Don’t Be a Dead Donkey: Time Under Tension


Perhaps you have heard of the paradoxical story of the hungry donkey who was placed between two identical stacks of hay and, unable to decide which one to go to, he eventually dies of starvation!

Unfortunately, this story is the apt equivalent of what we now face in today’s Information Age. In your search for the best diet or training advice, you undoubtedly have often come across conflicting studies.

For example, one article you read touts eggs as the best possible natural source of protein, while another article says eating eggs is the health equivalent of smoking a cigarette!

Likewise, for every article you read praising squats as the best leg development exercise bar none, you see another article warning you to avoid squats at all costs because they will destroy your knees.

And if all that wasn’t confusing enough, you read that sometimes things like sugar, something we are told we should avoid like the plague, is actually exactly what we need to consume right after a workout to induce an insulin response to shuttle more nutrients to the recovering muscles. (No joke, just enter Pixie Sticks after workout in YouTube and listen to a well-respected PhD explain the science behind this strategy.)

The truth, in all of these examples, most likely lies somewhere in between, as there are a myriad of variables to consider. But many people at this point will just give up in frustration and avoid both out of fear of uncertainty.

However, while erring on the side of caution is usually a safe strategy, this may also keep you from realizing your optimal potential. So, what is one to do?

You obviously don’t want to be a dead donkey, but you also don’t want to be a diabetic donkey with a two pack a day habit and blown out knees either.

Well, keep reading and by the end of this article you will be able to avoid these outcomes, as much as possible within your control, and be the healthiest burden of beast you can be.

Veto Keto, Whey or Nay?

I know some of you are already braying and chomping at the bit, “What do you mean veto keto? I’ve been doing keto for months now and I am getting great results!”

Congratulations, you’re one of a number of people who found that the Keto Diet is compatible with their physiology and is in alignment with their goals.

However, don’t be too quick to recommend this diet to all your friends, as they may not have the same goals, and even if they do, they may not have the physiology that responds positively to this diet.

This is one of the key things to keep in mind as you are doing your research for the optimal diet and training regimen:

We are all physiologically and psychologically unique.

A certain diet or food may be just right for you, but to another it could cause an adverse allergic reaction or aggravate an existing condition. (Think peanuts, a great healthy snack for some, and possible death to others.)

Likewise, your body may respond great to a certain exercise or training method, while another person gets negligible results or even an injury. Understandably, it’s in our nature, possibly to further convince ourselves, to convince others that they can benefit from what we are eating or doing.

But here is where we can begin to avoid the fate of our indecisive, long-eared friend.  Say you’re scrolling down your Instagram feed and you’re seeing all these people showing off great results that they attribute to doing Program X and taking supplements Y and Z.

Being the diligent hard-working donkey you are, you start researching and looking for all the articles you can find on Program X and supplements Y and Z. And surprise surprise, there are conflicting studies and articles on all of them; even experts and reputable organizations can’t agree.

So what do you do Eeyore? Do you play it safe and wait till you hear more definitive research? (It’s been decades and the jury is still out as to whether or not bacon is good for you.) Or do you take a gamble and try it for yourself?

Time to Put on Your White Lab Coat

Today I am bestowing on you an honorary PhD in Selfology. Don’t worry, you deserve it because there is no other Ivy League scholar or Nobel Laureate that knows you better than you. Does this mean you shouldn’t bother to research and read anymore articles or studies?

Absolutely not. You can, and should, read as much as you can, on both the past and present research, as these will give you good ideas of where to start and what to experiment for yourself. (Yes, you read that right, I included past research too, as there are many ideas from the bygone days (e.g., Charles Atlas’ isometric exercises) that have turned out to merit reconsideration and implementation in modern workouts, except leaching, pretty sure we can forget that one.)

There is one important caveat though, as you read, pay attention to the description of the subjects in the studies and the conditions and methodology, so you can better identify the differences and similarities to you and your goals to make the necessary adjustments.

For example, if you see a study that says such and such supplement or training method shows significant results in some aspect of health you are trying to improve, but you see that the subjects were far from your age, current level of fitness, and daily activity level, then you need to consider that as you determine how much, how often, or if at all, to use this supplement or training method.

Furthermore, even if the subjects are very similar to you in description, do not assume that you will get the same results, as you still are unique physiologically and psychologically. The only way to determine if a supplement, diet or exercise is good for you, is to experiment for yourself.

