Walk around our gym and you’ll hear coaches remind members about“tension.” It may seem repetitive, but verbal cues to keep muscles engaged during specific parts of an exercise can mean the difference between a successful lift or a set-up for injury.
What is “tension” during exercise?
Tension = strength and power. It’s the way muscles generate force and the more tense your muscles are, the more strength you display and build. Tense (contract) your muscles harder and you will get stronger.
This isn’t to say that the opposite skill of relaxation isn’t important during exercise – in fact, it’s knowing how to balance the two during lifting or ballistic movements that really demonstrates a profecient athlete.
We just want to make sure we’re not executing relaxation when an exercise calls for tension.
Here’s an example of when you should use tension:
In the Kettlebell Deadlift exercise, I’ll lower into the hinge position to grab the bell that is between my feet, and breathe in through my nose, almost like I’m sniffing. This forceful inhalation allows my abs to brace (tense) and provide a supportive structure for my spine. The stretch is felt in the hamstrings and glutes as I lower, arms are straight. I’ll initiate my ascent with a strong exhale, pressing my tongue against the back of my teeth, almost making a ‘tsssssshh’ sound. Notice I’m not gently blowing air out of my mouth – rather; it’s forceful and sharp.
Keeping the breath this way will allow you to let out all your air while still keeping your muscles (abs, lats, glutes, quads, specifically) contracted at the top. We want a nice, stiff, standing plank in the top position, muscles holding tight.
Notably, you don’t want to move through your exercise like a stiff robot, so adjusting the level of tension is important. We save our most maximal tension for heavy lifts (think loads in the 3-5 rep range) and aim to train our brain so this bracing of the abdominals, lats, quads and other supportive areas is done with minimal effort, as if it’s second nature.
So again, you don’t want to ‘woosh’ your air out softly, as that cues the body to relax…and a soft body while holding weight you’re preparing to lower will make the exercise much more difficult and dangerous. Keep your body tense at the top – let your breath out but still hold that muscle tension. You’ll be safer and stronger for it!