Have you ever been at the gym and noticed someone sitting in the bottom of a squat or slowly lowering themselves in a handstand hold? These athletes are practicing progressive loading while their muscles are under tension — a super-effective way to maximize your training time and quickly increase your strength.
Slowing down in the eccentric phase of exercise (think: the lowering phase of a full-depth squat or extension phase of a biceps curl) builds more muscle compared to a standard concentric exercise (flexion of your elbow in a biceps curl or knee extension when you come up from a full-depth squat).
There are only so many ways an athlete can manipulate load: Increase the load (add weight), change the repetition scheme or increase time under tension (3- to 30-second strain). Time under tension will give you the best bang for your buck by far.
The phrase “time under tension” is commonly used in strength and conditioning and body-building communities and equates to how long a muscle is under strain during any given set. If you want to see some serious strength gains and muscle hypertrophy (growth), this is the way to do it.
Hypertrophy is the result of a single fiber within a muscle increasing in size. Muscle fibers will grow when they are exposed to a mechanical stimulus. Hypertrophy is met under two circumstances:
- A muscle is loaded.
- A muscle is contracting.
Slow and Controlled Movement
Research shows that muscle fibers exert the most force when they shorten slowly and less force when they shorten quickly. Therefore, if you’re already loading your back squat with a barbell, adhere to a 3, 2, 1 count and even pause in the hole for maximum effects.
True hypertrophy can take up to eight weeks to occur, and real body composition changes can take years. However, thinking about the length of time muscles are kept under strain during training can have a huge impact on achieving your strength and aesthetic gains faster.
Research is currently inconclusive when connecting time under tension with the amount of muscle growth that actually occurs. But studies have found that greater training volume equates to greater muscle growth. If you’re anything like me (ya girl is busy) and you don’t have hours to spare in the gym, spending more time under tension will help you see the results you’re looking for in less time.
Put Time Under Tension Into Practice
Lighter Weights = Higher Intensity
Use less load for larger sets to generate more fatigue. By doing so, you can recover faster between rest breaks and spend more time under tension. Think: 60 to 65 percent of your one-rep max.
Take less rest between sets — 60- to 90-second breaks where you can continue to maintain form. When people ask me how I get my cardio in, I say I lift weights faster.
Eccentric Portion of the Movement
Think: “Slow down.” Slowing down causes microdamage in the muscle and encourages growth. Shoot for a 3, 2, 1 count.
Make sure you use your entire range of motion to complete reps. You will get tired. Do not let your form suffer.