Time under tension is one of the most important loading parameters in a training program. It is right up there with other loading parameters like your exercise selection and order, your sets and reps, your exercise tempo and your rest periods.
If you want to write training programs that produce results as quickly as possible then you MUST learn how to use time under tension to your advantage!
- Part 1: Cluster Sets
- Part 2: Tri-Sets And Giant Sets
- Part 3: Eccentric Training
- Part 4: Drop Sets
- Part 5: Isometric Training
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to manipulate time under tension in your training programs to build muscle mass and strength.
Time under tension is a measure of how long your muscles are contracting during a set. For example if your set lasts 20 seconds then your time under tension for that set is 20 seconds.
In order to calculate the time under tension of your sets you need to know 2 things:
- The number of reps you perform per set
- The number of seconds it takes to perform 1 rep
Here is a simple equation for calculating time under tension:
- Time Under Tension = (reps per set) x (seconds per rep)
For example if you perform 10 reps in a set and each rep takes 3 seconds to complete then your time under tension for that set is (10 x 3) = 30 seconds.
Of course in order to understand how to manipulate time under tension you have to understand how to manipulate exercise tempo. I will give you a brief overview of exercise tempo right here. If you want to learn more about this topic then check out my article “Tempo Training: The Ultimate Guide!”
Exercise tempo simply tells you how fast you perform a lift. Tempo is quantified using a 4-digit code. For example:
The first digit tells you how quickly to lower the weight through the eccentric range of the exercise. In our example the first digit is a “4” so you would lower the weight over 4 seconds.
The second digit tells you how long to pause in the bottom position of the exercise. In our example the second digit is a “2” so you would pause for 2 seconds in the bottom position. If the second digit was a “0” then you would pause for 0 seconds in the bottom position.
The third digit tells you how quickly to lift the weight through the concentric range of the exercise. In our example the third digit is an “X” – this means you should lift the weight explosively through the entire range.
The fourth digit tells you how long to pause in the top position of the exercise. In our example the fourth digit is a “0” so you would pause for 0 seconds in the top position.
Let’s take another look at our sample tempo: 4/2/X/0. With this tempo each of your reps would take about 7 seconds to complete. This means your muscles are contracting for about 7 seconds per rep.
Here is how long your sets would take with some other sample tempos:
- 3/0/X/1 = 5 seconds
- 2/0/1/0 = 3 seconds
- 5/0/X/0 = 6 seconds
- 4/0/1/2 = 7 seconds
Now let’s look at how to calculate the time under tension for a full set using these sample tempos. Check it out:
- 5 reps with a 3/0/X/1 tempo = 25 seconds of time under tension
- 10 reps with a 2/0/1/0 = 30 seconds of time under tension
- 12 reps with a 5/0/X/0 = 72 seconds of time under tension
- 7 reps with a 4/0/1/2 = 49 seconds of time under tension
Every single one of your sets has a specific time under tension associated with it, just like just like every one of your sets has a specific number of reps. It does not matter if you perform 20 reps super slowly or perform 5 reps explosively: there is a time under tension associated with both of these sets!
Time under tension is so important because it influences how your body adapts to your strength training routines. We know from the scientific literature AND from real-world experience that there are certain time under tension ranges that are optimal for certain goals. Check it out:
Optimal Time Under Tension Guidelines
- Relative strength: 1-20 seconds per set
- Absolute strength: 1-40 seconds per set
- Functional hypertrophy: 20-40 seconds per set
- Hypertrophy: 40-70 seconds of per set
- Muscular endurance: 70-120 seconds per set
This chart may seem a little confusing at first. Don’t worry, I will break things down for you. Let’s say your name is Arnold Schwarzenegger and you want to be the greatest bodybuilder of all times.
If your goal is to be a champion bodybuilder then you want to focus the majority of your sets in the 40-70 seconds range. You would also want to perform a smaller percentage of your sets in the 20-40 seconds and the 70-120 seconds ranges. For example:
Greatest Bodybuilder Of All Times TUT Guidelines
- 10% of your sets: 1-20 seconds of time under tension
- 20% of your sets: 20-40 seconds of time under tension
- 60% of your sets: 40-70 seconds of time under tension
- 10% of your sets: 70-120 seconds of time under tension
This will help you to build as much muscle mass as possible.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule. If you have an unusually high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers then you may want to spend more time in the lower time under tension ranges. However, for most bodybuilders these guidelines are useful.
OK, let’s say that you don’t care about being jacked and tan. Instead you just want to be the strongest man in the world! You see Eddie Hall deadlift 1,100 pounds and say “Wait, that’s it? I’m going to deadlift 1,200 pounds!!”
In that case you want to perform most of your sets in the 1-20 seconds or 20-40 seconds ranges. For example:
World’s Strongest Man TUT Guidelines
- 50% of your sets: 1-20 seconds of time under tension
- 50% of your sets: 20-40 seconds of time under tension
These guidelines will help you to be as strong as possible. Once again there are individual differences that need to be taken into account. If you have a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers then you may get better results performing 70-80% of your sets in the 1-20 seconds range.
On the other hand if you tend to burn out on lots of low-rep sets then you may get better results performing 70-80% of your sets in the 20-40 seconds range.
When you design your strength training routines you have to consider time under tension as one of the training variables. The easiest way to do this is to pick your reps first and then use a tempo that will put you in your target time under tension range.
For example if you are training for functional hypertrophy then you want to make sure that your time under tension per set is around 20-40 seconds. If it is significantly higher or lower than this range then your results will be compromised.
OK, that’s it for the introduction. Now we’re getting to the good stuff! In the rest of this helpful guide I will teach you how to directly manipulate the time under tension of your sets to build muscle mass and strength.
