Build Muscle With Tension

By now you’ve probably heard that one of the most efficient ways to build muscle is to slowly progress to lifting heavier weights. This week you may be doing eight reps on dumbbell presses with 50 pounds, and then the next week you will try 55 pounds for the same exercise, for the same amount of reps. But what happens eventually? Your strength improvements won’t be linear anymore, meaning they won’t constantly increase. What do you do then? Tension!

What if I told you that you could actually drop the 55 pounds you were using and drop down to 40lbs and still make gains? It’s possible with these three principles of tension. Use them properly to take your training to the next level and keep making your desired gains.


Muscle tension refers to the condition in which muscles of the body remain semi-contracted for an extended period. So next time instead of loading up the barbell with a weight you can’t control throughout your entire range of motion, go lower and make sure not only that you have control going up (the concentric portion of the exercise) but also going down (the lengthening or eccentric portion of the exercise).

When talking about muscular tensions there are three major components that will lead to optimal muscle gains.

1. Time Under Tension

Time under tension (TUT) has become a bit more popular in the past few years with many pro bodybuilders and pro physique athletes. TUT refers to the total time a muscle resists weight during each set. For maximizing strength, the “ideal” TUT is about 20 seconds or less, for muscle mass it’s at about 40 seconds and for muscle endurance, it’s at least 70 seconds. So if you are going to perform a set of curls with a barbell and are looking to increase muscle size, then take 40 seconds to perform your next 10-12 reps. Breathe deeply and concentrate on the weight. TUT ranges allow you to be more precise about the amount of work you place on a muscle. This technique allows you to put a lot of stress into the muscle fibers and cause damage that you wouldn’t normally get by doing standard reps during your set. To practice this technique, start with a lighter weight and then slowly as you get the hang of it. Putting your muscles under this technique will hurt at first, but you will thank yourself later.

2. Tension Intensity

Tension intensity basically means one thing – the heavier the weight lifted, the greater the mechanical tension and load on the muscle. At first, you might want to start a bit lighter than you’re used too and then progress with time. With TUT you can’t explode the weights up, however a way to incorporate TUT into your training slowly is lift up explosively (1 second) and then slowly (during the eccentric / lengthening) lower the weight down (3-4 seconds). This will still put your muscles under tension.

3. Tension during the entire exercise

You might be wondering what this means. Let’s take a dumbbell triceps kick back, for example. Most of the tension your triceps is getting is when you lift from mid way up. So what is happening throughout the rest of the range of motion during that exercise? You are not putting tension on that muscle. So basically, you’re doing an exercise were only ¼ of the movement is truly benefiting you. Our bodies are full of angles and levels, but due to joint angles, tension will vary along the range of motion of an exercise. A lot of exercises only produce tension during a portion of the range of motion, so to apply TUT to your training choose exercises where you can keep constant tension on your muscles. This will guarantee better growth.


Alex Carneiro

Alexandre Carneiro is an IFBB Pro Physique athlete, kinesiologist, nutritionist and coach. An Optimum Nutrition sponsored athlete and certified ACSM trainer. Born in Brasilia-Brazil and raised all around the world, Alexandre’s knowledge and passion for fitness extends from the physiological adaptations of ergogenic aids to the biomechanical form of the body and it’s structure. As an international fitness icon he develops and trains athletes and individuals world wide and shares his knowledge fortraining, nutrition and supplementation around the globe.

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