time under tension

Time Under Tension: A Battled-Tested Training Protocol

When it comes to building muscle, there are a lot of factors that come into play.


You have the basics: rep ranges, total sets, rest periods, technique and exercise choice. But, there is one variable that often gets neglected, if not forgotten about altogether.


The amount of time you actually spend lifting weights.

This doesn’t mean the duration of your workouts, but more specifically how many seconds you spend performing each rep and set.

The most common mistake I see people make in the gym (both with beginners and veteran gym goers) is rushing through their reps and giving no care or attention to the tempo of the lift.

This inevitably leads to slack form and poor muscular contractions and will have you walking out the gym with little to no muscle damage having actually occurred.

Obviously not ideal when you’re trying to y’know…build muscle.

There’s nothing more demoralising than spending years with skin in the game, grinding away, and yet having nothing more than a few calluses to show for it.

So, how do we make sure that our reps are of the best quality and are lasting the correct amount of time for optimal muscle growth?

We shift our focus from strict rep ranges to increasing Time Under Tension (TUT).

What Is Time Under Tension?

Essentially, Time Under Tension refers to the amount of time that your muscles are placed under stress or load during a set. It includes the Concentric (shortening), Eccentric (lengthening) and Isometric (static) portions of the lift.

Let’s say you do a set of bicep curls consisting of 10 reps and each rep lasts 3 seconds.

Your total TUT for that set would be 30 seconds.

If you repeated that same set, but each rep lasted for 5 seconds?

Your total TUT for the set would be 50 seconds.

So, even though you’re doing the same number of reps on each set, the fact you’ve slowed down the tempo translates to a total of 20 seconds more work for your muscles.

Thats A LOT more muscle building potential.

It is widely agreed that for optimal muscle growth you want your total TUT to be 40-60 seconds in duration per set.

time under tension

You Need To Know How Your Muscles Work

Before getting into how you can utilize TUT to your advantage, first, you need to understand how your muscles work.

During a rep, your muscle goes through three stages of contraction, each of which plays an important role in optimising TUT.

The Concentric Phase

This contraction causes the muscle to shorten and is the “lifting” portion of a movement.

The movement is created by your muscle generating force in order to move a limb or weight. This is where your muscle is at its weakest and therefore will be the portion of the lift you reach muscle fatigue first.

In general, this portion of the lift should last between 2-3 seconds.

The Eccentric Phase

This portion of the movement is the “lowering” phase of a movement.

It is caused by the muscle lengthening in response to an opposing force e.g. a Dumbbell. Despite what many think, this portion of the lift is where most muscle damage occurs and therefore where most potential to build muscle exists.

Once your muscle fails on the Concentric, you will still be able to perform reps on the Eccentric portion, due to the fact your muscles can generally handle 40% more weight when lowering it down compared to lifting it up.

This portion should last between 3-5 seconds in most cases.

The Isometric Phase

This contraction is one that requires no movement at a joint and has no change in the length of a muscle.

It is not commonly used in lifts but can be a great way to extend a set and further create muscle damage to help promote growth. It can be held for any amount of time but is generally done for 3-10 seconds.

Think pausing at the bottom of a squat or holding your hands together during a cable fly before returning to the starting position.

Battle-Testing Time Under Tension

Now that we know what Time Under Tension is and how the muscle works during a rep, here are 5 ways in which you can incorporate TUT into your workouts.

Drop sets

Start off by lifting your initial selected weight until you reach a predetermined number of reps or until the point of failure/near failure.

At this point, decrease the weight and continue your set for another predetermined number of reps or until failure has once again been reached.

This can be repeated for as many drops sets as you like, but keep in mind your aiming for a total TUT duration of 40-60 seconds per set.

Incorporating drop sets into your workouts will not only let you prolong the time your muscle is under stress, but using lighter weights will ensure you don’t cheat on your reps or take the tension off the target muscle.

time under tension

Slow Eccentrics

As mentioned earlier, the eccentric portion of a lift is often the phase that is most neglected with gym goers.

Simply placing more focus and attention to this phase of the lift can increase TUT- try lowering the weight for 3-5 seconds on each and every rep.

You can also prolong your sets once you’ve hit failure on the concentric by hitting  a few more reps on the eccentric. Use momentum to get the weight up and then lower it slowly and under control.

Having a slow and controlled eccentric will have the bonus of creating more micro-trauma within the muscle fibres, which is needed in order to kick start the Hypertrophy (muscle building) process.

Avoiding Lockout

When lifting a weight, you want to keep all the tension on the targeted muscle, by locking out you move the tension away from the muscle and onto the surrounding joints and ligaments.

For example, straightening your arms at the top of a bench press, moves the tension from the Pectorals to the joints and ligaments of the elbow and shoulders.

If you can avoid (or at least minimize) lockout during your reps it will mean your muscles will be under tension for the whole duration of your sets.

1 & ½ Reps

This method consists of performing an extra half rep for every one full rep you complete.

The way it works is by adding in an extra half rep either during the eccentric or concentric portion of the lift before completing the rep.

Using the bicep curl as an example, you would follow these steps:

  • Contract your bicep, lifting the weight to the top
  • Lower the weight half way down.
  • Pause.
  • Return to the top position
  • Lower the weight all the way down to the starting position.

During a set, that would count as 1 full rep.

Using Lighter Weights For More Muscle Growth

When using the methods above you will probably find, to start with at least, that you need to use lighter weights than you’re used to.

Don’t let this put you off though, there are a number of key benefits that come with using the TUT principle.

1. Increased muscle damage

As mentioned above, due to your muscles being under stress for  longer periods of time, it allows for more micro-trauma to be created within the muscle fibres. These micro tears are needed for our bodies to kick start the process of recovery, repair and ultimately growth.

2. Reduced risk of injury

Due to using lighter loads, it is less likely that you will incur any strains/pulls in the muscle or surrounding tissue/joints than if you were constantly using heavy loads.

Lighter loads will also reduce the chances of you “cheating” or using incorrect form during your sets.

3. Break through plateaus

Finding that you are stalling in the gains department?  Then switching up your training methods can be a great way to kick start some new muscle growth.

Muscle growth stops when your body adapts to the stress that is placed upon it, so by increasing TUT your body will have to adapt (grow) to deal with this new, unaccustomed stress.

4. Improved Mind Muscle Connection (MMC)

MMC is basically the act of focusing in on the muscle group you are working.

So for instance, if you’re training arms, you want to visualise what your bicep is doing as it curls the weight up and then lowers it down.

The reason TUT helps improve MMC is because you actually have to concentrate on each rep rather than just rushing through them until you hit a certain number in your head.

time under tension

Wrapping It All Up

Time Under Tension is a technique that anyone can include in their workouts to spur on new growth- turning chicken legs into short ripping tree trunks, give you perfect form- that even the most experienced lifters will takes notes on and increase your workout intensity- achieving a pump so good you won’t be able to log onto Facebook to tell people no matter how much you want to.

Try rotating in one or two of the above techniques into your usual workout routines each week and I’m sure you’ll smash through your goals and reap great muscle building result.

About the Author

Since leaving the PT world back in 2015, Matt Mearns has turned his hand to blogging and social media to do his bit on spreading the word on the benefits of lifting weights, and eating well for an improved lifestyle and mindset. Fuelled by an overly enthusiastic love of coffee, Matts goal is to "put common sense back into fitness."