We will be looking at 5 of the most effective training methods ever invented:
For each of these training methods I will show you exactly how to manipulate time under tension to maximize your results. All of these methods can be varied to build size or strength depending on your goals.
That is the beauty of time under tension: it will help you reach your fitness goals faster regardless of what your goals are!
Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Cluster Sets
Cluster sets are easily one of the most effective training methods for building size and strength.
There are many different cluster set protocols but they all have 1 thing in common: you take short rest periods in between the reps of your sets. In other words your reps are “clustered” together with short rest periods.
This has the effect of prolonging the time under tension of the set which creates a stronger training stimulus for size and strength gains. There are 4 cluster set protocols I want to discuss with you:
- Poliquin cluster sets
- Rest-pause sets
- Carl Miller clusters
- The 5 to 8 method
Let’s take a closer look at each of these cluster set training protocols.
Cluster Method #1: Poliquin Cluster Sets
Poliquin cluster sets were popularized by the Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin. For this method you are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 1-rep max. In other words you are going to perform sets of 5 reps with a weight you can only lift 3 times!
The secret to Poliquin cluster sets is you are going to rest for 15 seconds in between each repetition. For example:
Poliquin cluster set protocol
- Perform your 1st rep, put the weight down, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 2nd rep, put the weight down, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 3rd rep, put the weight down, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 4th rep, put the weight down, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 5th rep, put the weight down, rest 2-5 minutes, repeat!
Here is a perfect demonstration of Poliquin cluster sets on the close grip bench press and preacher curls. Check it out:
This training method is extremely effective for building both strength and functional hypertrophy. Let’s say that you are using a 3/0/X/0 tempo for your main exercise. Here is what your time under tension looks like for a regular 3-rep max vs a Poliquin cluster set:
- Regular 3-rep max: (4 seconds per rep) x (3 reps per set) = 12 seconds TUT
- Poliquin cluster set: (4 seconds per rep) x (5 reps per set) = 20 seconds TUT
20 seconds of time under tension is at the lower end of the optimal range for building functional hypertrophy. However, the load is also heavy enough to stimulate rapid strength gains.
This relatively large time under tension with a very heavy weight is one of the reasons Charles Poliquin called cluster sets the ultimate way to train for strength.
Here is a sample lower body Poliquin cluster sets routine you may want to try. Check it out:
Poliquin Cluster Sets Deadlift Routine
- A1: Back squat (wide stance / heels slightly elevated), 5 x 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing out), 5 x 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree leg press (against bands), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 90 degree back extension (holding barbell with snatch grip), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol. Rest 15 seconds in between each repetition.
Cluster Method #2: Rest-Pause Sets
Rest-pause sets are one of the most popular bodybuilding training methods for boosting muscular size and strength. Technically rest-pause sets are a form of cluster training. Here is the exact protocol for a rest-pause set:
- Perform 6-12 reps to failure, then rest 20-30 seconds
- Train to failure a 2nd time with the same weight, then rest 20-30 seconds
- Train to failure a 3rd time with the same weight, done!
Rest-pause sets are so effective because they help you to get stronger while training in higher rep ranges. But why do they work so well for building muscle? The answer is that they allow you to train in the optimal time under tension range for building muscle with a heavier-than-normal weight.
Let’s say that you’re performing sets of 15 reps with a 2/0/X/0 tempo. That means your total time under tension is around 45 seconds for that set.
One of the downsides to training in the 15-rep range like this is you don’t get to use a heavy weight to really break down a lot of muscle tissue. Rest-pause sets let you overcome this problem because you can perform a large number of reps and get in enough time under tension with a fairly heavy weight!
For example let’s say that your rest-pause set looks like this:
- Attempt #1: 9 reps, rest 25 seconds
- Attempt #2: 4 reps, rest 25 seconds
- Attempt #3: 2 reps, done!
You are still getting in 15 total reps and about 45 seconds of time under tension for the whole set. The big difference is you are lifting your 9-rep max vs a 15-rep max! You also get three separate failure points within the set which means three opportunities to achieve maximum muscle fiber recruitment.
There are rest periods between the three attempts of a rest-pause set but they are short enough that it feels like one long extended set to your muscles. The end-result is rapid size and strength gains!
Here is Justin Harris talking about this exact concept:
Rest-pause sets are very effective but they are also very draining on your central nervous system. For that reason you should only perform 1-2 rest-pause sets per body part.
If you want to get freaky strong and build a lot of functional hypertrophy at the same time then this method has your name written all over it!
Cluster Method #3: Carl Miller Clusters
Carl Miller cluster sets are a more extreme version of Poliquin cluster sets that I talked about earlier.
Carl Miller was a world-famous Olympic Weightlifting coach. He was one of the first coaches to use cluster sets as an official training method with his athletes. He invented 2 cluster set protocols that he found especially effective for boosting maximal strength. Here are the 2 protocols:
- Carl Miller Hypertrophy Clusters: 5-7 reps per set, 30-45 seconds rest between reps
- Carl Miller Strength Cluster: 2-3 reps per set, 45-60 seconds rest between reps
The objective for the Carl Miller cluster sets is to help you accumulate a moderate amount of time under tension using an ultra-heavy weight. This extra time under tension with a heavy weight will place an enormous overload on your muscle fibers and force strength gains.
One of Carl’s favourite strategies was to have his athletes perform 3 reps with their 2-rep max. In order to do this they would rest 45-60 seconds in between each rep. These rest periods were long enough to let you partially recover but short enough to make it “feel” like one extended set.
This method works because you are accumulating 50% more time under tension on your fast-twitch muscle fibers than you could if you performed your reps straight in a row.
