Think of tension in the muscles as being generated by loading the muscle or moving the limb or body through a range of motion. Movement or the initiation of movement causes tension in the muscle. It is actually the contracting of the muscle that creates the tension.
However, we can tense our muscles up, making them contract or tense up without movement.
Straighten your arm out either at your side or out in front of you. Now, without bending it, tighten up your arm muscles. All of them. Take your other hand and feel your arm. It should be tight or hard with tension. With practice you will be able to create greater tension in the arm muscles through contracting the arm muscles even without movement in a joint.
Contraction and therefore tension in the muscles is accomplished by many factors:
Consciously tensing up the muscles with no outside force or load acting upon the muscles (as in the straight arm tensing), initiating any type of movement with just body-weight, lifting or absorbing any kind of load or force, etc.
We can actually train our body to create more tension.
Of course our muscles have to also relax and lengthen. Relaxation and contraction or tension in the muscle are really two sides of the same coin.
If you can’t create tension in a muscle through contraction of it, then we couldn’t move, run, jump, throw, lift and even live. We would not be able to land from a jump. When we jump in the air and then land on our feet the body tenses up to receive the shock of landing, absorbing the forces through tension. Otherwise, if our muscles did not contract, get tense, to absorb the landing of our jump, they would simply relax and we would fold up like a dropped sack of potatoes. We’d get hurt and never jump again.
So, what is the point of all of this?
If you want to get better at any sport or physical endeavor:
Create greater tension.
Do this by lifting weights of any kind. A weight is a weight. Two hundred pounds of barbell verses 200lbs of sand bag still weighs the same, however, the mechanics of lifting the two will be vastly different and lifting the sandbag will take even greater tension and mobility to lift than the barbell.
So now you have an idea of why using different training tools is of benefit.
Another example of creating tension is a sprint from a stop. Whether initiated from a standing, kneeling or prone position (where you lie down and have to quickly get on your feet before you begin sprinting) your body will undergo rapid transitions of tension and relaxation in the muscles.
So it stands to reason if you can create greater tension in the muscles it will lead to greater propulsion of either your body or some other object you are attempting to move. It takes greater strength (and skill, technique) to throw a baseball faster and farther.
Thus, for most people looking to improve their athleticism, getting stronger, (i.e. learning to create greater tension), leads to better performance in life and in sports. However, if we can’t relax the muscles enough between contractions of tension, then we wouldn’t move very well either. It must be balanced between the two.
We can’t slow our body down without creating tension. We can’t initiate any type of movement without creating tension. And it has been found that if you can create tension, you can actually relax the muscle more after the tension has been released.
One of the ways we can get ourselves to relax to fall asleep entails alternatively tensing up and then relaxing muscles, starting with the feet and working up the entire body. Just a quick tensing and then a relaxation.
Funny thing is, this happens naturally when we go to sleep. It is called hypnic or myoclonic jerks. It is that sudden twitch or sometimes an almost violent jerking of a limb or the body that makes you almost jump in bed and kick the covers off, kick your mate or it wakes you up just as you start dosing off. It is simply a sudden contraction of the muscles followed by immediate relaxation of said muscles.
The harder we can tense the muscle the more strength we can exert. Pick up a light box and have someone squeeze our arm. It’s probably tight but not real hard or tense. Now pick up a real heavy box (you know, the large one that some friend loaded with a ton of books and wants you to pick up and move for them).
Now have your friend squeeze your arm. It will be much tenser and harder in response to the load. It takes more strength to pick up a heavier object and thus creates more tension in the contracting muscles. It takes more strength and thus greater tension in the contracting muscles to jump three feet in the air verses one foot into the air.
So, do you get the point?
If a greater load or force acting on the body elicits a greater response in the muscles leading to greater strength being demonstrated due to the greater contraction and tension in the muscles it stands to reason that we can create greater tension first leading to greater strength.
Teach your muscles to contract harder with more tension.
We do it all the time without thinking. (More on the no thinking part later, and it’s not what you think
OK, you’re helping someone move (oh no! not again!) and as you begin picking boxes up or someone hands you a box to carry to the truck, you simply take the box and move it. No biggie.
Then as you go to pick up the next box or someone hands it too you they say:
“Careful with that (this) one! It’s real heavy. It’s full of books (yup, why not in a smaller box, instead of one big enough to bury a Ford Fiesta?) “.
So what do you do?
Without thinking you get all tense, tightening up the muscles (literally contracting them) in anticipation of the coming load.
