In the pursuit of aesthetics and performance, there are many roads you can take. Your training age dictates the level of program you use, and there’s one protocol that can be used for both advanced and beginner lifters; time under tension (TUT) training.
TUT can is also known as eccentric training or tempo training.
What is time under tension training?
Put simply, TUT training is deliberately making a muscle group work harder than it has to through controlled muscle contractions. It also allows you as a coach to control the stimulus your athletes receive from your prescribed workouts.
For example, two athletes perform one set of 10 reps of a bicep curl without any instruction on tempo or TUT. One uses controlled movements and finishes the set in 45 seconds, the other looks like they’re going for a world record and finishes the set in 9.1 seconds. The training stimulus they both receive is vastly different and demonstrates the need for TUT training.
Why consider using time under tension training?
There is lots of positive anecdotal evidence with TUT training and only a little negative. I’ll summarize some of the conversations around TUT to give you an idea of some of the industry thoughts.
Eric Helms is a well-respected researcher and bodybuilder and has said that TUT “doesn’t hold up because you’re not lifting the amount of volume needed to get strong”. This is taken from his Muscle and Strength Pyramid Training book which is largely focused around the pursuit of absolute strength. While this point isn’t incorrect, it's only looking at one perspective. Research has shown that TUT and eccentric training recruits Type II, high threshold/fast twitch motor units responsible for absolute strength training.
Some people say that training slow will make you slow. The argument is that if you lift weights slowly, then it’ll transfer into slow movements. However, as mentioned above, TUT training will bias the Type II muscle fibres which are needed in powerful movements. However, it is suggested that moving slowly on the ascent phase isn’t optimal for speed and performance goals.
Another point made is that athletes playing sports requiring relative strength (link) would gain too much muscle size doing TUT and in turn become heavier and slower.
In the Bodybuilding community, TUT training can enhance muscle growth. A set of TUT puts more metabolic stress on the muscle, unlike a regular set. This is referred to as more metabolically demanding (burning more calories and increasing and growth hormones) and causing more muscle damage. Combine this with a solid nutritional plan and you’ll experience significant increases in muscle.
The Olympic weightlifting community uses TUT training especially for learning new techniques and consciously working on perfecting their technique. The big difference is that the concentric phase of the movement is done quickly and aggressively.
Areas that TUT training works well for is with beginners and musculoskeletal rehabilitation. The slower tempos stress the central nervous system which overcomes some of the inhibition experienced as a result of tissue damage.
Another benefit of TUT training for rehabilitation is a crossover effect of strength. If the injured limb isn’t able to train just yet (in a cast etc.), then TUT training on the un-injured limb has shown increases in strength and neural firing to the injured limb!
When working with beginners, TUT training allows the lifter to stay in better positions. At times, beginners tend to rush their lifts. Slowing down and working on correct technique with TUT hardwires the movements.
Reading Tempo Prescriptions
When using tempo training it is important to know how fast or how slow the lift must be performed. Just saying slow or fast is too vague, so thanks to the late Charles Poliquin, it is expressed in a four-digit abbreviation such as 4/2/X/1.
A1) Back Squat, Tempo 4/2/X/1 - 5 sets of 5 reps @ 77.5% of 1 RM
To understand the tempo jargon
4 = the lowering phase of a lift, the eccentric
2 = pause between eccentric and concentric, the isometric
X = explosive accent, the concentric
1 = one-second pause at the top, essentially rest
Practical considerations for TUT
Use for bigger compound lifts - squat, deadlift, pull up, bench press, shoulder press
Use at the beginning of a workout when you're fresh and focused
Weight between 60-85% of 1 repetition max
Sets lasting no longer than around 40 seconds
Reps lasting no longer than 15 seconds
For performance, finish lifts explosively,
For rehabilitation, beginners and muscle size use slower muscle contractions on both the concentric and eccentric.