Here is a Carl Miller strength-based cluster set workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Carl Miller Intensive Cluster Sets Workout
- A1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3-5 x 3**, 4/2/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: V-bar dip (forward leaning torso), 2 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Seated DB overhead press, 2 x 8-10, 3/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
**Rest 45 seconds in between each repetition.
I recommend that you perform 3-5 total sets depending on your performance for that day. If you are having a great day then go ahead and perform 5 sets.
On the other hand if you feel worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger on his first day teaching kindergarten then stick with 3 total cluster sets.
Cluster Method #4: The 5 To 8 Method
There’s one last cluster set method I want to talk about: the 5 to 8 method. This training method was invented by Charles Poliquin. It is actually a modified version of Dante Trudel’s rest-pause training method.
Here is the exact protocol for the 5 to 8 method:
5 to 8 method training protocol
- Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max, then rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, done!
As you can see you are performing 5 reps, then “rest-pausing” extra singles every 15 seconds until you perform 8 total reps. This method is Charles Poliquin’s second favourite training method for hypertrophying the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The 5 to 8 method works because the extra single repetitions prolong the time under tension of the set. The total time under tension is similar to an 8-rep set but you are using your 5-rep max.
For example if your reps last 3-4 seconds each then your total time under tension per set will be 24-32 seconds. This is right where you want to be if your goal is to build slabs of functional hypertrophy.
Here is a sample 5 to 8 method arm workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
5 To 8 Method Arm Workout
- A1: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 3-5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Bench press against chains (shoulder-width grip), 3-5 x 5**, 2/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Lying DB extension, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a “5 to 8” set as described above. Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 more rep, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 more rep, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 more rep, done!
I recommend you perform 3-5 extended sets for the first 2 exercises. You may need to slightly decrease your weight from one set to the next.
I recommend you use a 10% fatigue drop-off curve. In other words if your strength drops by more than 10% from your first set to your last one then you should stop and move on to the next exercise.
Let’s say that you use 300 pounds for your first 5 to 8 set. If you get to a point where you have to use less than 270 pounds for one of your follow-up sets then you should stop and move on to the B1 / B2 exercises.
Part 2: Tri-Sets And Giant Sets
If you want to learn how to use time under tension to build muscle then this section is for you! Giant sets are one of the most extreme hypertrophy training methods ever invented. They were popularized by IFBB professional bodybuilder Milos Sarcev and have been used by other pros John Meadows and Ben Pakulski.
The idea behind a giant set is simple: you are going to perform at least 4 exercises in a row with at most 10 seconds rest between exercises. For example:
Sample Giant Set Protocol
- Perform exercise #1, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise #2, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise #3, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise #4, rest 2-4 minutes, repeat!
Giant sets are so effective for building muscle because they jack up the time under tension of the set to absolutely ridiculous levels. Let’s say that your sets normally last about 40 seconds when you are training for size.
What happens to your time under tension when you use giant sets? It quadruples! Your time under tension is now (40 + 40 + 40 + 40) = 160 seconds!
That is a ridiculous amount of time under tension when you consider that you are still lifting moderately heavy weights. This extra time under tension helps you to maximize the three primary triggers for muscle hypertrophy:
- Mechanical tension
- Muscle damage
- Metabolic fatigue
Metabolic fatigue is particularly high with giant sets. You can expect some of the best pumps of your entire life training this way! There are three giant set protocols I want to discuss with you in more depth:
- Milos Sarcev style giant sets
- 6/12/25 tri-sets
- Fast-twitch giant sets
Let’s take a closer look at each of these protocols.
Giant Set Method #1: Milos Sarcev Style Giant Sets
Milos Sarcev is one of the most successful bodybuilding coaches in the world. Milos trains almost all of his bodybuilding clients using giant sets routines.
There are many ways to structure a giant sets workout. However, in Milos’ experience one of the best strategies is to perform at least 10 exercises in a row for the same body part with no rest between sets.
No, that was not a typo: he has his athletes perform 10 exercises back-to-back for each body part!
Here is a sample upper back giant set that Milos has used with his athletes in the past. Check it out:
Milos Sarcev Upper Back Giant Set Routine
- A1: T-bar row, 1 x 13, 1/0/X/0, no rest
- A2: Rack deadlift (just below knees), 1 x 10, 1/1/1/0, no rest
- A3: Standing barbell shrug, 1 x 10, 1/0/1/0, no rest
- A4: Machine pulldown (wide / neutral grip), 1 x 10, 2/0/X/0, no rest
- A5: Trap-bar row, 1 x 6, 1/0/1/2, no rest
- A6: Lying DB pullover, 1 x 8, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- A7: Cable pulldown (medium / neutral grip), 1 x 8, 1/0/X/1, no rest
- A8: Cable pulldown (narrow / pronated grip), 1 x 8, 1/0/X/1, no rest
- A9: Machine pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 1 x 9, 1/0/X/0, no rest
- A10: Seated cable row (narrow / neutral grip), 1 x 20, 1/0/X/1, 3-5 minutes rest
Here is the training video for this workout:
When you perform 10 exercises in a row the exact reps and tempos start to become less important. After all, how are you going to remember the reps and tempos for 10 separate exercises performed in a row?
According to Milos Sarcev it is much more important to focus on using perfect form so that you damage as many muscle fibers as possible in the target muscle. The total time under tension is already going to be 10 times higher than a normal set which will more than take care of the muscle damage and metabolic stress.
One of the most important things when designing a Milos Sarcev style giant sets workout is to use exercises that overload the muscles in different ways and different parts of the strength curve. You don’t want to use 10 exercises that are similar to each other!
For upper back Milos uses different types of lat pulldowns, rows, deadlifts, shrugs and pullovers to hit the back from as many angles as possible.
