It is no secret that phenomenal physiques have been built on training styles vastly different from one another: from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s high volume method hitting each body part multiple times a week, to Mentzer’s low frequency/low volume HIT routine, the popularity of various training methods has run the gamut over the past century.
The latest incarnation has been T.U.T training, or time under tension. This form of training utilizes set tempos for each portion of a movement—the eccentric phase, the pause at the midpoint or bottom portion, the concentric phase, and the pause at the top of the movement. An example of this might be a bench press with a 4:1:3:1 tempo. This would involve lowering the weight for four seconds, pausing for one second at the bottom of the movement, raising the weight for three seconds, and pausing again for one second at the top of the movement. Because the targeted muscle is under tension for a longer duration utilizing this style of training, the poundage used is significantly less than most other training styles. But make no mistake—just because the weight is lowered, intensity should not be. Several recent studies have shown that periodized training to failure, whether through low load, high volume training or high load, low volume training, is responsible for the greatest acute and chronic responses in protein synthesis, and a higher increase in strength, power and hypertrophy versus non-failure training (1, 2, 3).
So now that we’ve established that tempo training doesn’t give you a pass to be a wimp, what does the scientific literature say on increased hypertrophy through tempo training and time under tension versus other typical training protocols? The literature is mixed, albeit with the majority in favor of time under tension. A 2010 study by Burd et al at McMaster University (1) shows some promise. This study had two groups of men perform unilateral leg extensions for four sets; one group utilized 30% of their one rep max to failure (30FAIL), while the other used 90% of their one rep max, also to failure (90FAIL). The mean TUT for 90FAIL was 16.3 seconds, while the mean for 30FAIL was 43.3—a significant increase. Results showed that while overall protein synthesis was only slightly more elevated in the 30FAIL versus 90FAIL group 4h-post exercise, and not of statistical significance, biopsies at 24h post exercise showed that this increase in protein synthesis was much more sustained in the 30FAIL group, while the 90FAIL group had begun a more rapid return to baseline.
While there are not a plethora of studies that show tempo training to be significantly inferior to standard weight training, there are a healthy number that show their equivalence. A 2006 study by Tanimoto, M., & Ishii, N. (5) showed similar muscle hypetrophy between the two styles. Two groups completed leg extensions to failure, one using 50% of their one rep max with a 3:0:3:1 tempo, the other using 80% of their one rep max with a 1:0:1:1 tempo. Following twelve weeks of training, both group showed similar hypertrophy—4.3% and 5.4%, respectively. While it seems that TUT wins out again, the difference between them is not of statistical significance. Of importance though is that only the 80% group gained strength, hinting towards a higher percentage of their hypertrophy happening in Type II fibers. Although not the premise of this article, it is wise to take note of this; one can reap the most overall hypertrophy by targeting both type I and type II fibers through a periodized system.
Yet even if gains in hypertrophy with tempo training were equal to—or even slightly less—than regular strength training, I would still highly recommend it, for several reasons. Remember the childhood story of the Tortoise and the Hare? Consider tempo training the tortoise, and regular strength training the hare. Bodybuilding is in all reality an endurance sport; the person that can perform what they need to, day in and day out, will beat those that rush or seek the most acute gains. Utilizing lighter weights to failure can prevent injuries, especially as one ages. You can’t stimulate growth if you’re injured.
Furthermore, for many people, strict tempo training allows more measurable progression. As it has been well established that progression is needed for hypertrophy (whether through intensity, time under tension, weight utilized, volume, etc.), utilizing high weights can be problematic, especially for newer lifters. Often time’s lifters will use sloppy form or “cheat” just to beat the log book—this is not true progression, and again can lead to injury. Some also use these techniques to go beyond failure, which when utilized too often, can lead to overtraining or regression. Tempo training takes the ego out of the lift, allowing measurable progress indefinitely. Finally, there has been some scientific evidence that tempo training can generate more metabolic stress. Common sense would dictate that the longer you work at a given intensity, the more energy expended. A 2012 study by Christopher Scott in the April issue of the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism journal (6) showed that EPOC (exercise post energy consumption) was greatly increased with more time under tension. The study saw three different groups of volunteers perform three submaximal sets of five repetitions on the bench press. The first group utilized a 1.5:0:1.5:0 tempo, the second a 4:0:1:0 tempo, and the third a 1:0:4:0 tempo. This place each group’s time under tension at 15, 25 and 25 seconds, respectively. Both EPOC and total energy consumption was about 25% greater in the 25 second time under tension groups versus the 15 second group.
The takeaway? Tempo training can help one stay leaner in the offseason, and potentially cut down on muscle loss during prep by allowing one to get by with less steady state cardio. Utilizing tempo training to increase time under tension can be a very lucrative training style, but that does not necessarily mean it is the perfect match for everyone, or that it should be employed exclusively. For those that enjoy tempo training, consider using T.U.T periodized with regular strength training to induce hypertrophy of type II fibers and increase neural drive within them. You’ll find that once you switch back to T.U.T, your poundages will increase even
within the higher rep range, allowing more motor unit activation and thus greater degrees of hypertrophy over tempo training alone. For those that try tempo training and don’t enjoy it—don’t sweat it. Chose a training style you’re most apt to stick with, and that you have the drive to keep the intensity up at. No matter the training style, if you give half-assed intensity, you’re going to get half-assed results.
-Nick Tong, INOV8 Elite Performance Physique Coach
Image Credit: Lukas B Duncan – facebook.com/lukasbduncanmuscle
1. Burd, NA et al. (2010). Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein
synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 5(8),
2. Drinkwater, E.J., Lawton, T.W., Lindsell, R.P., Pyne, D.B., Hunt, P.H., and McKenna, M.J. (2005).
Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2):382-388.
3. Mitchell, CJ et al. (2012, April 19). Resistance exercise load does not determine trainingmediated hypertrophic gains in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology.
4. Schuenke, MD et al. (2012). Early-phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus
traditional resistance-training regimens. European journal of applied physiology, 112(10), 3585–
5. Tanimoto, M., & Ishii, N. (2006). Effects of low-intensity resistance exercise with slow movement
and tonic force generation on muscular function in young men. Journal of applied physiology
(Bethesda, Md : 1985), 100(4), 1150–1157.
6. Scott, Christopher. The effect of time-under-tension and weight lifting cadence on aerobic,
anaerobic, and recovery energy expenditures: 3 submaximal sets . Applied Physiology, Nutrition,
and Metabolism, 2012, 37 (2), 252-256, 10.1139/h11-158