Yes, genetics matter. So does nutrition, your fat-to-muscle ratio, how many years you’ve been lifting weights, if you sit throughout the day, and — ultimately –how much weight you can lift.
But let’s assume all of those are equal, and yet, here you are, still sweating day-after-day at the gym and not looking like the other people putting in the same work.
We’ve all been there and it’s an awful feeling, but one that can be fixed with a simple adjustment. One of the biggest factors that determine whether or not you’ll see the results you want comes down to two words: weightlifting technique.
More specifically, creating tension. If you want to start seeing your efforts pay off, it’s time to learn that it’s not always what exercises you do, but how you do them.
Why Tension Matters
For a moment, forget weightlifting technique and think bigger picture. We know that there are 3 primary factors that determine how much much muscle strength and size you’ll build when you lift: metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscle damage. Let’s focus on the first two because the third is a byproduct of the work you do.
- Metabolic stress refers to the burning sensation you feel in your muscles as you pump out rep after rep. You can increase the amount of metabolic stress you produce by performing more sets, or more reps inside of those sets.
- Mechanical tension broadly refers to how engaged your muscle tissues are when you lift.
People spend a mountain of time thinking about category number one. You’ve probably wondered many times about how many sets and reps you should perform, and when and how often you should change those numbers over time.
Most people, however, don’t spend nearly as much time on category two (tension), which is a huge missed opportunity. This is where weightlifting technique comes into play.
“Tension and its twin, relaxation, are the alphas of strength and conditioning,” says Dan John, a world-renowned fitness coach and author of several books on training. “They are the most important two concepts. And they are exact opposites of each other.”
The trouble with tension — like any weightlifting technique — is that it can be difficult to learn. Which also means it’s challenging—and time-consuming—to coach. Many trainers won’t take the time to teach it.
“When I’m teaching someone to do a correct kettlebell swing, I first have to teach them to grip the ground with their big toe. For a person who’s new to lifting, that might take a day,” John explains.
He adds that each of the other key elements of the exercises—buttcheeks squeezed together, abs firmly braced, lats pulling back, and then making all of this to happen at once—takes days if not weeks to learn. “So teaching someone the kettlebell swing—which at the top, is basically a vertical plank—might take the better part of a few months. And yet I see people teach that exercise and 72 others on the first day of a class.”
To be fair to trainers, not everyone wants to take the time to learn any weightlifting technique. It’s not exactly as much fun as losing fat, building biceps, or seeing your abs pop. And a big part of a trainer’s job is to make exercise fun to prevent you from being bored. After all, making exercise enjoyable will keep you doing it and coming back for more, and that’s when results happen.
But, here’s why you’ll want to take a little time to master the tension weightlifting technqiue (while still making your workouts fun)—and how it can make every exercise you perform more effective.
How Your Weightlifting
Technique Prevents Injuries
Another secret smart trainers know: creating tension can help you fix bad biomechanics and reduce how much you are hurt.
“I’d argue that a lot of what people call ‘lack of mobility’ can be attributed not to lack of flexibility but to lack of stability, which you can establish through coaching tension,” says Tony Gentilcore, owner of CORE, a small-group training facility in Boston.
Here’s what he means. Let’s say you’re having trouble staying upright when you squat. Your torso leans forward as you descend. Lots of people will blame that on a lack of mobility in their thoracic spine (upper back). But there’s a good chance that what’s actually to blame is your core. You’re not stable enough in your midsection to descend as far as you should. If you learn how to create more tension in your core, then suddenly the “mobility issue” goes away.
Here’s how it works. If you’re an experienced lifter, perhaps you’re familiar with the terms “kinetic chain” and “energy leaks.” If not, here’s a quick primer.
The kinetic chain refers to the body’s joints (ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, etc.) working together. Think of your body as a cohesive unit. When you walk, for instance, it’s just not your legs doing the work. Anyone that’s ever had a back injury knows this all too well because even the simplest (seemingly unrelated) movements can cause pain.
An energy leak occurs when there’s insufficient stiffness (a.k.a. tension) around one of those joints.
So let’s say you’re performing a back squat and your knees cave inward. That’s an energy leak. And it’s a problem because, not only does that leak put stress on the joints, it also fosters a muscle imbalance. When your knees cave in, your body asks the surrounding muscles to re-center your knee. Over time, you’re strengthening one set of muscles at the expense of another. (You’re also burning metabolic fuel that could otherwise be put toward another rep.)