Giant Set Method #2: 6/12/25 Tri-Sets
The 6/12/25 tri-set was a favourite of Charles Poliquin. The idea is simple: you are going to perform 6 reps on your first exercise, 12 reps on your second exercise and 25 reps on your 3rd exercise. For example:
- Exercise #1: 6 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Exercise #2: 12 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Exercise #3: 25 reps, rest 10 seconds
The 6/12/25 method works so well because you get to overload the muscle with 3 different exercises and rep ranges. The time under tension for each of the 3 exercises also varies quite a bit. Charles recommends that you vary the tempo for each exercise in a very precise way:
- Exercise #1: 6 reps @ 4/0/X/0 tempo = 30 seconds time under tension
- Exercise #2: 12 reps @ 3/0/X/0 tempo = 48 seconds time under tension
- Exercise #3: 25 reps @ 2/0/X/0 tempo = 72 seconds time under tension
As you can see the 6/12/25 method lets you target both the fast-twitch AND the slow-twitch muscle fibers at the same time. The total time under tension for all 3 exercises combined is over 2 minutes so you are able to generate an enormous amount of metabolic stress in a very short period of time!
Here is a sample 6/12/25 quadricep workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
6/12/25 Tri-Set Quadricep Workout
- A1: Front squat, 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Machine hack squat, 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Leg press, 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
It is extremely important that you pick the right exercises when using the 6/12/25 method. You want to make sure that your 2nd and 3rd exercises in the circuit can be safely performed for higher rep ranges.
For example you would not want to perform a barbell squat for your third exercise as it would be very difficult to train to near-failure on this exercise for 25 reps while in a pre-fatigued state.
A machine exercise like the leg press or the leg extension is much more appropriate for your 3rd set.
Giant Set Method #3: Fast-Twitch Giant Sets
Most people don’t know this but you can actually use giant sets to target your fast-twitch muscle fibers. This can be a great option for a powerlifter in the offseason or for a bodybuilder who wants to take a break from high-rep sets and build some functional muscle mass.
There are many ways to design a fast-twitch giant sets workout. One of the best strategies is to pick 4 exercises and make sure that the total time under tension for each exercise is 20 seconds or less.
This will ensure that you are maximally recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibers on each set. However, the total time under tension for the entire circuit will be relatively high which will ensure enough muscle damage and metabolic fatigue is accumulated for size gains.
If you want to boost the size of your brachialis muscle then a great option is to use a mechanical advantage drop set on the preacher curl station.
The basic idea is to rotate through 4 different types of preacher curls. You would start with your weakest grip and progress towards your strongest grip. After each variation you would rest 10 seconds and move onto the next one. Because you sequence your exercises this way you don’t have to adjust the weight from one variation to the next. Check it out:
Fast-Twitch Giant Set Brachialis Workout
- A1: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / pronated grip), 3-4 x 3-4, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / pronated grip), 3-4 x AMRAP**, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / pronated grip), 3-4 x AMRAP**, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A4: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / pronated grip), 3-4 x AMRAP**, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
**Perform as many reps as possible with the same weight you used on exercise A1. You will probably be able to get 1-2 reps without failing on exercises A2-A4.
The brachialis is mostly made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers so fast-twitch giant sets are a great choice for this muscle.
Part 3: Eccentric Training
Eccentric training is easily one of my favourite training methods. I am always shocked that more trainees do not use it in their routines to build muscle mass and strength.
The goal of eccentric training is to use methods that overload the eccentric or lowering phase of an exercise.
Research shows that the lowering phase of an exercise is what builds the most size and strength. Therefore it only makes sense to use methods that overload the eccentric phase of your exercises.
Most of the time when you use eccentric training you are going to use ultra-slow lowering speeds. This means your time under tension per set will be much higher than normal for a given rep range. Don’t worry, I’ll explain this in more detail as we go along.
There are 4 eccentric training methods that I want to cover in this article:
- Klokov squats
- The 2/1 method
- Eccentric clusters
Check it out:
Eccentric Method #1: Klokov Squats
Klokov squats were popularized by the Olympic Weightlifting world-champion Dmitry Klokov. They are also one of the best methods to use if you are brand-new to eccentric training.
A Klokov squat is a squat performed with a 7/6/X/0 tempo. In other words you lower yourself down over 7 seconds, pause for 6 seconds in the whole and then explode back up to the top position. Here is a perfect example:
Klokov squats have a ton of time under tension for just one rep. The single rep takes about 18 seconds to complete if you are really strict with your form. Here is how you might structure a lower body workout with Klokov squats. Check it out:
Sample Klokov Squats Routine
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6-8 x 1, 7/6/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Kneeling leg curl (Poliquin method** / feet neutral), 6-8 x 3-4, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Walking alternating DB lunge, 3 x 8-10 (per leg), 2/0/1/0, 45 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree back extension (with bands), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/2, 45 seconds rest
Klokov squats have many advantages.
The ultra-slow eccentric phase is fantastic for strengthening your lower body and for reinforcing proper exercise technique. On the other hand the 6-second pause in the bottom position completely eliminates the stretch reflex so you have to use nothing but your muscles to explode up to lockout.
I think you will be surprised at how sore your legs get after a workout featuring 6-8 sets of Klokov squats.
The total time under tension per set is only 18 seconds which is below the optimal range for building functional hypertrophy (20-40 seconds). However, the emphasis on the eccentric phase of the lift is enough to stimulate some fast-twitch hypertrophy.
Eccentric Method #2: The 2/1 Method
The 2/1 method is an incredibly effective eccentric training method. It is normally performed on machine exercises although it can be used with free weights as well if you are creative enough.
The basic idea is to lift a weight using 2 limbs and then lower the weight back down using only 1 limb. You are obviously much stronger using 2 limbs than you are 1 limb so the 2/1 method lets you overload the eccentric phase of the exercise.
