The Best Time Under Tension For Strength Gains!


If you want to get stronger then you must know how to write effective strength training routines. In my experience time under tension is the most underrated training variable when it comes to getting stronger.

If you don’t know how long your sets last or how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets then you need to fix that right now!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Relative Strength Vs Absolute Strength
  • Part 2: Cluster Sets
  • Part 3: Eccentric Training
  • Part 4: Isometric Training
  • Part 5: Drop Sets
  • Part 6: Rest-Pause Sets
  • Part 7: Wave Loading

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets for optimal progress.

Time under tension tells you how long your muscles are working during a set. For example if you perform 5 reps and each rep takes 5 seconds to complete then your total time under tension for that set is (5 x 5) = 25 seconds.

It’s so important to know how long your sets last because time under tension influences how your body adapts to your workouts and how quickly you make progress.

If your goal is to get stronger then your sets should last anywhere from 1-40 seconds. If your goal is to get stronger without gaining any weight then you should focus on sets with a time under tension of 1-20 seconds.

Powerlifters competing in a specific weight class are a good example of this. On the other hand if your goal is to get as strong as you can and you don’t have to stay at a specific weight then sets lasting 1-40 seconds are optimal.

A good example of this is a professional strongman competing in the unlimited weight category. However, this also describes anyone who just wants to get as strong as possible.

I hope you found this overview helpful. In the rest of this article we’re going to take a much deeper dive into how to manipulate time under tension for optimal strength gains.

In part 1 of this article I will teach you the science of how to manipulate time under tension for relative strength gains vs absolute strength gains. If you are more of a science-based guy then part 1 of this article is for you.

Then in parts 2-7 of this article I will teach you how to manipulate time under tension using 6 of the most effective strength training methods ever invented: 

  • Cluster sets
  • Eccentric training
  • Isometric training
  • Drop sets
  • Rest-pause sets
  • Wave loading

By the end of this article you will know exactly how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets on your own training programs for optimal results. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information!

Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training programNow let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Relative Strength Vs Absolute Strength

There are two types of strength that you can train for: relative strength and absolute strength.

Relative strength describes how strong someone is relative to their body weight. If someone is “strong for their size” then they have a high level of relative strength. If you compete in one of the lighter powerlifting weight classes or if you compete in a sport such as sprinting, gymnastics or skiing then you should primarily train for relative strength.

Absolute strength is very different: it measures how strong you are regardless of how much you weigh. Someone like e has unbelievable absolute strength because he has deadlifted over 1,100 pounds!

It doesn’t matter if he weighs 440 pounds or if he barely fits into a ballerina tu-tu. Absolute strength is just about how strong you are, not about how much you weigh!

In order to train for relative or absolute strength you MUST know how long it takes you to complete your sets. Time under tension depends on two things:

  • How many reps you perform per set
  • Your exercise tempo

I am sure you know how to count the number of reps in your sets. That’s just the number of times you lift the weight up and down! However, you might not have a good understanding of exercise tempo. Let’s cover that before discussing how to train for relative strength vs absolute strength.

What Is Exercise Tempo?

Exercise tempo is written using a 4-digit code that was developed by the Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin. Here is what it might look like:

3/1/X/0

The first digit tells you how quickly to lower the weight down through the eccentric range. In our example the first digit is a “3.” This means you have to lower the weight down over 3 seconds. Usually the first number is between 1-5 but in rare cases it can be as long as 10 or even 30 seconds.

The second digit tells you how long you should pause in the bottom position of the exercise. In our example the second digit is a “2.” This means you have to pause for 1 second in the bottom position. Usually this number is a “0” but pauses lasting 1-7 seconds can be used depending on the situation.

The third digit tells you how quickly to lift the weight up through the concentric range. In our example the third digit is an “X.” The X tells you to lift the weight explosively. Usually the third digit is an “X” although it can be in the 1-5 range depending on the situation.

The fourth and final digit tells you how long to pause in the top position of the exercise. Usually this digit is a “0” or it is in the 1-3 range although it can be much higher in special circumstances.

To review: a 3/1/X/0 tempo means you lower the weight over 3 seconds, you pause for 1 second in the bottom position, you lift the weight explosively and you pause for 0 seconds in the top position. It’s that simple!

If you want to learn more about tempo training then check out the following article:

Tempo Training: The Ultimate Guide!

Now let’s get back to our discussion of training for relative vs absolute strength!

Training For Relative Strength

Training for relative strength is all about getting stronger without gaining a bunch of weight. You can’t rely on big, bulky muscles to get stronger. Instead you have to focus on training your nervous system.

