More muscle growth with constant tension?

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You probably see them in your gym sometimes: those guys who do super fast reps, with a shortened range of motion, without giving the muscle even one moment of rest during the set. Constant tension, we also call this way of training. It is certain that you feel the muscle burn during such a set, but does that also result in more muscle growth than ‘normal’ training, ie with very short breaks between reps?

Key points:

1.   Constant tension is a training technique in which you maintain constant tension on the target muscle during a set by letting the repetitions more or less flow into each other. You do not use short breaks between repetitions, you cut off the range of motion (ROM) where necessary and you minimize momentum.

2.   With constant tension you will need to use lighter weights to create the equivalent of effective reps.

3.   The opposite of constant tension is non-constant tension. That is the traditional way of training, with short breaks between reps, full ROM and a little momentum. With this training style you can use heavier weights.

4.   In order to build muscle optimally, you must do enough sets with sufficient effort (ie train close to muscle failure), and use increasingly heavier weights over time. As long as you meet those conditions, it probably doesn’t matter which training technique you use: constant tension or non-constant tension.

5.   With large compound exercises such as the squat, deadlift and bench press, it is better not to apply constant tension, in order to be able to use heavy weights while maintaining correct technique.

7.  You may be able to achieve ‘extra’ muscle growth (namely: sarcoplasmic muscle growth) by including some metabolic strength training in your training program, for example one training per week. Constant tension is then one of your tools to create metabolic stress, in addition to doing supersets, for example.

8.   The possible positive effect of constant tension is perhaps greatest in exercises in which the target muscle is not (optimally) activated over the entire ROM, such as with lying triceps extensions/skull crushers, chest flyes, dumbbell lateral raises and dumbbell pullovers.

9.   Constant tension training is in any case an effective alternative if you can only train with light weights, for example in the aftermath of an injury.

TENSION IS KEY

One thing should be clear: in order to grow, a muscle must ‘experience’ sufficient tension during a workout.

In the past, what is ‘sufficient’ was often indicated in time, namely by means of Time Under Tension (TUT). However, this method is somewhat outdated or at the very least causes confusion. With a set of 20 repetitions until muscle failure (light weight), a muscle is under tension much longer than with a set of 6 repetitions until muscle failure (heavy weight), while both sets are in principle equally effective for muscle growth.

With muscle growth, it is about making sufficient effort during a set (ie training to or close to muscle failure), regardless of the weight of the training weight. That is why we prefer to speak of effective (or stimulating) repetitions instead of TUT. That’s roughly the five heaviest reps of a set, the one right before muscle failure, regardless of how many reps you do in total.

Because five effective reps, on a weekly basis, is not enough to stimulate muscle growth, we do several sets for each muscle group : an average of 10 to 20 per week. The tension that you apply to a muscle is roughly 50 to 100 effective repetitions per week. It is better not to do 10 sets per muscle group per training, so a maximum of about 50 effective repetitions.

In addition, the repetitions will gradually have to become heavier because you gradually increase the training weight: progressive overload.

In short, regardless of your training style, training split or whatever, you should:

  1. Train your sets to near muscle failure (use an average of 1-3 RIR) (effort);
  2. Do enough sets (10-20 per muscle group per week, 1-10 per workout) (volume);
  3. Gradually train harder by increasing the training weight over time (overload).

In addition, most coaches agree that during an exercise you:

WHAT IS CONSTANT TENSION?

Constant (or continuous) tension means that you keep tension on a muscle throughout a set. You do that by:

  • no rest breaks between repetitions, not even minimal ones;
  • shorten the ROM slightly, ie cut off the first and/or last piece of the ROM;
  • minimizing momentum.

For the record: it’s not about partial reps, because you only eliminate a small part of the ROM, usually only a part in which the target muscle is less activated.

In this way the reps flow into each other, so that the tension remains on the (target) muscle and you can also benefit much less from momentum. Momentum is especially created when you use heavy weights and full ROM, allowing gravity and the activation of other muscles to facilitate the movement.

The consequence of constant tension is that the exercise becomes much heavier. As a result, you reach the moment of muscle failure much faster in your sets. With constant tension you will therefore have to sacrifice a lot on training weight or number of repetitions. The sets also feel more stressful than regular sets.

Often with constant tension, very fast or very slow repetitions are also done, although neither is necessary.

DO YOU CREATE A GREATER GROWTH STIMULUS WITH CONSTANT TENSION?

Is constant tension a training technique that is preferable to sets in which you occasionally give your muscles some breathing room? In short, are constant tension sets more effective for muscle growth? The views and opinions on this differ quite a bit.

“THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE”

Bodybuilding coach Sean Nalewanyj thinks it doesn’t really matter how you do your sets — with or without constant tension — as long as you meet the three conditions for muscle growth (training close to muscle failure, doing enough sets and progressive overload). With constant tension you can also train close to muscle failure, only with a lighter weight or with fewer repetitions. Just make sure you create around five effective reps per set. If that doesn’t work, you should use a lighter weight.

According to Nalewanyj, constant tension is somewhat similar to blood flow restriction training, where you train with low weights while still creating a growth stimulus that is equivalent to that of normal training with higher weights.

And the greater training stress you experience with constant tension? According to Nalewanyj, this says nothing about the degree of muscle growth. Long sets with low weights also cause more pain and ‘pump’ than short sets with high weights, but the effect on muscle growth is the same, provided the sets are trained to near muscle failure.

