Time Under Tension (TUT)

Last week, Fitness Solutions dealt with the importance of using free weights for strength training vs. machines.  While both are effective tools for building and preserving muscle, free weights also develop stability, balance and coordination in your body.  In other words, you can work more muscles and achieve more in less time when you use dumbbells and/ or barbells for your strength workouts.

King Tut Felled By Injury And Malaria, Not Murder : NPR

This week, I’d like to expand on some principles related to training efficiency.  If you are going to take the time to exercise on a regular basis, it makes sense to understand how to get the most out of your workouts.

When designing a workout routine for a client, the starting point is something called the FITT formula.  FITT is an acronym that stands for; frequency, intensity, type and time.  Essentially, the formula gives us the ability to “tweak” workouts and training regimens over time as needs, goals and limitations change.  Using it is a gentle reminder that things are never stationary; everything is changing all the time.  It’s pretty easy to understand when looking at our current reality in “lockdown” with limited access to traditional workout facilities!  We have the same needs and desires to be healthy, lean, strong and energetic, regardless of what’s happening in the world around us.  This is where the FITT formula can help.

As our reality shifts, we can make changes to our fitness regimen in a thoughtful way by manipulating the amount of times that we exercise in a week (frequency), how hard we exercise (intensity), the kind of exercise that we do (type) and the duration of each session (time).  In my top 10 list of back to basics fitness tips, I suggested lifting weights more slowly as a way to build more muscle.  This is an example of changing the variable of “intensity” as a way to continue getting positive results from a program.

One of the variables that influences how much muscle and strength you will gain through lifting weights (or doing other resistance training activities) is the duration of the muscle contraction that occurs while performing the exercise.  This is a concept known as TUT.  TUT means “time under tension”.  In general terms, when a muscle is contracted for longer, more work is required and the muscle responds by getting stronger and more toned.  Here is an easy way to understand this; imagine doing a shoulder press overhead, using 10lb pound dumbbells.  If you lift the weights quickly (1/2 second pushing up, no rest and ½ second coming down), the total time under tension for the target muscles is 15 seconds.  If you lifted the same weights more slowly (1 second up, 1 second pause, 1 second down), you will have increased the total time under tension to 45 seconds; a 300% increase!

When I messaged Dr. Stuart Phillips (Director of the Centre of Nutrition,

Exercise and Health Research at McMaster University) for his opinion on TUT, he replied… “It works!”  The thing that I really like about getting his input is that it is always based on evidence from clinical research.  He went on to explain that his favourite work to rest ratio is to have exercisers lift for 2 seconds, pause for 1 second and then return to start for 2 seconds.  While there is evidence that a 3:1:3 ratio works even better, it is too grueling for the average exerciser to handle and best left to very experienced strength trainers.

As with all of the other tips that I am providing, the idea of greater time under tension is simply one more “tool in the tool box” that you can use at this time when we have to become creative to continue to see results in our fitness programming.

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