Here are a just a few of the ways your nervous system can adapt to your workouts to help you lift more weight: 

  • Mechanism #1: Improved Intermuscular Coordination
  • Mechanism #2: Improved Intramuscular Coordination
  • Mechanism #3: Improved Motor Unit Firing Rate

This just means your body is better at recruiting the muscle fibers in your muscles and it is better at coordinating different muscle groups together to lift the weight. 

Training to get stronger without getting bigger is very challenging. Here are two rules you should follow when training for relative strength:

  • Rule #1: Train in the 1-5 rep range
  • Rule #2: Use 1-20 seconds of time under tension per set

It’s important to keep your time under tension per set to 20 seconds or less so that you don’t build too much muscle.

It’s OK to add a little bit of muscle over time as long as you are training the high-threshold motor units. However, you definitely don’t want the size of your slow-twitch muscle fibers to increase too much. When you perform more than 20 seconds per set you risk building muscle mass that decreases your relative strength levels rather than increasing them.

Let’s say that you want to perform a routine using 10 sets of 3 reps. Here are some possible exercise tempos you could use to keep your total time under tension at 20 seconds or less:

  • 2/0/X/0 tempo = roughly 3 seconds per rep /// 3 reps x 3 seconds each = 9 seconds of TUT.
  • 3/2/X/0 tempo = roughly 6 seconds per rep /// 3 reps x 6 seconds each = 18 seconds of TUT.
  • 4/0/X/0 tempo = roughly 5 seconds per rep /// 3 reps x 5 seconds each = 15 seconds of TUT.

When you train for relative strength you can be very creative with your exercise tempos.

As a general rule of thumb you should use explosive concentric tempos. For example you should almost always lift the weight as explosively as possible out of the bottom position of a bench press or squat.

However, you have a lot of room for creativity when it comes to your eccentric or lowering tempo. Eccentric tempos lasting 1-5 seconds are normal but you can even use eccentric tempos lasting as long as 10 seconds if you are using accentuated eccentric training.

It is also possible to insert long isometric pauses in the top or bottom position of each rep. For example here is Dmitry Klokov using a slow eccentric tempo AND a long isometric pause in the bottom position on back squats:

Dmitry has impressive levels of relative strength. Dmitry Klokov has full squatted 660 pounds at a bodyweight of about 200 pounds – talk about incredible! One of the reasons for his super-human strength is he does a great job of manipulating his exercise tempos and the total time under tension of his sets.

Training For Absolute Strength

Absolute strength is all about getting as strong as humanly possible. Someone like Julius Maddox has unbelievable levels of absolute strength. The man bench presses almost 800 pounds!

Most strength coaches agree that training for absolute strength is MUCH easier than training for relative strength. You can get stronger by training your nervous system but you can ALSO get stronger by adding a bunch of muscle mass to your frame!

Here are a couple of rules that you should follow when training for absolute strength:

  • Rule #1: Train in the 1-8 rep range
  • Rule #2:  Use 1-40 seconds of time under tension per set

That’s it – nothing too complicated! Just perform most of your sets in the 1-8 rep range and try not to use more than 40 seconds of time under tension per set.

You can use relative strength training protocols such as cluster sets and 3/2/1 wave loading that only have 1-20 seconds of time under tension per set. However, you can also use functional hypertrophy training protocols such as rest-pause sets and accentuated eccentric training that have 20-40 seconds of time under tension per set.

If your goal is absolute strength then one of the best training strategies is to alternate accumulation and intensification phases. Your accumulation phases would focus on building muscle mass using sets with 20-40 seconds of time under tension.

On the other hand your intensification phases would focus on building strength using sets with 1-20 seconds of time under tension.

There are many ways to train for absolute strength but the accumulation / intensification model of periodization is one of my favorites. Now let’s get to the heart of the article and discuss ways to manipulate time under tension using some of the best strength training routines of all time!

Part 2: Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are one of the oldest and most effective ways to train for strength. In fact the Canadian strength coach Christian Thibadeau calls cluster sets the single most effective way to train for strength.

There are many different cluster set protocols but they all have one thing in common: you take short rest breaks in between each of your reps. In other words you never perform 2 reps back-to-back. Instead you take short rest breaks between them.

The oldest cluster set protocol is known as the Poliquin cluster set method. The idea is simple: you perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 1-rep max. The key to making this work is you rest for 15-20 seconds in between each rep. For example:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight, rest 15-20 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight, rest 15-20 seconds
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight, rest 15-20 seconds
  • Perform your 4th rep, rack the weight, rest 15-20 seconds
  • Perform your 5th rep, done!

The Poliquin cluster sets method is an incredible way to train.

The weight is heavy enough that you automatically recruit the high-threshold motor units on every rep. However, the time under tension is also long enough that you can fatigue your high-threshold motor units and build plenty of muscle mass if that is your goal.

