Time Under Tension

Allison Tenney Uncategorized

Most training programs I see these days focus mainly on exercise selection. Exercise selection is key when it comes to a thorough and successful program. Progressing a client through a program is a bit of an art form. It takes experience, and lots of trial and error to figure out what works. I am not talking about those slapped together programs that have no rhyme or reason as to WHY they are choosing certain exercises, and send clients off to check in on FB occasionally. Apparently, a program with a hodge-podge of exercises and a “the sexier, the better” attitude is all the rage. You might as well perform back flips while holding dumbbells and land on a bosu ball.

Exercise selection, regressions and progressions ARE important. But when you are training for strength and wanting results, Tempo Training is an important variable to consider.

So what IS Time Under Tension (TUT)?

Time under tension is the amount of time your body is under load (or tension). Tempo training is literally putting your muscles under stress for a longer period of time. This type of slow and controlled training focuses on the muscles which is very different from a fast, dynamic movement which will incorporate more tendon strength.

Tempo training, and particularly focusing on the eccentric (lowering/lengthening) portion of the lift, will help strengthen connective tissue, improve body control, and build muscle.

To accurately and effectively implement time under tension in your workout, you must know how to adjust the two variables for your desired outcome: 1) Time and 2) Tension.

Time – you want to move slow enough to recruit the type of muscle fibers you want to change. Typically, the goal is to increase muscle size and strength.

Tension – The goal of the slow and controlled movement is to create a greater tension in Type I muscle fibers which are more fatigue resistant than type II fibers (slow twitch = type I, fast twitch = type II )

To elicit the type of growth you want in the muscle, you need to keep Type I fibers under tension for extended periods of time. Working in short duration with heavy loads won’t fatigue the muscle enough and provide the stimulus response.

Women have an even greater degree of fatigue resistance compared to men due to a number of physiological differences (hormone make up, muscle blood flow, metabolism). This is why it’s harder for women to “bulk up” and also what makes us extra special in our ability to handle higher load volume and time under tension.

When the body is put under a certain type of stress or load, a specific energy system is utilized to handle it. In a weight room, the stress is the weights you are lifting (obviously). We can use Time Under Tension to elicit a specific response from an energy system, typically to enhance the body’s ability to strengthen and build muscles.

We adjust the time to elicit the response we want from the desired energy system.

The Tempo is written in a 4 number sequence. Each number represents a phase of the lift:


4 – 2 – 1 – 0

(4) The first number represents the first part of the lift, the lowering, or the eccentric motion (lengthening of a muscle).

(2) The second number is the pause at the bottom of the lift (the end range of the eccentric motion)

(1) The third number is the upward phase or concentric motion (when the muscle shortens and contracts)

(0) The fourth and final number represents the pause at the top or the point when the muscle is fully contracted.

Here is a video as an example (tempo is 3 – 2 – 0 – 0. While is takes more than 0 seconds to come to the top of the lift, and a longer pause is also taken at the top, the focus is on the eccentric lower and at the bottom, so that’s why the tempo is written 3 – 2 – 0 – 0) :

Tempo Front Squats

When using in a program for a desired training outcome:

Power – 3 reps: 

  • Time: 5 – 10 seconds range
  • Energy System: Power requires you to be explosive and fast. That energy will come from the ATP-PC energy system.
  • Tempo: 2-0-Fast! (explode out of the lift as fast as possible)
  • TUT: 3 seconds per rep x 3 reps = 9 sec total

Strength – 5 reps:

  • Time: 10-30 seconds range
  • Energy system: Strength will use both the ATP-PC energy system and the early part of our anaerobic energy system
  • Tempo: 3-0-1-0
  • TUT: 4 seconds per rep x 5 reps = 20 sec total

Hypertrophy – 8 reps:

  • Time: 30-60 seconds range.
  • Energy System: For muscle growth we need to work at a higher intensity, using the anaerobic system.  The goal is to fatigue the muscles and cause muscle damage. To repair the muscle damage, our body will produce more testosterone and growth hormone, and will increase the size of the muscle.
  • Tempo: 4-2-0-0
  • TUT: 6 seconds per rep x 8 reps = 48 seconds total

Time Under Tension improves basic body control and connective tissue strength. While most programs focus on exercise selection, sets and reps schemes, and adding numbers to your lifts, focusing on the tempo of your lifts can yield massive gains. Tempo training forces you to become aware of how your body moves in each lift. You will gain greater control and learn exactly where your sticking points are on your lifts.

While tempo training is not the end all be all for gains, when incorporated correctly into a well-designed program, it can help your clients take a big step toward better results and overall positive training effects.