Yes, genetics matter. So does nutrition, your fat-to-muscle ratio, how many years you’ve been lifting weights, if you sit throughout the day, and — ultimately –how much weight you can lift.
But let’s assume all of those are equal, and yet, here you are, still sweating day-after-day at the gym and not looking like the other people putting in the same work.
We’ve all been there and it’s an awful feeling, but one that can be fixed with a simple adjustment. One of the biggest factors that determine whether or not you’ll see the results you want comes down to two words: weightlifting technique.
More specifically, creating tension. If you want to start seeing your efforts pay off, it’s time to learn that it’s not always what exercises you do, but how you do them.
Why Tension Matters
For a moment, forget weightlifting technique and think bigger picture. We know that there are 3 primary factors that determine how much much muscle strength and size you’ll build when you lift: metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscle damage. Let’s focus on the first two because the third is a byproduct of the work you do.
- Metabolic stress refers to the burning sensation you feel in your muscles as you pump out rep after rep. You can increase the amount of metabolic stress you produce by performing more sets, or more reps inside of those sets.
- Mechanical tension broadly refers to how engaged your muscle tissues are when you lift.
People spend a mountain of time thinking about category number one. You’ve probably wondered many times about how many sets and reps you should perform, and when and how often you should change those numbers over time.
Most people, however, don’t spend nearly as much time on category two (tension), which is a huge missed opportunity. This is where weightlifting technique comes into play.
“Tension and its twin, relaxation, are the alphas of strength and conditioning,” says Dan John, a world-renowned fitness coach and author of several books on training. “They are the most important two concepts. And they are exact opposites of each other.”
The trouble with tension — like any weightlifting technique — is that it can be difficult to learn. Which also means it’s challenging—and time-consuming—to coach. Many trainers won’t take the time to teach it.
“When I’m teaching someone to do a correct kettlebell swing, I first have to teach them to grip the ground with their big toe. For a person who’s new to lifting, that might take a day,” John explains.
He adds that each of the other key elements of the exercises—buttcheeks squeezed together, abs firmly braced, lats pulling back, and then making all of this to happen at once—takes days if not weeks to learn. “So teaching someone the kettlebell swing—which at the top, is basically a vertical plank—might take the better part of a few months. And yet I see people teach that exercise and 72 others on the first day of a class.”
To be fair to trainers, not everyone wants to take the time to learn any weightlifting technique. It’s not exactly as much fun as losing fat, building biceps, or seeing your abs pop. And a big part of a trainer’s job is to make exercise fun to prevent you from being bored. After all, making exercise enjoyable will keep you doing it and coming back for more, and that’s when results happen.
But, here’s why you’ll want to take a little time to master the tension weightlifting technqiue (while still making your workouts fun)—and how it can make every exercise you perform more effective.
How Your Weightlifting Technique Prevents Injuries
Another secret smart trainers know: creating tension can help you fix bad biomechanics and reduce how much you are hurt.
“I’d argue that a lot of what people call ‘lack of mobility’ can be attributed not to lack of flexibility but to lack of stability, which you can establish through coaching tension,” says Tony Gentilcore, owner of CORE, a small-group training facility in Boston.
Here’s what he means. Let’s say you’re having trouble staying upright when you squat. Your torso leans forward as you descend. Lots of people will blame that on a lack of mobility in their thoracic spine (upper back). But there’s a good chance that what’s actually to blame is your core. You’re not stable enough in your midsection to descend as far as you should. If you learn how to create more tension in your core, then suddenly the “mobility issue” goes away.
Here’s how it works. If you’re an experienced lifter, perhaps you’re familiar with the terms “kinetic chain” and “energy leaks.” If not, here’s a quick primer.
The kinetic chain refers to the body’s joints (ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, etc.) working together. Think of your body as a cohesive unit. When you walk, for instance, it’s just not your legs doing the work. Anyone that’s ever had a back injury knows this all too well because even the simplest (seemingly unrelated) movements can cause pain.
An energy leak occurs when there’s insufficient stiffness (a.k.a. tension) around one of those joints.
So let’s say you’re performing a back squat and your knees cave inward. That’s an energy leak. And it’s a problem because, not only does that leak put stress on the joints, it also fosters a muscle imbalance. When your knees cave in, your body asks the surrounding muscles to re-center your knee. Over time, you’re strengthening one set of muscles at the expense of another. (You’re also burning metabolic fuel that could otherwise be put toward another rep.)
Maybe that’s something you can get away with if you only ever use light resistance when you train. But as the weight gets heavier, the risk gets bigger.
“For advanced guys, you might have 400-500 pounds on your back,” says strength coach Jason Ferruggia. “So to minimize injury risk, you’ve got to maintain full-body tension throughout the set.”