If you are training for relative strength then you may want to use a shorter eccentric tempo. For example here is what your time under tension looks like if you us a 2/0/X/0 tempo:

  • Time under tension per rep: 3 seconds
  • Time under tension per set: 15 seconds

This puts you right where you want to be in terms of training for relative strength. The short rest breaks after each rep will help make sure that you are not building too much muscle. Here is what your time under tension looks like if you use a 4/0/X/0 tempo:

  • Time under tension per rep: 5 seconds
  • Time under tension per set: 25 seconds

This may be a better choice if you are just trying to get as strong as possible. You are still training your nervous system this way but your fast-twitch muscle fibers will also be very fatigued. This is great for stimulating both neurological adaptations and functional hypertrophy gains.

Here is what a Poliquin-style cluster sets routine might look like if you are training for relative strength. Check it out:

Regular Cluster Sets Routine

  • A1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Sternum pull ups, 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips, 2 x 5-7, 2/2/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: T-bar row, 2 x 7-9, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest

**Rest 20 seconds in between each of the 5 reps. Perform your 1st rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 2nd rep, rest 20 seconds, etc. until you have performed all 5 reps. That counts as 1 cluster set. Perform 5 cluster sets for the “A” exercises.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Of course there are other ways to structure a cluster sets routine. One of the most famous cluster sets protocols was popularized by the Olympic Weightlifting coach Carl Miller starting in the 1970s.

You are going to perform sets of 3 reps with 45 seconds rest in between each rep. For example:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight, rest 45 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight, rest 45 seconds
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight, rest 3-5 minutes, repeat!

The total time under tension per set with this method is MUCH lower than it is with the Poliquin-style cluster sets. With this method you aren’t going to build any muscle mass. Instead 100% of the strength gains are going to come from adaptations in your central nervous system.

Depending on the temp you use your sets might last anywhere from 6-15 seconds which is pretty low. Some trainees burn out when the time under tension per set is this low but if you can handle this kind of cluster sets protocol then it works like magic.

Here is a Carl Miller style cluster sets routine that you may want to try. Check it out:

Carl Miller Cluster Sets Routine

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6 x 3**, 2/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest

**Rest 40 seconds in between each rep. Perform your 1st rep, rest 40 seconds, perform your 2nd rep, rest 40 seconds, perform your 3rd rep, rest 240 seconds, then perform your 2nd set. Repeat for 6 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1.

The bottom line is cluster sets work for people training for absolute strength AND relative strength. You just have to pay attention to the time under tension of your sets.

I highly recommend you give cluster sets a try if this is your first time reading about them. 

Part 3: Eccentric Training

Eccentric training is probably the most extreme training method that I will discuss in this article.

The goal of eccentric training is to use training methods that specifically overload the eccentric phase of the exercise. This can be as simple as using very slow eccentric tempos or as complicated as slowly lowering weights that are more than your 1-rep max!

The optimal amount of time under tension per set is very different with eccentric training than it is for more traditional training methods. 

Here are the normal time under tension guidelines:

  • Relative strength: 1-20 seconds time under tension per set
  • Absolute strength: 1-40 seconds time under tension per set

And here are the time under tension guidelines for eccentric training:

  • Relative strength: 10-30 seconds time under tension per set
  • Absolute strength: 10-60 seconds time under tension per set

As you can see the time under tension guidelines are higher for eccentric training than for other training methods. The time under tension guidelines are higher both in terms of maximizing your results AND minimizing your risk of injury.

One of the easiest ways to perform eccentric training is to really slow down the eccentric phase of your reps. Dmitry Klokov was one of the strongest humans on planet Earth and he was famous for using really slow tempos on squats.

One of Dmitry’s favourite strategies for boosting anyone’s squatting strength is to squat with a 7/6/X/0 tempo. That is, you lower yourself down over 7 seconds, pause in the hole for 6 seconds and explode out of the bottom position all the way to lockout.

It takes about 14 seconds to perform 1 rep of Klokov Squats! This is a fantastic way to train for relative strength gains and is one of the safest eccentric training methods to perform if you are new to eccentric training.

Here is a sample Klokov squat routine that you may want to try. Check it out:

Klokov Squat Routine

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6-8 x 1, 7/6/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 3-4 x 4-6, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Reverse DB lunge, 3-4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 2-3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/2, 120 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1.

If you not used to controlling the eccentric phases of your reps then this routine will leave you very, very sore. Remember, there are 7 seconds of eccentric time under tension per set!

This may not sound like a lot but if you are used to “dive-bombing” your squats then this will be very, very challenging.

If you are a more advanced trainee then you may want to experiment with weight releasers. Some strength coaches like Christian Thibadeau call weight releasers the best way to blast through training plateau for intermediate level lifters. Talk about an endorsement!

Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that attach to either end of a barbell. The increase the weight on the bar during the eccentric phase of the lift. However, in the bottom position they drop off the bar so you don’t have to lift them during the concentric range.

Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect overview of how to use weight releasers on the bench press:

Weight releasers allow you to use very heavy weights during the eccentric range. For this reason you should almost always use an 8-10 second eccentric phase on each rep. This will improve your results and reduce your chances of injury.

One of the best ways to use eccentric hooks is to combine them with the Poliquin cluster sets method. You would perform multiple sets of 5 reps with about 20 seconds rest in between each rep.

OK, let’s do a little math. Let’s say you are using a true 10-second eccentric phase on each rep. That means your total time under tension per set is (5 x 10) = 50 seconds. This is a perfect amount of eccentric time under tension for anyone training for absolute strength.

Even if you are training for relative strength this is still a great routine because you are taking 20-second breaks in between each rep. This means your muscles don’t build up as much metabolic fatigue during the set so the slightly higher time under tension is acceptable.

Here is an eccentric cluster sets bench press workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

Eccentric Cluster Sets Bench Press Routine

  • A1: Bench press with weight releasers (medium grip)**, 5 x 5****, 10/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated DB overhead press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Use 80% of your 1-rep max on the bar and an extra 10-40% of your 1-rep max in combined weight on the weight releasers. The total weight on the eccentric range should be 90-120% of your 1-rep max. 

****Rest 20 seconds in between each of your 5 reps. Perform your 1st rep, rest 20 seconds while re-racking the weight releasers, perform your 2nd rep, etc. until you have performed 5 reps. See the video below for more details.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1.

There are a ton of different eccentric training methods that you can use in your training. Unfortunately I don’t have room to cover all of them here in this article.

If you want to learn more about eccentric training then check out the following articles:

The key takeaway is that eccentric training is an extreme training method with different time under tension guidelines.

If you want to use eccentric training to build strength then I recommend you bump up the time under tension of your sets. A good guideline is to use 10-30 seconds of time under tension when training for relative strength and 10-60 seconds of time under tension when training for absolute strength.

Part 4: Isometric Training

Isometric training is probably the most under-rated training method in the world. It is used even less often than eccentric training! That is a shame as isometric training is one of the most powerful training tools you can use to build strength.

In fact the world-class bench press coach Josh Bryant considers it his #1 secret for helping powerlifters like Julius Maddox set bench press world records. 

Isometric contractions occur anytime your muscles are contracting without moving. There are two main types of isometric contractions:

  • Overcoming isometrics
  • Yielding isometrics

Overcoming isometrics occur when your muscles are applying force against an immovable object. For example if you push against a brick wall you are performing an overcoming isometric contraction. It doesn’t matter how hard your muscles work – the wall won’t move!

Yielding isometrics are very different. They involve your muscles contracting to prevent another object from moving you.

If you hold a couple buckets of water with your arms straight out in front of you for as long as you can then you are performing a yielding isometric contraction. The buckets of water aren’t moving but that’s because of how hard your shoulders are working!

Now let’s go over how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets using isometric training. One of the best isometric training strategies for building strength is called isometronics.

This is a reasonably complicated training method so let’s watch a video first. Check it out:

In the video the athlete is pressing a loaded barbell in between 2 pairs of safety pins. He performs about 5 partial range of motion reps followed by an all-out overcoming isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds. All together that counts as 1 isometronic set.

One set of isometronics lasts right around 20 seconds so this is a great training method for building absolute strength AND relative strength. You primarily get neurological adaptations but isometronics is also great for boosting the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Here is what a full isometronics workout looks like. Check it out:

Isometronics Routine

  • A1: Bench press bottom position isometronics (wide grip)**, 3 x 5, 1/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Bench press middle position isometronics (wide grip)**, 3 x 5, 1/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Bench press top position isometronic (wide grip)**, 3 x 5, 1/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Bench press (wide grip), 1 x 6, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: Flat DB Poliquin fly, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • E2: Standing rope cable triceps pushdown, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercises A1-D1, exercise E1, exercise E2.

Now let’s talk about how to manipulate time under tension with yielding isometric training methods.

One of the best yielding isometric training methods involves performing several 6-8 second isometric pauses on the eccentric phase of your lift.

In my experience this method works best when you are training in the 3-8 rep range. You would perform 3-8 regular reps just like normal. On your last rep only you would perform 3 separate isomeric pauses lasting 6-8 seconds each.lower b

For example on deadlifts you might perform 1 isometric pause with the bar just above your knees, 1 isometric pause with the bar just below your knees and 1 isometric pause with the bar at mid-shin height.

Let’s say you are performing sets of 6 reps on the deadlift with a 3/0/X/0 tempo. Your whole set now has (4 x 6) = 24 seconds of time under tension. On the way down on your 6th rep you would perform the 3 separate isometric pauses lasting 8 seconds each.

