If there’s one thing that I’ve stressed with readers and clients more than any other, it’s this: you absolutely must work with and around your body’s adaptation process if you want to continue seeing 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 or are hitting them more regularly than you think you should, it’s almost certainly because you’re relying on the same training techniques you have been doing for months or even years. There’s nothing wrong with these training techniques, but simply switching back and forth between the “main” training techniques, such as full body/split routines or high rep/low weight and low rep/heavy weight training will eventually slow your progress.
The Key to Changing Results is Changing 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 what it needs to do to adapt to that demand. In other words, you put your body at a disadvantage and 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.
This is why I’m devoting this month’s blog posts to advanced training techniques that you may not know much about or even have heard much about. Each of them provides a different stimulus or set of stimuli, prompting your body to work harder to adapt.
These techniques aren’t necessarily advanced because they’re so difficult or complicated, but because they’re so under-utilized. Generally, you only see advanced athletes using these techniques because they’ve gotten to the point where their bodies adapt too quickly to the “usual” methods.
In this first post, I want to talk to you about an incredibly effective and easy to incorporate training technique called constant tension timed sets (CTTS). This is one of the best training techniques you can use 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.
What are 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 during time under tension that your muscle is actually working. To most people, that means more equals 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 TUT (time under tension) for one set that lasts 10 seconds or less is best for strength and explosiveness. TUT that lasts between 10-20 seconds is best for functional hypertrophy (the growth of your muscle fibers). TUT of 20-40 seconds results in a combination of functional and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth of the rest of the muscle’s components). TUT of 40-60 seconds stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy alone and TUT of 60 seconds or more targets muscular endurance.
With constant tension timed sets, you focus on the actual 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 Constant Tension Timed Sets Are 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 or coach tells you that your target is 8-12 reps, it’s with the assumption of a 4-second movement. That’s including the top and bottom of the movement, during which there actually is no tension at all. This makes that target of 8-12 reps a little less specific than it sounds. If you’re doing 5-second reps or 3-second reps, your time under tension will be every different.
Based on the stats I just gave you for TUT, 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, the number of reps you’re doing may not be a good way of assessing what goals you’re working toward. Total time under tension is a much more accurate means of targeting a specific result.
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.
It’s not at all hard or inconvenient to work CTTS into your training. You can use the same movement that you’re already using if you like. The difference is that 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 weight either up or down. Start with what you’re lifting now. What this means is that you may find you’re doing more or less reps (you won’t be able to help counting) than you were doing with 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 20-40 seconds, to hit that mixed hypertrophy target. If that means you’re doing faster reps that’s perfectly alright – 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 1/2% and the bottom 1/2% 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 stopwatch or watch 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, so try to have a clock or watch handy. 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 5 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 5% heavier. Don’t do CTTS for longer than 6-weeks because it’s extremely high amount of volume and you’ll burn yourself out. Next month I’ll teach how to perform 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. This is especially true if you can find someone who has experience with CTTS 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 might want to check out our one-on-one coaching program. CTTS is one of many advanced techniques that we use only with our personal clients. In fact, we 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 strongly suggest that you check it out.
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