For example here is the 2/1 method being used on leg curls:
It is very important to use a slow eccentric tempo when using the 2/1 method. This will improve the training stimulus and reduce your risk of injury.
So how slow are we talking? As a general rule of thumb I recommend you use an 8-10 second lowering phase. No, that was not a typo: you should lower the weight over 8-10 seconds when using the 2/1 method!
Here are some general guidelines for optimal rep ranges when using this method:
- All-out strength gains: 1-3 reps per set
- Functional hypertrophy: 4-6 reps per set
- All-out size gains: 7-10 reps per set
Eccentric training breaks a lot of the rules when it comes to time under tension.
Let’s say you are a bodybuilder and you perform sets of 8 reps with a 10/0/1/0 tempo. That means your total time under tension for the set is 88 seconds! This is well above the normal hypertrophy range of 40-70 seconds of time under tension per set. However, when it comes to the 2/1 method this is perfectly OK.
You might be using a weight that is 90% of your 1-rep max with 1 leg. This means you have 88 seconds of time under tension with a weight you can lift about 3 times. Talk about a potent training stimulus!
The same thing is true if you train in the 1-3 or 4-6 rep ranges: you are probably going to exceed the traditional time under tension ranges for relative strength, functional hypertrophy etc. Don’t worry, the results will be worth it.
Eccentric Method #3: Eccentric Clusters
Eccentric clusters are a hybrid of two of the most effective training methods ever invented:
- Eccentric training
- Cluster sets
In my experience this is easily one of the best training methods ever invented for boosting maximal strength AND functional hypertrophy. In order to use this training method you are going to need a pair of weight releasers.
Here is a perfect video demonstration of eccentric clusters on the bench press:
As you can see the weight releasers hang on the barbell on the way down. Once barbell touches the athletes’ chest they drop off which makes the movement much lighter on the concentric range.
The official eccentric clusters protocol features 5 sets of 5 reps with 30 seconds rest between sets. For example:
- Perform your 1st rep, rest 30 seconds while re-racking the weight releasers
- Perform your 2nd rep, rest 30 seconds while re-racking the weight releasers
- Perform your 3rd rep, rest 30 seconds while re-racking the weight releasers
- Perform your 4th rep, rest 30 seconds while re-racking the weight releasers
- Perform your 5th rep, rest 2-5 minutes, repeat for 3-5 total sets
Once again you should use an 8-10 second lowering phase on every rep. This will give you better results AND reduce your risk of injury. The last thing you want is to lose control of a rep with weight releasers on the bar!
Eccentric clusters are so effective because you accumulate a ton of time under tension with an ultra-heavy weight.
Just think about it: one set of eccentric clusters features about 40-50 seconds of eccentric time under tension. However, you are also using a weight that is at or slightly above your 1-rep max. That is a metric sh*t-ton of time under tension with a supra-maximal weight!
The rest periods are also short enough that all 5 reps feel like they are part of one long extended set.
Here is how you might set up an eccentric cluster set bench press routine. Check it out:
Eccentric Clusters Bench Routine:
- A1: Bench press with weight releasers (shoulder-width grip)**, 5 x 5***, 10/0/1/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 2 x 15-25****, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Decline ez-bar extension (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- D1: Standing overhead cable rope extension, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Use 80% of your 1-rep max on the bar and an extra 5-20% of your 1-rep max on each weight releaser. The total weight on the eccentric range should be 90-120% of your 1-rep max.
***Rest 30 seconds in between each rep. While you are resting, get up and re-rack the weight releasers back onto the barbell.
****Perform 2 sets to failure in the 15-25 rep range with the same dumbbells. You must fail on your final repetition!
If you are interested in getting stronger then you have to give this training method a shot. It might be the single fastest way to boost maximal strength in advanced trainees.
Part 4: Drop Sets
Drop sets are one of the oldest and most effective bodybuilding training methods. They were used long before Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the bodybuilding scene and they will be used long after we kick the can.
To perform a drop set you train to failure and then drop the weight so you can continue busting out repetitions. Here is what a double drop set might look like:
- Perform 10-15 reps to failure or near-failure, then reduce the load by 5-10%
- Train to failure or near-failure again, then reduce the load by 5-10%
- Train to failure or near-failure again, done!
Drop sets are so effective because they prolong the time under tension of a set after you reach failure. This forces your muscles to work much longer than normal which is great for creating more muscle damage and metabolic stress.
In other words you get the benefits of reasonably heavy weights AND extremely high time under tension all in one set.
There are many different ways to structure a drop set. The truth is they can be customized for size and strength gains depending on your goals. Let’s look at two different types of drop sets:
- Bodybuilding style drop sets
- Fast twitch drop sets
Drop Set Method #1: Bodybuilding Style Drop Sets
There are a ton of different ways that you can structure a bodybuilding-style drop set. The basic idea is to train to failure in the traditional bodybuilding rep ranges, then strip some weight off the bar and continue busting out reps to prolong the time under tension of the set.
When you are training in higher rep ranges the exact number of reps and how much weight you strip off the bar becomes less important. It’s far more important to make sure that you are training hard while maintaining perfect form to really annihilate the working muscle.
Here is a great video of John Meadows performing drop sets on lying leg curls. Check it out:
In this video John performs a double drop set, then increases the weight and performs several partial repetitions out of the stretched position. Here is the exact procedure:
- Perform 15 reps, drop the weight
- Perform 10 reps, drop the weight
- Perform 8 reps, increase the weight
- Perform 25 reps, done!
John’s set lasted over 2 minutes. That is an ENORMOUS amount of time under tension for one set. This is a great strategy to jack up the metabolic fatigue and muscle damage during a set.
When John Meadows uses these crazy drop sets in his programs he tends to use them on the last set of an exercise. For example John might perform 2-3 heavy warm up sets followed by 1 crazy drop set on a given exercise.
