With the millions of programs and set/rep schemes, it’s hard to believe that everything can be broken down into one simple idea. The truth is, the fitness industry is full of fluff and exercises that look awesome, but are ultimately ineffective. It’s hard to sell your training manuals when it looks exactly the same as everyone before it. This is why most trainers try to add some flare with some crazy, and sometimes dangerous, exercises. If it looks cool for a photo op, then it must work great right? Some companies even make their events as dangerous as possible for the sake of the viewers (I’ll give you one guess as to who I am refereeing to). But I digress.
Time under tension (T.U.T.) is the basis for every quality hypertrophy program. This means that in order to build muscle, you have to spend some time with some with the weights. Most mass building programs like to go with the basic 3 sets of 8-12 reps for 5 to 6 exercises with a minute or two rest in between. Look familiar? These programs are great for beginners and anyone on a back to basics kick, but the novelty wears off pretty quick. These “cookie cutter” programs are designed to be interchangeable for quick and easy monthly updates. I found this out in high school when I bought every muscle mag I could find in hopes of packing some muscle on my wiry, fragile frame. I then decided to stop program hopping and design the program that would get me where I wanted to go. For this feat, I began to study the legends of the sport.
My next purchase was “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder,” a notepad and a pen. I did as much research as possible and found that every pro bodybuilder had a few things in common, besides massive grocery bills. They used 5 to 6 day split training with 2-a-day schedules. This means that the designed 10 to 12 workouts and staggered their training so that most muscles would be trained 2 to 4 times a week. “But, but, but what about overtraining?” That unicorn disappeared over four decades ago. Needless to say, they spent a lot of time under tension.
Arnold was known to perform 9 to 12 sets of a single exercise if he didn’t think the muscle was getting the attention that it needed. Another growing fitness persona, Dwayne Johnson, talks about starting his arm workout with 7 sets of 8-12 on barbell curls. Expert trainer and competitive bodybuilder Rob Goodwin regularly knocked out 100 rep sets of isolation lifts in his preparation for his debut competition at Muscle Heat in Greensboro, where he took 2nd in the Open Weight Division and 3rd in Master’s Heavyweight. (For more information on Rob, check out his blog at http://www.originalworkout.net/robs-blog). Seems like a bit of a pattern.
While this is just trial and error and “Bro Science,” the actual science behind T.U.T. is sound as well. Muscles do not grow because you want them to. “Ok, Billy is doing 3 sets of 8-12 on bicep curls, so we’ll throw some extra mass on them to make him happy.” I wish it was this easy. The body evolves to make itself more efficient at daily tasks and reduce the strain involved in those tasks. If you are training like a mad man, your body will freak out and produce more growth hormone to protect itself and become more efficient (to a certain extent). Lumberjacks are notoriously large men because they lift and move heavy logs around all day. Their bodies have to adapt to their new level of “normal.”
This principle is based on building raw muscle mass and does not necessarily translate into cutting and shaping. As always, nutrition plays a huge role in any program and you have to eat big to get big. Another aspect to increasing your time under tension is increasing your quality of rest. For more on this check out my blog post “Active Recovery.”
ACSM Certified Fitness Professional