These isometric pauses add an extra (3 x 8) = 24 seconds of time under tension so your whole set takes 48 seconds to complete! This is a massive amount of time under tension given that you are training with your 6-rep max.

This is a fantastic way to stimulate gains in functional hypertrophy and absolute strength. For obvious reasons you should not perform this method if you are training for relative strength.

Here is a sample routine you may want to try. Check it out:

Yielding Isometrics Deadlift Routine

  • A1: Deficit snatch grip deadlift, 3 x 6, 3/0/X/0**, 240 seconds rest
  • B1: Bilateral seated leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed in), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest 
  • B2: 45 degree leg press against bands, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Perform 3 separate 8-second isometric pauses during the eccentric range of your 6th rep. I recommend performing your isometric pauses with the barbell just above your knees, just below your knees and at mid-shin height. See the video below for more details.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise B2.

It’s extremely important to keep your lower back as arched as possible during the 3 8-second isometric pauses on your last rep.

You are naturally going to want to round your lower back during the isometric pauses to make things easier. You must fight as hard as you can to keep your lower back arched the entire time!

These isometric pauses are unbelievably effective at boosting functional hypertrophy and absolute strength if you perform them with perfect technique.

Part 5: Drop Sets

Most people think that drop sets are only good for bodybuilders looking to build as much muscle mass as possible. It’s true that drop sets are one of the best bodybuilding training methods. However, they are also a great tool for building strength!

The key is to use the right rep ranges. If your goal is to get as strong as possible then you want to perform drop sets in the lower rep ranges. These low-rep drop sets will improve the efficiency of your central nervous system and hopefully increase the size of your type IIX fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Let’s go over a couple of drop sets protocols that are geared towards strength gains.

4/2/2 Drop Sets

The first drop set protocol that I want to talk about is the 4/2/2 drop set. For this training method you are going to perform 4 reps on your 1st attempt and 2 reps on your 2nd and 3rd attempts.

Here is what a 4/2/2 drop set looks like in practice:

  • Perform 4 reps, lower the weight by 4-6%, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform 2 reps, lower the weight by 4-6%, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform 2 reps, done!

It’s important that you pick the right weight for your set of 4 reps. Charles Poliquin used to joke that the weight should be heavy enough that your “spleen comes out through your left eye on the 4th rep!”

One of the great things about the 4/2/2 drop set protocol is that it lets you accumulate a ton of time under tension with heavy weights.

For example let’s say that each rep takes you about 4 seconds to complete. This means your set of 4 reps may take you about 16 seconds to complete. This is a good amount of time under tension to stimulate neurological adaptations but it won’t do a whole lot on its own for increasing muscle mass.

When you perform that set of 4 reps as part of a drop set then your time under tension is 16 seconds on the first attempt, 8 seconds on the second attempt and 8 seconds on the third attempt for a total of 32 seconds of time under tension!

This is a huge amount of time under tension when you consider that you started the set with your 4-rep max.

The 4/2/2 drop set method is awesome because you get neurological adaptations from the initial 4-rep set AND muscular adaptations from the drop sets. In other words the 4/2/2 drop set protocol strengthens your nervous system AND increases the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers all at the same time! How cool is that?

Here is a sample upper body 4/2/2 drop set workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

4/2/2 Drop Sets

  • A1: Standing behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), 4 x 4/2/2**, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 4 x 4/2/2**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 2 x 6-8, 5/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell dead stop row, 2 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Unilateral preacher DB curl (supinating grip), 2 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 30 seconds rest
  • C2: Standing cable external rotation (arm adducted), 2 x 6-8, 2/0/2/0, 30 seconds rest

**Performed as a 4/2/2 drop set. Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds and reduce the weight by 4-6%, perform 2 rep, rest 10 seconds and reduce the weight by 4-6%, perform 2 rep, done!

Here are the first 2 exercise videos for this routine: exercise A1, exercise A2.

The 4/2/2 drop set protocol does have some drawbacks that you should be aware of. First of all it is a poor choice if you are training for relative strength. For example if you are a powerlifter trying to stay in a particular weight class then the 4/2/2 drop set method is not your best choice.

This method will help you to build muscle mass and gain weight which is obviously not what you want if you are trying to stay in a set weight class.

The other drawback is that the 4/2/2 drop set method is pretty difficult to recover from. You need to have your recovery completely dialed in before attempting a routine like this. That means you need to be managing your sleep, nutrition and stress levels very well. If this describes you then give it a shot! 

The other drop set protocol I want to talk about is the Hepburn Drop Set method. This drop set protocol works awesome for people training for relative strength AND absolute strength.