According to John you really only need to go nuts on one set per exercise to stimulate maximum hypertrophy. Of course drop sets can also be performed by bodybuilders with slightly lower rep ranges.
Here is Stan Efferding using a lower-rep drop set on the incline bench press:
Stan gets 8 reps with 315 pounds, 5 reps with 225 pounds and 7 reps with 135 pounds. I have to admit it was funny watching Stan struggle with 135 pounds at the end of his set!
Once again it really doesn’t matter how much weight you strip from the bar or how many reps you get on each attempt. When you are performing drop sets in the bodybuilding rep ranges the important thing is that you really push yourself hard.
Here is Stan Efferding talking about the importance of training hard:
“You know your sets, your reps, your exercises, your order of exercise, slow-twitch, fast-twitch, whatever you decide I think makes a minimal difference. The big difference is do you train o to failure, do you bust your ass in the gym, or do you just go through and do your 4 sets of 12 and call it a day?”
I couldn’t have said it better myself! In case you were wondering Stan’s drop set had 49 total seconds of time under tension. This puts him right in that hypertrophy “sweet spot” range. But the drop set let him use a heavier-than-normal weight for this amount of time under tension.
Drop Set Method #2: Fast Twitch Drop Sets
Most people don’t know this but you can also use drop sets to build maximal strength. You just have to use lower rep ranges!
One of the best ways to build strength with drop sets is to perform what I like to call a Doug Hepburn drop set. This training method was invented by Charles Poliquin. He never gave it a name but I feel the Doug Hepburn drop set is appropriate!
There are two parts to this workout. The first part features a drop set with 7 single repetitions. You are going to rest for 60 seconds in between each single and take about 2-3% off the bar after each single. For the second part of the workout you are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with the same exercise.
Here is what a sample upper body workout might look like. Check it out:
Doug Hepburn Style Drop Set Workout
- A1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 7 x 1**, 5/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 5****, 4/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: Subscapularis pull ups, 5 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
- C1: Dead stop skull crusher, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C2: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a Hepburn-style drop set. Reduce the weight on the bar by around 2% after each single. The first single should be performed around 95% of your 1-rep max. In other words it should be a near-maximal single.
****Performed with 80% of the weight you used on your last single for the A1 exercise. In other words if your last single was performed with 200 pounds then you would use 160 pounds for your 5 sets of 5 reps.
The heart and soul of this routine is the drop set with 7 singles performed at the start of the workout. I recommend you perform your first single with about 95% of your estimated 1-rep max on that day.
In other words if you think you can lift about 300 pounds that day then you would use 285 pounds for your single. Then you reduce the load by about 2% for each of the following singles.
This routine works because you are performing a large volume of heavy singles in a very short period of time. This drop set will teach your body to recruit the maximum number of motor units in your pressing muscles.
Then in the second half of the workout you are using the “5 sets of 5” scheme to accumulate more time under tension on your working muscles to build functional hypertrophy. If you use the correct 4/0/X/0 tempo for your 5 sets of 5 reps then you will have 25 seconds of time under tension per set which is perfect for building fast-twitch muscle mass.
There are many other ways to structure a drop set workout to build maximal strength. Many of my clients have had good results using 4/2/2 drop sets and 2/1/1/1 drop sets.
However, the Hepburn drop set is pretty much unbeatable if your nervous system can handle lots of low-rep sets.
Part 5: Isometric Training
Isometric training is like the “red-headed step child” of the strength training universe.
Very few people really understand the benefits of isometric training or how to incorporate it into a training routine to produce results. That is a shame as isometric training is one of the most powerful training methods you can use to build muscle mass and strength.
Isometric contractions occur when your muscles are contracting without moving. There are two types of isometric contractions:
- Overcoming isometrics
- Yielding isometrics
Overcoming isometrics involve pressing or pulling against a fixed object. For example if you push against a brick wall then you are performing an overcoming isometric.
Yielding isometrics are a little different: they occur when your muscles prevent a weight from moving. For example if you hold up a pair of dumbbells at arms-length for as long as you can then you are performing a yielding isometric contraction.
Isometrics are so effective for building size and strength because they let you accumulate a ton of time under tension at specific joint angles on an exercise. I will talk about the importance of this as we go along.
There are 5 isometric training methods that I want to cover here:
- Isometrics for powerlifting
- Iso-dynamic sets
- Functional Isometrics
- Yielding isometrics
- Extreme Stretching
All of these methods work because they let you accumulate an extreme amount of time under tension at specific joint angles. Now let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Isometric Method #1: Isometrics For Powerlifting
Josh Bryant is one of the best powerlifting coaches in the world. He is the coach of the world’s strongest bench presser Julius Maddox and many other world record holders in the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Josh believes that isometrics are one of the best ways to get stronger on the bench press and deadlift. He has his athletes bench press or deadlift a barbell against a pair of safety pins as hard as they can for 6-8 seconds.
For example here is IFBB pro Johnnie Jackson demonstrating an isometric deadlift:
Powerlifting-style isometrics are effective for a number of reasons. Research shows that you produce up to 15% more force and recruit up to 7% more motor units when you train this way vs with traditional concentric / eccentric reps.
However, one of the biggest reasons they work is they let you get in more time under tension at your weak points.
Just think about it: on a regular deadlift the barbell might be at your exact sticking point for a third of a second. This means you only really train your sticking point for a third of a second on any given rep.
When you perform a powerlifting-style isometric at your sticking point you training your exact sticking point for 6-8 seconds straight. This means you get 18-24 times more under tension at your exact sticking point with powerlifting isometrics vs regular sets!
This is why Josh Bryant calls isometrics the fastest way to destroy your sticking points in the bench press and deadlift.
