Does Time Under Tension Matter? + A Natural Remedy for Your Joints

Time Under Tension Principle

As you can see, it is another article with completely illogical combination of subjects. What can I say? I’m just good at this stuff. In all seriousness, these two topics are the result of my recent experimentation. And while the first one is somewhat predictable, the second one may surprise you.

With no further ado, let us get to the first part.

Time Under Tension

I was introduced to the principle of time under tension [TUT] by the works of Charles Poliquin. As I understand, he is the biggest proponent of using this variable in strength training.

The idea behind the TUT principle is simple yet reasonable. It states that sets and reps by themselves can’t give you the exact picture of what trainee does. To get precise, we need to use another variable – repetition tempo (or cadence if you wish).

Let me give you an example. Say, trainee A gets great results in hypertrophy with 5 x 5 set/rep protocol. He is so happy that he persuades trainee B to try it. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that both trainee A and B have similar genetics and lifestyle, and importantly, both are in caloric surplus. Somehow, trainee B receives no positive results. In fact, he gets further away from his goal of the ultimate muscle mass. He starts drinking a lot, gets involved with bad company, and finishes in a dumpster near New Orleans.

What’s the possible problem? Repetition tempo. Trainee A tried to control the resistance as much as possible and spent around 5 seconds on every rep, which gives us a total of 125 seconds per exercise (5 x 5 x 5 sec). Trainee B was always in a rush and gave any repetition no more than 2 seconds. This adds up to a total of 50 seconds per exercise. This example shows us how two persons can do 5 x 5 completely differently and thus get different results.

Does Time Under Tension Matter?

In short, yes. Reread the above example. In what universe should it not matter? However, I believe that there are times when the TUT principle is applicable and there are times when it is not.

You can use the TUT principle:

– to increase strength in simple motor pattern exercises (Barbell Squats, Bench Presses, Military Presses, etc.).

– to increase muscle mass, again, using simple motor pattern exercises.

You should not use the TUT principle:

– with complex motor pattern exercises. Well, not until you can nail at least 6 repetitions without thinking about tempo.

– with advanced calisthenics moves like Planche Push-Ups, again, because of the same reasons. To use rep tempo, you should be VERY familiar with the movement pattern. You should be able to perform the exercise in the middle of the night with closed eyes.

– with explosive exercises. You just can’t perform them correctly without going as fast as you can.

Furthermore, I believe that the total time under tension [TTUT] principle can be even more significant than the ordinary TUT. It is the same thing as with the Most Flexible Set/Rep Scheme. If you are doing, say, 3 sets of 6 and spend 5 seconds per repetition, your TTUT equals 90 seconds (3 x 6 x 5 seconds). You can try to achieve similar effect with any rep/set scheme and some math. For example, 90 seconds / 5 sets = 18 seconds. 18 seconds / 6 reps = 3 seconds per rep. This leaves us with 5 sets of 6 3-second reps. Additionally, again, like with the FSRS, there is no need to follow exact, set-in-stone sets and reps. You can accumulate time under tension to the number you are after.

Repetition Tempo

Before moving forward, I think it is important to break down the common repetition tempo notation. Usually, you can see something like “3121” or “40X0”. What do these numbers mean?

The first number is the amount of seconds devoted to the negative part of the exercise (lowering the weight down). The second represents the amount of seconds you hold the weight at the bottom. The third one is the positive part (moving the weight up). And the fourth is the amount of seconds you hold the weight in the top position.

“X” means “as fast as possible”. For the sake of simplicity, I tend to count “X” as one when adding up a total amount of seconds of the repetition.

For example, 50X1 for the Bench Press means:

– lower the weight for 5 seconds;

– do not hold it in the bottom, immediately reverse the move;

– press the weight as fast as possible;

– hold it on top for one second.

Use this cadence for desired amount of reps.

How to Use Time Under Tension Principle in Your Training?

According to Charles Poliquin:

– sets of 20 seconds and less are good for increasing relative strength;

– sets of 40 seconds and more are good for increasing muscle mass.

– sets of 20-40 seconds are a cross-section.

Keep in mind that the more reps you perform per set, the more your work is biased toward hypertrophy. The less reps you do, the more it is strength work.

For example, if your goal is hypertrophy, you should be fine with 3 sets of 8 reps. Your sets should take at least 40 seconds. Let’s go with this number. Thus, one rep should take 5 seconds (40 seconds / 8 reps). Your rep tempo can be 30X1. As simple as that.

And one more tip. With all this counting, it can be hard not to get confused about how many reps you have performed. My solution is to say out loud the repetition you are doing during the positive phase. All the other counting should be done without any sound.

The TUT Challenge

Here is a challenge for you. Use the TUT or TTUT principle with one of the exercises in your current training routine. After 4 weeks, let me know how it worked. You should have more strength, muscle, or both.

That is it for the first part of this article. Let’s get to the second one.

A Natural Remedy for Your Joints

NOTE: I don’t know how, but it works.

