The Art of Tension, The Skill of Strength
What do the strongest people in the world and the relationship between you and your boss have in common?
Tension is present in both!
Clearly I shouldn’t quit my day job…
All jokes aside the strongest people in the world know a lot about tension, and not just the strongest people in the world; the most athletic, the most skillful – the martial arts community is a prime example of students who know the significance tension has to the quality of their performance.
Bruce Lee is a classic and obvious example – small in stature but packed a big time punch, literally.
What strategies can we steal from a pound for pound king such as Bruce Lee and a monster like Benni Magnusson who deadlifts over 1,000 pounds – better yet, how can you use them to increase your strength?
Tension Is Strength
Make a fist. Where did you feel the tension – in your hand, your forearm, maybe your bicep?
Try again only this time I want you to squeeze your fist as hard as you can – slowly – as if your hand was a vice grip getting tighter and tighter.
Keep squeezing until you can’t squeeze any more.
What did you notice?
You probably made a much harder fist and noticed some muscle activation in up your arm into your upper back and perhaps even down your legs.
This is the notion that tension = strength.
You just created a force to combat a force – in this case your poor hand.
There are ways to reverse engineer how to squeeze out as much strength as possible through a series of checkpoints – each leading to a tad bit more strength than the next. Combine them all together and you could be sneaking as much as 5-7x MORE strength – just by squeezing your muscles.
Try again only this time do the following in order:
- Make a fist and start squeezing
- Now drive your heels into the floor
- Squeeze your quads/straighten your legs as hard as you can
- Squeeze your butt – as if to crack a walnut or pinch a penny
- Make a fist in the other hand – as hard as you can
- Brace your abs as if you were to take a punch in the stomach
- Drive your shoulders down away from your ears via your armpits.
- Smile : )
Did you feel a difference?
With each step you should have felt yourself creating more, and more, and more tension.
These strategies are more so skills that you can apply to any movement in order to generate more force, and develop more strength.
They point out that tension is in fact strength (you just felt it) and it’s something you can create entirely on your own.
How To Use Tension In Training
First things first; you have to have a plan.
There are 7 strategies we quickly went over – to expect you to remember all of them while performing a swing for example would be asking a lot – you haven’t even mastered one of them!
So, when you practice, focus on one at a time.
Tension strategies during a swing session might look like this:
- Set 1 – 10x focusing on driving the feet into the ground as you swing
- Set 2 – 10x focusing on pulling your knee caps up as hard as you can during the lockout
- Set 3 – 10x focusing on squeezing your butt as tight as you can during the lockout
- Set 4 – 10x focusing on bracing your abs as tight as you can during the lockout
- Set 5 – 10x focusing on creating tension through the armpits during the lockout
You would have just completed 50 swings while practicing different tension strategies each set – consider this a warm-up – now you’re ready to start training the training session.
Warming Up With Tension
The Static Stomp Deadlift is perhaps one of my favorite warm-up drills to finish with.
Do a deadlift and then go through the checklist I just mentioned as you’re standing there holding the bell – it’ll likely end up being around 5-7 seconds of an Isometric hold all said and done.
Park the bell, shake it out (more on that in a minute), and load up for another rep if needed/desired.
I use the Static Stomp Deadlift as a great primer to trigger “maximal tension.” I’ve paired it with sets of swings for people who are having a hard time locking out the swing and use it as a neural “wake-up call” before I start my training session. It’s a fantastic exercise!
One last note about the Static Stomp Deadlift; breathe.
IAP – intra-abdominal pressure – is crucial in creating tension effectively. In order to continue to breathe during your set make sure you’re breathing with a shallow controlled breathing pattern.
To make this simple just think about not breaking the tension you have in your abs when your inhale. It’ll take some practice.
The Meaning of Life
Master SFG John Engum was quoted at The Dome a few weekends ago saying that pressing heavy sh** overhead is “the meaning of life.”
Can’t say I disagree!
Here’s how to apply some of these tension strategies to the 1-arm press:
- Static Stomp from the Chest down – in other words…. heels, quads, butt, core, lats, etc.
- Crush something in your opposite hand – a lacrosse ball works great
- Sniff and hold your breath before your start to press– IAP – like we just talked about
- Pressure-release your breath as you’re pressing – tsssss!
- Sniff to pull back down – remember tension is strength – don’t let gravity do the work for you on the way down
There are a number of things you’d want to think about in cleaning the bell to set-up a strong press, but that’s for another time. In the mean time, rinse, wash, repeat.
Tension Is Fatigue
If you’re playing around with these strategies you might also be realizing that it’s not exactly easy to squeeze something as hard as you can – hence – tension is also fatigue
So where does that leave us?
Fast n’ Loose.
The best athletes in the world typically have two things in common:
- They’ve mastered the basics and do them better than everyone else
- They can relax faster and “harder”, than everyone else
…In addition they can also produce force and strength at alarming speeds.
In other words they can produce significant tension, follow it up with deep relaxation, and dial up the tension again – all within milliseconds.
And that folks is how you get knocked out without even seeing the punch – fortunately I know nothing about what that feels like!
This yin and yang relationship is what makes the swing and the getup the perfect combination of tension and relaxation
It’s also why tension and fast n’ loose go so well with one another.
How To Be Fast N’ Loose
Try to shake the muscles off your bones – now your fast n’ loose. Seriously, it’s that simple.
However much like the tension skills earlier, there are sneaky ways to make your body loosen up and practice fast n’ loose more effectively – even relaxing is a skill that needs to be trained.
Some StrongFirst cues that might help:
Ants in the pants
Imagine you have ants in your pants. Shift your weight over to one leg while shaking out your other leg. Remember, ants are in your pants and you’re trying to shake your muscle off the bone.
Water on the hands
Image your hands are wet and you’ve got no paper towels, only option is to shake them off. Much like the ants, start one arm at a time before adding a bit of the next tip into the mix.
Do whatever you want – one arm and the same leg, alternating, hopping up and down – this is what you see fighters doing before a fight and sprinters do before a race.
Check out this video of Ido Portal – skip to the 1:55 mark.
Watch this summer when the men and women line up on the track – before they get into their blocks you’ll see them practicing fast n’ loose.
If it works for Olympians (and Taylor Swift) I’m pretty sure it’ll work for you.
Putting It All Together
Remember, tension is strength but tension is also fatigue.
Use tension in your training to help develop strength and hone your skill. Practice fast n’ loose as a means to recover/relax from the tension/fatigue you’re creating.
The more you practice the more you’ll notice two things:
- You’re getting stronger
- You can relax “harder”
Meaning the quickness with which you relax to from a state of high tension has increased – if this happens, congratulations, you’re becoming more athletic.
- Tension = strength
- Fast n’ loose = relaxation
Practice getting great at both and you’re going to increase your performance – it’s simply a matter of how much and how quickly.