What does that mean? When you think of weightlifting technique, you usually just think about the muscles you’re working. But that’s just part of the story. You need to prepare your entire body for a lift, and, oftentimes, it’s the muscles you wouldn’t even think about.
Staying with the squat example, most people are worried about their knees or their back (or both). But creating “full-body tension” often times starts in neither of those two places. You’ll begin with your grip on the bar and then focus on your breathing and abs, which is what actually protects your back from injury.
When you take a big belly breath (think about filling your stomach with air so that if you have a belt around your natural waist you would feel it become tight), it creates a natural lifting belt that protects your spine. This is known as bracing your torso. (Here’s a story that explains how it works and how to do it. You can skip down to the section “The Problem: Incorrect Breathing” if you want to see it straight away.)
So in this case, tension is protective. Your grip creates tension that sends a signal to your brain saying, “I’m about to lift heavy weight.” That’s important. If you then “pull” your elbows down and back (imagine someone’s hands trying to push your elbows up and you have to resist against them), you’ll engage your lats, which also protect your spine. Then, when you take your belly breath, you add the final piece of full body tension, which will protect your spine. This type of approach can prevent an energy leak that causes your form to break down and injury to occur.
Just as tension protects you when you squat, it keeps you safer when you perform other exercises. A shoulder that’s engaged is less likely to wind up in an unnatural position when you overhead press. Having your torso firmly braced will help protect your lower back when you deadlift.
As mentioned earlier, the heavier of a weight you use, the more important weightlifting technique and proper tension becomes. The same is true for the number of reps—the more you perform, the more challenging it is.
“Every rep beyond 5 or 6 or so becomes increasingly more difficult to do, so you open yourself up to more injury risk,” Ferruggia says. “That’s why I like low reps on the big lifts. It’s really hard to maintain that tension while maintaining good form. So a lot of times people say beginners should do high reps. No, it’s the opposite.”
How Tension Builds Results You Can See
Tension isn’t just about playing it safe. On almost any exercise, even bodyweight movements like planks or pushups, full-body tension can dictate what you get out of the exercise and help put your body in an optimal position.
What do we mean when we say “full-body” tension? Exactly that: Your entire body. “It has to literally be from toes to forehead,” John says. “If I ask you to do a plank and you forget to breathe because you’re so tense, that’s when I know you’re doing it right.”
In fact, go ahead and try that right now. Do a plank while creating as much tension as possible within your body. Here are a few cues that will probably change the way you think about planks (and make the thought of going for 60 seconds seem like the hardest thing you’ve ever done).
- Push out through your heels while pulling your elbows toward your toes.
- Squeeze all of your muscles: That means pressing through your forearms into the floor. Contract your glutes as hard as possible, as if you’re trying to crack a walnut. Squeeze your abs tightly as if you’re about to be punched in the gut, repeatedly. Even flex your calves. That’s called an RKC plank (watch Contreras explain), which differs from the way most people will do planks.
Try it and you’ll see that a plank can fry your entire body in a matter of seconds—5 seconds is a great place to start, and 15 is a mighty hold. (Conversely, you know those hours-long World Record-setting planks that you sometimes see grabbing headlines? Here’s why they don’t do a whole lot for your muscles and wind up producing more back pain than anything.)
In addition to making exercise more efficient, learning to create tension can improve the “mind-muscle connection.” Any bodybuilder will tell you that this link helps you activate the muscles you actually want to work when you exercise. (If you’re skeptical, Contreras has proven this phenomenon using an EMG.) Studies show that both internal focus (i.e. you trying to direct your body’s efforts with your mind) and external verbal cues (i.e. a coach telling you to focus on a specific part of a move) can increase certain muscle activations, so focusing on tension should help you produce better results.
Here’s the tricky thing: When you start trying to create full-body tension in your workouts, you’ll probably wind up feeling weaker at first. Ferruggia—who’s written about this phenomenon —says while your performance (and especially total reps) may suffer at first, “the strength gains you make by using proper full-body tension are going to transfer better to the real world.”
Translation: You won’t be one of those people who can leg press hundreds of pounds but can’t move a couch. And as you get used to using full-body tension, Ferruggia adds that, in time, you will surpass your previous numbers. “Eventually you will be stronger than you were.”
How to Create More Tension When You Train
Finding a great coach who can help provide cues, correct your weightlifting technique, and build programs that work is always a great choice.
The reality is that many of you won’t go that route for a variety of reasons, so you’re going to need to learn how to do this on your own. The good news is that we’ve teamed up with some of the best coaches to develop a plan that helps you do that. Here are some of the things you can try right away to start ensuring optimal tension for all of the exercises you perform:
- First, let’s set a ground rule: You’re going to steer clear of machines and isolation exercises for just a little while. But don’t let that message confuse you; there’s nothing wrong with machines, and they can be great tools and extremely effective at delivering results. But they can also let you “get away” with a lack of tension by providing external support. So if you can learn tension, then every exercise you perform — including the machine work — will become more effective.