The Hepburn Drop Set method is named after Doug Hepburn, one of the greatest strength athletes who ever lived. In the 1950s he was easily the strongest man alive. He was the Olympic Weightlifting world champion and the first man to bench press 500 pounds.

Doug Hepburn was just a big, strong dude!

The Hepburn Drop Set method is broken up into two parts. For the first half of the workout you are going to perform one long drop set using single repetitions. For the second half of the workout you are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with the same exercise you performed the drop set on.

Let’s take a look at a sample training program before discussing it further. Check it out:

Hepburn Drop Sets Workout

  • A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 7 x 1**, 5/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 5 x 5****, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Unilateral kneeling leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed out), 5 x 5, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: 45 degree back extension against bands, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest

**Performed as a drop set. Perform your 1st rep, rest 60 seconds while decreasing the load by 2-3%, perform your 2nd rep, etc.

****Performed with 80% of the weight you used for your last single on the “A1” drop set. If your last single was performed with 300 pounds then you would use 240 pounds for your 5 sets of 5 reps.

Here is what your front squat might look like: exercise A1.

For the first half of the workout you are performing a drop set with 7 singles and 60 seconds rest in between each single. This is an extremely demanding but effective way to train for strength gains.

The rest periods during this drop set are very long compared to other drop set methods but still very short when compared to more traditional training programs. For example an advanced powerlifter might rest 5 minutes or more between all-out single repetitions.

The time under tension may not be very much for each single (on this routine each single takes about 6 seconds to complete). However, the entire drop set features about 42 seconds of time under tension which is a lot considering the fact that you are training with all-out weights.

The second half of the workout uses a classic “5 sets of 5” scheme. If you use a 3/0/X/0 tempo for these sets the the total time under tension per set is about 20 seconds. This is right at the upper border of the acceptable range of time under tension for someone training for relative strength.

If you are trying to stay in a weight class then just watch your diet on this routine and you will do great.

If you are training for absolute strength and don’t mind an increase in muscle mass then go ahead and eat a slight surplus of calories on this routine. You will be well-rewarded with gains in functional muscle mass.

Part 6: Rest-Pause Sets

Rest-pause sets are easily one of the most effective training methods that you can use in the gym. In my experience rest-pause sets are probably the best training method for a bodybuilder who wants to get stronger but doesn’t want to perform a bunch of sets in the 1-3 rep range.

Rest-pause sets were originally invented by Dante Trudel, the creator of the DC Training program. A DC-style rest-pause set looks like this:

  • Train to failure in the 7-10 rep range, rest 20-30 seconds
  • Train to failure again with the same weight, rest 20-30 seconds
  • Train to failure again with the same weight, done!

With rest-pause sets you are performing 3 sets to failure on an exercise with very short rest periods in between each attempt. Rest-pause sets work amazing for building strength and muscular size but it’s important to understand why they work.

The first 7-10 reps are more of a “priming” phase. You are training to failure so on that last rep you are pretty much recruiting all of the available muscle fibers in the target muscles.

This first attempt might take 20-30 seconds to complete. Then you are going to rest 20-30 seconds and go to failure a second time.

The rest period is short enough that you are achieving maximum muscle fiber recruitment right from the first rep. This means that these extra reps give you a lot of “bang-for-your-buck.”

The same thing happens on your third attempt: you achieve maximum muscle fiber recruitment right away which is awesome for stimulating size and strength gains.

A rest-pause set is just a way to extend the time under tension of the set after you have achieved muscular failure. The total set might have 30-50 seconds of time under tension but you have 3 separate failure points with short rest intervals during that time period.

This is an AWESOME way to manipulate the time under tension of your sets for rapid strength gains.

Now let’s take a look at a sample DC-style rest-pause leg workout. Check it out:

DC-Style Rest-Pause Leg Workout

  • A1: Leg press calf raise, 1 x 8-12, 5/10/1/1**, rest as needed
  • B1: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointing straight), 1 x 7-10****, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 2 x (4-8, 20******), 2/0/X/1, rest as needed

**That was not a typo! Use a 5 second lowering phase and a 10-second stretch in the bottom position on every rep!

****Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set. Train to failure in the 7-10 rep range, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure a second time with the same weight, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure a third time with the same weight, done!

******Performed as a DC-style “widowmaker” set. Perform 10 reps with your 10-rep max. Then lock out your legs and take several deep breaths. Then knock out another 1-3 reps before locking your legs out and taking more deep breaths. Repeat until you perform 20 total reps with your 10-rep max.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1.

This workout may look a little strange so I’ll do my best to explain everything.

Dante Trudel has a very weird way of training calves. He recommends that most trainees use a 5-second lowering phase and a 10-second isometric pause in the bottom position. This means that each rep takes at least 15 seconds to complete!

