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The New Science of Time Under Tension

What's the Optimal TUT for Muscular Gains?


by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD | 11/25/15

Here's what you need to know...


Time-under-tension refers to how long the muscle is under strain during a
set. For size gains, most think you need 30-60 seconds of TUT.
Rather than looking at TUT for a set, it's better to look at the total TUT for a
given muscle group in a workout.
You can build muscle with heavy sets lasting several seconds or lighter sets
lasting a minute as long as you accumulate sufficient volume.
If your main goal is to gain muscle size, 60-90 seconds (20-30 RM per set)
will do it. You can do this with a periodized plan or perform heavy and light
work in the same workout.
Women may need longer TUT than men to build muscle.
What is Time Under Tension?
Surf the internet and you're bound to see a slew of training
recommendations based on the concept of time-under-tension (TUT).
Basically, this refers to how long the muscle is under strain or resisting the
weight during each set. Do 12 reps of biceps curls, taking about 1 second to
lift the weight and 2 seconds to lower it, and your TUT for that set is 36
seconds.

A popular claim is that an optimal TUT for maximizing muscle growth


requires training with sets that last in the range of 30 to 60 seconds.
According to this theory, sets of longer or shorter duration will be
suboptimal for muscle gains. Sounds good in theory, but is this claim
consistent with the prevailing science?

"Time Under Load" is More Accurate


First, the term TUT is somewhat of a misnomer. Mechanical tension is
directly related to the magnitude of load or weight you're lifting. If you
perform a rep at your 1 rep max (RM), it will necessarily create more
mechanical tension than a rep performed at 50% 1RM. Thus, sets of long
durations will necessarily involve lower levels of tension than those of
shorter durations, assuming training is carried out near or to momentary
muscular failure.

A more appropriate term would be "time under load," which reflects the
actual time spent in a given set irrespective of the weight lifted. It's an
important distinction when considering the ramifications of the concept
since there are wide variances in both mechanical and metabolic factors
with different set durations. That said, we'll stick with the term TUT given its
widely accepted use.

What About Volume, Occlusion, and Cell Signaling?


It's not entirely clear where the concept of an optimal TUT for size gains
came about. Seemingly it evolved from the typical routines of bodybuilders,
which pairs fairly high amounts of mechanical tension with elevated levels
of metabolic stress.

While mechanical tension is indisputably a primary major driver of muscle


growth, there's compelling evidence that a significant exercise-induced
metabolite buildup plays a role as well (11). Conceivably, the combination of
these factors would have an additive effect on muscular development,
increasing gains over and above what can be achieved when one factor is
high and the other is low.

It's also well-documented that muscular contractions during resistance


training compress blood vessels that feed the working muscle (1, 12). This
occludes circulation to the muscle, creating a hypoxic environment similar to
blood flow restricted exercise. Although the exact mechanisms aren't clear,
research shows that an intermittent hypoxic state enhances muscle growth
(9). Given that blood supply is occluded for longer periods of time during
sets with extended TUTs, it can be hypothesized that such training may lead
to a more pronounced anabolic response.

Despite the seemingly sound rationale, however, supporting evidence for an


optimal hypertrophic TUT range is scant. There is some acute research
showing divergent intracellular signaling responses between different TUTs.
Hulmi et al (3) reported that the anabolic effectors MAPK and mTOR were
greater after a hypertrophic (5 sets of 10 reps) compared to maximal
strength (15 sets of 1 rep) resistance training protocol.

Although this would seem to provide evidence that the longer TUT was more
anabolic, it should be noted that the volume of training was substantially
greater for the hypertrophic protocol. Given the compelling evidence of a
dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy (4), it remains
questionable whether the heightened anabolic signaling was due to a longer
TUT or simply the greater amount of total work performed.

What's more, the results of acute signaling studies don't necessarily


translate into long-term changes in muscle mass (6). So while such findings
are interesting and help to develop hypotheses, you must be cautious when
attempting to extrapolate them into practice.

