So, what is the best way to increase our muscle mass?

There are a wide variety of reasons that people go to the gym, but two key drivers we all share are to look and feel better. However we achieve this, it will be based on the same outcomes: an increase in muscle mass, a reduction in body fat and an improved ability and efficiency to move pain-free. We know that body fat reduction is largely to do with what you eat, but even that speeds up when we move better and have a higher percentage of muscle mass.

So, what is the best way to increase our muscle mass?

The short answer is resistance, pitting our physical strength against ever-increasing resistance, which is also known as progressive overload.

Simply put, progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress put on the body during physical exercise. It was developed by Thomas L. DeLorme, M.D., after World War II as part of his efforts to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. However, the method dates as far back as ancient Greece, or so the Myth of Milo of Croton seems to suggest.

Progressive overload applies to everyone from rehab patients and novice gym goers to elite athletes. Not only does it apply to everyone, but it also applies to every form of physical exercise. For example, reducing your run time by a few seconds or adding an extra two or three kilos to a lift are very different goals, but both rely on a version of progressive overload.

For cardiovascular and endurance sports, it’s all about distance and time. Either how far you can go in a set amount of time or how quickly you can cover a certain distance.

For weight training, it’s all about volume (sets and reps) and intensity (the percentage value of the maximal functional capacity, or percentage of a one rep max).

The problem with progressive overload is that progression is very rarely linear. So how do you make progress if you hit the dreaded plateau?

One very effective way is to change how you lift, not the weight you lift. The goal is to become more proficient at the movements through accessory work and then increase the frequency, volume and intensity with which you perform those movements.

There are three ways to do this and they all increase time under tension or TUT. This term refers to the total amount of time a muscle is under strain, or tension, per rep or set. The idea is simple: the longer a muscle is under tension, the more work it has to do.

1. Volume

This is the most commonly-used method. It builds tension by increasing the overall volume of work the muscle does during a workout and/or by reducing rest periods. Some great examples include German Volume Training (GVT), Elevated Density Training (EDT) or As Many Reps As Possible in a given time (AMRAP).

2. Tempo

This is another well-used method, but largely with advanced lifters and coaches. It involves having a specific count on the eccentric, hold, concentric and hold parts of a rep. For example, if we are squatting to a tempo we would use 3-1-1-1. This means taking 3 seconds to lower in to the squat, 1 second hold at the bottom, 1 seconds to rise out of the squat and 1 second at the top before performing the next rep.

3. Mechanical Tension

This is used a lot by strength athletes. It increases tension through intensity. One rep done at your max load will create more mechanical tension that one rep done at 50% of your 1 rep max.

Typically, sets of longer duration, either due to increased volume, tempo or both, will be done with a lighter load under less mechanical tension and shorter sets will be done with a heavier load and more mechanical tension. None of these methods are mutually exclusive however, and all three of these can be programmed into a single workout to focus on a specific goal.

For example, if we wanted to improve our squat strength, we could program a set of 3 reps with a high mechanical tension and then add volume by performing 6 sets, allowing for an adequate recovery time. Remember, my goal here is strength, so mechanical tension is what I’m primarily looking for, with volume coming from the multiple sets.

If we wanted to work on something more specific, for example my ability to drive up from the bottom of a squat, We would reduce Mechanical Tension and add Tempo to each rep with a focus on a pause in the bottom of the squat. It would look a little like this: 2-5-2-1. If we wanted to add more volume, we could do so by increasing the number of either reps or sets.

As you can see in the last example, all three versions of TUT have been used together to achieve very specific goals: higher sets to increase volume, mechanical tension to increase intensity and tempo to target weaker parts of my lift.

But if we wanted to use one particular method to build muscle, which one would we use?

Originally, we thought the amount of time spent doing a set would dictate what we were specifically training for.

  • 5-20 seconds - Strength gains independent of Hypertrophy
  • 20-40 seconds - Strength and Hypertrophy
  • 40-70 seconds - Hypertrophy independent of strength
  • 50 seconds + - Endurance

However, a number of studies, including one by the University of Central Florida, seems to have disproved this and elude to the fact that mechanical tension and intensity may be the key to muscle and strength gains.

In study one, researchers had two control groups of young men train their legs on a leg extensions machine three times per week for ten weeks.

Group one had sets that would last between 30-48 seconds. Group two had sets that would last between 90 - 120 seconds.

The outcome was that both groups had almost identical muscle growth, despite group one’s TUT being in the strength/hypertrophy range and group two’s TUT being firmly in the endurance range. The deciding factor here was mechanical tension. Group one was lifting a heavier weight for less time and group two was lifting a lighter weight for a longer time.

In study two by the University of Florida, researchers put two groups of men through the same resistance training plan, with the same exercise and number of sets. The only difference was that group one had low mechanical tension and high reps per set, while group two had high mechanical tension and lower reps per set.

By the end, the study found that there were no statistical differences between the two groups body composition.

However, there was a clear trend towards greater muscle and strength gains in group two participants, who were using a higher mechanical tension with a lower rep count. In short, the guys whose sets lasted less that 20 seconds with a higher weight put on the most muscle.

In study three, researchers where investigating the effects of rep duration (tempo) on hypertrophic gains and found no evidence to support the theory that slower reps will improve your results. However, this isn’t to say that tempo work doesn’t have it’s place for newer lifters or when learning a new movement.

Using a lower mechanical tension and increasing the tempo of each rep will enable you to focus on executing perfect form and make that “mind-body” connection with the muscles you’re trying to target. As you get more proficient, you can swap tempo for mechanical tension.

In summary, greater mechanical tension for less reps can and does provide the same, if not more, muscle and strength gain than higher reps and lower weight done for the same sets. The end outcome from either of these methods is always the same: the muscle gets worked near to or to momentary muscular failure.

When planning a hypertrophy workout, we would utilise higher mechanical tension during the start of the workout when the muscle are fresh, leading into higher volume and tempo work toward the end of the session as the muscles are fatiguing and failing.

You could also add in super or giant sets and play with rest time, in order to streamline your sessions and increase intensity as your workout comes to a close.

Not only does this make intelligent use of all three methods, but it’s also safer for the person doing the workout. As your muscles begin to fatigue, swapping mechanical tension for volume and tempo is a sure-fire way to get the most from your muscles while reducing the risk of injury, thus enabling you to keep your workouts regular and your training in line with the theory of progressive overload.

Below is a rough template of how we set out a hypertrophy workout for an intermediate to advanced lifter. We use more tempo and volume work for a newer lifter, purely for safety and to ensure they are learning the necessary movement patterns, before increasing mechanical tension and intensity.








Compound Lift (squat, bench, deadlift, pull-ups)




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Target muscle group or movement (Push, Pull, Legs, Core)




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Target muscle group or movement (Push, Pull, Legs, Core)




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Target muscle group or movement (Push, Pull, Legs, Core)




Add tempo



Super set, ( Complementary to D1, accessory work such as smaller muscle group, corrective exercise)




Add tempo



Muscle Isolation (Machine, single joint movement)




Add tempo



Super set, (Similar movement as above to failure)




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Myth of Milo of Croton - http://physiqonomics.com/the-myth-of-milo/

Thomas L. DeLorme - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22592167

Study One - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22518835

Study Two - https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.14814/phy2.12472

Study Three - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25601394

Written by,

Scott Phillips

Personal Trainer

Published on 03rd Aug 18