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Tension, the Key to Strength

March 18, 2004 04:27 PM

Tension is simultaneously one of the most important and the most overlooked aspects of strength training. It is certainly what separates Pavel's training and techniques from many other "also-rans". But even within the Party many of us misunderstand the applications and full ramifications of tension.

In each of Pavel's books, and in many of his articles, he talks about tension. Admonishments like "keep the abs tight" and "pinch a coin between your cheeks" are everywhere in his writings. In fact, in one thread on the discussion forum about the most important piece of advice people had ever learned about strength training, Pavel responded: "Stay tight". More than just a meaningless bodybuilder platitude yelled to muscleheads straining on the bench during the 12th rep of a 12 RM set, this little gem of advice reminds us of the secret of tension.

But what is tension, exactly? And what does tension mean to us?

As Pavel reminds us in Power to the People!, tension is force. Force is strength?if you want to be stronger, you must teach yourself to generate higher and higher levels of tension. At the same time, if you want any sort of flexibility, you must be able to regulate tension as well?in the opposite direction?because "bad" tension limits our range of motion, speed, and endurance. So tension and relaxation are really just two sides to the same coin, like the difference between "hot" and "cold". You always have a level of tension in the body, just like there is always some level of heat in the air. We call the relative level of heat in the air "hot" or "cold" just as we call the relative level of tension in the body "tense" or "relaxed". If we could achieve "absolute zero" tension in our bodies, we couldn't remain upright. So tension controls our strength and our flexibility. Tension at high levels is force production, and at low levels, it is relaxation and flexibility. So, since we want to be as strong as possible, doesn't it make sense for us to maximize the level of tension in our bodies at all times? Not so fast.

Try doing a maximum set of pushups while generating tension as if you are trying to get a one-rep max of a bench press. (Flex your abs, butt, claw the ground, keep your head up and look towards the wall, "break the 'bar'" etc. If you're lost about how to do this, you need to do yourself a favor and buy Power to the People!) If you generate tension correctly, it's going to be tough to get much more than a handful of reps. Steve Maxwell teaches a drill about learning abdominal tension in much the same way: he instructs his students to do Janda situps that are so hard (read: tense!) that it's difficult to get much more than one rep. This gives them the right kind of attitude for learning to generate maximal tension.

What the hell is going on here? (And not a WTH ('what the hell') effect like the one Kettlebells produce?look for an upcoming article on that. Or not.) Didn't we just establish that tension is force, and force is strength, therefore tension is strength? Well, yes, we did. And yes, that's true. But high levels of tension inevitably create high levels of fatigue. Tension is most effective when applied at the correct time. So what's the correct time to produce tension?

Effective weight training is marked by effective management of fatigue?both within an overall practice, and within each individual set. These opposites?tension and fatigue?are the yin and yang of weight training. In pure strength training, it makes the most sense to minimize fatigue and maximize tension?mainly by keeping our reps low, having longer rest periods, and keeping our total workout time down (few total sets)?in other words, performing a program like PTP. In high rep kettlebell training, however, we need a more conscious control of tension, especially within the individual set. Why? Because tension is strength but it is also fatigue, while relaxation causes weakness, but it also spells recovery. If you want to get more than five reps, you must learn to control your levels of tension?if you use too much, you'll burn out too soon.

But what does this actually mean, in practice? It means that, in kettlebell ballistic training, we should only generate the proper amount of tension at the time?we must only generate enough tension to overcome the weight that we're lifting. This is less true in pure strength training?grinds? where we are practicing, in large part, to teach our nervous system to generate maximal tension throughout the movement. The important difference between ballistic training and grind training is that ballistics contain a moment of relaxation within the movements. With a snatch, for instance, there is acceleration, then relaxation. The movement begins with maximal acceleration (tension), then the 'bell flies up on its own, so the lifter can relax. In grind training, there may be a short period of relaxation (the lockout) but it is quickly followed by another period of high tension?the negative, lowering or eccentric portion of the lift. This is completely unlike the ballistic movements, which have a moment of relaxation while the 'bell continues to move, and the eccentric portion of the lift should contain very little tension.

One of the most important aspects to practice in ballistics training is using only the minimum amount of force (tension) necessary to move the weight, and to relax as fully as possible during the relaxation phases of the various movements. Of course, a beginner must use high levels of tension while learning in order to avoid injury. If you've ever watched a beginner at any sport attempt a new movement, they tend to "muscle" themselves around too much. This is okay; it's part of the learning process. On the flip side, an expert can make even the most difficult of moves seem "effortless". This is the distinction that you must make in your kettlebell training. You must take your ballistic training from "muscling the 'bell" to "effortless movement".

So how do we manage tension and relaxation, if they're so important to manage? In a few ways: first, you must have an incredibly tight "groove" for your movements. As you practice the movement over and over again, you will eliminate excess effort automatically, and "grease the groove" via the Hebbian rule (see Pavel's article on the subject on this site). Second, you must develop a strong, rhythmic motion while performing the ballistic lifts. You should be able to practically time a metronome to your snatches. Third, control your breathing. Stopping and constricting your breathing creates tension, while exhaling and releasing your breath dissipates tension. Try to match your breathing with the ballistic movements as closely as possible by finding the moments of tension and relaxation and syncing up your breathing with them. This is called "matching the breath to the force". Last, use less tension at the beginning of your set, then, as you fatigue, use more and more tension, until your last rep uses an almost 1RM level of tension.

Don't just take my word for it, try another set of pushups, right now, but this time, get into a rhythm, match the breath with the force, and as you fatigue, generate more and more tension. In this way, you finish as strongly as you began.

Managing tension and fatigue are important details that separate champions from the also-rans. As Vince Lombardi once noted, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Comrades, stay tight, control fatigue, and fear no more.

Dan McVicker is a certified Kettlebell instructor and personal trainer in Boulder, CO. For more information, visit his website at

Congrats to Com. Dan on pulling a 500 pound DL!