Time Under Tension: Gain Lean Muscle with Lightweights

Time Under Tension Training to build muscle

Did you know you don’t always have to lift heavy weight to build muscle mass? It’s true! Using the time under tension technique just might be the catalyst you’ve been looking for when it comes to building lean muscle tissue.

If you’re the type of person who likes to get the most fitness bang for your workout buck, then time under tension (TUT) training is for you! Instead of just going through the motions, swinging the weights up and down, if you manipulate your timing when lifting, you can actually get greater benefits when it comes to building muscle.

How Does Time Under Tension Training Work?

There are essentially three phases when it comes to an exercise repetition. Let’s take a biceps curl as an example. When you lift the weight up, this is known as the “concentric” phase (when the muscle gets shorter). At the “top” of the exercise, your muscle will be fully contracted. This is called the “peak contraction phase” or the “quasi-isometric phase.” When you lower the weight back to the starting position, this is called the “eccentric” or lengthening phase of the lift. This is also called the “negative” portion of the lift and is where the true magic can happen.

The science says that spending more time under tension will help your body build more muscle faster. That means slowing down the reps and keeping the muscle taut throughout the movement. More specifically, slowing down the negative portion of the repetition (and typically, fighting gravity) will help you get more out of every repetition you do. Why? It’s because your muscles spend more time under tension than if you just speed through the movements. And that means building more muscle.

What are the Benefits of Time Under Tension Training?

Resistance training, in and of itself, has myriad benefits, but if you want to work even smarter, you can really benefit from employing time under tension training for maximum muscle growth.

The volume of resistance training (how much you do), coupled with the intensity, will determine how much muscle and strength you are able to develop. Employing time under tension training can have you reaping the most benefit for your training time and efforts. Some other benefits of building lean muscle with time under tension training are:

  • More muscle fibers are recruited to lift the weight
  • Lifting lighter weight can help you avoid injuries
  • Avoid overtraining and allow yourself to heal
  • Growth hormone kicks in when you lift lighter loads more slowly
  • Build greater mind-muscle connection
  • Protein synthesis is increased

How to Perform Time Under Tension Training Properly

A good rule of thumb for TUT training is to use the following formula: take 50 seconds to one minute to perform 8 – 12 repetitions, taking 6 – 10 seconds for each repetition.

Some other good tips and tricks include:

Avoid locking out the joint—once you lockout, you no longer have tension on that muscle. The idea is to keep stress placed on the muscle throughout the movement and don’t allow the tension to let up. This also means your muscles don’t get to “rest” at the top of the movement. They’re working the entire time you are.

Work the negative—the “negative” is usually the portion of the movement when you are letting the weight back down and extending the joint. THIS is when things get critical, and it’s important to “slow down the negative” if you want to take full advantage of TUT training. The more slowly you can make the negative, the better! Remember, controlling the weight with perfect form is much more important than how much weight you are lifting.

Drop sets are your friend—using what’s called “drop sets” can also help you keep the muscle under tension longer. A drop set is when you do as many repetitions with a higher weight as you can. Once you can’t do anymore, you drop down in weight to something lighter and do as many as you can until you can’t go further. Then, typically, you’ll drop down to a lighter weight one more time and go until you hit failure (you can’t lift anymore). This is a great way to keep your muscles under tension while keeping the volume of repetitions high.

Always use perfect form—form trumps the amount of weight you’re using, every time. If you can’t lift the weight properly, then there’s no sense in lifting it as bad form will lead to injuries and imbalances in your muscles and structure. When you perform your repetitions slowly, you maintain control of the weight and thus can practice strict and perfect form.

Note—if you’re not sure what perfect form looks like, it’s definitely worth investing in a personal trainer for a period of time to show you the ropes. Having a good foundation where you learn the correct form will save you years of unnecessary struggles and injuries down the road.

Use less weight than you normally would—using perfect form while trying to lift heavy can be a recipe for disaster. When using time under tension training, you’ll definitely want to start out with lighter weight as it will seem to get very heavy very fast.

Whether you’re newer to weight training or have been hitting the weights for decades, TUT training is a tool you can use to get better results—greater strength, increased muscle size, and less risk for maximum results in minimum time.