All sports and physical activities require some degree of strength, endurance and flexibility. But what trumps all else is efficiency of movement. If you are moving inefficiently, you’ll fatigue faster, performance will be compromised, or most likely both will happen.
This is where gym training, which is to say strength and endurance training, is unusual. In your sport, you want to avoid fatigue and failure, but at the gym we seek it out. Why? To improve our athleticism. When we push ourselves to intensity, that’s the point at which we really force ourselves to develop strength and resilience – that’s what stimulates our body to grow stronger. But tension for the sake of tension is useless. We still need to employ efficient patterns of movement – if you train in a fatigued state a bit, you’ll develop your ability to perform when fatigued. But if you train too much in a state of fatigue, you’ll only encourage the development of inefficient movement patterns.
Correct training technique is not defined by arbitrary concepts or degrees of movement. It’s no more correct to squat down until your thighs are at 83 degrees than it is to go down until they’re at 87. Correct technique is determined by whatever you need in order to get the job done while moving efficiently, which is to say - expending the least amount of effort possible.
This might mean a lot of tension, or very little, but tension for its own sake makes no sense. Moving slowly or quickly in the weights room as a rule of thumb is nonsensical. What is required to get the job done? Do that. Efficiently. Efficiency trumps all else.
This is where intelligent training really comes in – what if your own natural, comfortable way of moving is inefficient? How do you ‘retrain’ movement patterns? Without tension is the best and easiest way I know of. As soon as you add too much load or tension, you’ll automatically revert to your old patterns, using only your well-developed muscles because that’s what enables you to get the job done. You’ll have some degree of success, but you’ll never move as freely as you could if you took a closer look at a balanced development of strength, mobility and flexibility.
But retraining movement patterns is more complex than the scope that this particular post allows for.
In a calorie-obsessed society, we’re used to pursuing the path of most effort, the path that requires the greatest energy expenditure, in the name of looking athletic, rather than being athletic. If you get into the habit of being needlessly tense, of sacrificing efficiency for the sake of working hard, your athleticism will suffer, big time.
The Bench Press
When powerliftes are training their bench press, they arch their back, squeeze their butt, press their back into the bench, squeeze the heck out of the bar, jam their shoulder blades together, pull on their lats, and try to pull the bar apart. There’s loads of tension. It might sound excessive, but it’s 100% practical. They pile on the tension, because that’s what enables them to get the job done - without that tension, it’s not possible to nail those lifts. It turns the body into a rock-solid foundation. They’re powerlifters. The sport is about lifting the heaviest things possible. And when I started employing those sorts of principles in my training, I quickly added a lot of weight to my bench press. And my training became more satisfying.
Bodybuilders on the other hand often train differently. In both sports, strength is important, but you’ll frequently see bodybuilders really trying to relax every muscle that isn’t the one that they specifically want to build. If you’re doing a bench press, you will try to relax the forearms and legs, so you can focus on working the chest, triceps and shoulders only. They’re still training intensely, but it’s localised and the focus is different. Rather than focusing on lifting a whole lotta pounds, they’re focusing on working one particular muscle group really hard.
In a way, they’re kindof the same but different: powerlifters don’t care about the individual muscle groups (unless they’re what’s holding you back), they just do whatever the hell they have to in order to get the weight up, whereas bodybuilders don’t care how much weight they’re lifting, they just want a powerful growth stimulus for the muscles. Both have athletic merits – both methods will result in strength development, but they’re founded on different ideas.
What powerlifting teaches, which I particularly value, is the practical application of strength and efficiency to get a job done. It might seem like a subtle difference, but if you don’t learn about leverage, momentum and explosive strength, when it really comes to athletic pursuits your performance will be suboptimal.
Don’t train just to make things hard for yourself. Find the easy way, use the techniques that enable you to get the job done in the best way, in the most efficient way, which may mean exerting a lot of force, or it may not. Investigate. Try adding more tension, see if you can achieve more? Try stripping it away, maybe you’ll find your endurance improves? Learn in your body about the transfer of power, explosive strength, endurance, maximal effort and be efficient. Says I.
Why should you lift the weight slowly? How will that translate to sporting practicality? How will that help you to learn about power transfer within the body? Why not lift quickly? How much control should you use? How much should you allow momentum to take over? What will enable you to get the job done, with the least amount of work, and the least amount of risk? Why should you be doing 8 to 12 reps? Why three sets? Why that lifting tempo? Why those particular lifts? Why weights at all? What does your sport really demand and is a generic weight lifting program going to help? Are your movements efficient, and is your program efficient too?
Whatever you’re training, once you nail it if the job was too easy, make the job harder – don’t just work harder at an easy job. It makes no sense. Add more weight to the bar, run faster, swim further – whatever. That’s what will make you develop, whereas unnecessary tension will only hold you back. We rely on tension because we need to, not because it’s necessarily good. What’s the point of just squeezing a muscle for its own sake? Will it make you stronger in the real world, or will it only make you stronger at the gym?
Why should you keep your body straight when doing a chin-up? Yes it’ll put more tension on the main muscles and that’ll make them stronger. But if you kick your way through a chin-up, without sacrificing your strength, you’ll learn about momentum and power transfer and that promotes an awareness of efficiency.
What’s the point of being able to squeeze the heck out of your triceps if you can’t do a push-up? If you can’t throw a ball? Walk up a mountain?
Is what you’re doing now actually going to help your body function well in the long term, or is it just adding tension for its own sake?
Who knows? Be curious. Invest in relaxation too.