What is an advanced training technique for destroying plateaus? Answer: Constant-tension timed sets! Stop counting reps. I repeat, stop counting reps. Rep counting will make you smaller in the long run.
Do I have your attention now? Good.
If there’s one point about training that I’ve stressed with readers and clients more than any other, it’s this: If you want to continue seeing results, you absolutely must work with and around your body’s adaptation process. Plateaus happen when you continue doing the same thing beyond the point at which your body has adapted to it.
If you’re stuck at a plateau or are hitting them more regularly than you think you should, it’s almost certain that you’re relying on the same training techniques you’ve been doing for months or even years. There’s nothing wrong with them, but simply switching back and forth between the same training options—like full-body and split routines or high-rep/low-weight and low-rep/heavy-weight work—will eventually slow your progress.
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 do what it needs to do in order to adapt to that demand. In other words, you put your body at a disadvantage, and the 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. For that reason I’m devoting my next few installments of this column to advanced training techniques that you may not know much about. Each provides a different stimulus or set of stimuli to prompt your body to work harder to adapt.
These techniques aren’t necessarily advanced because they’re difficult or complicated. Because they’re underused, however, you generally see only advanced athletes doing them—trainees who have gotten to the point where their bodies adapt too quickly to the usual methods.
The first is an incredibly effective and easy-to-incorporate method called constant-tension timed sets. It’s one of the best training techniques you can use to spur hypertrophy without having to invent a whole new wheel. It’s not new exercises, just a new way of doing the old ones.
What are Constant-Tension Timed Sets?
Time under tension is one of the training elements that stimulate gains, and most trainees already know that a muscle works only when it’s under tension. Most people would think that means more equals better—more reps or more weight—but that is not the case.
Depending on how long your muscle is under tension, you’re working toward different goals. That’s the reason you do high-rep/low-weight and low-rep/high-weight training at different times, depending on whether you’re going for endurance, strength or size. Time under tension, or TUT—stimulates different types of progress.
Studies have shown that a TUT of 10 seconds or less for one set is best for strength and explosiveness, while a TUT that lasts from 10 to 20 seconds is best for functional hypertrophy, meaning muscle fiber growth. A time under tension of 20 to 40 seconds results in a combination of functional and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which means the growth of the rest of the muscle’s components, while 40 to 60 seconds stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy alone and 60 seconds or more targets muscular endurance.
With constant-tension timed sets, you focus on the actual amount of time under tension rather than the number of reps. There are some really important reasons for that.
Counting reps and sets is not really the “wrong” thing to do; however, it’s not a completely accurate gauge of your progress or a very targeted approach on its own. When a program or coach tells you that your target is eight to 12 reps, it’s with the assumption of four-second reps. That’s including the top and bottom of the movement, during which there actually is no tension at all. That 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 TUT will be different.
So, basically, one guy can be doing 10 reps and stimulating functional hypertrophy, while another is using the same weight and doing the same 10 reps but stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In other words, the number of reps you’re doing may not be a good way of determining what goals you’re working toward. Total time under tension is a much more accurate means of targeting a specific result. Watch anyone in the gym tonight doing eight to 12 reps, and I guarantee the set will last 20 to 25 seconds at most—which is great for strength but not size. That’s the reason I said counting reps often keeps you skinny.
With constant-tension timed sets, there’s no locking out at the top or bottom of the movement—it’s constant tension, and that brings a benefit beyond accuracy. It builds up a lot of metabolic by-products, such as lactic acid, that are essential for myofibrillar cellular swelling and satellite cell signaling, and those in turn stimulate protein synthesis and the release of more testosterone and growth hormone.
How to Do It
It’s not at all hard or inconvenient to work contant-tension timed sets into your training. You can use the same movements that you’re already using. The difference is that you’ll be counting your time under tension for each set, rather than your reps.
Note that you don’t want to adjust your weight up or down. Start with what you’re lifting now. You may find that you’re doing more or fewer reps (you won’t be able to help counting) than you were with traditional sets. That’s fine. Your goal is to hit the right time under tension for hypertrophy. Go for somewhere between 20 and 40 seconds to hit that mixed-hypertrophy target. If that means you’re doing faster reps, that’s perfectly all right—you’ll be getting a greater mechanical workload.
Here are a couple of key points about incorporating constant-tension timed sets:
1) Make sure that you’re not locking out at the top or the bottom of the rep because that would be releasing tension. You want to leave out the top half percent and the bottom half percent of the range of motion so that you maintain constant tension.
2) Make sure that there’s a clock with a second hand or a watch within your field of vision while you’re working out or that someone has a stopwatch. You can count off your time—one one-thousand, two one-thousand and so on—but that can distract your focus from your pace and form, so try to have a clock or watch handy. You may also find it advantageous to have a workout partner 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. Then come back down to 40 seconds and go at least 5 percent heavier. Don’t do constant-tension timed sets for longer than six weeks because the technique is extremely high volume and you’ll burn yourself out. Next time I’ll discuss functional hypertrophy clusters, a perfect program to transition to after constant-tension timed sets. Look forward to it!
What to Do Next
Having a partner or coach is an excellent idea when you’re starting out with this technique. That’s especially true if you can find someone who has experience with constant-tension timed sets and can help you gauge your progress and results and make adjustments as you need them. If you don’t know someone with the right experience, you may want to apply for one-on-one online coaching at www.VinceDelMonteFitness.com, where I can personalize an entire training program around this method for you. Constant-tension timed sets are one of many advanced techniques that I use with my personal clients. In fact, I use dozens of different training techniques, alternating stimuli to maximize results and blast past plateaus. The program is incredibly effective but extremely affordable, so if you really want to move your training to the next level, I suggest that you check it out.
Editor’s note: Vince Del Monte packed on an amazing 40 pounds of muscle in 24 weeks He’s known as “the Skinny Guy Savior” and offers courses to help you go from twig to big, including No Nonsense Muscle Building. For more information or to sign up for his free-tips newsletter, visit www.Vince