If You’re Not Seeing Muscle Gains, Do This 1 Thing

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Most people strength train to see gains in strength and muscle mass. There are many reasons to add muscle mass.

  • Muscle gives us the ability to carry out activities of daily living with ease.
  • Muscle mass gives thin people a healthier, curvier, strong appearance.
  • Adding muscle mass helps with fat loss and body recomposition.
  • We tend to lose muscle as we age. Therefore, we should build muscle while we can, and to continue to add it rather than lose it.

The goal of increasing muscle size is called hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the increase of the size of muscle cells.

Increasing size happens by stimulation and repair. Strength training provides a stimulus, or stress, to the muscle. This indicates to the body that it must create larger, stronger muscles to tolerate the increased load. Through recovery, the body repairs and thickens the muscle fibers to accommodate these new, higher loads.

The point of strength training, therefore, is to impose a level of tension upon a muscle to obtain a hypertrophic response.

When planning a strength training workout, there are many variables we can manipulate to produce this stress response, such as exercise selection, number of exercises, number of reps and number of sets. However there is one, single-most overlooked component of program design. That component is Tempo.

You may need to SLOW DOWN!

The book, Poliquin Principles, 3rd edition, gives this example:

Simply prescribing a specific number of repetitions for a set does not ensure that the appropriate stimulus is being applied. For example, if two athletes are told to perform a dumbbell row for 10 reps, one might perform each rep slowly and finish the set in 45 seconds, whereas the other might perform the exercise as if starting a lawnmower and finish the set in 8.2 seconds.

In the above example, both athletes completed 10 reps. However the one who maintained tension for 45 seconds will have a greater stimulus imposed on the muscles.

In order to build muscle, we need to maintain tension in the muscle. We call this “Time Under Tension”.

Obviously, this assumes good quality tension. It requires mind-muscle connection, being present in and through each and every rep, maintaining proper form right to the end, and not just putting in your time.

The tempo of an exercise refers to the length of time that the muscle is under tension for each repetition, and, more specifically, for each direction of movement within each repetition.

Eccentric and Concentric

Every muscle acts in two directions:

  • The eccentric contraction is when the muscle lengthens under load
  • The concentric contraction is when the muscle shortens under load

A common error we see eccentrically, is letting the weight drop instead of lowering it with control.

A common error we see concentrically, is swinging or yanking the weight using momentum instead of strength.

Using good form, lifting and lowering with control, a typical tempo is about 2 seconds in each direction. This is good, especially when starting out. But if you have a good strength foundation and you are not seeing continued strength gains, you may need to slow down even more. Next I will explain why.

(Note: to be precise, tempo has 4 components and is designated by 4 numbers such as 4:0:2:1. These numbers designate the number of seconds for the eccentric contraction : pause in the lengthened position : concentric contraction : pause in the shortened position. A zero indicates no pause. Your trainer will prescribe a specific combination of numbers depending on the range of motion and the nature of exercise.)

Muscles are stronger eccentrically

We tend to focus on how much weight we can push, pull or lift in the concentric direction. It is often stated in terms of a percentage of our 1 rep max (1RM) in the concentric direction.

  • For a bench press, we think about how much weight we can push, not how much weight we can lower.
  • When we perform a bicep curl, we choose a weight we can curl up, not a weight we can lower down.
  • For lat pulldown, we choose how much weight we can pull down, not how much we can release.
  • This is true for any exercise: hamstring curl, leg extension, seated row, etc.

Allowing our muscles to lengthen is the easy part because muscles are stronger in the eccentric direction. They recruit fewer motor units eccentrically. In other words, it feels easier. We feel like “we’ve got this part” and we naturally tend to focus on completing the more difficult concentric contraction, shortening the muscle.

Another way to state this is, for any given resistance, our muscles will fail in the concentric direction before they fail in the eccentric direction. In strength training, failure is the goal. That means you have successfully exhausted the muscle. So here is the kicker:  The secret to muscle gains lies in fatiguing the muscle in the eccentric direction!

Think of your eccentric contraction as a brake system that decelerates the resistance. The harder you are applying the brakes, the more tension you are generating in the muscle and the slower your muscle will lengthen under load.

Lower the weight slowly

As mentioned, for any given weight that causes you to reach failure in the concentric direction, you will not have reached failure in the eccentric direction… unless, that is, you add a stimulus in the eccentric direction. One way to do this is to increase the time under tension in the eccentric direction. This way, you can challenge your muscles in both directions!

If you are in the habit of moving 2 seconds in each direction, try changing your tempo! Increase the length of the eccentric contraction to 3, 4 or 5 or more seconds per repetition. See how much more challenging this is! It may make all the difference to seeing muscle gains.

Overall Set Duration

Together, the tempo and the number of repetitions determine the length of time the muscle is under tension for the set.

In general, to develop maximum muscle mass, the optimal time a muscle should contract during a set should fall between 20 and 70 seconds.

If you have not been seeing muscle gains, aim for the higher end of 60 – 70 seconds of tension per set. For example, if you use an eccentric lowering time of 4 to 6 seconds per rep, (plus the concentric contraction and possibly an isometric pause), and you perform 8-10 reps, you will reach 60 seconds of tension for optimal muscle growth! If you are used to doing 3 sets, add a 4th set.

Muscle gains during quarantine

During this time of self-isolation, many people do not have access to heavy loads like at a gym. So instead of adding weight, you can increase the stimulus by adding time under tension in the eccentric phase using just your body weight.

Here are some examples. Do each of these for 8 – 10 reps to get your full 60 seconds of tension per set:

  • For push ups, take a full 5 seconds to descend. Pause at the bottom. Push up in 1 second. Repeat.
  • In a squat or lunge, descend for a full 5 seconds, then explosively push to stand or jump. Repeat.
  • Do an inverted row and take 5 full seconds to lower. Pull back up in 1 second. Hold an isometric contraction at the top for 1 – 2 seconds. Repeat.

Count just as slowly on the last rep as on the first rep! Use a stop watch. By 60 – 70 seconds, your muscles will be shaking!

You can apply this to 1-leg exercises, bridges, pull ups or triceps push ups or dips, to name a few. Ultimately, a plank is a 1 repetition set, with a time under tension of 60 – 70 seconds.

Mix it up

It is good to practice different tempos. Some workouts should be fast and explosive, like plyometrics, and some workouts can be slow. It is good to challenge different muscle fibers differently. Slow training can be an excellent way to break a training plateau, or to see an increase in strength without having to increase the weight.

In my next blog, I will discuss additional specific strategies regarding eccentric training and timing.


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  • Sue Deboer

    Great information, thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight!

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