Taylor Lewis: Time Under Tension
Over the years you learn a lot about yourself.
Your reflections build and mold how you approach training and where your journey will lead you. Looking back on my life, I remember the first time working out influenced my approach.
I started to evolve as a trainer at the end of my 8th grade year. I was overweight and had insecurity issues. I had enough and declared a change. I did not want to go into my freshmen year of high school as the chubby kid. The only reason why I wasn’t called the fat kid was because I was athletic and played multiple sports ever since I could walk. Growing up with four older brothers I had to be quick on my feet and ready for anything. My brother Drew would always like to pick on me so I had to develop and understand when to be ready (turn my arousal level up) and when it was okay to bring my guard down (arousal level down).
I remember every morning of the summer going into my freshman year I would get up and go for a run. I would literally wake up, put my shoes on and head out the door. I left my shoes by my bed because I did not want to have any distractions—from the scent of fresh bacon and eggs in the morning to my brother waiting to pounce on me for a good morning noogie.
Dan John would call this a Shark habit. A decision that you take care of right away and get it off the table.
It was hard to get out of bed that summer. I had to physically push myself to go on a run every morning, knowing there was nothing holding me back from sleeping in. There is nothing like waking up in the morning and just absorbing the warm bed as the early morning sun shines and the birds chirp at a new day. It took mental toughness and newly built arousal levels to get my ass out of bed; I was on a mission and my “why” was greater than anything else.
Over the course of the summer I ended up losing 35 pounds and walked onto campus my freshmen year 128lbs. I had lost so much weight my mom took me to the doctor to make sure I was healthy and wasn’t in any danger. Looking back at my approach of eating nothing but salads, going to bed hungry and each day trying to run farther than I had run the day before, I realize it wasn’t the run or dodging my older brother that helped me reach my goal.
It was a developmental, subconscious awareness of my arousal and tension levels when training that enabled me to conserve and sustain my energy levels throughout the summer.
As fitness professionals, it is easy to get suckered into giving the client what they want, not what they need. They are paying you and if you don’t get them to sweat then they will go pay someone else to kick their ass. So at some point in the workout, you need to elevate their heart rate, get them running around and challenge their mental capacity to survive. It is what we like to call controlled chaos. With that being said, you need to look deeper into their assessment to see how much controlled chaos they truly need . . . and how much time under tension is enough.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Time under Tension
I pulled this definition from a big fitness magazine and they define Time under Tension as:
“In short, Time Under Tension refers to how long the muscle is under strain during a set.”1
That makes sense, right? In the general concept of the phrase it does, but in actuality, it is too general to live off of. You can’t program an exercise knowing general time under tension will reach your optimal goal, unless you can figure out at what tension is being used throughout the movement and how much is used throughout the body—there are multiple variables that you need to look at if you truly want to know true overall tension. Biomechanics of the movement through the full range of motion, metabolic adaptations, metabolic expenditure, neurological output and input, age, sex, maturation, cognitive function, external environmental factors, etc.
That is obviously a lot of variables, but simply understanding that there is a lot going on is key when programming it.
In 2009, after I officially became a Bally’s Total Fitness trainer and proudly wore my red shirt. I had an older woman (let’s just say her name is Jane) sign up with me for a 10-pack of sessions, wanting to get in shape. She was one of my very first clients and I was ramped up and ready to go. I was going to take her through various circuits that were going to get her sweating and push her limits. I wanted to see what she was made of, bootcamp-style.
If I crushed her that would show how qualified of a trainer I was, right? At least that is what I was taught as a new trainer.
Then I learned something that would change my career forever. Jane, who I was ready to beat down, had fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals. This experience (or inexperience) with Jane changed the game for me and how I would start to approach training.
Over the course of the 10 sessions, I learned more about how to approach her training than I ever did earning my bachelor’s degree at Sonoma State University. If I would have tried to take her through the traditional circuit volumes, intensities and durations I would have crushed her to the point she would never want to train again.
The exercises weren’t going to be the issues but her time under tension was the deal breaker.
There is only so much tension you can create through an exercise. For example, when I do a very slow bicep curl, the amount of tension (starting from the bottom of the curl through the entire movement) will not be the same. Not only that, as you even think about curling that weight, the whole body kicks into play and has a role in how much tension will be created through the movement. I always talk about how you must create stability everywhere else before you decide to dynamically move through a pattern. With that being said, you can only hold a certain amount of tension throughout the movement before tension starts to dissipate. Remember the numerous variables I listed earlier? Well these factors also come into play starting from the time you get up out of bed until you perform that bicep curl. This wouldn’t help my client one bit when her goal was to try build some muscle and improve her overall strength. So I had to start approaching her exercise program from a different vantage point.
I needed to find a test to give me a benchmark for how the training sessions were going to go. The first thing I would have her do was hop on the foam roller and after rolling out her body, she would rate her pain on a scale of 1-10. One being no pain at all and 10 being there is so much pain she is going to die (not literally, but you get the picture.) Since she does have fibromyalgia, I knew it wasn’t going to be the purest of tests. After she rated her pain, I would analyze her breathing from a few positions. I would have her breathe on the roller for 30 seconds and watch where the breath originated from. I would then have her perform a plank for 10 breaths and see how long it would take her. I viewed diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, as an indicator of her arousal or tension levels. Belly breathing directly shows if you are using your primary ventilator muscles (low tension) for expiration and inspiration or are you using the secondary ventilator response system (high tension) to drive the bus. Remember she needs both, but finding which one is working the hardest (depending on what she was doing) was key. If she was foam rolling and breathing hard than I could tell we need to back off her workout for the day—she was in a state of high tension.
