Getting stronger seems simple: pick up something heavy, put it down, add weight, and then pick it up again.
But there’s a lot more that goes into it than that.
Developing maximum strength and muscle is as much of an art as it is a science.
Part of that is initiating a proper setup and maintaining good form, but one of the most overlooked and forgotten aspects of this is creating and maintaining tension.
While there’s a lot that goes into building muscle and getting stronger, tension is the driving force behind everything.
When most people think of tension in weightlifting, they immediately think of using a tempo like 3-1-2-0 in order to maximize TUT or Time Under Tension during a lift. But that’s not the only kind of tension that helps you build muscle.
Pavel Tsatouline defines tension as “the mechanisms by which your muscles generate force.” The more tension you can create before a lift, the stronger you will be, and the more tension you create during a lift, the more muscle you’ll build. This will also force your muscles to do most of the work, so you’ll put less stress on your joints and ligaments.
Ever seen someone perform a deadlift with a rounded back? Or benching with their feet up? How many times have you seen someone fall forwards during a squat?
These folks are not creating tension.
Tension prior to the start of a lift is not only going to make you stronger, but it’s going to protect you from injury. This is usually referred to as getting tight or bracing using your breath.
While tension before the lift is important, so is maintaining tension during the lift. This is referred to as “constant tension”. Constant tension is the act of stopping your lifts just shy of lockout, and then again just shy of the bottom of the lift.
In the two videos below, I demonstrate the difference between a full range of motion bench press, and a constant tension bench press.
Notice in the second video I kept tension during the lift by essentially using only 90% of the usual range of motion.
The purpose of constant tension is to keep your muscles active at all times and to take stress off the joints and ligaments. In doing so, you increase the tension on the muscles during your set thus leading to more metabolic stress.
Now that we know why tension is important, let’s talk about how to create it. There are three main ways to create tension that transfer to almost all exercises. Let’s look at each.
Packing of the lats is mostly used during deadlifts or bent over rows. This refers to the drawing back and down of the shoulder blades, as if you were trying to put them in your back pockets.
Another way to think of it is trying to squeeze oranges in your armpits.
What packing the lats does is not only create tension, but it also helps protect the spine by preventing the shoulders from rolling forward and the back from rounding over. Look at the two pictures below.
In the one on the left I don’t have my lats packed, and if I try to lift the weight my shoulders will likely roll forward. The one on the right, my lats are packed, leading to a more vertical chest and flat back.
In order to feel what it’s like to engage the lats, perform straight arm lat pulldowns with a hold at the bottom.
Retracting the scapula, while similar to packing the lats, is a little different and mainly used during back squats. When you retract your scapula, you create a shelf so the bar is not resting on the top of your spine. This also helps you stay tight through the lift.
Think of retracting your scapula as trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades.
It also helps if you try and bend the bar over your back. Note the pictures again: on the left, I’m not retracting my scapula, on the right, I am. It’s subtle, but notice the difference?
Face pulls are not only a great exercise for overall shoulder health, but teaching the feel of scapular retraction as well.
When doing these, really focus on pulling your shoulder blades together to bring the cable towards your eyes while keeping your head in a neutral position.
This one may sound simple, but if you look around many gyms you’ll see that most lifters have trouble bracing their abs.
Properly braced abs help you maintain tension and proper form, while also protecting the spine.
In order to brace your abs, draw a big breath of air into your stomach. Then, contract your ab muscles as if you’re trying to force your stomach to expel the breath, but don’t actually breath out (his is also known as the Valsalva Maneuver). For safety’s sake, reset your breath after every one or two reps.
Planks and rollouts are great for teaching how to brace the abs, but some people can’t hold a neutral spine during these exercises.
A better exercise for learning how to create tension through the core is The Deadbug Wall Push. Press your lower back hard into the ground while using your arms to press against the wall. This engages the lats as well.
Farmer’s Walks are also great for creating tension through the core. Stand tall, look straight ahead, pull the shoulders back, brace the abs, and walk. (For a complete breakdown of farmer’s walks, check out this article).
Drawing the hips back is another common tension technique used in deadlifts and rows. This helps create tension in the glutes and hamstrings.
Pretend someone is standing behind you pulling on a rope tied around your waist. If you hold your hips too high, you’ll lose tension; if your hips are too low, it becomes a squat.
In the three pictures below, I demonstrate proper hip position. In the picture on the left, my hips are too high. In the middle, my hips are too low and I’m in a squat position. In the picture on the right, my hips are in optimal position: back and not down.
To do this, begin by standing with your knees touching a bench. Bend at the waist and push your butt and hips back, all the while keeping your knees in contact with the bench
The bench will prevent your knees from moving forward and help you learn the feel of pushing your hips back.
Another great exercise for teaching the hip hinge is the cable pull-through. Maintain a neutral spine, and push the hips back. Remember it’s a back and forth motion, not up and down.
Creating and maintaining tension through your lifts is key to not only getting stronger, but also building more muscle, and staying relatively injury-free.
Follow the above tips to create more tension in your lifts, in turn gaining more strength and building more muscle.