Because our body knows it will make us stronger and keep us safer in handling that heavier load. We didn’t even think about it, we just did it.
So why don’t we use that bit of knowledge in our training?
Tense up before you lift a weight. Get tight and then grab the weight and lift it with tension. This works great for slow heavy lifts. Even lighter lifts can be done this way. Things like dead-lifts, squats, bench presses, over-head presses, etc.
By tensing up that muscle even harder than is needed, we can create greater tension and thus get the muscle to contract even harder. Now we don’t need to do this on every set or rep. Definitely on the heavier sets and reps to keep ourselves tight for a safer more controlled lift.
Lighter weights can be lifted with a little more tension than is needed just to train ourselves to create that tension at will rather than create the tension only in response to the load or weight lifted.
Of course, when a person is first learning how to do this, it is good to use more tension than is needed on even lighter sets until they have become adept at creating the tension and then lifting the weight with tension.
It is good to relax and shake the muscles out between sets. High tension lifting is tough to do. Thus, lower reps and fewer sets are in order until you have acclimated to it.
Tensing the muscles and the body up for a lift does not mean we move jerkily throughout the movement because of the great amount of tension we are using. It’s not like that. Tense up and get the body tight and lift with control but also with skill of movement, lifting smoothly.
Once you can create the tension and control it during your lifting, you can vary how much tension you use for various weights and lifts.
If you step up to a loaded bar and get tight before you lift it, you are teaching your nervous system to prepare for a load first, rather than merely responding to a load once it hits you.
Which do you think would be easier on your body?
Picking up a heavy suitcase and as you begin lifting it you realize
“This thing weighs a ton!” as your body tweaks sideways and you feel your muscles get strained.
You get tight, grab the suitcase handle and squeeze it hard and begin lifting with way more tension than you need. You think “This thing is heavy, but not too bad. I can handle it.” and you safely load it into the trunk of the car.
Be aware of your environment. Be aware of what you are lifting. Create tension first and adjust it as you begin the lift. Creating tension in response to the mental thought of lifting something before you actually lift it is feed forward tension or a feed-forward loop. You put your hands on the bar, grip it tight and tense every muscle in your body and then pick up or accept the load.
Responding to a load with tension after you have accepted the load is feed-back tension or a feed-back loop. You grab the bar, get under it or accept the load as you begin lifting it and you think “This thing weighs a ton!” and then you start trying to get tight.
Sorry! To late to get tense!
Once a heavy load is accepted or lifted, so the weight is fully supported by your body, it is very difficult, if not impossible to tighten up properly for the load. You are already pushed out of good mechanical advantage, losing your form and on your way to an injury or dumping the load.
Use the feed-forward loop when lifting anything. Get tight first. Then lift.
And then, once the load is felt, use the feed-back loop to adjust your tension, either decreasing the tension (as in the case of a box you thought was heavy but it only has Tupperware in it) or use the feedback of “this thing weighs a lot, but I’m ready for it. Yet, still, I’m going to get even tighter to control it better” to create even more tension as you begin to move.
Such pre-tensing of the body works wonders in keeping you injury free, not only in the weight room, but also at work or anytime you lift something that might shift, is awkward or you have no clue as to how much it weighs (like a closed box full of you -don’t-know-what).
As you get better at using this tension thing, (paying attention to tension), you will notice that running and jumping and other movements become easier, faster.
Because any movement starts with tension in the contracting muscles.
If I can contract my muscles harder, faster than the next guy, I will jump higher, run faster than someone with my same physical proportions. This is why people get fooled by big guys that look like they are slow. If you are strong, from heavy lifting of anything, then your initial movement will come from all that strength or tension you can generate and you will explode over a short distance.
That is why a huge 6’5″ 350lb NFL lineman can cover a few yards faster than some 5′ 9″ 150lb marathon runner. The NFL lineman has huge amounts of potential strength or tension in his body he can unleash. Whereas the 150lb marathoner has little strength, little tension he can use.
Lift heavy for low reps and few sets. Learn to create tension. Learn to use the feed-forward loop. Learn to manipulate the feed-back you get from heavier weights. Become a master of your body.
Relax between heavy sets. Shake out the tension so you learn to tense up but also to relax. We need both to move well.
Practice movements with body-weight and other implements you might swing, throw, etc. This will help you meld the new found strength into other movements so you get faster at recruiting your new levels of contracting strength induced tension and relaxation.
Think of it this way:
If a certain person (A) who weighs 150lbs can squat or dead-lift 100lbs, when he begins running, his reserve of strength or tension he can use is 100lbs more than his body weight. Yet many runners don’t lift weights (B) and if they do, they never go heavy, not that 100lbs is heavy.