I have done all sorts of crazy stuff with my training. The body was O.K. with it most of the time. Yes, I had injuries, my elbows were killing me with this tendinitis thing, etc. Nevertheless, I somehow managed to avoid any chronic pains until the fall of 2013. That’s when I was rewarded with nice pain in my left knee-joint. I dropped squatting for some time, but nothing seemed to help. Then I had a conversation with a drummer of my former band. It turned out that he also suffered joint pain and managed to defeat it with gelatin. Yes, you got it right.

Gelatin – a virtually colourless and tasteless water-soluble protein prepared from collagen and used in food preparation, in photographic processing, and for making glue.

You can buy it in any food store.

After that conversation, I searched the web for some time and found out how to use it. In 10 days, my knee pain went away. Everything cost me some discipline and consistency, as well as 8 UAH (~$1).

Additionally, lots of people find Glucosamine/Chondroitin mix effective in fighting joint pains, although I never tried it.

How to Use It?

The protocol is simple. At the evening, dissolve 5 grams of gelatin in 100 ml of water. In the morning, add 100 ml of boiling water and drink this stuff on an empty stomach. Repeat for 10 days. Then rest for 10 days. Make a total of 3 such 20-day cycles and, hopefully, your joint pain should go away.

Closing Thoughts

That’s it for now. Use tempo variable in your training if it suits your circumstances and goals. Get some good old gelatin if your joints are killing you. And thanks for reading.

Play rough!

Alex Zinchenko

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

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8 thoughts on “Does Time Under Tension Matter? + A Natural Remedy for Your Joints

  1. Chipmaze

    Nice article. I am doing calisthenics since 2 to 3 years now and am badly stuck on progress and both strength (not being able to do more than 12 strict pull ups fast or 5 of them slowly). Hope this helps.

  2. Forest


    the missing link in accumulating TUT across sets is how to account for the effect of diminishing returns as sets get longer: one day you do three sets to failure of 16 seconds each. The next day you are in a hurry, so you select a lighter weight that allows you to do a single set to failure of 48 seconds. Adding TUT across sets gives the impression that both workouts had the same TUT benefit, which is somewhat misleading because the first 16 seconds of the longer lighter load set were very easy compared to the 16 seconds of the first set of three on the first day.

    Is there a more meaningful way to combine TUT across sets? Here is one that takes into account the aforementioned effect of diminishing returns: assign “seconds-to-slowdown” (STS) points to each set by taking the square root of the TUT for each set, as long as each set is done to near failure. The downward concavity of the graph of the square root function reflects the effect of diminishing returns.

    In the above example each set on the first day garnered four STS points, since the square root of sixteen is four. So the total STS points for the first day was four times three or 12. On the other hand the square root of 48 is four times the square root of three which is less than twelve, in fact just under seven.

    Another example: the Tabata protocol involves sets to near failure of 20 seconds each, so the STS score for each set is the square root of 20, which is almost 4.5 . Since the protocol involves eight sets, the STS point total for one Tabata session is just under 8 times 4.5, or about 36.

    In the original study the athletes did three Tabata sessions per week. That would bring the STS point total to something under 108 points.

    So my suggestion; Try to rack up 100 STS points each week for your favorite exercise.

    If you like the results, try it for another exercise, etc. and spread the word. Let me know how you like it.


      1. Forest

        Nice article on the importance of balancing volume and frequency with intensity!

        And yes, one way to allow combination of TUT across sets is to hold the intensity constant.

        However, one of the beauties of the STS point system is that it doesn’t require that restriction.

        Consider pushups, for example:

        One day you do two sets of rapid pushups to near failure, each with a time under tension of 144 seconds. Two days later by doing ultra slow reps you manage to do a single set to failure of 289 seconds, just one second longer than the previous day’s total TUT on pushups.

        Which day gave the bigger challenge to your body’s pushup capability?

        If you look at raw TUT, you would say they were roughly equal with the second day beating out the first by one additional second.

        But that would be misleading, because the rapid tempo pushups of the first day brought on fatigue so much faster that you could only go half as long. Compare the first set of 144 seconds of pushups on the first day (which resulted in near failure) with the first 144 seconds of pushups of the second day set of 289 seconds (which left 145 seconds of pushups in the tank). Obviously the slower cadence of the second day resulted in a decreased intensity in the same way that a jog is less intense than a sprint.

        According to the STS point system each set of pushups on the first day garnered 12 STS points for a total of 24 STS points towards the weekly goal of 100, while the second day set grnered 17 STS points (since the square root of 289 is 17).

        The first two days of the week have left you with a subtotal of 24 +17 = 41 STS points. You have two workouts in the gym coming up later in the week. How many sets of bench presses at what intensity should you plan on to raise this total to your weekly of 100 STS points?

        Let’s say that you like using 85 percent of your !RM for chest presses on the bench. This allows you to do a set to near failure of about 25 seconds at your accustomed tempo. Each such set garners you 5 STS points. Twelve such sets would get you sixty points. If you do six of these sets on Thursday and six more on Saturday, your weekly point total reaches 41 plus 60, or 101. You can make your goal thanks to the pushups you did in your hotel room on Monday and Tuesday during your business trip.

        Do you see the advantages of having a simple, flexible point system like this?

    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      From your link: “…although a lack of controlled studies on the topic makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions.”

      – Alex


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