Dante believes the prolonged stretch in the bottom position is the key to building bigger calves.

For the leg curls you are going to perform a standard rest-pause set as described above. You can perform as many warm up sets as you need before performing your 1 rest-pause set. The rest-pause set is the only set that counts so don’t hold anything back here!

Now let’s talk about the third exercise: back squats. Dante recommends you perform two sets for quadriceps exercises. The first set should be a heavy set of 4-8 reps. This set is performed like a traditional “straight set.”

The second set of squats is where things get a little weird: Dante wants you to perform a 20-rep “breathing squat.”

A breathing squat is almost like an extreme version of a rest-pause set. You are going to perform 20 reps with your 10-rep max on back squats. Don’t worry, I’ll explain how this is possible!

First you are going to perform 10 normal reps with your 10-rep max. The 10th rep should be an all-out effort. Then instead of racking the weight you are going to lock out your legs with the bar still on your back and take several deep breaths.

Once you feel partially recovered you are going to squat down and perform 1-3 more reps. This process is repeated until you have performed 20 total reps.

The 20-rep breathing squat creates a horrible amount of lactic acid in your legs because the time under tension of the set is so high. If you use the recommended 2/0/X/1 tempo then the entire set might put 60 seconds of time under tension on your quads!

This DC-style leg workout is a great choice for bodybuilders who want to get stronger (and bigger!) without training in the lower-rep ranges. If you are training for relative strength then this workout is not for you!

Now let’s talk about another awesome rest-pause tool: the 5 to 8 method. The 5 to 8 method was invented by Charles Poliquin. It is a modified version of the DC-style rest-pause sets.

The 5 to 8 method is designed to boost absolute strength as quickly as possible. You get a nice blend of neurological adaptations and muscular adaptations in the fast-twitch muscle fibers. In fact this method works so well that Charles Poliquin calls it his #2 training method for increasing the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Here is how to perform a 5 to 8 set:

  • Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep with the same wight, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, done!

Your initial set of 5 reps might put your muscles under 15-30 seconds of time under tension depending on your exercise tempo.

However, the real magic in this training method is the extra singles performed after the initial set of 5 reps. These singles “feel” like a 1-rep max even though you are performing them with your 5-rep max.

These singles place a tremendous overload on both your central nervous system AND your muscular system. This is just an awesome way to prolong the time under tension of a set to produce a powerful training stimulus.

Here is what a chest and biceps workout might look like using the 5 to 8 method. Check it out:

Poliquin 5 To 8 Method

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3 x 5/1/1/1**, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 5/1/1/1**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Flat DB press, 3 x 7-9, 3/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: 60 degree incline cable curl, 3 x 7-9, 3/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as a 5 to 8 set as described above. Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform a 6th rep, rest 15 seconds, perform a 7th rep, rest 15 seconds, perform an 8th rep, done!

Here are videos for the first couple of exercises: exercise A1, exercise A2.

These 5 to 8 sets are very taxing on your overall recovery ability so you have to be careful not to overdo things. Remember, you are practically performing 3 all-out singles during each of these 5 to 8 sets.

The 5 to 8 method works absolutely AWESOME for powerlifters and strongman competitors who are in their “offseason” phase. In other words it works great for increasing your foundation of size and strength when you are far away from any upcoming competitions.

I strongly recommend you give it a shot!

Part 7: Wave Loading

Wave loading is another under-rated training method that not many people know about. This is a shame because it is easily one of the best training methods to use when your goal is to improve relative strength.

If you want to get stronger without gaining a bunch of muscle mass then this section is for you!

A wave is a series of 3 sets performed with decreasing rep ranges. For example:

  • Set #1: high reps
  • Set #2: medium reps
  • Set #3: low reps

Typically wave loading workouts use reps in the 1-7 rep range but this all depends on the type of wave loading scheme that you are using. Let’s look at a couple of the best wave loading protocols: 7/5/3 wave loading and 3/2/1 wave loading.

7/5/3 Wave Loading

7/5/3 wave loading is one of the best ways to train for strength without burning out your central nervous system. For this method you are going to perform 6 total sets. Here is what a 7/5/3 wave loading protocols looks like:

  • Set #1: 7 reps
  • Set #2: 5 reps
  • Set #3: 3 reps
  • Set #4: 7 reps
  • Set #5: 5 reps
  • Set #6: 3 reps

Many trainees find that when they perform too many sets with less than 20 seconds of time under tension they quickly burn out and overtrain themselves. If this describes you then you will love the 7/5/3 wave loading method!

The 5 and 3 rep sets will probably have less than 20 seconds of total time under tension. However, these sets are limited and you don’t perform all of them back-to-back.

