Russ Howe PTI
Posted in: Training

Is 'Time Under Tension' Better Than Reps And Sets?

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Is 'Time Under Tension' Better Than Reps And Sets? / 5th May 2018

'Time under tension' training is a great bodybuilding principle.

But is it better than traditional training (i.e. sets and reps) for building muscle?

Should you stop performing your 3 sets of 12 and instead perform 3 sets of 45 seconds?

Buckle up, because today I'm going to dig into the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Physiology which indeed suggested that time under tension is more effective for building lean muscle tissue than regular weight training - even when using the exact same weight. (1)

Naturally, these findings immediately led several media publications to start claiming that we should ditch standard weight training and repopulate our training routine with sets based around TUT training.

But all is not what it seems on the surface...

I'll explain!

time under tension vs reps

What Is 'Time Under Tension' Training?

This has long been one of my favourite training methods.

Ask any of my clients, and they can usually recall the look of dread which hit their face as they heard me say something along the lines of, "Okay, this next set has no rep number, you've got 45 seconds..."

But if you are currently unfamiliar with this training principle, here's a quick breakdown of the differences between TUT training and straightforward sets and reps:

"Instead of focusing on a designated number of reps per set, time under tension sets focus on working for a target number of seconds per set and, in most cases, also a target number of seconds per rep. The goal is to keep forcing out these slower repetitions until you reach the overall target time of the set."

It's a fantastic method for changing up a stale training routine and genuinely shocking the body into fresh muscle growth.

And I'll say this - it's hard to describe than the feeling of overall defeat you'll feel when your quadriceps start burning like rubber and you look hopefully at the clock, only to see another twenty f**king seconds remaining, each tick booming down in what appears to be slow motion!

For that reason, you'll find it in a few of my free training programs.

But is it really true that TUT is superior to regular weight training when it comes to building lean muscle tissue?

Let's take a look at what the study actually found.

time under tension training

Time Under Tension vs Reps

A lot was made about the findings of this study.

Not all of it was true.

A team of researchers from McMaster University, Canada, set up a trial to determine whether placing a muscle under tension for a set amount of time would produce a greater anabolic response than simply training to a set number of repetitions.

They had two groups of subjects performing 3 sets of leg extensions using the following instructions:

  • Group A used 30% of their one rep max and performed 12 second reps
  • Group B used 30% of their one rep max and performed 2 second reps

Both groups performed the exact same number of reps.

Group A (the group who used the TUT protocol) noticed a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis versus group B.

In fact, MPS was elevated by 114% in the TUT group, compared to 77% in the controlled group.

This difference is significant, so this study appears to show us that time under tension is a more effective method for building lean muscle.

And that's what was reported.

TIME UNDER TENSION TO BUILD MUSCLE

The Truth About This Study

It's easy to see why so many news outlets took the findings of this study to mean that time under tension training is the new holy grail of muscle growth.

But if I dig a little deeper, I'll show you what was really going on here.

The real “hero” responsible for greater muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) is not time under tension.

It’s muscle failure.

If you train with my online workout programs or have read my article on high reps vs low reps you will already know that I’m a massive fan of training to failure.

Training a muscle to failure (i.e. being unable to perform another rep after the end of your set) is capable of increasing muscle growth by as much as 60% (you read that correctly), and the increased lactic acid build-up  during exercise also leads to increased metabolic stress and growth hormone. (2, 3)

And when it comes to building fresh lean muscle, that's certainly a good thing!

In the study above, group A (time under tension) were able to get far closer to muscle failure than the other participants.

Because while both groups used 30% of their one rep max for the test, the TUT group made the most of that lighter weight by holding each repetition for an excruciating 12 seconds.

It’s common sense to see that performing a set with 30% of your one rep max while doing 2 seconds reps isn't going to create anywhere near the intense burn you'll experience when doing the same thing (with the same weight) for 12 second reps.

And that is the real secret to the superior results.

time under tension workout

In Summary

'Time under tension' training is a great principle to use from time-to-time in order to shock the body.

But in order to truly compare the effects of time under tension vs reps for muscle growth, we'd need to see both groups using a weight which allowed them to reach muscle failure.

The main take-home point from this study is that if you want to force new results from your muscles, you need to be taking them to failure.

If you enjoyed reading my take on time under tension training, share the f**ker.

References:

  1. Burd, N.A., et al. “Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-Fractional Synthetic Responses In Men.” J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15;590(Pt 2):351-62.
  2. Burd, N. A., et al. “Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise In Young Men”. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12033, 2010.
  3. Burd, N. A., et al. “Enhanced Amino Acid Sensitivity Of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Persists For Up To 24 h After Resistance Exercise In Young Men”. J Nutr. 2011 Apr 1;141(4):568-73.

Russ Howe PTI