Progressive Overload vs Time Under Tension for Building Muscle

Progressive overload vs time under tension? When it comes to building muscle growth there are a few schools of thought around the most optimal method, two of which are progressive overload & time under tension. Whilst most will favor one over the other they are not mutually exclusive and a combination of both is needed for muscle growth.

Progressive overload vs time under tension

In the early stages of bodybuilding or just building muscle intentionally (think old school weightlifters with rounded dumbbells and circus pants) the process was simply to pick up a heavy object, perform specific movements and repeat the process. 

This was the initial method for an individual wanting to build muscle. As time has moved on and society have become more advanced both in the science of human anatomy and in the equipment available for weightlifting the process for building muscle has become clearer. 

With that said however we are still some way away from discovering the perfect workout or guaranteed single method for any individual to build muscle, instead we have a few basic fundamentals to our understanding that all apply to building muscle.

The Fundamentals of Building Muscle

When it comes to building muscle there is actually much more to it than just lifting up and putting down heavy weights, ignoring some obvious stuff like diet and recovery when looking to build muscle I want to focus specifically on the training aspect of building muscle for this article. 

As the title suggests there are two schools of thought when it comes muscle hypertrophy which is the specific aim of building muscle mass, there is not a focus on strength or muscular endurance but specifically muscle size and growth. 

These are progressive overload and time under tension. It’s worth mentioning that there is a third methodology in metabolic stress but this is relevant to both schools of thought. Metabolic stress is created when a muscle is placed under tension and forced to stretch and contract under this tension. 

Metabolic stress is therefore essentially the reps of your set, the reason it’s important however is that it should be applied to all reps and that to create true metabolic stress for an exercise you need to place the desired muscle group under tension for the duration of the set. 

This means that progressive overload or time under tension are essentially pointless if you are not contracting the targeted muscle and placing it under sufficient tension.

Now that you are aware of the role metabolic stress plays we can look at the two main schools of thought when it comes to muscle hypertrophy. 

What Is Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the concept of increasing the amount of stress placed on the muscle over time in order to force the body into adaptations and signal muscle growth. 

A key component of progressive overload is of course getting stronger and lifting more each workout. This is easily achievable in the beginner – intermediate training stages however as you get more advanced this becomes successful and you will hit plateaus. 

While getting stronger is a sure way of building muscle (an increase of 100lbs in a squat and deadlift will certainly ensure muscle is gained relatively) it is not the only method of progressive overload. 

It’s often assumed that progressive overload is simply about lifting more weight, this might be true to an extent but progressively overloading the muscle is not only about lifting heavier weights. Additional factors of progressive overload are:

  • Performing more reps with the same weight
  • Performing more sets for a specific exercise
  • Performing the same set or workout in less time

As you can see each of these factors are about challenging the muscle in different ways, performing more reps with the same weight over time is of course proof that you are getting stronger. The most interesting part about these factors of progressive overload however is that they all incorporate more time under tension.

What Is Time Under Tension

Time under tension is the length of time that a muscle is held under tension through contracting and lengthening. In simple terms it is essentially the length of time that a particular set lasts. 

Sets lasting under 30 seconds tend to target the fast twitch muscle fibres and are more for explosive movements focusing on maximal speed or strength. In non lifting terms think of a 100m sprinter who has an all out explosive run lasting 10 – 13 seconds for the top end. 

Sets lasting over 60 seconds are more endurance based and target the slow twitch muscle fibres. These are less explosive movements and in non lifting terms think of a 1500m runner who runs at a slower pace but over a longer distance. 

It’s important to be aware of both of these time limits as they both contribute to a rounded approach to targeting and exhausting muscle fibres however they are not what is considered to be optimal for muscle growth.

For maximal muscle growth it’s estimated that an ideal set length should be between 45 seconds and 60 seconds. This allows you to use a weight that is roughly 80% of your 1 rep max for the lift and will allow you to get 8 – 12 reps at a steady tempo.

This short study shows that time under tension may be optimal for those looking to improve muscle growth. 

An extreme example of this is lifting a heavy weight for 1 rep every 2 weeks will not have much of an impact on muscle growth regardless of how heavy it is. At the other extreme lifting incredibly light weights for 100+ reps each day will not see much progress either as the metabolic stress is not enough to force adaptation.

Progressive Overload vs Time Under Tension

Now that you know what each of the concepts are, the question will of course be which is better in the debate of progressive overload vs time under tension for muscle growth. 

The answer is of course that you need both for optimal results and it will always come back to the point of mechanical stress. 

If you focus on time under tension and use the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps then over time your body will have no need to adapt as there is no new stimulus being placed upon it. I’m sure you seen quotes like 

“Train the same, remain the same”

The more you adapt to something the more efficient your body becomes in dealing with it and the less muscle fibres you need to recruit as a result. Less muscle fibre recruitment ultimately leads to less muscle growth.

At the other end of the spectrum if you only focus on adding weight to the bar then you’ll eventually hit plateaus and end up training in rep ranges that are too low to provide sufficient metabolic stress. 

Powerlifters are big as a result of lifting heavy weights and eating high calories however their physique is not well developed from a muscular viewpoint. Bodybuilders focusing on a pump will also see limited muscle growth if the weights they are using are too light to recruit the fast twitch muscle fibres which respond best to growth.

Therefore it is not a vague and indecisive opinion that you need to use a combination of the two approaches for maximum muscle growth. 

Focusing on getting stronger should be a priority as this is the easiest thing to track from workout to workout however making sets last for around 45 seconds is a challenge in itself and will make sure that the weight progress is purely muscular. 

Hammering a set out in 15 seconds is a sign that you are using momentum and muscle elasticity to help lift the weight instead of ensuring that it all comes from muscular tension.

Performing a squat at 100kg for 3 sets of 10 reps in 45 seconds one week and performing a squat at 110kg for 3 sets of 10 reps in 45 seconds 4 weeks later is a genuine sign of progress that utilises both methods. 

If you use this method for your workout then you will be guaranteed to see muscle growth. You can still include heavy sets for compound movements and more moderate sets for time under tension in excess of 60 seconds to target different muscle fibres but a good 75% of a workout should be focusing purely on hypertrophy. 

For more information on how you can program progressive overload check out these two articles, one is available on my website and the other is an article I produced for Bulk Powders.

5 rules for lifting with progressive overload 
How to see progress without lifting more weight

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