Tension Deficit

If you see a phrase like "time under tension," you probably think It refers to grocery shopping with young kids. (Especially if you screw up and wander down the candy aisle, a mistake few of us parental commandos make more than once.) But in the past few years, "time under tension," as it applies to strength training, has been elevated to an exalted status, the key to all that heaven will allow.

Well, bigger muscles, anyway.

Here's the idea:

1. Muscles only grow when they're subjected to a certain threshold of tension—that is, they have to be under some kind of strain to grow.

2. Momentary tension, however high, doesn't produce bigger muscles with any certainty. And high momentary tension—from a maximum bench press, for example—is far more dangerous than continuous tension.

3. Continuous tension, thus, is the key to muscle growth.

4. There is an optimal amount of time that muscles need to be under tension to produce growth.

The way "time under tension" (TUT) is used in bodybuilding articles, you'd think that it has solid science behind it.


Nobody knows if the theory is right or wrong, since, to my knowledge, no studies have compared different times under tension to see which produces bigger muscles.

The late Supertraining author, Mel Siff, **, used to argue that you couldn't measure it accurately in any case, since muscles aren't really under continuous tension during a repetition. The amount of tension varies according to the speed of the lift, the speed of the lowering, and the length of the pauses in between lifting and lowering. And there's no frig-gin' way in hell you could control for all that in a scientific study. People aren't machines— they can't knock out rep after rep in which, say, the lift takes exactly two seconds, the pause at the top is exactly one second, the lowering takes exactly four seconds, and the pause at the bottom is exactly one second.

If you could find a way to get a human to do repetitions that are exactly eight seconds long, and compare eight reps of those to eight reps done at a normal speed, the results would still depend on the amount of weight lifted and the speed at which it's lifted. In other words, to what do you compare it? To a lifter using a lighter weight and banging out the eight reps as fast as possible? To a guy choosing the heaviest possible weight and grinding out eight reps at varying speeds (faster at first, slower at the end)?

None of this proves the TUT touters wrong, and that's why Alwyn's New Rules workouts include a range of lifting speeds, which is just one of many variables he uses to induce gains in strength and muscle size. At the end, you won't be able to tell if your gains had anything to do with TUT. But then again, who cares? You're still bigger and stronger.

So let's take two guys who can each bench-press 200 pounds. Let's make them identical twins, with the exact same arm length. So if you put the two of them up against each other in a display of strength and power, their strength would be exactly the same. But let's say one twin can lift the 200 pounds faster than the other. That twin has more power, since he can lift the same weight the same distance, but do it faster.

Power, unlike strength, isn't easily measurable. And to make it all the more confusing, the athletes who achieve the most success in sports involving maximum power (football, say) are also the strongest. Back in 1991, William Kraemer, **, and Andy Fry, **, looked at college football players in Division I, Division II, and Division III. If you assume that Division I players (the guys who would play at brand-name schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, and Oklahoma) are better than the guys in Division II, who are better than the guys in Division III, then it's significant that the higher-division guys are stronger than the lower-division guys.

Their strength, in other words, has to be considered a major reason why they're better than the guys in whatever division is below them. And, turning it around, a guy who's in Division III is there, in large part, because he's not as strong as the average player in Division II.

Other research has shown that starters in Division I schools are stronger than reserves.

The same held true with studies of throwers in track and field events. The best shot-putters and discus throwers could also squat and bench-press more than the guys they beat in throwing competitions.

But: It's really impossible to distinguish "strength" and "power" in these studies, since an exercise called the power clean is part of the equation. The "power clean" is more like an Olympic lift than something you'd see in a powerlifting competition. (And, just to make it more brain-splittingly confusing, the term "powerlifting" is really inaccurate. The three lifts—squat, bench press, deadlift—are tests of strength, not power.) You start with a bar on the ground, then pull it to your shoulders. The lift combines slow and fast elements, but the fast part is the hard part. So it's more a test of power than strength.

I think the most reasonable conclusion is that strength and power are closely related and, in combination, absolutely correlate to the ability to generate force on the athletic field.

That's why you have a combined strength-power phase, as opposed to a pure-power phase, featuring nothing but fast, Olympic-type lifts with weights that would be easy for you to lift slowly.

Stage 5: Recovery

This can be a week or two without training. Or it can be a couple months of mostly unstructured workouts. That is, you go into the gym, you do your favorite exercises, and you don't put pressure on yourself to reach certain goals. Or it can be a structured program in which you work on rehabilitating an injury under professional supervision.

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