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How to Get Stronger with Feed Forward Tension

September 1, 2006 08:47 AM

In Pavel's book Power to the People! there's a section on a technique called Feed Forward Tension. I believe that this technique is one of the keys to superior muscle control and a great way to increase the amount of weight you can lift in a particular exercise.

Two things have happened to me that confirmed my suspicions.

One was a few years ago when I performed my first one arm chin up. My practice was more haphazard then, but I would practice perfect one arm chins every morning in front of the mirror (in conjunction with actively pulling with the lat in the military press and doing weighted 2 arm pull ups). These exercises enabled me to perform the one arm chin.

The second was on a trip in Mexico, I practiced pullups and military presses before my shower. (Had to warm up for that nice cold shower.) When I came back from that trip, I pressed the 88 and it was smooth and controlled, where before it had been sloppy and felt weak. Keep in mind that was after just a week of daily practice with the Feed Forward Tension. I believe that the neural recruitment patterns of my perfect practice in Feed Forward Tension carried over.

This article is about the different ways I have used the Feed Forward Tension technique and what the benefits of each technique is. Feed Forward Tension can be practiced with or without a weight. I prefer without a weight as I do it in the bathroom, while my shower water warms up.

I use the Feed Forward Tension technique in three different ways:
  • Practicing specific exercises (e.g. military press, deadlift, one arm chin, pull-ups, etc.)
  • Practicing specific feelings (the feeling of passing tension from the left or right side into the working side, or of pulling up energy from the ground)As a non-specific practice for total body muscle control

Practicing Specific Exercises
Feed Forward Tension can be used to improve your ability to complete a particular lift.

Example: Military press with kettlebell.
Clean your fake KB and land it in the rack position. Because we are practicing, the rep is perfect and when the fake kettlebell lands, your entire body is TIGHT.
  • Your feet are flexed, the tension is radiating up from the ground
  • Your pelvis is tucked in and your butt is rock hard
  • Your lat is flexed and your elbow is tucked into your side
The above are just points of awareness, EVERYTHING is TIGHT.

You then practice your perfect military press grove, pressing the fake bell slowly away from your body while maintaining total tension. Breathe out as though through a straw. Slight relaxation at the top is followed by another intense total body contraction as you pull the fake bell down to the rack position. Shake it off. Then do the other arm.

It works best if you actually visualize the bell you want to press as you're doing this exercise. Visualizing with the eyes open is a skill that you can learn like anything else. I'm a novice in my undertakings to learn the skill of visualization but there are some tremendous sources and I've learned a few cool tricks from Steve Cotter's article in his first newsletter. I particularly like the effect of ending the visualization with the statement, "And so it is."

The benefits: With this technique you will increase the skill of whatever movement you are practicing. It will mentally prepare you to handle more weight, especially if you are engaging in the visualization component.

Practicing Specific Feelings
The feeling I get when performing the one arm chin is sucking power from the other arm. As I pull one arm in, sucking in the shoulder and contracting everything very intensely, that nerve force begins to attract the hand of the other arm downwards, pulling my body up. It sounds esoteric, but it works for me.

What I have just described is similar to the concept of squeezing a hand gripper in one hand while attempting to press a heavy kettlebell with the other. Except instead of the energy attracting the hand of the other arm, in the case of the military press it's repelling it. (I know someone posted this gripper trick on the Forum, but don't know the name to give credit where it is due.)

It amounts to focusing your energy: you're either sucking it back in or pushing it out (pull/push).

Another example of sucking energy back into the shoulder is for a gripper squeeze. This is one time when I prefer to practice Feed Forward Tension with a weight, the gripper. Before I squeeze a gripper, I suck the energy back into the shoulder (i.e. I pull my shoulder into the socket and flex all the surrounding muscles). This gives my hands a stable base from which to close.

To accentuate this effect you can start with the gripper over your head and then pull your hand down using the one arm chin technique, while spreading the tension from the opposite arm by simultaneously pulling it in. You can also do a similar thing by starting below the waist and then pulling the gripper up in more of a row-type motion.

In case you doubt that you can focus where you put your energy, or that it even matters, note the following difference in your Renegade Row performance. Mindlessly perform the reps, switching arms each rep. Then act as if you're pushing the other kettlebell into the ground as you are pulling the other one up, a tip I learned from a Steve Cotter workshop. You will be MUCH stronger in the Renegade Row by using this technique.

The benefits: By practicing a specific feeling you will improve your ability to do a particular lift or feat of strength. You are using the power of visualization by visualizing how the nerve force is assisting you in completing a particular lift. Also, if you have a mental block for a particular lift, if you focus on the feeling rather than the execution, you can sometimes 'outthink' the mental block.

Full Body Feed Forward Tension
This is about muscle control. To perform this technique I'll lean over a little bit as if I'm pulling something out of the floor (similar to a deadlift) and as I extend my hips and return to upright I begin tensing my feet, and calves. As I become completely erect I will flex my hams, quads and butt followed by my stomach. The tension then goes up to my shoulders and spreads down to my fists and then comes back up as I suck my shoulders back into the socket. This whole process happens in about five seconds.

Let the tension go gradually.

This technique could be made more effective if someone were hitting you because it would identify parts of your body that you need to work on to control. If you've ever worked with younger athletes, they do not know how to control their muscles very well. For example, most cannot flex their lats. Practicing full body tension enables you to learn how to flex more of your muscles.

You can make the total body tensing more effective. How? Turn it into a breathing exercise. In The Complete Martial Artist Volume 1, Hee Il Cho explains a great breathing exercise:
  1. Stand upright with the feet spread two shoulders width apart. Place both palms together, shoulder level, directly in front of the body. Bend both knees slightly.
  2. Simultaneously inhale slowly through the nose while spreading the arms.
  3. Spread the arms as far as possible, fully extending the chest muscles. At this moment, the lungs should be filled to capacity. Hold this position for 10 seconds.
  4. Bending both elbows and pulling them back slightly, simultaneously exhale slowly and push the arms down and forward as if you were pushing a heavy object. Bring both hands together in front of the groin area. At this moment, the lungs should be totally empty and all body muscles tensed. Hold this position for 10 seconds, and then relax. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.
Why Feed Forward Tension?
One, I believe controlling the body ultimately leads to controlling the mind. Feed Forward Tension helps to develop superior muscle control. Two, I believe people should be curious to test their limits. I think the media helps us set our bar too low and we forget what we are really capable of. Using Feed Forward Tension we raise the bar set by our nervous system and consequently perform at a higher level. Three, what else are you going to do while your shower water warms up?

Justin Qualler, RKC is a kettlebell and performance instructor based in Milwaukee, WI. He offers workshops, classes, and personal instruction. Visit his web site at for more info.