Good Things Come in 3’s
Peanut Butter, Jelly, and Wonder Bread. Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson. The 3 Musketeers. Nirvana. Destiny’s Child (Hey, I had to throw my sister a bone). Some things just GO together. They make perfect sense, they have a chemistry, Even when they are different, and even though they are good as a separate entity, together, as one unit, they form something amazing. Something memorable. Something that truly leaves a lasting impression. In fitness, most of us know the benefits of Time Under Tension (TUT). We also know the benefits of training in distinct rep ranges. We have been told that it is important to train with proper intensity, at, or near, muscular fatigue. Independent of each other, these 3 variables (TUT, Rep Ranges, Intensity), while significant, lack a lot of power, because the context is lost. These independent variables are very much dependent on each other to form and establish the kind of results in the gym you are looking for. When pieced together, forming a unified front, the questions you have been wondering now have answers for you my friend, have discovered the Holy Grail of training, something almost as valuable as the perfectly made PB&J Sandwich.
I have written entire articles about TUT, so for the intents and purposes of this article, I will keep it somewhat brief. TUT is an amazing tool, and when it comes to building muscle, gaining strength, burning calories, and increasing metabolism, it is sadly the “red headed step child” to the prodigal sons “weight”, “sets”, “reps”. TUT is what matters when it comes to changing your body.
You need to put your body under stress to cause an adaptation, and while in 2018 it was all the rage to read about volume, volume, volume, the take home message is, that the amount of stress your body is under, for a given period of time, is what will cause it to change the most. I am not a huge fan of classical volume calculations because there are too many variables that are not accounted for, primarily intensity of effort. In layman’s terms, when it comes to building muscle and strength, the most important thing you can do is put the target muscle group under direct tension for a given amount of time, and in that time, work extremely hard.
There are a couple of different ways to break down the muscle fibers so that they can get repair, recover, and come back bigger and stronger than they were before: you can train sub maximally, with a lot of sets, or you can train with a greater level of intensity, for fewer sets. Both methods can work, but I am much more of a fan of training harder, for less time, simply because we are all busy. Why spend 90 minutes doing something that could take 45 minutes? I also think that training closer to failure leaves far less “guesswork” as to how much “damage” you did to the muscles, or if you did enough to spark new gains in hypertrophy or strength. For example, if you do a controlled set of DB Front Squats for 20 reps, and could possibly have done 21 or 22 but that’s it, that is going to burn like hell, cause a lot of metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscular damage, the 3 main drivers of growth and adaptation. If you did 4 Sets of 8 DB Front Squats, did you elicit the same response? Did it feel the same after the 4th set? Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. But the only way to be sure, is to safely approach fatigue as closely as you can. Less volume, more intensity, it wins every time.
If the volume is going to be low, then intensity of effort is going to have to be high for the target rep range. So how do we ensure that the intensity of effort is high? We know that approaching fatigue in a variety of rep ranges “works”. I am of the school of thought that to get deeper into fatigue, the lower the rep count you have, the more you sets you need to do. You don’t necessarily need to take a long recovery period between those sets, but you need to do more sets to reach a similar state of muscular fatigue, which ironically will typically have your total rep count in a similar place. This is where things like “Rest Pause” or “Myo Reps” come into play,, as you are able to “simulate” a higher volume, multi set approach with what is essentially one longer set broken up into mini sets done to fatigue. So if we know that a variety of rep ranges can be effective for stimulating gains in size and strength to occur…how do we control regulate and systemize what we are doing in order to maximize our results? We require a certain amount of TUT.
Take that same set of DB Front Squats. You might read this article and say to yourself, ok, I am going to try that out, and you head off to the gym, and knock out a tough set of 20 reps. But let’s dive a little deeper. What if that set took 45 seconds? What if it took 90 seconds? Assuming both sets were done with relatively minimal rest between sets (I am a realist here, I don’t know anyone who does a set of 20 reps to fatigue with constant tension AND a challenging load), which do YOU think will cause more muscle damage? I would imagine that, given the same load, the set that took twice as long used longer eccentrics, more mindful contractions, and ultimately, had a great systemic impact. So you see, it is EXTREMELY important to not just view things in terms of “how many reps” or “how much TUT”…you need to match BOTH, and nearly reach fatigue when you do it.
Doing a set of DB Front Squats is not “wrong” if done for 20 reps in :45, if that effort lands you at or near fatigue. If you have a moderate load, and keep constant tension on the muscle, I could see a place for that for sure. In fact, utilizing a faster tempo that is under control, is often a fantastic way to make “the most out of what you have” when it comes to load. You may only have access to a set of 45 pound dumbbells, and if you are a pretty strong male, to make :45 an effective protocol for the workout you are performing that day, you will have to increase the tempo in order to expedite the process of inducing metabolic stress. That is absolutely fine. Where using 45 pounds for a set of front squats would be “wrong” is if you are a strong male, and are capable of doing 20-25 reps in that time, but you do 10 slow, controlled reps. This simply won’t be effective, because you have failed to match the level of fatigue, rep count, and TUT.
Bringing It Together
So, in summary, it is extremely important to match TUT with a rep count, given an intense level of effort on every set you do in your workout. If you solely focus on JUST TUT, this can lead to one of 2 problems:
- You may select a load that is simply too “light”, and while you are performing the work for the required amount of time, the desired effect on the muscle fibers may be greatly compromised.
- A “survivalist” mentality, where you are doing just the opposite, and using a load that is “too heavy,” taking long rests between reps, using poor ROM, and at the end of the day, just lying to yourself about how strong you really are.
If you focus on JUST rep counts, you are opening yourself up to these issues:
- Sloppy form to just “get” a rep count, knowing the set is over once you reach it. Bouncing out of the bottom of a rep, speedy eccentrics, and limited ROM can all occur in this scenario.
- A mind set of “how much” and “how many” over “how quality”. You may have gotten those 20 reps, but HOW effective were they? Were you truly near fatigue? Did you feel the muscle fibers contracting, or were you simply just pounding reps out just to hit a number?
If you do in fact “match” the rep count and the TUT, but train at a sub par intensity level, you are leaving a LOT of results on the table.
Where does this leave us? What is one to do? Fear not my friend, you just need to go into each session with a plan that matches the desired rep count and TUT to elicit the appropriate level of muscular fatigue. For example, here is a sample Metabolic Training workout to try out:
- DB Front Squat x :45 (11-14 Reps)
- TRX Row w/ 3 Second Contraction x :45 (8-10 Reps)
- Weighted Pushup x :45 (11-14 Reps)
- Seated Band Row “Pumping Reps” x :45 (25-30 Reps)
- Extended Plank x :45
- Spidermen Reach Backs (Hip Mobility), Alternating Legs x :45
Perform 4 Cycles, Resting :20 between sets.
So hopefully you are now armed with the knowledge, and the power, to maximize your results in the gym, and be mindful to conscious align TUT with a target rep count that lands you near muscular fatigue, in order to get the best of both worlds.