Breaking Down a Time Under Tension Workout

In recent years, the phrase time under tension has made its way around in the fitness industry.

Time under tension simply refers to the amount of time you put your muscle under tension during a set.

There has been much debate back and forth as to whether or not this type of training is effective for building muscle.

I’m not here to tell you whether you should do it, but instead, I want to bring to light what time under tension is and how it can be applied in your workouts!

What Is Time Under Tension

A woman using time under tension on a medicine ball

Let’s expand on our definition of time under tension. 

When your muscle contracts to lift a weight, you are putting tension on that muscle. Time under tension is the amount of time during a workout that your muscle spends in a contracted state.

There are essentially two ways to increase your time under tension. There is a tempo method and a high-rep method. 

Tempo Method

With the tempo method, you use a timer to measure the actual length of each phase of each rep. 

When it comes to the tempo method there are four phases: negative, pause, positive, pause (I’ll get more into this in just a minute).

The idea is to increase the amount of time you spend in one or more of these phases.

For example, if you are wanting to expand your time under tension on a chest press you will want to lengthen the time you spend bringing the weight down to your chest while keeping a fast tempo on the lifting phase.

High-Rep Method

This method of increasing time under tension gives you an overall time to perform an exercise rather than focusing on a tempo.

This usually has you perform a specific move from anywhere between 30 – 70 seconds. 

They Both Work

Both of these methods serve the designated purpose of increasing the amount of time a given muscle is working. 

For example, imagine that you perform 10 reps of an exercise and you take 10 seconds per rep, using slow, controlled form throughout the movement.

Then you perform the same exercise more quickly, only taking 2 seconds to perform each rep but you’re able to do 50 reps.

In each case, your muscle was under tension for a total of 100 seconds.

Benefits Of Time Under Tension

A woman lifting a weight using time under tension

Studies are not entirely clear on whether time under tension really is a better way to build muscle.

But it still comes with a list of potential benefits that may make it worth trying.

1. Improved Form

Often people will go heavy with their weight at the gym and compromise their form when trying to lift it.

But when you increase the amount of time your muscles are under tension, you’ll have to use a lighter weight than you’re used to.

By going lighter you’ll be able to focus on and improve your form.

2. Decreased Chance of Injury

It isn’t uncommon for people to experience injury when they compromise form by trying to lift too heavy.

When you use lighter weight and practice proper form, you are less likely to open yourself up to injury!

The workout becomes less about how much you are lifting and more about how well you are lifting.

3. Variety in Your Workouts

I love being able to switch things up and keep my muscles guessing.

Having a different style of training in my repertoire lets me do that!

I utilize time under tension at least once a week just to keep things different, and I love the way my muscles feel afterward.

A Time Under Tension Workout

A woman doing a leg press using time under tension

Strength training is based on the principle of overload. This means increasing the stress placed on your muscles in order to see improvements in strength.

There are two ways to increase the work your muscles are doing. You have to either increase the weight or increase the amount of time your muscle is placed under this load.

Upping the weight is typically what people go for.

But by putting your muscle under strain for greater periods of time, you can cause extensive muscle breakdown which ultimately leads to more muscle built.

Here’s how a typical time under tension workout would look.

High-Rep Workout

For the high-rep method, your focus is on overall time. Therefore, you would simply perform each of your exercises for a set period of time. A great example of this would be a HIIT workout.

Tempo Workout

This method of time under tension is a bit more complicated.

You’ll set up each exercise in the workout to follow a specific tempo. Most commonly used is the 4 part tempo.

This breaks down the time spent in each phase of the movement:

1. Negative (The muscle is getting longer; Ex. downward on a biceps curl, upward on a lat pulldown)

2. Pause

3. Positive (The muscle is contracting or getting shorter; Ex. Upward on a biceps curl, downward on a lat pulldown)

4. Pause

You want to increase the time spent in the negative phase while keeping the positive phase quick.

For a squat, it might look like a 4-1-1-0. The numbers represent the seconds spent in each phase of the move. 

You would take 4 seconds to lower yourself down into a squat, pause for 1 second, take 1 second to explode upward, and then pause for another second before repeating the exercise.

In a chest press following the same tempo, you would spend 4 seconds lowering the bar down to your chest, 1-second pause at the bottom of the move, 1 second to bring the weight back up, and a 1-second pause at the top. 

You would likely complete 10 – 12 reps of the given exercise for four total rounds each.

Bringing It All Together

A woman doing a strange overhead workout using time under tension

There is much debate as to whether time under tension is important for muscle growth. Many think that it is the best way to pack on the muscle, while others think it’s a waste of time.

Whether it is the most effective or not, don’t let it steer you away. It is another great style of lifting that you can add to your routine with benefits to follow.

Give it a try at your next gym session and see how great you feel afterward.

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Faith Barbare

Faith Barbare

Writer and expert

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