Bodybuilder
Show Me the Studies!
Fortunately, we can look to longitudinal training studies that actually
measure muscle hypertrophy for answers. It just so happens that my lab
carried out a study that sheds light on this very topic. We recruited 17
resistance-trained men and randomized them to perform either a
bodybuilding-type (3 sets of 10 reps) or powerlifting-type (7 sets of 3 reps)
routine. The per-set TUT for the bodybuilding-type routine was about 30-40
seconds while that of the powerlifting routine was around 9-12 seconds.
Training was carried out 3 days a week for 8 weeks.

The results? Both groups saw almost identical increases in muscle growth! A
key point here is that we equated volume-load between groups and
therefore total TUT for each exercise was roughly equal across conditions.

A recent study by Mangine et al (5) provides further evidence that TUT is not
the be-all end-all of hypertrophy training. The researchers randomized well-
trained male subjects to perform a routine consisting of either 4 sets of 10-
12 reps or 4 sets of 3-5 reps. The higher rep protocol had more than double
the TUT compared to the lower rep protocol. After 8 weeks, similar increases
in muscle growth of the arms and legs were again seen across conditions.

The interesting aspect of this study was that those in the higher rep group
performed a greater volume of training than those lifting for lower reps.
Although speculative, it simply may be that the threshold for volume was
reached in the lower rep group to maximize the hypertrophic response, and
that the additional volume performed in the higher rep group was ultimately
unnecessary.

Regardless, the findings of the two studies provide strong evidence that it's
overly simplistic to view hypertrophy training from a TUT standpoint, at least
in the context of an optimal duration of a set. Rather, it's more appropriate
to consider the total TUT performed for a given muscle group in a given
workout. Substantial muscle growth can be achieved with heavy sets lasting
several seconds or lighter sets lasting a minute or more as long as you
accumulate sufficient volume and continually challenge the working
muscles.

Does This Mean TUT is Irrelevant?


Not necessarily. What seems possible is that high TUTs may promote greater
hypertrophy in type I muscle fibers. By nature, slow-twitch type I fibers are
fatigue-resistant (as opposed to type II fibers, which can produce high levels
of force but fatigue rather easily). It therefore stands to reason that you'd
need to keep the type I fibers under tension for extended periods to elicit
their maximal growth. Short durations with heavy loads simply won't provide
enough of a stimulus for fatigue.

So, the use of light loads for long TUTs would seem necessary to fully
develop the indefatiguable slow twitch muscle fibers. Emerging research out
of Russia shows that this indeed is the case, with light-load protocols
involving high TUTs (50% 1RM) showing more type 1 fiber growth and
heavier-loads with lower TUTs (80% 1RM) displaying greater hypertrophy of
type II fibers (7, 8, 10).

So How Do I Use This New Info?


From a practical standpoint, the evidence indicates that adding in some
high-rep sets with a TUT of around 60-90 seconds (20-30 RM per set) can be
beneficial if your goal is maximal hypertrophy. Growth of type I fibers would
have little effect on strength, so high rep sets would be unnecessary for
those purely seeking to maximize force development.

There are a number of ways to implement the higher TUT sets:

You can use a daily or weekly undulating periodization scheme that has
regimented light-load days.
You can use a block periodization scheme with a specific cycle devoted to
higher TUT work.
You can combine strategies into a single workout, with compound exercises
such as squats, presses, and rows devoted to lower TUTs and single-joint
accessory movements focused on higher TUTs.
The options are many and your decision should really come down to
individual goals and preferences.

Is This True for Women Too?


Women tend to have a greater degree of fatigue-resistance compared to
men, apparently due to gender-related differences in muscle blood flow
and/or muscle metabolism (2). This raises the possibility that women may
need a higher TUT to fully fatigue the type I fibers and maximize their
hypertrophic adaptations.
As always in an applied science such as exercise, you should take the
principles discussed and then experiment to find out what works best for
you.

Related: 10 Reasons Bodybuilders Are Bigger Than Powerlifters


Related: Demolish Your Genetic Limits
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