Enter the Lab

Covering supplementation and nutrition would be beyond the scope of this article, so we are just going to go over the basic training variables that everyone, from beginner to elite athlete, have to work with. The good news here though is that we do have an incontrovertible truth that we can rely on:

The main stimulus for muscular growth is time under tension!

It is only when we talk about how we create that tension, and for how long, that the controversies ensue. This is where we also need to distinguish between other muscular goals like strength, power and endurance; each will require manipulating the variables of load, volume, tempo and range of motion.

But again, in the interest of brevity, here we will just list the basics variables and the ways they can be manipulated in your training. Think of these each as chemical-filled test tubes that you will mix in varying amounts to see how your body responds.

Range of Motion – Muscular contractions can be accomplished under three types of conditions:

Isotonic contractions are muscular contraction during which the length of the muscle changes through a range of motion. Applying resistance to the muscle as it shortens, as in the chest muscles when you press a barbell upward in a bench press, is called the concentric portion of an isotonic contraction. Conversely, the eccentric portion, also known as the negative, occurs as you control the barbell going back down while the muscle lengthens. One method of training takes mechanical advantage of the fact that we can handle more weight during the eccentric portion, and thus either uses more weight that can be done concentrically by oneself and has a spotter help lift the weight through the concentric portion and then controls the weight themselves through the eccentric portion, or just uses a weight they can handle themselves and change to a slower tempo through the eccentric portion.

Isometric contractions are when a muscle is contracted without changing the length of the muscle as when pushing against a wall or a weight that is too heavy to move.

Volume – Is simply the amount of total exercise (reps and sets) you do in one workout. But even this variable has many possible combinations, (e.g., high reps, low sets; high reps, high sets; low reps, low sets; low reps, high sets) each combination contributes in varying degrees to the different goals of strength, size, power and endurance.

Tempo – Can be used when talking about either the speed in which you perform a rep, moving the resistance through a range of motion in an isotonic contraction, equally or varied in the concentric and eccentric portions, or the amount of time you hold an isometric contraction. And also the amount of time you rest between reps and sets.

Load – consists of the amount of weight or resistance applied, and can remain fixed or varied throughout the range of motion depending on the source, (e.g., weights, cables, elastic bands, etc.)

  • Bonus Variable – Chemical X –Experiment with making subtle movements of your body during exercises, and changing angles; concentrate and really feel the muscle you are stretching and contracting to develop a stronger mind to muscle connection. This can be difficult for beginners to grasp, but with more experience you will definitely feel the difference between what just felt like going through the motion and actually feeling the muscle activated from a fully stretched to a fully contracted state. This is when the real gains and improvements are seen.

Each of these variables can be manipulated to obtain varying degrees of contribution to muscle strength, size, power and endurance.

The Bottom Line

Now here is the fun part, you can take all these variables discussed in this article and experiment with them in an almost infinite amount of combinations.

Likewise, look through the other articles on this site and if you find one you think looks interesting, say a chest workout, but you don’t like one of the exercises, substitute it with a different one that you do like or a different piece of equipment.

Or if you like the exercises, but you think it would be interesting to see what would happen if you did a different amount of reps or sets with them, and changed the tempo of the reps, (faster for power goals or slower for size gains) go for it!

There is no rule saying that you can’t take someone else’s workout and tailor it to fit your goals. Continually experimenting and changing your routine will not only keep your body from plateauing but it also keeps it interesting and motivates you to stay consistent.

And in the end, the best workout and diet for you, is the one that you will actually do to keep yourself consistent with your goals.

About the Author: Dax Tucker

Dax Tucker has over 29 years of weight training experience, is NASM certified, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and is a tournament chess player and yoga practitioner. He also has an MBA, and a BA in psychology. In June of 2011 he released his first published work, “The Leaf Catcher,” that is bound to be a modern classic. “The Leaf Catcher” is written in the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy and explores and defines the human mind, body, and soul. Dax is currently married with 3 children, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

About Dax Tucker

Dax Tucker has over 29 years of weight training experience, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and is a tournament chess player and yoga practitioner. He also has an MBA, and a BA in psychology. In June of 2011 he released his first published work, "The Leaf Catcher," that is bound to be a modern classic. "The Leaf Catcher" is written in the style of Dante's Divine Comedy and explores and defines the human mind, body, and soul. Dax is currently married with 3 children, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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