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Get more from your workouts with the ‘Time Under Tension’ method

Whether you want greater strength or bigger muscles or better endurance, you can achieve them by using the ‘time under tension’ method

Time your weight training workouts.
Time your weight training workouts. (istockphoto)

Time is an abstract concept, but it is your friend during a workout. It can become your best gym partner if you have the patience to learn how to use it as a tool. After all, unlike a gym buddy, you don’t have to wait for time, nor will it wait for you. But you can always utilise it to make your workouts far more effective. Whether it is tabata or the amount of time you rest between exercises, how long you perform an isometric hold, or do a time trial while running, make time your friend by using that stopwatch.

Over the past week, just to mix it up, I have been doing a lot of exercises with the ‘time under tension’ rule. Before trying it (and you can try this with pretty much every exercise), it is worth knowing what kind of muscles kick in when you do an exercise in a particular way. When performing a jump squat or an explosive push-up for example, your fast-twitch muscles come into play. 

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According to a Healthline article titled Flexing Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers, fast-twitch muscles “are mainly only used when the body needs to make sudden, more powerful movements”. They can also create energy anaerobically (without oxygen) but they need more breaks as they get fatigued faster. Such exercises aren’t necessarily suited to a time under tension approach.

Then there are the slow-twitch muscle fibres. These are the ones that a time under tension exercise will work. “Time under tension (or TUT) is how much time a muscle is contracting during exercise. Resistance training like weightlifting or bodyweight exercises incorporate TUT to build muscle, endurance, and strength. During a time under tension workout, you extend the time your muscles are contracted,” states a well-researched blog titled Time Under Tension Workouts: Top 5 Benefits & How To Maximize Results. It adds that there are multiple ways of using TUT, either with a focus on the eccentric (the lengthening of the muscle while returning to the starting point of an exercise) or on tempo training. 

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An easy way to break down your exercise is knowing that there are three phases in it: the concentric or the contraction of the muscle, the isometric which is the hold at the most difficult part or the top of the exercise, and the eccentric. In a bench press, this translates into three seconds in the concentric while you push the weight up, a pause for a couple seconds at the isometric or the hold at the top, and then three seconds on the way back to starting position. So you have a 3:2:3 tempo. Plenty of exercises also work on a 3:1:1 tempo or a 2:1:2 tempo. These latter are best for beginners but it does not matter as long as you know how you are using your time for the best results. This is how resistance bands became popular: because of the constant time under tension in the eccentric phase. 

An article published on the website of the International Sports Science Association (ISSA) also suggests the ideal TUT for a muscle per set which can be used according to your goals. Titled Time Under Tension Training: Not Just for Muscle Growth, these are the recommendations: 20 seconds or less for building strength; 20-70 seconds under tension for  building muscle and activating hypertrophy, and 70 seconds or longer to increase endurance. 

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On the flipside, the ISSA reminds us that “research is mixed in terms of muscle growth [and TUT]. Many proponents of TUT training focus on the results from a study done in 2012 which suggest that TUT leads to muscle gain. However, there are also studies discouraging the need to rely on TUT. It's best not to take TUT training as a gold standard [but as an] alternative way of training.”

I have started using TUT in certain exercises only: the incline bench press, leg extensions, slow push-ups, and overhead pulldowns, adding just one or two sets of this on a workout day. This allows an overall balance on the day: using both fast and slow twitch muscles, and giving both of them equal importance. After all, moving fast is as important as being able to get stronger and not plateau in the gym. The best way to go about it is using a mix of shorter TUTs for higher weights and longer ones for light to medium loads like the bicep curl. Adding TUT will also teach you more about your body, giving you the necessary feedback to incorporate it into exercises that suit and challenge your muscles. 

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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