Time Under Tension In Your Training Program

Well-known strength coach Charles Poliquin suggests monitoring the actual time that a muscle is 'under tension' during an exercise by using a clock or stopwatch, and recording this parameter in a the training log via a numerical system.

Perhaps one of the most common questions that I get via telephone or e-mail on a regular basis goes something like this:

"I just wondered if you believe in Time Under Tension (TUT) and if so, how would you implement it in a training program?"


For those of you who aren't familiar with this concept, it was first popularized in North America by the now well-known strength coach Charles Poliquin in Muscle Media 2000 magazine about 6 years ago. This author suggests monitoring the actual time that a muscle is "under tension" during an exercise by using a clock or stopwatch, and recording this parameter in the training log via a numerical system first used by Australian strength coach Ian King.


An example of this system might look like this:

4 . . . 1 . . . 2

Which indicates that the weight is lowered for 4 seconds, paused for 1, and finally lifted over a duration of 2 seconds.

It was further suggested that an exercise's TUT should be periodically (perhaps every 3 weeks) varied as a way of respecting the principle of variation, and for the most part, I tend to agree. A lot of people began to make renewed progress in their training when they started to monitor and vary their TUT, and soon the concept became very popular.

Most people's confusion regarding TUT stems from the assertion that for optimal muscle growth, a muscle should be under tension for between 40 and 70 seconds on any given set. The problem with this idea is that when you look around at some of the most muscular athletes in the world of sport—namely Olympic powerlifters—you'll find that the average number of reps per set is 2-3, and the total TUT for any set is around 10-12 seconds.

It should also be kept in mind that the total TUT for the workout may be far more telling than the TUT for any given set. Therefore, one might rack up only 10 seconds of TUT for each set, but if numerous sets are performed, the TUT for the workout remains high nevertheless.


Why has the notion of TUT become so popular? I think in large part because when exercisers began to regulate TUT in their workouts, it simply made them work harder! In other words, it slowed them down, which in many instances helps to create better awareness of proper lifting technique, and eliminates the presence of momentum during the exercise (momentum isn't necessarily a bad thing, incidentally; it's just that most lifter's don't know how to apply compensatory acceleration—a subject for a future column).

So, sometimes when someone asks me if I believe in TUT, I'll sarcastically say "Sure—I definitely think that some period of time should elapse during every set!" But sarcasm aside, if you haven't ever bothered to monitor your lifting speed, I highly recommend it. The easiest way to do this is to buy a small electric metronome at a music store—the kind that can emit an auditory click every second. This way, you won't need to watch a clock as you lift to monitor TUT.

I think you'll find that slowing things down can create a new awareness of your lifting technique, and it certainly can make you work harder. It also tends to improve your eccentric strength, which can have multiple benefits in terms of overall strength and muscle growth.

Monitoring TUT is also a nice idea in terms of keeping tabs on exactly what is happening during your workouts—not just sets, reps, and rest periods, but lifting speed as well. The more exacting you are in monitoring training parameters, the better equipped you'll be in knowing exactly what works and what doesn't.

More Sets, Less Reps

Whenever I speak with professional fitness trainers, a common theme is how their beginning clients have such poor motor control. Once, during a seminar, a trainer remarked to me "You can't believe some of these people—for example, I have a woman who literally can't curl a bar without performing all sorts of extraneous movements like shrugging her shoulders, flexing her neck, and so forth."

Of course, I've seen examples of this in gyms everywhere, but I also think that these same trainers aren't helping any by the set/rep schemes they prescribe, particularly the traditional practice of employing the time-worn "3 sets of 10" format with beginning clients.

I realize that I'm challenging a sacred cow here, but follow me here for a moment.

Let's consider two hypothetical set/rep formats:

  • "Traditional"—3 sets of 10 repetitions
  • "Skilled"—6 sets of 5 repetitions

In both cases the training load is identical. The weight is the same, the total number of reps of the same, and the total volume (weight x reps) is also identical. However, the net result of each format can be very different. Let's have a look:

Set-Up And Break-Down

A significant aspect of "skill" in most exercises is the process of setting up and exiting the set. For example, during a bench press, the beginning client must learn and perfect how to position him/herself under the bar properly, how to center the grip, how to tuck the scapulae, where to place the feet, when and how to take in the first breath, and so on.

At the completion of the set, the novice must learn how to safely re-rack the bar, how to sit up from the bench without straining the back, and so on.

During the squat exercise, the exerciser must learn how to wedge and center the traps under the bar, how to make the walk-back as economical as possible, how to properly position the feet, and so forth. In the case of machines, one must learn how to position the seat, how to enter the machine, and on completion, how to exit the machine.

In other words, the actual repetitions are cake compared to the "set-up" and "break-down." The "skilled" approach is superior to the "traditional" format with regard to motor learning because it gives you twice as many set-up and break-down opportunities. Keep in mind that when programs advocate low reps, most trainers assume that these are maximum effort reps—not the case here.

Strength Development

Perhaps our client's motor problems are primarily the result of fatigue. After all, even you and I will start to perform some pretty funky gyrations as we approach failure on any given exercise! Of course, you and I know to stop before things become too ugly, but our clients may not.

The "skilled" approach will develop superior strength as compared to the "traditional" method because it develops far less fatigue—all repetitions are performed in a much fresher state, which allows better acceleration of the weightload.


One final note; because the "skilled" format leads to less fatigue, it is also safer than the traditional format. As the lifter fatigues, skilled performance declines, and the possibility of injury increases (for example, a client misses the uprights when he attempts to rack the bar at the end of a set, because he's in a rush to escape the pain of lactic acid accumulation in his chest, deltoids, and arms).

You Be The Judge

Don't miss my point here; your clients can and should perform a variety of set/rep schemes throughout their training experience. I'm simply arguing for programs that develop less fatigue in the interest of developing better motor skills and greater strength. I think these traits are an investment that will pay handsome dividends for both client and trainer throughout the duration of the professional relationship. Try these concepts with a handful of your new clients, and see if I'm right!