Time Under Tension – the secret to weight-training success

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All adults should be involved in a strength training program due to the multiple health benefits. "Time Under Tension" is a technique that is useful in ensuring you get the results you want from your weight-training program.

I remember being a fly on a wall many years ago, listening in on a conversation between two exercise physiologists at the University of Toronto, arguing over which is more important for overall health, a weight training program or a cardiovascular training program. I think weight-training program wins the argument hands down, especially when one considers that if the exercise program is designed well, the participant will be getting a cardiovascular workout at the same time. So unless you are training for a particular athletic event such as a triathlon or 10km race, why bother spend all that extra time doing cardio? Most of us have better things to do with our time, and furthermore, aerobic training tends to break down muscle tissue which is counter-productive if you are trying to build strength.

As we age we tend to get weaker, and it is frequently a lack of strength that limits our function and closes down our life. The average 75 year old has difficulty carrying a 10lb bag of groceries much more than a block. Putting aging parents into a home that has no stairs is a big mistake in my opinion, because within a few months, they will not be able to do stairs at all, and will have more difficulty with curbs and getting in and out of cars etc. Our bodies respond to the demand imposed upon them, and if the demand is decreased, our strength will diminish. Use it or lose it!

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. Increase the demands on the muscles, and the body will get stronger. It is NEVER too late to begin a strength-training program and reap the benefits, which include:

  • increased muscle strength and endurance, which translates into an
    ability to do things more easily, and to better enjoy life
  • increased bone density, important in preventing osteoporosis
  • improved balance and coordination
  • increased calorie burn (1 lb of muscle burns 50 calories per day, so put on 10 lbs of muscle you burn 500 extra calories per day)
  • decrease in body fat
  • improvement in body shape
  • improvement in mood
  • decreased blood pressure because of improved muscle blood flow, which opens capillary beds
  • decreased insulin resistance (important for type 2 diabetes / syndrome X)
  • improvement in blood lipid profiles (lower triglycerides, higher HDL levels)
  • improvement in digestion
  • decreased fatigue levels
  • improvement in sleep
  • improvement sports performance

For strength training to be effective and in order to prevent injuries the exercises need to be done correctly and medical history and postural habits need to be considered, so hire a CHEK Practitioner or a qualified personal trainer to select the appropriate exercises and teach you how to do them right. The biggest mistake women tend to make, is to wave around itty bitty weights and expect to get a shapely body. To get stronger, the exercises must be CHALLENGING by the end of a set. Doing a set of 12 repetitions of bicep curls with 2 lbs is a complete waste of time. Women are frequently afraid of lifting heavy weights because they think they will get too muscular, but due to the low amounts of testosterone that women have, it simply won’t happen. Lifting heavy enough weight will create shapely, toned muscles – exactly what most women want. The biggest mistake men tend to make is to try and lift too heavy a weight, thereby using momentum to lift the weight rather than the muscle, resulting in less of a training effect. Using a slightly lighter weight that can be controlled throughout the entire range of motion will squeeze more tension out of the muscle resulting in better results. Only if one is training for a power or speed sport is it necessary to heave weights around very quickly. (Having a coach experienced in this type of training is highly recommended if power or speed training is what you want, as good technique is critical for injury prevention.)

Time-Under-Tension can be a useful method to ensure that the exercise is challenging enough to actually cause a training response, and is an interesting way to change up a tired 8-12 rep, or 15 to 20 rep weight-training program. By manipulating the speed of the repetitions and the time the muscles are
working, one can target specific goals, such as muscle endurance, body shaping (hypertrophy), strength and power. Movements must be done smoothly and with control, with no rest between repetitions, and with a weight that is heavy enough to be very challenging by the end of the time in question in order to maximize results. Beginners will have more success avoiding injury by moving quite slowly (at least 3 seconds up and 3 seconds down), and as exercise technique and fitness improves, and exercise goals dictate, exercise tempo can be increased. Beginners will gain strength on a muscle endurance program, as they are at the lowest level of their strength-gaining potential. After about 3 months their tendons and ligaments will have adapted adequately to progress safely to a hypertrophy program as long as exercise technique is good.


Workout Variables

Strength/Power

Hypertrophy (body shaping)

Endurance

Sets (min – max)

1–4

2–5

1–3

Reps (min – max)

1–8

8–14

15–25

Time Under Tension

4–30sec

30–70sec

60–100sec

Rest between sets

2–4min

1–2min

30sec–1min

Rest between workouts

48–72hrs

48–72hrs

24–72hrs
  Chart by Justin Opal    

Although the times above are approximate, and ideal times may vary slightly depending on the individual, they do provide a useful starting off point. So, if your goal is to put on muscle mass or shape your body, you need a bare minimum of 30 seconds of time under tension to achieve that goal. If you are rushing through 10 reps at a tempo of 1 second up, 1 second down, you will be done in 20 seconds which is not enough time to get the results you want. So, next time you are in the gym, set a timer to a minute, do the movements slowly and with control with a weight that will tire you by the time the minute is up. Training according to time by adjusting exercise tempos and set times instead of repetition numbers ensures enough time under tension to get the results you want. Pay attention to rest times as well. Don't forget to raise the weight as you get stronger to keep the exercise challenging, and to change the exercises you do every four to six weeks.

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Chek, Paul Program Design – choosing reps, sets, loads, tempo and rest periods Chek Institute, Encinitas, CA 1995.

Tran QT et al. The effects of varying time under tension and volume load on acute neuromuscular responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Nov;98(4):402-10. Epub 2006 Sep 13

Opal, Justin Time Under Tension

TC A Simpleton’s Guide to Charles Poliquin’s Training Principles, Part I Irish Thrower’s Club

Copyright 2009 Vreni Gurd

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1 Comment »

  1. Sam said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:19 am

    ” So, if your goal is to put on muscle mass or shape your body, you need a bare minimum of 30 seconds of time under tension to achieve that goal…” Which of these references did u get this from? 2) Nothing gets me more than some health guru who has a tubby bod. How come there’s no pics of your full body. Thanks TW

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