These days I’m all about getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to effort. With real life to deal with outside of the gym, I like quick-hit muscle blasts that don’t take a lot of time but provide the most size stimulation possible with no wasted effort. Many come to the realization that one of the biggest contributors to quality size is continuous tension. And not getting enough of it may be the reason you’re experiencing sluggish gains.
Most often, locking out on exercises where the target muscle can rest is useless because it kills continuous tension. That means moving the bar all the way up on bench presses and squats could be costing you valuable gains. The top range of the squat is almost all glutes, so the quads get rest. At the top of a bench press your pecs give up the load to the triceps and front delts. When you lock out on each rep, it’s more like you’re doing a series of singles, which is fine if you’re interested mostly in strength development. For the most part, I no longer care about ultimate poundage used, as I’m more interested in muscle size first, with a strength side effect.
Remember that continuous tension blocks blood flow to the muscle (occlusion), which triggers an anabolic response IF that tension lasts long enough. Time under tension (TUT) is very, very important. The problem, however, is that most bodybuilders are obsessed with using heavy weights and lower reps, so time under tension is cut short on every set. Most have been conditioned to believe that low reps build the most mass, which isn’t necessarily true.
Extended tension times do more for muscle mass than lower reps (the size principle of muscle-fiber recruitment is explained in The Ultimate Mass Workout e-book). Low reps are more for strength with a slight size side effect. Nevertheless, lower-rep sets every now and then can enhance your bodybuilding progress by increasing your nervous system response, and they do hit the myofibrils more so than longer tension times. If you want to insure more muscle stimulation, I usually suggest at least adding X Reps at the end of those low-rep sets.
Let’s say you do a set of bench presses with a heavy weight with which you get only seven reps. If every rep lasts about three seconds, that’s only 21 seconds of tension time as long as you’re also not locking out. When you miss on rep eight, you want to somehow keep firing the muscle to extend the tension time. Lower the bar to a couple of inches above your chest and drive the bar up to just below the midpoint of the stroke. You may need help from a spotter to be safe, but the growth response you’ll get from the stimulation at the max-force point will be well worth the extra effort.
If you’re able to get even just six X-Rep partials, each one lasting more than one second, you can push your low-rep set closer to 30 seconds of total tension time, the anabolic time zone. That gives you strength-building effects from the lower reps and more size stimulation by extending the tension time.
You get bigger muscle dimensions with more continuous tension, so experiment by increasing your tension times, even on your lower-rep sets.
About the Author
Jonathan Lawson has been working in the health and fitness industry for over 20 years; weight training for 21 years, competed in numerous bodybuilding competitions, worked for IRON MAN Magazine for 17 years, co-owns X-Rep.com where he has co-published over 15 e-books and writes a daily training blog. He has appeared on the covers of, and been featured in, dozens of international magazines, books and e-books.