- Ground rule #2 (we promise it’s the last one): Perform fewer reps per set—at least initially. Coaches agree that while improving full-body tension will eventually second-nature, early on it will make everything feel more difficult, so no need to increase the risk of error by doing more reps.
- Full-body tension may sound like a lot to learn—after all, you have more than 600 muscles — but nearly all of the cues you’re going to learn come down to five areas: Your shoulders, core, butt, feet, and grip. If you were to scan just those five things on every exercise, and made sure they are engaged, you’ll make a lot of progress right away.
Weightlifting Technique Upgrade: Your Grip
The trick is learning exactly how to cue those muscles for the different exercises you do. Probably the easiest cue to learn—and the one people fail to do the most often—is gripping the bar. We mean really grip it. Too many people, when they’re doing an exercise like dumbbell curls or farmer’s walks, will just secure the dumbbell handle between their thumb and first two fingers. What you want is to have every finger in your hands be at an I’m about to crush this bar! level. For barbell work, that means squeezing the life out of the bar while simultaneously trying to pull the bar in opposite directions (think about removing a sword from a sheath). “If you’re just squeezing the bar as hard as possible, that kind of cues the rest of your body,” Ferruggia says. “The tension will radiate out from your hands.”
Weightlifting Technique Upgrade: Your Core
The next spot you want to work on is your core. Because the core includes your abs and hips, tension will make a big difference in squats, deadlifts, overhead presses. The quick-and-dirty answer is to say “brace” your core. What’s that mean? As we mentioned before, pretend you were about to get punched in the gut—or better yet, shatter a 2×4 with your abs (like this badass martial arts instructor). Produce something even close to that kind of engagement in your midsection, and you’re going to be better off when you lift—and you’ll provide more support and stability to your spine.
Training core stability outside of your full-body lifts will also be helpful. Eric Cressey, who trains hundreds of MLB players and other pro athletes, has a set of 5 exercises that train all of the dimensions of core strength in a relatively short amount of time. A good way to learn proper core engagement for movements like pull-ups is to try this “hollow” position drill from Gentilcore (and note how it isn’t so “hollow” after all, you definitely are not doing a “suck and tuck” here no matter what old-school ab training or bad Pilates instructors might have told you). And to make sure you aren’t creating all of this stiffness at the expense of your mobility, try Dr. John Rusin’s hybrid quadruped position drill.
Weightlifting Technique Upgrade: Your Shoulders
Some of the common cues you’ll hear for your shoulder are “pack the shoulder,” “flatten your shoulder blades,” “pull the lats down,” or “flex the pecs and lats.” All of them are trying to achieve basically the same thing: For you to keep your humerus (the upper arm bone) in your shoulder socket. Gentilcore tells his clients to “pretend like you’re squeezing an orange in your armpit during the entire rep and you’re trying to make orange juice” on lifts like the Deadlift. Try it, and you might be surprised what you feel in your shoulders and back, and how much lighter the weight becomes.
Weightlifting Technique Upgrade: Your Butt/Glutes
On just about every exercise where you’re standing, your butt should not be relaxed. You want it engaged and supporting your body. What’s that mean? Squeeze the cheeks, or even “turn coal into a diamond in your butt cheeks.”
Weightlifting Technique Upgrade: Your Feet
Lastly, let’s talk about your feet. Just as your grip can help you generate tension throughout your arms, firmly pressing your feet—and especially your toes—into the ground can send tension up your lower legs.
Coaches will often tell you to “grip the floor with your toes” (as Dan John described earlier), or “screw your feet into the floor,” or “push the floor away from you.” Use whichever one you find the most useful. One other note for your legs: Push your ankles out. Same with your knees. Valgus knees, or having your knees collapse inward when you lift, is a form fault that can lead to a host of issues and injuries.
Remember: Learning Tension is a Process. Try, try again.
Ready to start putting these cues to work and getting more out of your training? Good. But there’s one last thing you should do: Be patient.
Every coach we spoke to agreed that cues are an essential way to help our brains to trigger tension. But any lifter who’s been coached has experienced information overload at one point or another. You’re doing a squat then someone tells you to screw your feet into the floor. Then they tell you to pull down your lats. Then they tell you to brace your core. The result of trying to do too much at once? You get confused.
So, instead, try focusing on one or a few aspects of tension at a time. As they become second-nature to you, add a new cue. In time, you’ll be doing this stuff without even thinking about it.
Full-body tension takes time—sometimes a lot of it—to master. “Tension is an underappreciated concept even among the elite athletes I work with,” Rusin says. “It’s something you can be getting better at no matter your experience level.”