Time Under Tension


Sarona use to teach the BodyPump class I take twice a week at 24 Hour Fitness. She is a beautiful, strong woman who has the type of muscles that make yourself immediately declare ‘where you lead, I will follow. No questions asked.’

When I first met her, I was new to weight lifting, but I had a new attitude. I promised myself that every time I showed up to the class, I would be grateful for whatever I could do that class. ‘At least I showed up,’ I’d say to myself as I loaded my bar with the lowest possible weights. And since the class is at 5:30am, it was pretty easy for me to be handing out the gold stars.

But just “showing up” wasn’t enough for Sarona. She wanted more. She wanted pain.

Turns out to build muscle, you must tear it and tearing, I found out immediately, hurts a lot. Not in the sudden sharp way cutting your finger with a kitchen knife feels, but in a dull aching way that you’d feel if you had to drag a 50-pound sand bag across the Sahara.  

Sarona liked to get straight to business. She had this knack for getting you right to the point of muscle burn and keeping you there for…ever. She called it ‘time under tension.’ She’d say over and over again “it’s when it hurts, when you feel like you can’t do another one that you have to keep going because that’s how you get stronger.  You have to maximize your time under tension.”

In class, I’d find myself looking around at the other women following Sarona’s grueling workout, and I start to get pissed off. This really hurts and why is everyone still doing it? I’d look around, trying to catch someone’s sympathetic eye. No go. While I was throwing internal 5-year-old hissy fits about Sarona piling on push ups like scoops of ice cream, everyone else was committed.

Turns out I had a strong aversion to feeling uncomfortable. Who knew? I thought the marathon I had run would give me some resilience…but that was two decades ago. My triathalon? Two and a half decades ago. My more recent activity record included more of the usual life building stages -- getting married, starting a family, moving, switching jobs – than body building.

I hated the class, but I kept “showing up” and cursing the pain throbbing in my arms, my legs and every other place possibly imagined. Sarona would add another set of reps, saying “Come on, time under tension.”

But one day I stopped cursing. The class didn’t get easier and Sarona certainly didn’t stop piling on extra reps. But I changed. I realized that I could stand the discomfort. Yes, I had stronger arms and legs, a strong body, but more importantly, I had a stronger mind.

To get stronger, to grow and change, you have to be able to stand discomfort, a lot of it. Change is not easy. If it was, more people would do it. Change involves stepping out of your comfort zone and standing in the discomfort.  Whether it be confusion, uncertainty, embarrassment, vulnerability, the feelings of change, of getting stronger, of healing, of moving on will be uncomfortable.

And knowing that you can stand it means all the difference.

It means you can change.