Tension and Training

The most underappreciated part of strength training is understanding tension. Let’s imagine that you have a tension/relaxation dial that goes from one to ten. (“To eleven…that’s one more” to quote my inner Spinal Tap). One is a sloppy mess on the floor after a sauna, massage, sex and martinis. This is total relaxation. A ten is when you stick your finger in an electric outlet. You are shocked stiff.


Neither extreme has value in training, but understanding them will do more for your strength than a bunch of extra sets. Most people live in four, five or six. And, I mean this: they are always “middle.” Never too high and never too low might be a way to ignore drama in life, but it doesn’t make for good lifting.


We must actively train tension. Oddly, I noticed an odd thing years ago when young ladies would finally break barriers in the deadlift. With 275 or 300 pounds, they would make the lift, then begin sobbing.


“Are you hurt?”


No. I’m just crying. I don’t know why.


I think this: by spending so much time around five on our tension dial, getting to nine (the top of the deadlift) then dropping back to two or three instantly by letting go of the bar causes an emotional response. Frankly, it is akin to an orgasm and if this doesn’t convince you to up your lift maxs, I don’t know what will!


I use two movements to teach tension: the PUPP and the Bird Dog. The PUPP is the Push Up Position Plank. Simply, get in the “up” Push Up position. Now, grasp the ground as hard as you can. Squeeze the triceps. Try to squash a grapefruit that is inside your armpits. Practice “Utah Birth Control” and squeeze your knees (and heels) together. Brace your ab wall.


To test this tension have a friend push you side to side. Resist. Don’t get pushed. It is hard to hold this position!


Next, try this with the standard Bird Dog. I with the left knee on the ground, drive the right heel hard straight back. Clench the butt and squeeze the quads. Now, drive that left hand straight forward. Squeeze the juice out of the grapefruit in your right armpit. Squeeze everything harder.


Shake things out a bit after each attempt and relax a bit. Next try this with weight lifting. Make anything that doesn’t have to move tighter and tighter. For overhead pressing, for example, tighten the quads and squeeze the butt cheeks. Squeeze them even harder. It takes a bit of practice and you might not get a lot of reps in at first.


But, tension teaches strength. Tension turns you into a machine. Stop the leaking of energy away from the task at hand and you will soon be adding plates to your training. And, more weight is the answer to most questions in the weightroom!

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