This test was the same with the plank. If she took 10 breaths and knocked them out in 15 seconds, then I knew she wasn’t efficiently exchanging oxygen. If the plank for breaths was initiated during an exercise circuit that would be different.
These baselines were immediately and immensely helpful in setting up her workouts and managing her conditions.
You’re probably asking, “Well, what do you do if she comes in with a lot of tension or what if she comes in low on the scale?”
Let’s dive into the science a little before I answer so that her program makes sense: Everyone knows you can’t live or lift without tension/arousal, but you can’t function efficiently without a balanced ratio of low to high tension/arousal levels.
It has been said that time under tension is the ideal way to create hypertrophy, but if that was true, wouldn’t isometric holds get you jacked? Isometric holds do create tension and do help the system to utilize and transfer tension, but they only are a step in the process. If you had a six-week block of solely isometric holds you wouldn’t have the same mass-building results as if you had a six-week block of various exercises that target full ROM throughout the movement.
Eccentric stress has one thing to do with it, reps duration, volume the whole nine yards and then some, but I am just getting back to what time under tension should represent to improve the quality of programing. How much tension training is needed? When should I ramp it up and when should I conserve in order to get optimal output? You need a combination of both for it to work.
Mel Siff’s SuperTraining brings clarity to this concept: “The fact that tension fluctuates from low-to-high values throughout a movement militates against this simplistic claim.”
When you start thinking of doing a specific exercise, a signal (electrical potential) will travel up to the brain and then back down a pathway, passing through several neurons to the target area. When the potential reaches the neurotransmitter (also known as a chemical messenger), it then decides if it is going to transfer the chemical to start the process of contraction or relaxation of the targeted area. This is a very general breakdown and I would recommend diving deeper into the neuromuscular system if it sparks your interest.
What caught my attention when training was that my clients’ signals that are sent up and down the neurological pathways are not always in the same form. From one end of a neuron to the other, it is merely an electric potential that travels down the neuron’s cell membrane. The cell decides whether to continue—to carry the signal farther. If it carries the signal, a new potential is sparked to travel down the axon; if it doesn’t, the connection isn’t built and tension starts to dissipate.
If it isn’t the same signal from start to finish, wouldn’t it possibly change your tension/arousal rating from the beginning of an exercise to the end because you can’t replicate the same messenger throughout the movement? Especially so if you have overactive signals, as with my client with fibromyalgia. When putting together circuits for Jane I first needed to see where she was starting before we could put together her pirate map (as Pat Flynn would say.)
No matter the arousal level, Jane would do some form of breathing/mobility circuit to start her workout for the day. She worked on maintaining or improving diaphragmatic breathing and various mobility/stability exercised based on her assessment results for the day. After that, it was her body’s response that determined how we would approach the core part of her program for that day. Regardless, she would always start and end her workouts with low threshold breathing exercises.
Here are some examples of Jane’s circuits, depending on her pain reporting:
Jane is above 4 on the pain scale while on the roller and can hold a plank with good diaphragmatic breathing: (This is after she has completed her warm up)
Workout A: High to Low Threshold
KB Double Rack Carry 40 yards
Deadlift 5 reps
Angels on Foam Roller 15 reps
Repeat x 4
Workout B: Low to High Threshold
Angels on Foam Roller 15 reps
Inchworm to downward Dog 15 yards
Goblet Squat 5 reps
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows 15 reps/per side
Repeat x 4
Jane is above 5 on the pain scale when on the roller and has shorts and quick breaths while holding a plank: (This is after she has completed her warm up)
Workout A: Low to Medium Threshold
Angels on Foam Roller 15 reps
Body Rolls 2 upper and lower
Glute Bridge Hold 3 x 10 seconds
Repeat x 3
Workout B: Medium to Low Threshold
Plank for 10 breaths
Birddogs 6 per side
Soft Tissue Lats. 30 secs/per side
Repeat x 3
Remember, this was built for her, based on her goals and her experience in exercise. The arousal/tension levels may change depending on the client.
My work with Jane where I started to change my approach to time under tension and view it as:
Cumulative tension created throughout the body minus cumulative tension lost through a contractile movement or elongation throughout the body equals Time Under Tension
There are over 100 billion neurons in the human body. That is a lot of hardware for the software . . . and our software can’t start up, run and perform at the highest rate all the time. It will crash and burn (what we like to call neurological fatigue.)
Clients are coming to us already neurologically fatigued from life. They are asking for help in the form of goals: “I want to lose 10lbs,” or “I want to get toned,” but their hardware has been malfunctioning and not producing the right signals (or producing them at sub-optimal levels) for quite some time.
It is key that you understand the type of person your client is. Are they aggressive, always going 100% all the time, until they accomplish their goal or fall over trying? Are they the passive client, who will do the average, is happy with just being there and just wants to fit in? Or are they the chameleon that comes off passive and when shit hits the fan turns into Rambo and destroys everything? Properly assessing your client will help you program their time under tension because it gives you a map of where they need to go and where they need to end up.
Remember, time under tension is not just in the moment; it is accumulation of the whole system to create and dissipate tension throughout exercise and life.
There may never be a perfect way to approach a client’s goals but if you understand their environment and where they live on the tension continuum you can almost always create a masterpiece.
More tips from Taylor Lewis on programming to matches your client’s needs:
Dan John on assessments and program design for the active athlete and everybody else:
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