The science of muscle building is as complex as it is simple. All you have to do is lift often, lift heavy and eat protein. There, I just summarized everything you need to know about weight lifting and muscle building. However, like I mentioned, it’s also not that simple. Do you want strength or do you want size? Do you want to be the ripped dude on the beach or do you want to be the next Mr. Olympia? You see how quickly this gets confusing and spans outs into 100 different workout methods.
But there’s always one thing that comes back, no matter how you spin it. You have to put your muscles under stress to make them grow. Which brings us to the topic of Time Under Tension (TUT). Time under tension switches the focus of working out from weights and reps to the amount of time you spend exercising each set.
There’s a couple of ways to utilize the time you spend working out each set, which we’ll cover in a bit, but the “easiest” one is to utilize eccentric training. Eccentric training focuses on the lowering part of the exercise.
For instance, when you bench press, your main goal is lowering your weight in a fast but controlled manner to your chest and pressing upwards until your arms are fully extended.
A regular 10 rep set with medium weights lasts you around 30 to 45 seconds with the focus being on lifting the weight. Well, in eccentric training you would focus on the lowering part, treating the lighter weights as though you are lifting a heavy PR.
Think of your body as a spring; as you are lowering the bar towards the chest the spring is absorbing tension waiting to explode.
Isometric training is basically static training — you do not stretch any muscles or bend any limb, you build up muscular tension by contracting your muscles either against immovable objects or very heavy objects. A lot of 1890’s strongmen used this method and worked up resistance against the unmovable object to build up superhuman strength. For more detail on Isometrics check out our article on it.
Now, isometric holds are exercises like planks, push-up holds, bar hangs and stuff like that. They are a great way to add that extra tension in your muscles that will make them grow even bigger and better.
You can also incorporate isometric holds in typical exercises like bicep curls or dumbbell raises. In the case of bicep curls, you can either keep one arm locked at a 90-degree angle while you do your set with the other arm or as you curl the weight, pause at the 90-degree angle for a second or two and then continue the curling motion.
As for the dumbbell raises, just as you raise the weight, hold it in that position for one-to-two seconds and then lower the weight. As you can see, the point here is to put the most amount of tension on your muscles as possible.
This is another great way of achieving maximal TUT, and to break some plateaus in the process. You’ve probably tried this in the gym, so I won’t waste a lot of time on this. The basics are that you start heavy and when you reach failure, you either get a lighter weight or if you are working on an isolation machine, drop the pin to one plate above the one you just reached failure on.
Rinse and repeat until you are working with the lightest weight possible and can no longer move your arms or legs. In the video above you see Eddie Hall, the first man to deadlift 1,102 pounds, doing something similar.
He pyramids up from one plate deadlift, all the way up to a 10 plate one, then does drop sets until he’s back with one plate again. Of course, Eddie is insane and stronger than 90% of humans on this earth, but you get the picture.
Partial Reps go very well with dropsets since you don’t stop when you can’t do a full rep but continue until absolute failure. Let’s say you are doing seated rear delt raises, the first few reps you will be raising your arms all the way up, feeling good and looking good.
Then the as the set progresses you will feel the infamous burn catching up with you and naturally you won’t be able to do the full range of motion — that’s fine. Continue your set until you literally either feel so much pain you are about to cry or can’t move the weight to save your damn life.
21s are an old school exercise that gets you a lot of tension in the muscle and gives you a crazy pump. It’s mostly used in conjunction with bicep curls, but with enough creativity on your end, you can use the 21s on pretty much any exercise. Deadlifts, squats, curls, pull-ups, chin-ups, overhead presses — you name it. Check out this article with some awesome variations on 21s.
Instead of counting reps, set a timer on your smartphone and get to work. Tom Platz had the sickest set of quads in the history of bodybuilding and he was known for doing 225lbs squats for ten minutes straight. Yes, you read that right, ten minutes. Clocking in at around 100 reps.
Imagine the amount of muscular stress he achieved in those 100 reps. Then there’s also the legendary story about a Hungarian wrestler who’s leg day routine was something nightmares are made of.