No longer making gains from your regular workout? This technique could be the answer – here’s how to incorporate it into your routine to progress and get stronger.
If you feel like your progress in the gym has stalled and you’re not getting any stronger, don’t worry, you’re not alone. As frustrating as they are, fitness plateaus are common, particularly if you’ve been training for a long time.
When you reach that point of plateau, you need to increase the intensity of your workouts to get your gains back on track. This might mean upping the weights or the reps. But if you feel like you can’t squeeze out an extra rep or lift any heavier, focusing on time under tension (TUT) in your training could help kickstart your progress.
We asked a number of PTs and fitness experts to break down what this underrated strength training technique involves, and how you can incorporate it into your routine to build strength and muscular endurance. Here’s what they told us.
WHAT DOES ‘TIME UNDER TENSION’ MEAN?
“Time under tension refers to the amount of time a muscle is held under strain or tension during an exercise,” says personal trainer and Bulk ambassador Hayley Madigan.
With the TUT technique, the idea is to increase the time your muscles are held under tension without additional weight, sets or reps. You can do this by pausing during the most difficult part of a movement or by slowing down the tempo of a rep so that it takes longer to perform a given set of exercises.
“With a bicep curl for example, instead of taking one second to lift the dumbbell and one second to lower it, you slow the rep down, taking two seconds to lift it and two seconds to lower it,” explains Sally Moss, founder of Strength Ambassadors. “Now, you’re performing each rep for four seconds instead of two, so over the course of a set of 10 reps, the amount of time under tension has increased from 20 seconds to 40 seconds.”
THE BENEFITS OF FOCUSING ON TIME UNDER TENSION
So, why is focusing on TUT during your workouts a good idea? First and foremost, it’s an effective way of building muscular strength and endurance without adding extra load.
“TUT keeps your muscles under resistance for longer, forcing them to work harder so you continue to break down muscle fibres and build them back stronger,” says body pump instructor Izzy Roberts.
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Research backs this up. A 2016 study found that making the eccentric phase (the downwards motion in an exercise) double the length of the concentric phase (when you drive back up) causes an increase in muscle activation and blood lactate response. This suggests that focusing on slow, controlled movements is an effective way of increasing hypertrophy.
For Olivia Tyler, a personal trainer at Nuffield Health, TUT can aid progress by encouraging us to renew our focus. “When we do the same exercises over and over again, it’s easy to lose concentration,” she says. “Thinking about time under tension ensures we aren’t using momentum to achieve a movement, but are engaging all the right muscles.”
During a kettlebell swing, for example, it’s easy to use momentum instead of pushing through your heels and engaging the hamstrings and glutes. “If you’re not contracting your muscles properly, you’re not going to see results,” explains Tyler. “Slowing down the movement and focusing on those contractions will help boost your strength training progress.”
Moss also believes slow tempo work has a number of advantages, particularly for those new to lifting weights. “Slowing a rep down can help you improve your technique as your body has more time to respond to the effect of the weight,” she says.
“Take a squat, for example. If you rush the movement, it’s likely that you’ll be off-balance and won’t go as deep as you could,” she continues. “Slowing the rep down can help you maintain good form as you can focus on pushing your knees out and bracing your core.”
Sports physiotherapist and performance coach Samantha Williams adds that incorporating TUT in your workouts allows for better mind-muscle connection and a more integrated breathing pattern.
Improved tendon and joint health
According to Williams, putting a muscle under tension at its end range of motion can help your tendons and ligaments adapt and improve their elastic properties and strength.
“These structures are prone to tension-based and repetitive strain injuries because they have less blood supply than the actual musculoskeletal structures,” she explains. “Slowing down your movements will help increase blood supply to these areas post-workout and will increase strength in the more restricted tissues.”
As such, you’re likely to see an increase in the range of movement at your joints.
HOW TO INCORPORATE TUT INTO YOUR WORKOUTS
There are a number of different ways to incorporate the technique into your routine and it will vary depending on your workout, but here are some tips to help you get started:
Focus on the eccentric part of the movement
In order to get the most out of each rep and to build muscle, lengthening the amount of time it takes to perform the eccentric part of the movement, the lowering phase, is key.
An example of the eccentric phase is when you lower your dumbbells back down to starting position during a shoulder press – this is when you should really slow down the movement.
“If you press the weight up powerfully for two seconds, you should take at least four or five seconds to lower it back down,” explains Madigan.
Here’s how you can increase TUT in other common strength training exercises:
- Bicep curl: Lowering the dumbbell is the eccentric phase of a bicep curl. Like with the shoulder press, if you take two seconds to pull it up, you should spend at least four seconds lowering it back down.
- Chest press: Use your arms to push the weight above you for at least two seconds then slowly lower it back down for at least four seconds.
- Squat: Go down for a count of five seconds to make your muscles work harder and push up for a count of one second.
“You can use this technique in pretty much every single weighted exercise, including machines and cable exercises,” says Madigan.
Activate your muscles
Tyler says it’s important to activate the muscles you’re going to work on during your warm-up. “Before a glute workout, spend some time doing exercises like side steps and band work to make sure your glutes are contracting effectively for when you start your workout,” she advises.
Use lighter weights
Madigan suggests starting off with lighter weights when performing exercises at a slower tempo. “You’ll find they become significantly more difficult when performed this way, so it’s totally fine to lower the weight,” she says. As you build muscular endurance, you can slowly increase the weight.
Go to a class
Trying out classes which focus on TUT is a great idea, particularly if you want some guidance on your technique. Roberts says body pump, TRX, pilates and yoga are all great options.
Add music to your workouts
If you struggle with keeping count, Roberts says exercising to music might help. “A musical beat is a great way to add timings to your workout,” she says. “You don’t need to be a choreographer, you just need to be able to count for four.”
Time under tension in bodyweight training
TUT isn’t just a useful technique when lifting weights– there are a number of ways to incorporate it into your bodyweight training to reap the rewards.
This is something that Maiken Wrighton, personal trainer and resident fitness expert at Innermost, likes to do when she doesn’t have access to the gym.
“Focus on spending more time doing the most difficult part of the exercise and slow down the tempo when your muscles are under the most tension,” she says. “During a press up, for example, lower your body down slowly and try and hold it for a few seconds at the bottom – you’ll feel the difference!”
Pausing at the top of a chin-up and slowing down the lowering phase is another great example.
You can also focus on TUT during isometric exercises like planks, side planks, squat holds and wall sits. “It does get a little more complicated with isometric holds,” warns strength and nutrition coach Kimberly Scott. “With a wall sit, for instance, if it’s too easy and you can hold it for over 60 seconds, you’ll need to make it more difficult or it’ll turn into more of an endurance challenge.”
1. Nutrition is important
Madigan points out it’s important to make sure you’re consuming enough calories and getting sufficient protein in your diet to maximise recovery and build muscle mass.
2. Consult a PT if you need to
Performing exercises at a much slower pace will allow you to focus on your technique. If you notice aches and pains in the wrong places, says Roberts, it’s important you speak to an expert. “They can help you address the issue and correct your technique so you can move better in the future,” she says.
3. Don’t get complacent
Roberts feels it’s important to understand that while TUT is a great way to build muscle, it doesn’t work in isolation. “You should still be trying different exercises and training styles to keep challenging your body and to make sure you don’t get complacent,” she says. “It’s not a standalone ‘method’, it’s just an effective way of adding variety to your sessions.”
For more technical fitness advice, check out the rest of the Strong Women Training Club library.
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