Here is a Josh Bryant style isometric deadlift workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Powerlifting Deadlift Workout
- A1: Conventional deadlift, 1 x 1**, X/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Conventional deadlift isometric (2 inches above floor), 2 x 1***, 1/0/X/8, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Speed conventional deadlift, 2 x 2****, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Conventional deadlift isometric (just below knees), 2 x 1***, 1/0/X/8, 120 seconds rest
- C2: Speed conventional deadlift, 2 x 2****, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Barbell dead stop row, 2 x 8-10, 2/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- E1: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 2 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Reverse hyperextension, 2 x 15-20, 1/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 90% of your 1-rep max
***Performed with 135 pounds. Pull against the pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. Your goal is to break the pins in half!
****Performed with 70% of your 1-rep max.
This type of routine would be performed for 2-5 weeks in a row before a deload week. The percentages would increase each week to peak your strength on the deadlift.
Without a doubt powerlifting-style isometrics are one of the fastest ways to boost your strength on the bench press and deadlift. They are so effective because you get a full 6-8 seconds of time under tension right at your sticking point in the exercise.
Isometric Method #2: Iso-Dynamic Sets
Powerlifting-style isometrics aren’t just for powerlifters. If you are creative you can actually use them to add slabs of muscle tissue to your body.
One of the best ways to do this is to perform iso-dynamic sets. I first learned about iso-dynamics from Josh Bryant. The basic idea is to perform a tri-set or giant set with powerlifting-style isometrics and full range of motion exercises.
For example here is a basic iso-dynamic training template:
- Exercise #1: Powerlifting-style isometric
- Exercise #2: Full range of motion exercise
- Exercise #3: Full range of motion exercise
So why is this method so effective? The isometric set teaches your body to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. Then when you perform your second and third exercise you get to fatigue those newly activated muscle fibers with more time under tension.
This is an extremely effective way to train if you want to build maximum muscle mass. Here is a sample iso-dynamic triceps routine that Josh Bryant has used with his clients. Check it out:
Iso-Dynamics Bench Press Routine
- A1: Isometric bench press (shoulder-width grip)**, 3 x 1****, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Bench press against bands (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 3, 1/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Decline DB extension, 3 x 10, 5/0/1/0, 3-5 minutes rest
**Performed with an empty 45-pound barbell. Set the safety pins at 2 inches below lockout.
****Press the 45-pound bar against the safety pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. You are literally trying to break the pins in half!
Here is a training video for this routine:
This routine really does give you the best of all worlds.
The heavy isometric set forces your body to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. The second exercise further fatigues the high-threshold motor units. Finally the third exercise places your muscles under 60 seconds of continuous time under tension which is perfect for knocking off the lower-threshold motor units and jacking up the metabolic stress on your muscles.
According to Josh you can use iso-dynamics to train other muscle groups such as your chest or your back. You just have to modify which exercises you use.
Isometric Method #3: Functional Isometrics
Many of Charles’ strongest athletes including Olympic gold medalist Adam Nelson used functional isometrics to build up their incredible strength.
This is a reasonably complicated training protocol so let’s go ahead and look at a training video. Check it out:
This is Adam Nelson performing a set of functional isometrics on the incline bench press. There are three steps to this training method:
- Step #1: Perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps in between 2 safety pins
- Step #2: On your last rep perform an isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds
- Step #3: After your isometric rep lower the weight back down and attempt 1 final partial rep
All three steps count as 1 complete set. A full functional isometrics workout has 10 sets and looks like this:
- Perform 3 functional isometric sets in the bottom third of the movement
- Perform 3 functional isometric sets in the middle third of the movement
- Perform 3 functional isometric sets in the top third of the movement
- Perform 1 full range of motion set for 6-8 reps
Functional isometrics work unbelievably well for boosting maximal strength and functional hypertrophy.
Essentially you are pre fatiguing your muscles with the 4-6 partial range of motion reps. Then you are using the isometric contraction as a post-fatigue method to prolong the time under tension of the set.
The total time under tension for 1 functional isometrics set will be around 20 seconds which is perfect for boosting strength and functional hypertrophy.
Another big benefit of this method is you get to overload 3 potential sticking points in an exercise using the isometrics.
During a normal set you really only get about 1/3 of a second at a sticking point. But with functional isometrics you get to attack that exact sticking point with a 6-8 second isometric contraction. Now that’s how you use time under tension to your advantage!
Here is a sample functional isometrics routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Functional Isometrics Upper Body Workout
- A1: Incline bench press bottom position functional isometrics, 3 x 4-6**, 2/0/2/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: Incline bench press bottom position functional isometrics, 3 x 4-6**, 2/0/2/0, 240 seconds rest
- C1: Incline bench press bottom position functional isometrics, 3 x 4-6**, 2/0/2/0, 240 seconds rest
- D1: Incline bench press (full range-of-motion), 1 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 240 seconds rest
- E1: Decline ez-bar extension w/ chains (close grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/2/1/0, 120 seconds rest rest
**Complete 4-6 partial range of motion reps. On the last rep press into the top set of safety pins for 6-8 total seconds. You are trying to break the pins in half on this isometric contraction! After 6-8 seconds lower the weight back down and attempt one more partial rep.
Functional isometrics work extremely well for training bench presses, incline bench presses, overhead presses and deadlifts. They also work well for improving your squat if your knees can handle them.
If you are stuck at a strength plateau on a particular lift then functional isometrics are one of the best ways to blast right through that plateau. I highly recommend you give them a shot!
Isometric Method #4: Yielding Isometrics
Yielding isometrics are completely different from any of the isometric training protocols I have discussed before.
Yielding isometrics are really more of a bodybuilding training method as they are much better at boosting muscular size than strength. A yielding isometric occurs any time you pause with a weight as you fight against the force of gravity.
