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Time Under Tension

Are you uptight, stressed or full of tension? Those things can be bad for your emotional health, but at least one of them is actually good for your physical health. Can you guess which one?

Tension.

Time Under Tension (T.U.T.) is the amount of time your muscle is being stressed while performing a particular exercise.

(Note: Time Under Tension (T.U.T.) is sometimes also referred to as Time Under Load (T.U.L.). The two terms mean the same and can be used interchangeably.)

Here's an example. Let's say you're going to do squats, I might specify your T.U.T. as 3-1-2-1. What that means is for each rep you would go down for 3 seconds, hold for 1 second, come back up in 2 seconds, then hold for 1 more second. If you were supposed to do 8-12 reps, you would repeat 8 to 12 times.

If you completed 10 reps, and each rep was with the correct count of 3-1-2-1, your total time under tension for that set would be 70 seconds.

The amount of time your muscles should spend under tension is determined by your goals. You can workout to increase three things. (a) Your strength and power, (b) Your muscle mass (hypertrophy) or (c) Your endurance. The length of time you keep your muscles under tension changes with each goal. Here's a handy chart.

Workout Goal
Time Under Tension Per Set
Rest Between Sets

Strength & Power
4-30 sec
2-4 min

Muscle Mass (Hypertrophy)
30-70 sec
1-2 min

Endurance
70-120 sec
30 sec - 1 min

If you're not seeing the results you want, perhaps you're not training for the proper amount of time. Next time you workout, see if you're a fast or slow lifter. Look at a clock or stopwatch and time how long each of your sets last.

If you already know how long each of your reps take, then multiply that number by the total number of reps in your set. For example, if your tempo is 2-1-2-1 then each rep takes about 6 seconds. Multiply 6 seconds by the total number of reps (say you do 8) and you're total T.U.T. is 48 seconds.

Now compare your results to the chart and see how you're doing. 48 seconds would be near the middle of the muscle mass building range. If you finish up in 20 seconds, then you're building strength and power. When a set takes you 80 seconds, you're training for more endurance.

In order to move from one category to another, simply make changes in the length of time you keep your muscles under tension while performing each rep.

TIP: If you have problems looking at a clock to count when you're doing your exercises, get a metronome. Set it to click at one-second intervals and use the sound to count off your time.

Two important things to remember. First, you should be able to contract your muscles at the end of every movement's range of motion. If you can't, you used momentum, not muscular contractions to get you there. Second, you should maintain tension through the entire set. If at any point the tension is relieved, your set is over.

Just like any training variable, your body will adapt to increased tension over time, so you will need to change tempo as often as any other part of a proper workout program. For your next few workouts, try monitoring your T.U.T. and see if it helps you break through to the next level.

Special Training Note:

WeBeFit trainers use a 4-point tempo prescription because we believe in quantifying every part of an exercise for maximum results. A typical T.U.T. might be written 3-1-2-1. However, in some exercises the workload can dissipate at some point during the exercise, so no pauses are built in.

An example is the dumbbell side lateral raise. There is no tension when the dumbbells are at your sides (the bottom of the movement) so the T.U.T. might be written as 3-1-2-0. 3 seconds up, 1 second to pause and contract, 2 seconds back down, then right back up again. The 0 indicates you should not break or rest (and release tension) at the bottom of the rep.

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9/30/2005
Updated 5/2/2012
Updated 8/3/2015