Written by Dave Thomas
Pavel defines tension as “the mechanism by which your muscles generate force”.
However, my favorite definition of tension: “Barely controlled hostility.”
Something pulled back so fierce the prevention of putting it into action is almost uncontrollable.
Both make it really simple. The more tension you create prior to movement, the more potential you create for the lift. Without it, you are essentially trying to build a gingerbread house with soggy spaghetti noodles.
To truly optimize tension you must first learn to feel and control all parts of your body voluntarily. Learning this kinetic awareness and the ability to identify and feel certain muscles that need to be prepared for action is a critical part of lifting, and especially critical if beginners are to ever make the leap into the next phase of their fitness and strength.
All it takes is a just a few seconds of prepared focus prior to approaching the barbell of kettlebell.
Whether it’s drawing back the hips, taking a deep breathe into your belly or retracting your scapulae, just a few simple drills of pre-activation will send the right signals to tense the body and prepare it to apply strength.
#1: Internally Rotate the Elbows
Movements: Cleans, Snatches
This is an incredibly simple cue that sets up proper tension in your lifting levers. The mistake of keeping the elbows in even the slightest of flexion is one of the biggest hindrances to power and speed in Olympic weightlifting and will usually trigger a host of other unsavory side effects in the movements. Unless your elbows are locked tight, they will almost certainly bend prematurely and you’ll leak tension and power all over the place and probably pull 75% of what you’re truly capable.
How to Execute: When you are in either hang or floor set-up position, simultaneously flex your tricep and try to point your elbow towards the walls in front of you (in reality they will go towards the side). You want complete tension from wrist to shoulder, which will prevent the elbows from bending prematurely and keeping full power on the pull all the way to the jumping point.
When snatching or overhead squatting, once the weight is received overhead, maintain this tension in your elbows as if your life depended on it. No heavy weight will be repped without it.
Raechel (far right) is a good example of pre-movement internal rotation while Caitlin (top left) a good example of post movement lock out and external shoulder rotation.
#2: Drawing the Hips Back
Movements: Swings, Barbell Rows, Deadlifts
This is one is not limited to just kettlebell movements as drawing the hips back tightens the lumbar and brings tension into the hamstrings on barbell rows and deadlifts. Bent over barbell rows and deadlifts are very low velocity movements, meaning they benefit greatly from the application of tension.
It is very easy to simply walk up to the bar and pick it up without giving much thought to the process, but doing so mindlessly is a great way to do it improperly and inefficiently. The reason we don’t encourage speed in the gym, and especially on days where are rowing or pulling is because we want our mind to snap out of it, come to, and focus on creating tension in the right area. We want “pre-movement” focus, not robotic execution.
How to Execute: To properly draw the hips back, pretend like someone has a lasso around your hips and slowly pulls you back. If this were to happen, you wouldn’t cave your knees forward, you would slowly allow your hips to draw back while your chest slowly drifted over your knees. All the while, tension would be mounting in your hamstrings.
In the case of rowing and deadlifting, tight, tense hamstrings prior to lift off on both will ensure the movement will properly engage that muscle and executed correctly.
#3: Draw and Lock Air Into the Belly
Movements: Anything Heavy
Farmer’s Walks and holds, squats of all variety (especially front), deadlifts, bench press, snatches, cleans, the transition between the clean and the jerk, moving a couch around the house, picking up a car. The list goes on and on. Known as the Valsalva Manuever, this could easily fulfill its own entry but we’ll give you enough of the basics to put it to action.
The textbook definition is a “forceful attempted exhalation against a closed airway”, which essentially acts as nature’s weight belt and is beneficial in moving heavy weight for a host of reasons.
In reality, it’s your instinctual fight or flight at play.
If you are an experienced lifter you may be doing this without even realizing, but if you’re not it’s time to learn it.
Performing the Valsalva naturally protects the spine by creating a massive amount of intra-abdominal pressure around it. That pressure then creates the tension which leads to strength.
How to Execute: You simply draw a large breathe of air into the belly rather than your chest (let your belly stick out) and hold it tight until the rep or short set is over. This inhale should be tight and tense like you’re drowning and get one shot of surface air. This essentially creates a basketball in your intra-abdominals that pushes out tension out on all sides like a sting ray barb. Your trunk is close to your center of gravity so when this is your home base of tension you are set-up for a strong lift.
If you are performing anything over than three reps, I strongly recommended re-setting and letting the breathe out. Carbon Dioxide will build up and end up being detrimental if held for anything longer than a few seconds.
It is performed at different times depending on the movement but it’s always before the load is moved.
A properly tensed deadlift in the hamstrings and arms in combination with the Valsalva maneuver can typically increase your lift on pure application of those skills.
#4: Retract the Scapulae
Movements: Squats, Jerks
This is slightly different than packing the shoulder but follows the same concept, and is a critical cue whenever a barbell is axially loaded, such as back squats. Retracting the scapulae will create a muscular self on which the barbell will rest, protecting your C and T-spine. It will also cue tension in your entire trunk creating a much stronger and stable squat.
How to Execute: Prior to getting underneath the racked barbell, draw your scapulae back (but not down) as if you were trying to squeeze a pencil between them. Not only does this create tension, but it also elevates the musculature of the upper back and prevents direct barbell contact with the vertebrae.
This cue is also very beneficial prior to explosion on jerks and overhead presses. By drawing the scapulae inward, you are essentially spring loaded the barbell upload with the concentric portion of the movement begins.
These cues are just a few I have seen to work for myself and on others I’ve coached. They are by no means a complete list, just some of the big ones in which to focus.
Remember. Without tension, there is no maximum strength.
Focus on the little cues prior to the lift and you’ll be setting yourself up for success each and every time.
Dave Thomas is a coach at Performance360 and Level I USA Weightlifting Coach.