The Truth About Tension

By January 27, 2017Blog
  • We rely on three things to build muscle: metabolic stress, muscle damage, and muscle tension
  • Muscle tension also dictates how much weight we can lift, how effectively we lift it and whether the muscles are actually doing the amount of work they need to be.
  • Learn to properly brace your core, pack your lats and create tension in your hips and you’ll be able to lift heavy – and injury free – for a long time.

I may be biased, but I am a true believer that hockey is one of the greatest sports in the world. I have had my times of love and hate with the sport, but deep down I know it’s taught me almost everything I know about life outside the rink.

One of the greatest benefits is the camaraderie or brotherhood that is formed inside the dressing room walls. Because hockey players spend so much time together, the dressing room is often more like a clubhouse and the attitude is often jovial.

Needless to say, hockey players have a tendency to become a little, well – heated.

And sometimes that boils over between teammates, especially when things aren’t going well for a team. Frustrations rise, and someone inevitably gets popped by a teammate – often unintentionally.

Off come the gloves. We’ve got ourselves a practice tilt!

You can imagine how that changes things in the dressing room afterward. Two guys who just dropped the gloves and tried to beat one another’s heads in now have to go get changed in the same dressing room; often not more than 10 feet from each other.

You wanted to learn about tension? You got tension.

Yeah, not that type of tension.

The tension I’m talking about is one of the three major mechanisms of muscle growth in the human body, and you’re probably doing it wrong… or not at all.

For our muscles to truly grow (and for us to look jacked without a tarp on), we need three things: muscle tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.

I’m going to focus on tension today, but here’s a quick rundown of the other two factors.

Metabolic Stress

When you strain your muscles while lifting, you actually cause stress. This isn’t like Christmas holiday stress, it’s more like planning-for-a-vacation stress.

Your muscles need this to grow, and they love it.

Plus, the in-laws don’t come to town like Christmas.

That massive pump combined with total exhaustion after running the rack on bicep curls; that’s metabolic stress.

Your muscles are swelling, due to an increased intake of glycogen and water that primes the muscle to grow so it will be better equipped to handle that same stress next time.

Muscle Damage

The term ‘muscle damage’ gets bandied about a lot but I don’t think many people understand it.

No, we are not talking about tearing muscles or anything like that. Again, this is an anabolic process that must happen for your muscles to grow.

Crush a workout, damage muscle.

Feed muscle so that it can repair itself and prepare for the next battle.

We can increase muscle damage by playing around with heavier weights, tempos, grips and movement pairings.

Now, The Good Stuff

I want you to think about tension as the straw that stirs the muscle building drink. It is impossible to create the necessary stress and muscle damage (see above) without proper tension.

Muscle tension also dictates how much weight we can lift, how effectively we lift it and whether the muscles are actually doing the amount of work they need to be.

I’ve said it before, but our bodies are the world’s greatest compensators and if you ask your body to lift a massive amount of weight off the floor, it’s going to find a way.

Will something pop in the process? Possibly.

But it’ll get ‘er done.

Setting the Stage

Have you ever got your car stuck in a ditch?

If you haven’t, you’ve certainly seen a car being pulled out of the ditch.

Anyway, the good samaritan pulls up to the car and connects their tow strap to both bumpers. They pop the tow-ee in neutral and the tow-er drops it into 4-wheel drive.

But what happens if they leave some slack in the tow strap before they step on the gas?

If you don’t pull the tow strap tight before givin ‘er the what-for, something’s gotta give -usually in the form of a bumper being ripped off.

To combat this, the person helping out slowly inches forward until the strap is perfectly taught. No slack and just enough tension to get the other car out of the ditch.

Why am I telling you this? This is an article about tension, not pulling cars out of ditches.

Have you ever seen someone deadlifting and watched them jerk the bar off the floor? They’re getting set up to pull, then they take all the tension out of their body, essentially making themselves a wet noodle.

Then, they jerk their body into full tension while simultaneously trying to pull a massive amount of weight off the floor.

The same rule applies for lifting heavy weights. If you don’t have full body tension and ‘take out the slack’, you’re setting yourself up to ‘pop’ something out of place.

That bumper will be your spine, and you’ll be crumpled on the floor if you’re not careful.

Here’s a video about deadlifts (because we all like deadlifts), where I talk a lot about creating and maintaining tension. Plus, if you look real close, you can see a real poor attempt at a mustache.

Breathe and Brace

A lot of my clients look at me funny when I start them off with breathing drills.

“Dude, I know how to breathe. Let’s lift some heavy shit.”

But, in reality, if you don’t know how to properly brace your abs, then your lower back will constantly be at risk of some serious pain, especially if you like to go heavy.

So, let’s learn how to brace.

I would say this is a bit of a process, but it really depends on the person. The bracing sequence clicks right away for some, and leaves others looking at me like I have two heads.

The first step is learning how to use your diaphragm to breathe.

You can check out the full article I wrote RIGHT HERE.

Now, let’s layer some bracing on top of that.

Bracing is all about creating maximum tension from your ribcage to your pelvis. I like to call this area the canister and think of it like a can of food. That can needs pressure on all sides to stay intact, just like your core.

To brace effectively, think of first bracing yourself for an MMA-inspired gut punch. Then, you’re going to use your diaphragm to breathe into your belly.

Ideally, your belly will look like you’re trying to pop a belt right off your body.

Adding More Layers

Okay, now that we can squat, pull and press with our belly braced and intact, let’s talk about tension in other areas.

Two majors joints control most of the tension in our body when we’re lifting. Our shoulders and hips hold the key to reducing knee, ankle and elbow injuries and slapping more weight on the bar.

Packing the Lats: The Key to Happy Shouldys

When we’re talking about tension, the lats play a massive role in stabilizing not only the shoulder but the entire posterior chain.

We’ll get to lower body tension in a second, but the lats span so widely across the back, they are responsible for tension right down to the lower back.

Some cues I like to use to get clients to set up properly are:

  • Pull the shoulderblades into the back pockets
  • Pretend there’s a $100 bill in your armpit and don’t let me pull it out
  • Get proud
  • Take the slack out of the bar
  • Pull the bar apart (when rowing or benching) and pull the bar towards you (when deadlifting)

Some great ways to practice this without hundreds of pounds on the bar include:

Scapular Retractions

Face Pulls

Band Deadlifts

Pulling the Floor Apart: The Secret Sauce of Hip Happiness

I love initial assessments with new clients, especially more advanced lifters who have lifted on their own for some time.

After going through a questionnaire and using the plank to create context for everything else, we’ll move to squats.

I start with your basics; feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed forward or slightly angled; then I drop it on them.

“Now, I want you to pull the floor apart and tell me what you feel.”

After some interesting facial expressions, they often point to their glutes with intrigue as to what the hell is going on.

This blossoms even more when I have them squat with tension in their hips and they feel stable – like they could squat a house.

This cue goes for deadlifts and any other lower body movements you have in mind.

Even when cueing single leg exercises such as lunges and single leg deadlifts, I constantly talk about keep the knee over or outside your shoelaces and keeping your weight on the outside edge of the foot.

Some great movements that will help this process include the following:


Adding Bands to the Knees

Band Hip Abductions

So, if you want to lift more weight, stay injury-free and generally get more jacked-er; then tension will be your friend.

Start with a solid foundation – bracing your core, then layer on some shoulder and hip tension. It will take some time to get used to, but you can rest assured your body will thank you for it.

Yours in tension,


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Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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