For the most part people always seem to consider reps and weight used when determining if they are working out for size or strength. The common belief is that you build strength doing reps in the 5 to 8 range while you build size doing 8 to 12 repetitions. However those rep counts don’t consider speed or muscle tension.
What do new studies tell us about optimal muscle tension and muscle growth? It is rather interesting when science catches up to what “everyone knows” about lifting weights. Then it becomes more of a case of people saying, “Oh, that is why that works!”
So what is muscle tension? Basically that is the concept of the amount of the time a muscle is tensed during an exercise. Recent studies have pointed to 40 to 90 seconds being the optimal range of tension for building muscle size. On the flip side, less than 20 seconds is for building strength.
So what does that mean to you?
Size vs. Strength
What is your goal for lifting? Do you only want to get stronger? Or do you want to get bigger and strength is more of an after though? You will gain some muscle size when you gain strength and vice versa. But the amount of muscle size growth will not be as optimal when you are doing those 5 to 8 rep sets unless you use a very measured pace, which most people don’t.
Let’s look at a typical 8 rep set. At best you are doing 4 second reps, with most people doing 2-3 second repetitions. That means you are right around 16 to 32 seconds of muscle tension. That is great for size. Even if you increase it to 12 reps you are still only at 24 to 48 seconds which just squeaks into the proper tension range if you go slowly.
So where do you fit in? If you are like most people, then you are more concerned with poundage being lifted and end up with tension more in the strength building area.
What Tension Training Explains
The funny thing about this research on tension is that it explains why certain techniques and bodybuilders were able to build such big muscles do things outside of the norm.
- High Reps – Many bodybuilders have experimented with high rep sets or days doing anywhere from 20 to even 100 reps in a set which pushes you into the right muscle tension zone.
- Slow Negatives – One intensity technique is to blast through the positive range and go very slowly through the negative range which means longer reps and more tension.
- Drop Sets and Burns – Both techniques involve not allowing the muscles to rest by reducing the weight and also keeps the tension very high.
- Supersets – When you superset the same muscle group you effectively double the rep count which equals more tension.
- Static Holds – Not used as often as they should, a static hold just means holding the weight in place at a point of high tension for the muscle. This is a simple way to add time to a set by using one or two 5 second static holds to push a set past the 40 second barrier.
What Does It All Mean?
This consideration of muscle tension and growth is actually very beneficial. It means older guys don’t need to be as concerned about throwing around big weight all the time and stressing their joints out to try and keep gaining size. It also means more people should probably put effort into a varied training routine that works for size and strength. Mixing in high rep days and using various techniques to keep the tension on should be more of a focus to ensure you get the most out of any workout.
One of the best ideas is to use this technique first almost like a pre-exhaustion and then work for more strength. A word of warning however; the more muscle tension in a session, the more soreness you will have the next day so make sure to get plenty of rest for recovery and growth!