The Missing Link to a Safer and More Effective Training

Would you like to do more chin ups? Would you like to have better results in less time? Maybe you would like to drive a convertible with your wind swept hair and waving your hand like you just don’t care? Me too.

Let’s start with chin up and work our way through to the convertible.

Chin up is much more than just a upper body pulling exercise. We only associate chin ups with upper body pulling because we are stuck on “what muscle does this work”.  If you know how to tense the whole body, you will do more reps. Each rep will look better.

Once you make it about your whole body you will become famous. You will probably end up with millions of Instagram followers. And they will all “heart” your content. It’s soothing.

Let’s expand on the idea of stiffness, torque and tension. I first came across it through Stu McGill’s work, many many many moons ago when trying to figure how to improve my low back health. Being able to create stiffness, torque and tension is the missing link to a lot of folks.

In most cases the lack of tension makes the training look sloppy and uncontrolled. And those are few adjectives we’d like to steer clear from when training. It’s like the inflatable, wind-driven, sloppy man at your local petrol station. They have absolutely no control of what’s happening to them.

As I see it there are two major problems that comes from lack of stiffness, torque and tension.

The first is a heightened risk of injury. It’s simple, injuries happen when the force applied to the joint is greater than the joint can deal with. If you don’t know how to create tension you are more likely to allow your joints into positions where they get injured. The uncontrollable territory at the local petrol station.

As an example, you are doing a heavy kettlebell swing but haven’t mastered the stiffness. Each time you get to the top position of the swing (hands somewhere around or just below sternum level) it’s easy to lean back to counteract the weight, adding pressure to your lower back.

But if you know how to create tension you solidify your position at the top. Leading to a safer, and stronger swing. And more followers on Instagram. Which eventually leads to you driving a convertible.

The second issue is effectiveness. Most of us have limited time to train each week. When your training lacks the stiffness, tension and torque you are leaving some of the results on the table. Your training is not as effective as it could be.

When you know how to create stiffness, tension and torque it’s possible that you can get the same results from doing five push ups compared to what you currently get from doing 20. And in my book, if you get the same from doing less, you win.

That last one is a point that most people struggle to understand. Most of us still associate more with better. But that’s the ego talking. When hashtaging your workout on Instagram it’s more soothing for the ego to say 20 reps instead of five.

But doing more doesn’t necessarily have anything positive to do with physiological adaptations. It’s just more.

The ego is why most people ignore this advice when they first hear it. The first impression on adding tension and torque is that you are taking a one step back. Training becomes a bit more challenging. And because we often chase tiredness and focus on “how well did I do today” versus “how much better will I be in a month”, we refuse to apply this advice. I’ve done it too.

 

How to create tension

The simplest way to teach tension is a humble plank. When you know how to create stiffness in plank you can start to apply it to other aspects of your training, such as swings and chin ups.

I got some of these cues from Charlie Weingroff’s great article a while back.

  1. Get into a plank position, have your palms on the ground instead of making fists.
  2. Focus on pushing the ground away from you with all the strength you can muster.
  3. You have an open zipper in front of your knees, try to close the zipper.
  4. You have an open zipper between your belt buckle and belly button, try to close the zipper.
  5. Your hips are a bowl of water, spill the water on the back of your thighs.
  6. Imaging pulling your elbows towards your toes.
  7. Don’t hold your breath. Breath into the brace.

What I often find that if someone can do a 2-3 minute plank, they can maybe do 30 seconds with full tension. And that means that they win by training less, but more effectively. Once you can create this stiffness in the plank it translates to everything else you do:

 

  • Chin up is a plank, rip the bar apart on the way up. Focus on pushing yourself down instead of letting the gravity take you. Chin up is a core exercise to the highest degree.
  • Push ups is a plank, screw your hands into the ground and focus on pulling yourself to the ground with each rep. Think spreading the floor apart between your hands.
  • A squat is a plank, screw your feet into the ground and try to spread the floor apart between your feet. If you are holding a kettlebell try to rip it apart. If you have a bar on your back try to bend it.
  • A prowler push is a plank, focus on pushing the floor away from you with each step. Use your arms to rip the prowler apart.
  • Kettlebell swing is a plank. The trick with the swing is that you need to be able to alternate with max stiffness and looseness.

It’s all the same thing. The mid section creates the stiffness, torque and tension so your limbs can do what they need to do, create movement.

Obviously, you need to match the tension to the movement. If you are doing a bodyweight squat you need less stiffness than when doing a max single with 200 kilograms. But the cues are still the same.

And when you eventually drive your convertible remember how it all started with a humble plank.

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