If there’s one thing that I’ve stressed with clients more than any other, it’s this: You must work with your body’s adaptation process in order to see results. Plateaus happen when you continue doing the same thing beyond the point at which your body has adapted to it.
If you’re stuck in a plateau, it’s almost certainly because you’re relying on the same training techniques you’ve been doing for months or even years. There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, but simply switching back and forth between “main” training concepts such as full-body/split routines or high-rep/light-weight and low-rep/heavy-weight training will eventually slow your progress.
Change Your Stimulus
The key to constant growth is constant stimulus. When you place a new or more intense demand on your muscles, it stimulates the body to adapt. In other words, you put your body at a disadvantage and that disadvantage creates change and adaptation, which result in positive training effects.
The body responds to a variety of stimuli, such as load, volume, intensity, metabolic stress, and time under tension. If you want to change your results, you need to change your stimulus.
Constant tension timed sets (CTTS) is an advanced training strategy that you may not have heard much about, but it’s incredibly effective and easy to incorporate. This is one of the best ways to spur hypertrophy without having to invent a whole new wheel. In other words, you’re not doing new exercises; you’re just doing them in a new way.
Constant Tension Timed Sets
Time under tension is one of the stimuli that we use in our workouts, and most guys already know that it’s only when you’re under the weight that your muscle is actually working. To most people, that means more is better—more reps or more weight—but that is not the case.
The fact is, you’re working toward different goals depending on how much time your muscle spends under tension. This is why high-rep/low-weight and low-rep/high-weight training is used at different times, depending on whether you’re going for endurance, strength, or size. It’s because your time under tension stimulates different types of progress.
Studies have shown that time under tension for one set that lasts 10 seconds or less is best for strength and explosiveness. Time under tension that lasts between 10 and 20 seconds is best for functional hypertrophy (the growth of your muscle fibers). A time under tension of 20 to 40 seconds results in a combination of functional and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth of the rest of the muscle’s components). An interval of 40 to 60 seconds stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy alone and time under tension of 60 seconds or more targets muscular endurance.
With constant tension timed sets, you focus on the total amount of time under tension for your set, rather than the number of reps. There are some really important reasons why this is done.
Why CTTS Is So Effective
There’s nothing wrong with counting reps and sets. However, it’s not a completely accurate gauge of your progress or a very targeted approach on its own.
The reason for this is that when a program tells you that your target is eight to 12 reps, it’s with the assumption of a four-second movement. That’s including the top and bottom of the rep, during which there actually is no tension at all. This makes that target of eight to 12 reps a little less specific than it sounds. If you’re doing five-second reps or three-second reps, your time under tension will be very different.
Based on the stats I just gave you for time under tension, one guy could be doing 10 reps and stimulating functional hypertrophy, while another guy can be using the same weight and doing the same 10 reps but stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In other words, total time under tension is a much more accurate means of targeting a specific result than counting reps.
With constant tension timed sets, there is no locking out at the top or bottom of the movement—it is constant tension, and this has a benefit beyond accuracy; it builds up a lot of metabolic by-products, such as lactic acid, which are essential for myofibrillar cellular swelling and satellite cell signaling. These in turn stimulate protein synthesis and the release of more testosterone and growth hormone.
How To Do It
It’s not hard to work CTTS into your training. You can use the same exercises that are already in your program. The difference is, you’ll be counting your time under tension for each set, rather than your reps.
I want to point out here that you don’t want to adjust your load up or down. Start with what you’re lifting now. What this means is that you may find you’re doing more reps or fewer reps (you won’t be able to help counting) than you were doing with your traditional sets. That’s fine. Your goal is to hit the right time under tension for hypertrophy. What I suggest is to go for somewhere between 20 to 40 seconds per set in order to hit that mixed hypertrophy target. If that means you’re doing faster reps, that’s perfectly okay since you’ll be getting a greater mechanical workload.
There are a couple of other things that you need to know about incorporating CTTS:
1) You need to make sure that you’re not locking in at the top or the bottom of the rep, because that means releasing the tension. Basically, leave out the top half percent and the bottom half percent of the range of motion so that constant tension is maintained.
2) You will need to be able to watch a clock that has a second hand or have a timer within your field of vision while you’re working out. You can count off your time (one one-thousand, two one-thousand, and so on), but some guys find that takes their focus off of their pace and form. You also might find it advantageous to have a workout partner when doing CTTS so that you can time each other.
3) Start off with 40 seconds per set and add five seconds per week until you’re up to 65 seconds per set, and then come back down to 40 seconds and start with at least five percent more weight. Don’t do CTTS for longer than six weeks because it’s an extremely high amount of volume and you’ll burn yourself out. IM