Maybe that’s something you can get away with if you only ever use light resistance when you train. But as the weight gets heavier, the risk gets bigger.
“For advanced guys, you might have 400-500 pounds on your back,” says strength coach Jason Ferruggia. “So to minimize injury risk, you’ve got to maintain full-body tension throughout the set.”
What does that mean? When you think of weightlifting technique, you usually just think about the muscles you’re working. But that’s just part of the story. You need to prepare your entire body for a lift, and, oftentimes, it’s the muscles you wouldn’t even think about.
Staying with the squat example, most people are worried about their knees or their back (or both). But creating “full-body tension” often times starts in neither of those two places. You’ll begin with your grip on the bar and then focus on your breathing and abs, which is what actually protects your back from injury.
When you take a big belly breath (think about filling your stomach with air so that if you have a belt around your natural waist you would feel it become tight), it creates a natural lifting belt that protects your spine. This is known as bracing your torso. (Here’s a story that explains how it works and how to do it. You can skip down to the section “The Problem: Incorrect Breathing” if you want to see it straight away.)
So in this case, tension is protective. Your grip creates tension that sends a signal to your brain saying, “I’m about to lift heavy weight.” That’s important. If you then “pull” your elbows down and back (imagine someone’s hands trying to push your elbows up and you have to resist against them), you’ll engage your lats, which also protect your spine. Then, when you take your belly breath, you add the final piece of full body tension, which will protect your spine. This type of approach can prevent an energy leak that causes your form to break down and injury to occur.
Just as tension protects you when you squat, it keeps you safer when you perform other exercises. A shoulder that’s engaged is less likely to wind up in an unnatural position when you overhead press. Having your torso firmly braced will help protect your lower back when you deadlift.
As mentioned earlier, the heavier of a weight you use, the more important weightlifting technique and proper tension becomes. The same is true for the number of reps—the more you perform, the more challenging it is.
“Every rep beyond 5 or 6 or so becomes increasingly more difficult to do, so you open yourself up to more injury risk,” Ferruggia says. “That’s why I like low reps on the big lifts. It’s really hard to maintain that tension while maintaining good form. So a lot of times people say beginners should do high reps. No, it’s the opposite.”
How Tension Builds Results You Can See
Tension isn’t just about playing it safe. On almost any exercise, even bodyweight movements like planks or pushups, full-body tension can dictate what you get out of the exercise and help put your body in an optimal position.
What do we mean when we say “full-body” tension? Exactly that: Your entire body. “It has to literally be from toes to forehead,” John says. “If I ask you to do a plank and you forget to breathe because you’re so tense, that’s when I know you’re doing it right.”
In fact, go ahead and try that right now. Do a plank while creating as much tension as possible within your body. Here are a few cues that will probably change the way you think about planks (and make the thought of going for 60 seconds seem like the hardest thing you’ve ever done).
- Push out through your heels while pulling your elbows toward your toes.
- Squeeze all of your muscles: That means pressing through your forearms into the floor. Contract your glutes as hard as possible, as if you’re trying to crack a walnut. Squeeze your abs tightly as if you’re about to be punched in the gut, repeatedly. Even flex your calves. That’s called an RKC plank (watch Contreras explain), which differs from the way most people will do planks.
Try it and you’ll see that a plank can fry your entire body in a matter of seconds—5 seconds is a great place to start, and 15 is a mighty hold. (Conversely, you know those hours-long World Record-setting planks that you sometimes see grabbing headlines? Here’s why they don’t do a whole lot for your muscles and wind up producing more back pain than anything.)
In addition to making exercise more efficient, learning to create tension can improve the “mind-muscle connection.” Any bodybuilder will tell you that this link helps you activate the muscles you actually want to work when you exercise. (If you’re skeptical, Contreras has proven this phenomenon using an EMG.) Studies show that both internal focus (i.e. you trying to direct your body’s efforts with your mind) and external verbal cues (i.e. a coach telling you to focus on a specific part of a move) can increase certain muscle activations, so focusing on tension should help you produce better results.
Here’s the tricky thing: When you start trying to create full-body tension in your workouts, you’ll probably wind up feeling weaker at first. Ferruggia—who’s written about this phenomenon —says while your performance (and especially total reps) may suffer at first, “the strength gains you make by using proper full-body tension are going to transfer better to the real world.”
Translation: You won’t be one of those people who can leg press hundreds of pounds but can’t move a couch. And as you get used to using full-body tension, Ferruggia adds that, in time, you will surpass your previous numbers. “Eventually you will be stronger than you were.”