Tension: Why It Matters for Muscle, Strength, & Fat Loss

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Written by Coach Austin Current

Original article posted on N1 Training by Coach Austin, but has been updated and expanded below.

In this article, we are going to define tension, give context to “time under tension”, and cover the importance of creating more tension in the target muscle(s). By the end of this article, you will better understand how creating more significant tension will translate into building more muscle, increasing strength, and overall potential fat loss.

Defining Tension

The pulling force exerted by each end of a muscle fiber, or entire muscle, is called tension. Tension is a factor that is going to have a part within any training stimulus that you do. The more tension we have, the more of that given muscle tissue will be active, both from a contractile and metabolic perspective. When it comes to resistance training, we need to understand how to get tension where we want it, keep it there, and then either maximize the intensity — the amount of that tension — or your ability to sustain tension in that muscle through higher reps or multiple exercises. This ultimately will determine how much neurological work, how much total tension and mechanical work, as well as how much metabolic work can be done within a given session. The ability to create significant tension is going to be a key variable in every single training stimulus.

The Key Variable: Significant Tension

It seems time under tension style training is gaining popularity among fitness enthusiasts around the world. The hashtag on Instagram has 48.1k tags. This being said, the context in which I see the term being used is still vastly misunderstood. No matter the goal — building strength, building muscle, or losing body fat — creating significant tension is a key variable. You can now see how this should no longer be categorized as a “type” or “style” of training.

The ability to create significant tension will determine the overall success of your training, no matter the goal. We define “significant” as when there is enough tension in the target muscle(s) to create or contribute to the desired stimulus of the workout. In certain portions of some exercises, even though there may be tension in the muscle, the amount is so little that it does not contribute to stimulating any adaptations. Some examples of this would be at the top of a squat or at the bottom of a dumbbell curl. Counting the time spent in those positions towards the “time under tension” of the muscle is almost irrelevant if we’re using that to evaluate the stimulus of the workout.

Practical Application

In the process of learning, it is important to see concepts put into some form of practical application. This helps give context to the new information. For the sake of this article, I want to apply this concept of significant tension to something near and dear to all of our hearts: building muscle. If your goal is building muscle, you need to be able to create significant tension within the muscle(s) you are training, at a high enough volume, to hit the threshold to stimulate adaptation. There are a handful of factors that will come into play, here:

Execution: This is going to determine which muscle is receiving stress from an external load.
Load: Execution works alongside load. You need a significant enough load to create significant tension in the muscle tissue. This is where improving your exercise technique improves your ability to create significant amounts of tension in the target muscle tissue.

 

Volume: There is a threshold amount of tension and load that needs to be achieved on that given muscle tissue to trigger adaptation. The better your exercise execution and your ability to apply load where you need will require a less total volume to achieve the threshold needed. If we can achieve the same stimulus on the muscle with less overall volume, this leads to less stress on the overall system and less wear and tear on your passive tissues (joints). This also allows for more room for progressive overload in the future.

Tempo/Intent: When looking to get the most tension out of the relative load, the tempo and intent will need to be proportionate to the resistance profile and load being used to maximize the benefit of each rep. This isn’t about lifting with intentionally slow rep tempos; it is about improving the amount of tension placed on the target muscle(s) which leads to increased loads and stimulus on the muscle ⏤ which can decrease rep speeds organically when loads increase to challenging levels.

As you can see, your ability to execute movements properly will heavily play into your ability to move loads with the tissue you are trying to work. The combination of execution and load will help achieve the needed amount of volume on each muscle needed to create an adaptation. Your ability to manage tension with tempo and intent will allow you the maximize the benefits of each rep. So, if your ultimate goal is to build muscle, the better you are at creating significant tension in the intended muscle, the better the opportunity you will have to stimulate the adaptation for muscle growth.

When paired with proper nutrition, recovery, and periodization, you have a recipe for success!

Interested in learning how to improve your exercise technique? Visit our YouTube channel and watch our full-length exercise technique tutorials ⏤ teaching you how to properly set up for the exercise, things to think about while you’re performing it, and how to avoid the most common mistakes made during each exercise.

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Written by Coach Austin Current, BSc, CSCS, IFBB, Pn1

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