Targeted Tension Training

Step into virtually any commercial gym and you'll find the same daily circus acts playing out in a battle for your attention. Around the power racks, we have the spastic back squatter and half bicep curler jockeying for position while the bloodcurdling screams of another poor soul getting pinned fills the air. If this wasn't bad enough, the dude next to you at the dumbbells just happens to be the smelly guy who has either soiled himself from straining too hard or has yet again forgotten to wash his gym clothes.

While poor exercise selection and program design are often why these guys don’t get results, the reality is that a wealth of information exists on building a competent program. With this in mind, my intention is to address an issue I observe with the majority of trainees regardless of experience—the inability to develop proper tension during crucial lifts.

The power of position

A key to success in virtually every major lift is the ability to create, store, and release tension when the time is right to express proper strength. For example, a savvy lifter knows to get super tight before a heavy bench press by tensing his entire body to create a stable platform and pushing into the ground to achieve a mechanical advantage. Contrast this with the average Joe who fails to prepare properly and we find huge potential left on the table both in strength and physical development. How do we bridge the divide?

While a number of drills have been suggested to teach tension development, the masters of this skill in high load scenarios are gymnasts who are required to support enormous loads in high tension positions, such as the muscle up and iron cross. We call these moves “high tension” because they're performed at markedly disadvantaged physical positions in which maintaining full body tension is the difference between Olympic gold and breaking a limb.

Because both lifting heavy weight and high tension exercises require maximal muscular contraction, these two activities can be seen as the criteria for maximal strength and physical development. Gymnasts develop strength mainly through a steady program of increasingly difficult body weight exercises. A fundamental component of this training is static movements that teach the ability to develop and maintain strength and tension in disadvantaged positions. Holding in a static contraction at the sticking point of a particular lift to improve strength and control is a weight room example.

While strength developed in static movements is limited to a certain joint angle, the carryover from this type of training is the crucial ability to control and utilize tension for maximal effect both before and during a lift.

The hollow body position

When it comes to developing tension, the more powerful the contraction, the more effectively this technique will carry over under maximal load. Exercises such as push-ups, rollouts, and planks are all fantastic tools for developing a “tight” core and position, but the issue many lifters face is the inability to develop maximal tension under load in prone positions.

After watching athletes struggle with cueing during exercise, it became clear to me that the process of developing tension begins by removing the effects of gravity. A fundamental position taught early on to do just that in gymnastics is known as the hollow body position. The hollow body position teaches the lifter to develop a stable base of support by pre-tensing the proper muscles before initiating movement. Utilized as part of a warm up for multi-joint lifts, the hollow begins in supine (lying on the back) and progresses to a prone position (lying on the stomach) to reintroduce tension under load.

Supine hollow:

  • To perform the hollow, lie down flat on your back and push your belly button down toward the floor. Your lower back should be touching the ground.
  • Keep your abs and butt tight at all times, and raise your arms and legs straight overhead with the toes pointed.
  • Your head should come off the ground along with your shoulders with your ears glued between your shoulders.
  • Stay tight with your abs and butt and find the lowest position in which you can hold your arms and legs without them touching the ground and without breaking your lower back (where it begins to arch off the ground).
  • To develop your hollow, start with your arms and legs higher (one to two feet off the ground) and slowly build up strength until they can be held lower (just inches off the ground) without breaking the position.

Prone hollow:

  • Begin by lying on the belly with the hands down to the sides and the forehead touching the ground. The palms should be facing the floor with the feet and toes pointed down and pressed together.
  • The idea is to get as tight as possible by squeezing the butt and pushing the toes into the ground. Once everything is tight, squeeze your belly into your rib cage and attempt to lift the area between the butt to the ribcage off the ground slightly.
  • After finding this position, bring the hands under the arm pits and prepare to perform a push-up.
  • The key with this drill is to attempt to drive through the core (rib cage to butt) so that the load is between your rib cage and your hips, not your shoulders during the push-up.

Demonstration video:

Applying tension to the press/pull

After learning to develop tension in the hollow position, the next step is to train static positions that build fundamental control in the key lifts. By holding the body weight in a disadvantaged leverage position, we're effectively multiplying the resistance of our body weight. More simply stated, we are supporting a heavy weight in a locked static position.

The key here is to practice the development/release of tension and proper positions via a static exercise that resembles our chosen lift. A static move that mimics the demands of upper body pressing is the L-sit. The L-sit is fantastic for developing both shoulder stability and core endurance for exercises such as bench presses and heavy dips.

Before a heavy pressing day, several sets of the L-sit can be performed with cues which correspond to performance in the press:

  • Elbows tucked tightly into the body with the weight shifted on to the palms
  • Triceps optimally tensed with the elbows locked out
  • Upper back and lats squeezed tightly

Another common error seen in movements such as the bench press, pull-up, and deadlift is the inability to properly tense the lats. With this in mind, the front lever is a fantastic drill for practicing this technique.

The front lever is performed by hanging from a bar or rings in an overhand grip (i.e. with fingers pointing away from you).

  • Before bringing the feet off the ground, the idea is to press the feet and knees together, squeeze the butt and core, and tuck the elbows in to maximally tense every muscle from head to toe.
  • Focus on maximally tensing the lats while keeping the elbows locked out.

Resistance in each exercise can be scaled up or down by extending the legs, but the idea is to develop tension and release through short four- to six-second submaximal holds versus training to fatigue.

Program design

The advantage of incorporating statics into your routine is that these moves can be performed as part of a warm up for a chosen lift and as supplemental exercises to build fundamental strength. Before a workout, this is done by choosing the static that most closely mimics your main lift (L-sit for pressing movements/front lever for pulling movements) along with the hollow body position. Statics can also be performed after the main lift of the day to build supplemental strength. The key difference is to perform a lighter version before the workout and the more taxing version after the main lift.

Perform thirty to sixty seconds of total workout time for each move while focusing on maximally tensing in each position. To activate the appropriate muscle fibers and avoid fatigue, statics should be held at maximal intensity for anywhere from four to six seconds.

Here's an example:

  • A1, hollow body position, 3 X 5-second holds
  • A2, L-sit with knees tucked, 3 X 10-second hold
  • B1, bench press, 3 X 3 reps
  • C1, one-arm row, 3 X 8–12 reps
  • C2, ring push-ups, 3 X 8–12 reps
  • D1, L-sit with legs straight, 6 X 10-second holds

Integrated strength work

The other option for static strength work is blending these moves with the appropriate push/pull supplemental movements. Because maximal tensioning ensures muscle fiber activation, such a combination can immediately improve the effectiveness of any exercise without the need to go extremely heavy.

To perform integrated training, take the basic strength workout that you have designed and pair it with the appropriate static hold. The static strength work will be done immediately preceding the basic strength work. A short rest of thirty to sixty seconds between the static work and the basic strength work is fine.

Here's an example:

  • A1, Pull-ups, 3 X 8 reps
  • A2, front lever hold, 3 X 10 seconds
  • B1, floor dumbbell press, 3 X 8–12 reps
  • B2, L-sit, 3 X 10 seconds

Wrap up

While the exercises and progressions mentioned in this article merely scratch the surface of what is possible with static holds, the control and strength developed in these fundamental moves can be applied to any major lift. The key is focusing on proper cues, rotating hold times when stagnation inevitably occurs, and washing your clothes before hitting the gym (because no one wants to be “that” guy).