weight. Many individuals increase their caloric and protein intake yet, they forget to do the same with their fiber and water.

5.  Bump up your Fat Intake

If you read my article in the June Issue of Powerlifting USA “Fatten Up Your Total”, then you already know the importance of fat in the power lifter’s nutritional program. Fat is where it’s at, especially if you are a strength athlete. I know you get as sick and tired as I do of all those aerobiczers telling you that you should eat 10grams of fat per day. Your fat intake is definitely associated with how strong you will be. Now don’t get the wrong idea here. This doesn’t mean put extra Mayo on your tuna sandwich, or a quart of gravy on your turkey breast. Nor does it mean to put some extra non-dairy creamer in your coffee, or load up on fatty cuts of bacon and sausage. Yes, you want to increase you saturated fat intake slightly when trying to pack on size for your new weight class, but the majority should come from your polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Fats should consist of 30% of your total caloric intake. This is not written in stone, as I have had my clients on programs that were higher and lower than the above. By the way, fat has 9 calories per gram, so this will help you out with your calculations. Good sources of Omega 3 fats are salmon and other cuts of fatty fish. In the past, athletes and bodybuilders avoided these fatty fish. Now, they realize the benefits of these fish fats and understand how beneficial they are not only for your health, but your performance. Fish Oil is another great source for essential fats. I recommend AtLarge Nutrition’s Fish Oil. You can get some good sources of monounsaturated fats from various nuts and avocados. With this all said and done, you now know that fat is a very important nutrient in your quest for strength and size. Without it optimized in your plan, you are giving your competition more than a “Fat Chance” of beating you on the platform.

7.  Drink Milk

Milk…It does a body good! You should have known this would be on the list. Milk is the drink of all strength champions throughout history. Let’s take a look back into the past. Paul Anderson, a man whose strength feats have gone down in history used to drink several gallons of milk per day. I read that he used to drink a gallon of milk just during his workout. If you look at the eating habits of the strongmen and power lifters of the past, milk was a major part of their diet. Even the old school bodybuilders used to drink large amounts of milk. It supplies the body with an excellent source of protein. Its main source is casein protein, which is a slower released protein source than whey. It also supplies simple carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to help round things out. Milk has different caloric rates depending on which type you consume. Power lifters should drink 2% or whole milk, as it will supply you with valuable calories when looking to gain weight. The best time to consume milk is with your protein shake as it can really help with the taste. When trying to pack on mass, milk should definitely be part of your plan!

8.  Increase your Meat Consumption

I knew you would like this one. What true powerlifter wouldn’t? Now again, don’t get me wrong here. The point is that you should increase you lean meat consumption during a mass phase. Note I said lean meat consumption. This doesn’t include bacon, ham, sausage, deli meats, beef jerky, or pepperoni sticks. I know you wish that is what I would be recommending, but your ever visibly growing waistline and your triglyceride rating wouldn’t be thanking me down the road. The types of meat that you should be consuming should include skinless chicken breasts, lean cuts of steak, extra lean ground beef, turkey, veal and lean cuts of pork. When trying to put on size, you should consume lean red meat on a daily basis. At least one meal of the day should consist of red meat and the other meals can be comprised of fish and lean white meats like turkey and chicken. Make sure that the cuts are lean and you cut off any visible fat. Sorry about that, but if you consume all the fatty meats the only thing that will go up is your cholesterol level, not your performance. Lean cuts of meat should be a staple in all power lifter’s diets.

Here you have the first part in this three part series on how to go up a weight class while making sure that the weight that you put on is lean tissue, not just another roll around your waist. After reading the first installment of this series, you are realizing that going up a weight class doesn’t mean it’s time to load up on your favorite junk food to help fill out your new weight limit. To properly gain quality weight you have to make sure that your nutritional plan is on the money, otherwise you can forget about going up a weight class while retaining your current body fat level.

In part two of this series, we will discuss another 8 tips to pack on size and strength for your new weight class!

Written by By Anthony Ricciuto

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Top 25 Ways to Pack on Serious Mass – Part I – discussion thread.