There’s More to Time Than Tempo: Back-Off Sets & Isotension

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slowodown1We’re not starting today’s article with the beginning or end in mind, but rather, we’re here to discuss life in the middle.

The most frustrating place for anyone with a pulse.

Let’s start with science: according to the NSCA (the National Strength and Conditioning Association), a novice lifter is someone with less than 2 months of resistance training under their belt. An advanced lifter has done it for 1+ years and an intermediate lifter is someone who’s been weight training consistently (2-3 times a week) for at least 6 months.1

The majority of us fall into this middle, advanced lifter category. I’ve been lifting for 13 years, but let me tell you, while the length of my training life may be a teenager, I’ve only been successfully lifting for 5-6 years. 

The definition above holds a lot of merit and without it, we couldn’t base this discussion. The issue is that the definition presupposes each lifter has made linear progress where you’ve consistently grown stronger, leaner, and have improved your exercise technique.

The reality is that most people experience incidental progress, and yet they continue lifting (because lifting is awesome) and never experience true progress.

Most people in this category need to do one of two things:

  1. Hire a personal trainer: someone with enough experience to understand that you’re a lost soul in the middle of the lifting desert. 
  2. Understand that exercise is a science and study the nuances to perfect your stalled progress.

Let’s expand upon this second point. 

The Nuances of Muscle Gain

Anyone who hangs around these parts long enough knows that the tempo you lift at plays a crucial role in the size and quality of muscle tone.

Tempo is the speed of an exercise throughout the entire movement of the repetition. It reaps benefits that promote greater growth hormone secretion, greater neural synchronization, and enhanced protein synthesis. These are essential components to getting stronger and leaner. You just have to apply the right concepts at the right time. 

Time Under Tension

While tempo is a distinct entity from Time Under Tension (TUT), it is not a separate one; tempo is simply one kind of TUT. 

And what exactly is Time Under Tension?

The easiest way to explain TUT is to think of it as the entire amount of time a muscle is placed under stress. That includes the aforementioned tempo of an exercise, but also includes other training practices like density, isometrics, and drop sets.

Anything that’s going to place more stress on the muscle for more time is generally going to be advantageous for both your muscularity and leanness goals.

The importance of time cannot be understated. To get fancy with you: the time of an exercise places more stress on a muscle, and in that time, cell membranes begin to swell (that’s your muscle pump), which also forces vasodilation and an influx of nutrients to the area to repair the damage.2

This is a crucial intensity technique.

More Time + Cell Swelling + Nutrients = Success.

Tempo is an important factor in this equation, and can help dictate the muscle tone created, but it is not the most important factor.

Time, Tempo, and Combining the Two

Now that you’re all squared away with the deets, we’re going to take this newfound knowledge and give you some awesome new methods to use at the gym. 

Back-Off Sets

Here’s what you do: take a 60-second break after your last set and then drop the weight about 20%. After the break, perform the same exercise for an additional set, but this time for a total of 25 reps. With good form, squeeze the living life out of that muscle throughout the raising and lowering motions of the exercise. 

The benefits of this include the use and development of aspects of the muscle that you didn’t know existed, as well as, a ridiculous muscle pump. 


Isotension was created by renowned bodybuilder coach John Meadows; it’s painfully amazing and will question your grit to continue, though if you want out of that mediocre physique, continue you must.

Let’s get super creative okay? Start by telling your loved ones that you’ll talk to them in 24 hours. Now focus.

Setting yourself up in a preacher bench, take a reverse close grip with a barbell. Perform your standard number of repetitions in each set, and at the conclusion of the last set, raise the bar to about halfway up. In this position, flex every muscle being worked as mightily as possible and hold for 10 seconds.

This works because muscles can be strengthened in particularly isolated aspects of the movement. Choose the part you feel the weakest in, be it half way through (which can help the muscle to peak) or a quarter of the way from the top or bottom which can help strengthen the tendons and ligaments closer to the joint.

Note: if you hold the biceps curls a quarter fo the way from the bottom, you’ll develop that sweet cut between your bicep and forearm (the one that makes your arms look more defined than they really are).

This, my friends, is why we began with the middle in mind, because improper use and understanding of these highly specialized techniques is leaving you floundering in the sea of mediocrity.

While you may be able to hold your head above water you’re not exactly moving against the current. Try these techniques before the current pushes you under, halts more of your progress, and ruins your motivation to exercise. Good luck. 


  1. Baechle, Thomas, and Roger Earle. “Resistance Training.” Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2008. 364. Print.
  2. Schoenfeld, Brad. “The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Applications to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-872. Print.
About the Author

Joseph Brigley is the owner of The Salubrity, a health and exercise website that focuses on living to a higher standard. He is currently working on his Masters in Exercise Science. Brigley holds a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification and a Sports Injury Specialist Certification through NESTA. Follow Joseph on Twitter and Facebook.

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