An In-Depth Look at Time Under Tension. What it is and How do We Use It? by Jared Ogan

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[This is a guest blog by Jared Ogan. Jared has a B.S in kinesiology from the University of Central Oklahoma, is a USAW-L1 performance coach, and is an athletic development intern at Athletic Lab.]

timeundertensionWhy do people workout? The answer, most of the time is to get in shape, lose weight, build muscle, or any other reason of your choice. The interesting thing is that with each of those answers, you could prescribe a different workout from the others. With each goal, there is a better way to go about achieving that said goal. For example, someone looking to build muscle is not going to do the same workouts as someone looking to get better endurance (of course, right).

As coaches how do we go about accomplishing our athlete’s goals? I believe as coaches, we need to know our material. And what I mean by that is that we should know the “do and don’ts.” We should know what we can eliminate from our workout program, and what we should be sure to put into our workout program. What works best for building strength? What works best for endurance? For losing weight? For being able to jump higher? We should know it. If not, definitely before we take on the challenge of training someone with that goal. Along with knowing the goal of working out, we also have to take into account people’s schedules. How many days a week can they work out? How much time do they have to work out? One of the challenges of being a coach is being able take someone’s schedule and goals, and create something unique for that individual.

Where to Start

Just getting to the gym is a good start for most people. Depending on your level of fitness, starting off, you could see results quickly; especially if you are out of shape, but do not let those results be the end all. You are just scratching the surface. Research says the initial gains of strength are mostly due to neurologic adaptations (2). Your body is adapting to the stimulus put on it, and your brain is learning how to perform movements without expending all of your energy. How do we go about not losing our “gains”? As coaches, one of our goals is to manipulate the stressors placed on our athlete’s bodies. This is how we go about increasing performance and better preparing our athletes for competition. That is when understanding the training variables and training affects of a multitude of exercises will benefit the training we can do with our athletes. As coaches, we want to improve performance and we want the best known ways to go about that. We do not want to do something that has been proven through research to lack benefits, and we definitely do not want to do something that is not going to keep our athletes safe.

thinkingLet’s think of different training variables we can manipulate. There are many different variables that can be manipulated during resistance training; whether that is volume, intensity, weight, speed of exercise done, recovery time, or time under tension. This paper will focus more on the time under tension variable, its implications and benefits in resistance training.

What is Time Under Tension

Jim Stoppani does a good job of defining time under tension. He breaks down time under tension as the time it takes to complete the set is referred to as the time the muscle is under tension. Tension refers to the resistance from the weight being used (3). Basically, time under tension is the amount of time your muscle is under strain or resisting the weight during a set.

With time under tension defined, let’s break down the methods of lifting associated with time under tension. When performing a lift, you can either perform a push, or a pull exercise, these exercises are always broken into an eccentric contraction phase (lengthening of the muscle), a concentric contraction phase (shortening of the muscle), and an isometric contraction phase (no change in muscle length). With our time under tension method, we will increase the time spent during one of these multiple phases. For example, you might see some weightlifters perform a bench press and take longer to drop the weight to their chest (eccentric phase), and then they do a quick pause at their chest (isometric phase) then push the weight quick back up to the top (concentric phase). You can also manipulate this method to do a quick eccentric phase and longer concentric phase, or have both phases longer; the coach has all the say for this training method.

What the Research Shows

Let’s take a look at what happens when we manipulate the eccentric and concentric phases of time under tension. Eccentric training is commonly known as the better method to produce muscle related growth, when compared to concentric training. Eccentric training is also different from concentric training reportedly by its capability of consuming more ATP, lactate concentrations and muscle strength output (1). Concentric training results in a higher heart rate (HR) and blood pressure (BP) values due to increased activation of the motor units (1). This shows that both contractions are different but at the same time, have their own unique benefits. In my experience with internships with strength and conditioning coaches and here at Athletic Lab, I have come to see eccentric training used to help not only build strength but as a control factor. Taking a longer time to perform the eccentric phase of an exercise makes you have to be aware of your body during it. For example, you could have an athlete do an eccentric push-up if he/she was struggling to keep a straight line from their shoulders down to their feet during a regular push-up. Eccentric training is also associated with decreased fatiguability, lower cardiopulmonary responses, and increased metabolic efficiency (2). This could be of great interest for coaches looking to get a good workout in with their athletes, but not looking to tax their energy systems to the point of exhaustion. Concentric training, on the other hand, seems to be more efficient when training for power. As stated before concentric training increases the activation of motor units, so it makes sense to do concentric training to improve power moves such as jumping or sprinting; that require more motor units to do effectively. For example, most coaches will do a back squat with a quick finish coming out of the hole; focus on the concentric part of the movement.

What I have to come to understand in my research of time under tension is that it is best done when paired with the correct weight and rep range. We know that rep ranges varying from 1 to 6 seem to work best for strength gains, and rep ranges of 8-12 seem to work best for muscle growth or hypertrophy, but what about time under tension during these rep ranges? Jim Stoppani states that most strength experts believe for strength gains you should take about 4 to 20 seconds per set, and 40 to 60 seconds per set for muscle growth/hypertrophy (3). So now with ranges for both reps and time under tension set, we can prescribe training based off of these numbers and periodize it to our liking.

In conclusion, the power is in our hands as coaches in what variables of exercise we choose to manipulate to best impact our athlete’s performance. Time under tension is one of those variables, and is easily manipulated with the proper understanding of what it is and how it helps. The main goal is to prepare our athletes for performance and I believe the manipulation of time under tension, like many other variables, will help us to our best chance of making our athletes great.

References:

  1. Gois, M. O., Campoy, F. S., Alves, T., µvila, R. P., Vanderlei, L. M., & Pastre, C. M. (2014). The influence of resistance exercise with emphasis on specific contractions (concentric vs. eccentric) on muscle strength and post-exercise autonomic modulation: a randomized clinical trial. Brazilian Journal Of Physical Therapy / Revista Brasileira De Fisioterapia18(1), 30-37.
  2. Roig M, O’Brien K, Kirk G, Murray R, McKinnon P et al. (2009) The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with metaanalysis. Br J Sports Med 43: 556-568. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.051417. PubMed: 18981046.
  3. USE “TIME UNDER TENSION” TO MANIPULATE SETS. (2006). Fitness Business Canada7(5), 48-49.
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