So, let’s just say he (A) can propel his body with an extra 100 pounds of tension as he begins a sprint or jump. He will jump higher or start his sprint off faster than another guy (B) who weighs 150lbs but never lifts anything.
Now put them both up against a guy (C) who weighs the same 150lbs. But this guy dead-lifts 300lbs. When he takes off in the sprint or he jumps he has a reserve ability to create enough strength or tension in his body to lift 200lbs more than the first (A) guy and 300lbs more than the second (B) guy who doesn’t lift at all.
Do you think his body is going to feel way lighter to him?
I’ve experienced this in two ways. For a year I played around with a weight vest. Built up to doing various things with an added 60bls on my body. When I took it off I could run faster and jump higher. I also, at one point in my life, got very ill and weighed 295. I lost 60lbs within about 6 months. When I lost all that weight, same thing: I could run and jump faster and higher.
I had the strength and ability to create the tension needed to move me plus another 60lbs in both cases. So when that weight wasn’t there, that reserve capacity of strength let me exert more force when I did something.
It’s like this:
Two cars weigh the same.
One car puts out 100 ft.lbs of torque and 120 horsepower.
The other car has a motor that puts out 300ft.lbs of torque and 350 hp.
Which do you think will be faster?
I know which one I would buy!
When you engage in athletic movements, running, jumping, tumbling, throwing, etc, we don’t think about tension, about tensing up and relaxing our muscles. It just happens. So continue to do things that help you move smoothly and effortlessly to blend the strength and tension with relaxed movements.
Remember, the body has to tense up to move. There is no way around this.
But you also have to relax between the explosive contractions of tension to move. People that are really strong but are tight or carry around too much tension, are stiff, they can’t move very well.
Lifting 1,000 lbs is impressive, but if we can’t dig a ditch all day long without 40 breaks to catch our breath, we are in pretty sad shape for life, though not for power-lifting. To get strong enough to create the tension needed to lift 1,000 lbs we would need to focus on getting bigger and on pure strength training. In this case, something is gotta give. And that would be generally our endurance and flexibility.
Strength or tension has it’s limits before it gives diminishing returns. But that is way higher than the average person ever gets too.
For a professional athlete, say a MXer (professional motocross, you know, the guys who ride dirt bikes for a living) being able to lift 1,000 lbs would not be advantageous. It takes too much bulk and size to lift that much.
But, being able to dead-lift 300-400lbs would definitely help them throw their bike around better, and if they wipe out, picking up that 230-300 lb bike (MX or open desert bikes) will be a lot easier. And they could gain the strength to dead-lift 300-400lbs, in all likelihood, without gaining much body-weight, if any.
Too weak and we will not have enough capacity to create tension. We will be a slow moving person, we would not be able to generate enough muscular tension at high enough loads and fast enough to jump or sprint well. We would have little strength endurance also, because there is no reserve of strength to draw upon to repeatedly move an object heavier than our own body-weight repeatedly.
Marathoning does not take great levels of strength or even medium levels of strength. Try pitching hay bales all day if you never do anything but run or bicycle and you will see what I mean. It will kick your butt even if you can run 26 miles. You don’t have reserves of tension producing capacity in your body to pitch 80lb bales all day. Most people who run or bicycle long distances usually weigh quite a bit less than an average person of their same height. It is not just because they have low body-fat. It is also because they have low muscle mass for their body-weight and height.
We need balance in both.
Train to be in between the power-lifter and the marathon man.
Learn to manipulate tension in your body.
Get fast, mobile and agile. Learn to move your body.
Learn to manipulate other objects that you carry, throw, swing, etc.
If you get stronger through generating tension in your lifting and you develop a faster more flexible body, you will do everything else with greater ease and enjoyment, even as you get older.
After-all, would you rather have the body of a 20 year old or an 80 year old?
When you reach your upper years would you rather get there with a non-trained body or one that is physically (not genealogically) 10-20 years younger due to smart training and lifestyle?
What’s the difference in the two strength, endurance and mobility wise and how did they get there?
I rest my case.
Get strong and learn to manipulate tension.
Learn to relax physically, mentally and athletically.
Get mobile, agile and flexible.
The fastest guys in sport are strong and very smooth, even appearing relaxed in their efforts.
Learn to move with speed, strength and smoothness without thinking and you will be awesome.
We could all use a little more awesomeness in our life.
Go get some.