Nalewanyj also points out that the traditional way of training, without constant tension, has more than proven itself. Just look at the barbell squat: an exercise that gives many natural bodybuilders monstrous quadriceps, while in that exercise they normally pause for a relatively long time between reps.

Constant tension is an effective alternative to traditional training when you can only use light weights, for example in the aftermath of an injury.

“CONSTANT TENSION IS LESS EFFECTIVE THAN REGULAR TRAINING”

Another bodybuilding authority, Mike Israetel, isn’t very enthusiastic about constant tension. Not surprising, as the captain of Team Full ROM .

While Israetel recognizes that constant tension training can have its place in a training program, it is generally better to take a short break between reps. He states:

Rest between reps lets you reset for better technique and mind-muscle connection. It lets you get more reps per set, and it lets you be near failure for more of those reps.

According to Israetel, thanks to those short breaks, you can do more effective repetitions than with constant tension. However, if you use a lighter weight with constant tension, you can still do enough effective repetitions. But Israel will probably counter that those repetitions are less effective because the mechanical stress is lower. In short, unlike Nalewanyj, Israetel thinks that training with constant tension does not provide the same growth stimulus as regular training, even if the effort is the same.

“CONSTANT TENSION CAN BE A USEFUL TRAINING TOOL”

Hypertrophy researcher Brad Schoenfeld disagrees with Israel. In 2016 he wrote:

Muscles respond favorably when they’re placed under continuous tension with no resting phases during the rep.

This was partly based on a study from 2008. By that response he means the great metabolic stress that constant tension training induces in a muscle.

We now know that metabolic stress as a training mechanism for muscle growth is probably secondary to mechanical tension. But it also appears that training with a lot of metabolic stress can be a useful addition to traditional training, because metabolic stress may fuel another type of muscle growth, namely sarcoplasmic muscle growth. And Mike Israetel also thinks that there is room for metabolic strength training. Not necessarily through constant tension, by the way, because you also create many metabolites with training techniques such as supersets and dropsets.

Schoenfeld does think that the big basic compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses, are best performed without constant tension, so with short breaks and with some use of momentum. That way you can perform those exercises heavily without having to compromise on technique. For more isolating exercises, he recommends constant tension, especially in exercises where the ends of the ROM cause little activation of the target muscle, such as with lying triceps extensions, chest flys and dumbbell pullovers.

Goto study
That view seems confirmed by the surprising results of a survey in 2017 of Goto et al. It compared the effects of skull crushers performed with partial ROM (with constant tension) and with full ROM. After eight weeks, the partial ROM group appeared to have achieved almost twice as much muscle growth in the triceps as the full ROM group.

Impressive results, also found coach and author Greg Nuckols of Stronger by Science, who, however, does not rule out that the ‘partials’ had simply trained harder because of the training protocol and therefore achieved greater gains. Nevertheless, Nuckols considers it not inconceivable that constant tension can indeed be an effective training method, especially for exercises with a circular resistance curve, such as chest flyes and skull crushers.

Coach Menno Henselmans, on the other hand, questions the measurement methods used in the Goto study. He also points out that with skull crushers, the entire ROM is pretty bad and partials are not really inferior to that. Finally, he once again cites some studies whose results clearly favor full ROM (and non-constant tension). Not that Henselmans completely writes off constant tension, because he concludes:

Future research may help clarify this lone study’s deviant findings. For now, however, it is at least another data point in favor of chasing high muscle activation levels in your training. Partials can achieve this, but you’d likely get better results by selecting exercises with an inherently good resistance curve, so that you can overload your muscles along their entire length without having to compromise on ROM.

CONCLUSION

In principle we agree with coach Sean Nalewanyj: it doesn’t really matter whether you use constant tension or not, as long as you put in enough effort. We prefer the classic, non-constant tension training style.

In addition, you could also do some sets with constant tension, in order to stimulate metabolic stress and thus sarcoplasmic muscle growth. Whether constant tension training can actually be of added value in this way needs to be further investigated.

SUMMARIZED

1.   Constant tension is a training technique in which you maintain constant tension on the target muscle during a set by letting the repetitions more or less flow into each other. You do not use short breaks between repetitions, you cut off the range of motion (ROM) where necessary and you minimize momentum.

2.   With constant tension you will need to use lighter weights to create the equivalent of effective reps.

3.   The opposite of constant tension is non-constant tension. That is the traditional way of training, with short breaks between reps, full ROM and a little momentum. With this training style you can use heavier weights.

4.   In order to build muscle optimally, you must do enough sets with sufficient effort (ie train close to muscle failure), and use increasingly heavier weights over time. As long as you meet those conditions, it probably doesn’t matter which training technique you use: constant tension or non-constant tension.

5.   With large compound exercises such as the squat, deadlift and bench press, it is better not to apply constant tension, in order to be able to use heavy weights while maintaining correct technique.

6.  You may be able to achieve ‘extra’ muscle growth (namely: sarcoplasmic muscle growth) by including some metabolic strength training in your training program, for example one training per week. Constant tension is then one of your tools to create metabolic stress, in addition to doing supersets, for example.

7.   The possible positive effect of constant tension is perhaps greatest in exercises in which the target muscle is not (optimally) activated over the entire ROM, such as with lying triceps extensions/skull crushers, chest flyes, dumbbell lateral raises and dumbbell pullovers.

8.   Constant tension training is in any case an effective alternative if you can only train with light weights, for example in the aftermath of an injury.

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