Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Secret to Maximizing Strength and Muscle

Shannan Maciejewski was one of the first fitness people I connected with on social media many moons ago. Lucky for me, he’s also one of the good guys. Despite residing a million miles away (in Australia), his genuine, caring personality easily bridges the great divide.

Over the years, I’ve learned a hell of a lot from Shannan. Today, I’m honored to share an original guest post he wrote for my site. His “tension-volume knob” analogy is worth the price of admission alone (which is free since it’s my blog!). Enjoy! -TP

The Secret to Maximizing Strength and Muscle
Guest Post by Shannan Maciejewski

Have you ever experienced that moment in training when something just clicks?

It’s like an ‘aha’ moment where everything falls into place. From then on, it seems as if all the puzzling conversations, all the lead up work, and all the cues that once didn’t make sense, now for some reason do.

Understanding the importance of tension in training to maximize performance can be one of those times (especially specific to certain exercises).

As coaches, we often communicate the importance of certain focus points in relation to improved exercise execution with cues like
  • “Get tight.”
  • “Bend the bar.”
  • “Get the lats on.”
  • “Crush the bar.”
  • “Shoulders back.”

Oftentimes we find ourselves hammering these cues until the cows come home with little to no effect. It’s our job -- the art of coaching, if you will -- to figure out why our cueing is ineffective, and then devise a plan of attack.

It could be that they just don’t get what you’re putting out. In this case, it may be time for another cue, another demo, or a brand new approach to achieve the desired outcome.

That’s where today’s post comes in. 

What I aim to provide today are some quick, actionable strategies and tips to help you, your clients, or your training partner understand what the hell creating tension feels like and how it makes what we do in the gym more effective.

Training and improving technique should be viewed as a skill. If we want to improve the skill, we must venture to do it more frequently and to practice it specific to the desired outcome. Early on in our training career, frequent exposures can help us ingrain the skill and create a habit of movement.

The question is, do we need to create tension on a daily basis? Do we need maximum tension with every exercise?

Below, I’ll pass on my favorite, tried-and-true methods of teaching tension generation  methods that have worked on hundreds of my clients  as well as when to use max tension and when to dial it back a bit.

The Tension-Volume Knob Analogy

Speaking of “dialing it back,” it’s often helpful to think of creating the right amount of tension like a volume knob:

On one end of the dial you have low volume, which equates to low level, low tension exercise like a bent-leg dead bug. On the other end, you have high volume: these are max tension exercise like max effort deadlifts and squats.

Not every exercise requires the same volume or the same effort to achieve the desired benefits. Compare the two videos below:

1. Wall push deadbug

Level 1: Hold the Position and belly breathe
Level 2: Bent leg
Level 3: Straight leg

2. Plank with perturbations

The first one is a wall push dead bug and the second a plank with perturbations. Although both are anti-extension core variations, the plank with perturbation will require much more effort and stiffness to complete.

Even within the various core exercises, there are certain one that require more stiffness and tension than others. Here are a few examples, ranging from low level to high:
  • Low Level Core: quadruped kick back, fire hydrants, birddog, bent leg deadbug
  • Moderate Level Core: Wall push deadbug, exhaled deadbug, band-resisted deadbug, bottoms-up KB farmer’s carries
  • Higher Level Core: RKC plank, side plank with perturbations, plank with perturbations, farmer’s carries

This may seem obvious, but there are times when we can put too much effort, concentration, and tension into a low level exercise and “use up our stores” at inappropriate times. Then, on the other hand, we might slacken off during an attempt to hold a RKC plank for 30 seconds.[1]

The next time you think of placement of a core exercise into a program for you or your clients, consider the outcome and effect it will have. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Will this exercise take away from the exercises to follow?
  • Will this exercise improve and benefit the exercises to follow?
  • Will this exercise achieve the intended outcome?

I often put some low level core exercises into the warm up or as superset 1A and 1B like this:

1A) Quadruped single-leg kickback with pause: 2x(3x5 sec/side)
1B) Exhaled glute bridge: 2x5 with 2-3 count hold (exhale hard, then posteriorly tilt the pelvis, bridge and hold)[2]

Creating and Maintaining Tension

Creating and maintaining tension are two important points we must understand. Creating it is one thing, but maintaining it for the duration of the lift is another critical factor to getting the required reps out or even hitting an all-time PR.

So how do you get it then keep it?

Well, each exercise is different, so let’s take the bench press as an example. The foundations of a good bench press setup are relatively consistent between variations of pressing, so the information below can be used initially to teach the idea of shoulder position and tension regardless of the goals of the exercise (hypertrophy, strength, etc.).

First and foremost, there's a different amount of tension needed for sets of 12 dumbbell bench presses and a 5RM barbell bench press PR, although both need a solid foundation to press from: a tight back and a strong, stiff setup.

