In an old article we covered the different mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy. There are three; mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. If you neglect any of them within your training then, bro, you’re majorly missing out! With all the poor technique, lifting too heavy and swinging of weights seen in gyms the world over, there’s lots of mechanical tension and muscle damage going on! Metabolic stress could do with a little more attention sometimes, especially with newbies. Enter the “Constant Tension Method”
What is the constant tension method?
The constant tension method is simply a way of keeping tension on the muscles you’re targeting, maximising metabolic stress. For example, notice how there are loads of exercises where the resistance and difficulty varies throughout the movement. Here are just a few examples:
- Chest losing tension at the top portion of a bench press or dumbbell flye.
- Losing tension in the quads at the top of a squat or leg press machine if locking out too much.
- Back tension going at the bottom of an inverted row or during bent over flyes.
- Losing hamstring tension at the top of a stiff-legged deadlift or goodmorning exercise.
Hopefully you get the picture. The constant tension method is simply a way to alter the way you perform your current exercises to maximise tension throughout the movement, and produce a bunch of metabolic stress. The key is to keep a constant tension on the targeted muscles by maintaining a controlled speed (no cheating, no momentum or swinging etc.), and reversing the direction of the movement just shy of where tension is typically lost in that movement. So just short of lockout or before hitting the bottom of an exercise, depending on the strength curve of that exercise.
Why is it so effective?
When talking about metabolic stress we’re basically talking about getting a pump, coupled with that nasty burn that usually comes along with it. By keeping tension on the muscles throughout each rep, as the blood vessels are put to work pumping blood in to the muscles, the controlled muscle contractions coupled with not letting the muscle “off” by stopping short, will prevent some blood from being let out of the area. More blood comes in than goes out. The constant tension method is almost a form of blood flow restriction (BFR) training, or at least the theory and proposed mechanisms are the similar. The slight blood occlusion that occurs creates an intermittent hypoxic state within the muscles which has been shown in research to enhance muscle growth. Time under tension (TUT) is also important here since a longer TUT is required to drive these mechanisms. That’s why sets of at least 12 reps or more are recommended, or at a minimum 30 seconds TUT, up to 90 seconds.
Just like BFR the constant tension method isn’t something you should use all the time. While it produces heaps of metabolic stress; both mechanical tension and muscle breakdown are produced at moderate to heavier loads. Therefore the constant tension method is best saved for the back end of your workouts when getting as much blood in to your muscles is your main priority. For bodybuilding purposes it is however something that should be thought about constantly throughout your workout. Question if, for example, your benching for strength or muscle growth. If it’s for growth do you need or want to lockout?! Probably not. There are lots of examples like this. Here are some other examples of exercises that deserve food for thought, or you could experiment using the constant tension method with during or at the end of your next workout:
- Keep a gap between the dumbbells at the top of a dumbbell flye, never let them touch.
- Don’t allow lateral raise variations to return all the way back to the bottom position, such as this variation:
- Don’t let the bar/dumbbells come all the way to the top in a preacher curl.
- Don’t let the bar/dumbbells return to the bottom position during seated curl variations (unless on an incline bench and focusing on the stretch).
- Don’t come all the way to the top in a stiff-legged deadlift or goodmorning.
- Don’t let the bar/butt touch the floor at the bottom of a glute bridge.
- Don’t lockout at the top of a shoulder or chest press.
There are loads of examples, but simply employ a little training mindfulness in your next workout. Try feeling where tension is lost in a muscle during an exercise and then manipulate the exercise accordingly. Question if the exercise you’re doing will work better stopping just shy of lockout or bottoming out.