This makes the 7/5/3 wave loading scheme relatively easy for most trainees to recover from. It works well for bodybuilders looking to get stronger and for strength athletes looking for a break from their regular heavy, low-rep training routines.

Here is a sample 7/5/3 wave loading arm workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

7/5/3 Wave Loading Arm Workout

  • A1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 6 x 7/5/3**, 3/2/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • A2: 45 degree incline DB curls (supinated grip), 6 x 7/5/3**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B1: Standing overhead cable rope extensions, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/1/0, 45 seconds rest
  • B2: Standing cable ez-bar curl (pronated grip), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 45 seconds rest

**Performed as a 7/5/3 wave loading scheme. Perform 7 reps on your 1st set, 5 reps on your 2nd set, 3 reps on your 3rd set, etc.

Here are the first 2 exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2.

The 7/5/3 wave loading protocol is just a fantastic all-round loading scheme for getting stronger. However, if you are really looking to blast through a strength plateau or peak your strength on a particular exercise then the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol is the way to go.

As the name suggests you are going to perform 1-3 reps per set. This is great for strength gains because all of your sets will have between 1-20 total seconds of time under tension. As you already know this is optimal for relative strength gains.

Here is what a full 3/2/1 wave loading workout looks like:

Wave #1

  • Set #1: 3 reps
  • Set #2: 2 reps
  • Set #3: 1 rep

Wave #2

  • Set #4: 3 reps
  • Set #5: 2 reps
  • Set #6: 1 rep

Wave #3 (Optional)

  • Set #7: 3 reps
  • Set #8: 2 reps
  • Set #9: 1 rep

Wave #4 (Optional)

  • Set #10: 3 reps
  • Set #11: 2 reps
  • Set #12: 1 rep

One of the drawbacks of performing lots of singles in your workouts is that it is very easy to overtrain yourself using them. The total time under tension per single is often less than 5 seconds which is very difficult to recover from.

The 3/2/1 wave loading scheme is one of my favourite solutions to this problem!

You are only performing 2-4 total singles per workout and these singles are “sandwiched” in between sets of doubles and triples. The time under tension during these doubles and triples is often in the 10-15 second range which is far less demanding on your central nervous system.

Here is a sample 3/2/1 wave loading squat workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

3/2/1 Wave Loading

  • A1: Front squat (narrow stance / heels flat), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 5/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Reverse hyperextension, 4 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 120 second rest

**Performed as a 3/2/1 wave loading scheme. Perform 3 reps on your 1st set, 2 reps on your 2nd set, 1 rep on your 3rd set, etc. You can perform anywhere from 6-12 total sets depending on your performance that day.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1.

For this workout you are only going to perform 2 total exercises. Don’t worry, this is more than enough if you are putting everything you have into your working sets.

I recommend that you perform your first wave using slightly submaximal weights. That way you can progressively increase your weights on each subsequent wave and take advantage of the principle of “post-tetanic potentiation.”

This is just a fancy way of saying that each wave will “excite” your central nervous system so that your strength will increase a little bit as you progress through the workout.

Here are some sample 3/2/1 wave loading training percentages that you may want to use:

Wave #1

  • Set #1: 3 reps @ 85%
  • Set #2: 2 reps @ 87.5%
  • Set #3: 1 rep @ 90%

Wave #2

  • Set #4: 3 reps @ 87.5%
  • Set #5: 2 reps @ 90%
  • Set #6: 1 rep @ 92.5%

Wave #3 (Optional)

  • Set #7: 3 reps @ 90%
  • Set #8: 2 reps @ 92.5%
  • Set #9: 1 rep @ 95%

Wave #4 (Optional)

  • Set #10: 3 reps @ 92.5%
  • Set #11: 2 reps @ 95%
  • Set #12: 1 rep @ 97.5%

Conclusion

Time under tension is one of the most important variables in your strength training programs. If you want to get stronger as quickly as possible then you must learn how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets.

Here is the most important thing to remember:

  • Relative strength = 1-20 seconds of time under tension per set
  • Absolute strength = 1-40 seconds of time under tension per set

If you use this rule as a general guideline then you are well on your way to reaching your goals. Of course there also some other things to consider.

If you just want to get as strong as possible then you might want to try alternating accumulation (or muscle-building) phases and intensification (or strength-building) phases.

During the accumulation phases you could train with 20-40 seconds of time under tension per set and during the intensification phases you could train with 1-20 seconds of time under tension per set.

You may also want to play around with manipulating the time under tension of your sets with some of the best strength training methods including cluster sets, eccentric training and isometric sets.

Designing optimal strength training programs becomes much more complicated as you become more advanced. However, if you follow these guidelines then you are well on your way to manipulating time under tension in your own programs and maximizing your own potential. 

“I truly believe that in order to truly be great at something you have to give into a certain amount of madness.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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