When someone doesn’t grasp the idea of creating the right amount of tension in the bench press – or can’t keep it – they lack control and stability. Frankly, they look like a fish out of water with a squirming, uneven bar and a wobbly bar path. That’s without even looking at shoulder position, which we can only assume is now protracted to achieve that little bit extra range up top.... We don’t want this!

The video below shows a quick method we use to get the lifter to understand shoulder position and how to “get tight,” which starts the whole process of creating tension when needed. It’s called the monkey grip.

The monkey grip can help the lifter understand the positioning of the shoulders/scapula during a press. First, the lifter is slack, and the shoulder blades aren't set to create a strong foundation to press from. Next, the lifter sets the shoulder blades and remains as stable as possible. Use the cue "stay on the bench, and don't move" before you get them to set. They will quickly find a positioning that allows them to remain strong and stable.

I can’t remember when I first saw this demonstrated, otherwise I would give due credit. Regardless, this strategy has yet to fail me. If you’ve tried cues like “bend the bar” and “get the lats on” without success; the monkey grip clears it all up.

Next time you want someone to up their bench game and create more stiffness, try the monkey grip and gauge the outcome. Once they grasp it, then carry it over to the movement itself.

Once this has been understood, add in paused bench presses to further develop the stiffness that’s been created and ramp up the tension. Adding paused presses and emphasizing eccentrics as the main lift for 4-6 weeks will do wonders for pressing stiffness and performance.

On top of all this, I can’t emphasize enough the importance and value of a good handoff, and appropriately set bar height. Think of setting the shoulders in position, gripping the bar, bending the bar, and “sliding the bar out” with the handoff. This order of events allows you to keep what you’ve set and execute each rep with intent and good form without energy leaks.[3]

Creating Maximum Tension

Referring back to the volume knob, big compound lifts including the deadlift, squat, bench press, overhead press require more tension on the dial, even with lighter loads. Let’s go over how to ramp up that volume knob and tension.

Take the deadlift, for example. We can’t talk about creating maximum tension in the deadlift without discussing the role of the lats. Here’s a quick primer on why they are a game changer in the quest for bigger, stronger lifts:
  • The lats have connection from the thoracolumbar fascia up to the humerus with attachments to the rib cage and scapula along the way. Basically, they fan and cover a HUGE part of our back.
  • They play key roles in force transfer between the lower and upper body.
  • A stronger mind-muscle connection will allow for better transfer into safer, stronger lifts and greater strength and muscle development.

So with the deadlift in mind, there are a few ways to create and understand tension without busting your gut on every build up set.

There are multiple cues that can be used to set the shoulders and engage the lats, such as “juicy armpits” and “imagine squeezing an orange under your upper arm.”[4]

I’ve always loved and found effective the ‘anti-shrug’ cue which puts your shoulder blades in your back pocket vs. pinching them together (the pinch together never quite made sense to me). These cues effectively set up for the required stiffness and set position.

Tension Building Exercises

So what exercises can you use that builds the tension, leading up to the heavier lifts? Here are a few:

1. The double band-resisted hinge

A lat tension exercise that grooves deadlift pattern and teaches full body stiffness

This could then lead into a band-resisted RDL, which would amplify the challenge and introduce “keeping the bar in tight.” On a similar theme, a paused RDL is also a great way to be forced to maintain stiffness and lat tension the entire lift.

2. Anterior pull banded deadlift

A deadlift variation to learn to create and maintain lat tension.

3. Paused sumo deadlift

All of the above exercises can educate the lifter on creating tension, what it feels like to have it, and how to maintain it. These exercises can be used as standalone movements to build the lift back up or work on weak positions. In the end, the exercises you choose are specific to you, your training experience, your goals, what you need to work on, your injury history, and everything in between.

Final Words

All exercises require a certain level of effort, stiffness, and tension to be performed and executed with good form. Use the volume gauge to think of how much is required, and whether you need to go balls out or dial it back a bit.

Although it differs from person to person, we each have a limited capacity for “psyche-up-and-pop-your-eye-balls-out training.” As we discussed with the low level core exercises, for example, creating maximum tension in every exercise isn’t necessary.

Heavy lifting isn’t only taxing on your muscular system, but also your nervous system. We need to be mindful of how often we approach failure in training (which is a hot topic in itself) and how frequently we push the envelope and test ourselves. The nervous system is important too, ya know!

About the Author

Shannan Maciejewski is a coach from Australia. He is the owner of Raw Fitness and Sports Training and Football Performance System. Family man, sport lover and cheesecake addict.

You can reach him on his Facebook pages: (Business Page)

[1]If you’re holding a RKC plank for that long, you aren’t creating enough stiffness/tension.
[2]The exhale/ribs down cue prior to performing bridges has worked wonders in cleaning up some common technique flaws in bridging patterns.
[3]Yes, there is more to bench press execution, but that’s a whole article itself!
[4]Credits to great coach Tony Gentilcore for these gems.

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