For example if you pause for 3 seconds halfway up during a biceps curl then you are performing a yielding isometric. Your muscles may not be moving but they are working very hard to prevent gravity from pulling the weight down to the ground.
Yielding isometrics are a great hypertrophy training strategy because they can be used to prolong the time under tension of the set. The bodybuilding coach John Meadows is particularly fond of them although he usually calls them “static holds” in his programs.
Here is John performing a triple drop set of Bulgarian split squats with 10-second yielding isometrics after each rep. Check it out:
Talk about a painful set! Here is what John was trying to do:
- Perform 10 reps plus a 10-second static hold, then drop the weight
- Perform 10 reps plus a 10-second static hold, then drop the weight
- Perform 10 reps plus a 10-second static hold, then drop the weight
- Perform 10 reps plus a 10-second static hold, done!
John is using these yielding isometrics or static holds to prolong the time under tension of the set. Even if he cannot perform an extra full rep he can hold his leg in a “power position” for an extra 10 seconds.
These static holds make his muscles work harder and longer. They also force the release of various anabolic hormones like MGF and IGF-1. John truly is a mad genius!
Another way to use yielding isometrics is to perform them at the end of a rest-pause set. This is something that many trainees do as part of their DC Training program.
They would perform their three attempts to failure with the same weight just like normal. Then after the third attempt they would take a short rest and then perform a static hold with the weight. The goal is to hold the weight in a “power position” for as long as possible.
Here is Dusty performing a yielding isometric at the end of his rest-pause set for shoulders:
Dante Trudel says that anyone using DC Training may want to perform the static holds on their chest, shoulder and back width exercises. Dante says that you should not perform the statics for other muscle groups like the triceps for safety reasons.
There are many other ways to use yielding isometrics to build muscle but one of the best strategies is to use them as a post-fatigue method to prolong the set after reaching failure.
Bodybuilding coaches like John Meadows and Dante Trudel have shown over and over again how effective they can be for building muscle.
Isometric Method #5: Extreme Stretching
Extreme stretching is one of the craziest applications of isometric training. This method has been around for a long time but it was really popularized by Dante Trudel through his “DC Training” program in the early 2000’s.
The basic idea is to perform a loaded stretch for a muscle group immediately after you train it. For chest that might mean holding the bottom position of a fly for 60-90 seconds. For your lats that might mean holding the bottom position of a wide grip pull up with extra weight for 1-2 minutes!
Here is IFBB pro and DC Training expert Dusty Hanshaw performing an extreme stretch for his lats. Check it out:
So why is extreme stretching so effective? That is a great question!
Most advanced bodybuilders know that the stretched position of certain exercises is very beneficial for muscle growth. For example the bottom position of a stiff-legged deadlift seems to be very beneficial for building hamstrings size.
The same is true for many other exercises that place a muscle under a deep loaded stretch.
It turns out the “bro-scientists” were right: there is a TON of research showing that loaded stretches are incredibly effective for building muscle. You can read more about the research in my article “Loaded Stretching: The Ultimate Guide!”
One of the challenges with regular exercises is they only place the muscle in that loaded stretch for a split second. For example you might spend a split second in the bottom position of a stiff-legged deadlift where the hamstrings are really stretched out.
What if there was a way to jack up your time under tension in the stretched position? There is – it’s called extreme stretching!
With extreme stretching you hold that deep loaded stretched position for up to 60-90 seconds in a row! This is right in the hypertrophy “sweet spot” and is an incredibly effective way to build hypertrophy.
For example here is Dusty Hanshaw performing an extreme stretch for chest:
Everyone knows the bottom position of a dumbbell fly is where the chest really grows. Well, Dusty is holding that magical position with an ultra-heavy weight for over a minute! Talk about a recipe for rapid muscle growth!
If you have a lagging muscle group then you may want to experiment with using extreme stretches immediately after you train it. It is not absolutely required but it can be a great strategy to further enhance the training effect of your workout.
Extreme stretching on its own won’t do anything but it seems to have a synergistic effect on muscle growth when paired together with more full range of motion sets.
Time under tension is easily one of the most important training variables that you can manipulate in your routine. Every single set that you perform in the gym has some sort of time under tension associated with it.
It does not matter if you perform 20 reps with an ultra-slow tempo or 5 reps as fast as you can: both of these sets have a specific time under tension!
Your goal should be to learn how to manipulate the time under tension of your sets so you can write more effective training routines and get faster results. I want you to take another look at the following chart:
Optimal Time Under Tension Guidelines
- Relative strength: 1-20 seconds per set
- Absolute strength: 1-40 seconds per set
- Functional hypertrophy: 20-40 seconds per set
- Hypertrophy: 40-70 seconds of per set
- Muscular endurance: 70-120 seconds per set
If you only remember one thing from this article then let this be it. This chart tells you how long your sets should last depending on your goal.
Of course this chart mostly applies to more traditional training methods such as a 5 x 5 routine or a 3 x 10 routine. These rules have to be taken with a grain of salt when you start using more advanced training methods.
In this article you learned how to manipulate time under tension using the following training methods to build muscular size and strength:
- Cluster Sets
- Giant Sets
- Eccentric Training
- Drop Sets
- Isometric Training
The one thing these training methods have in common is they manipulate time under tension to create a more powerful training stimulus.
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter then I strongly recommend you start playing around with your time under tension using these and other training methods.
If you learn how to manipulate the duration of your sets to create a specific training stimulus then you will achieve results in the gym that are beyond anything you can imagine.
“You cannot fully commit to something if you are not passionate about it. You must look at your surroundings – at the things you are involved in and ask yourself, do you truly want to put every ounce of your being into these things?”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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