If you’ve been in the strength world for awhile you’ve likely heard about “Full Body Tension”. And on that note I received a great question the other day from Sol.
I read a lot of your Legendary Strength posts about muscle control the other day. I just purchased 3 books concerning muscle control as well.
I wanted to get your viewpoint on something though. My main focus in fitness is calisthenics. I love advanced body-weight movements. I was wondering if you thought that muscle control can apply to calisthenics to increase strength. When reading (on Legendary Strength) about using muscle control for strength, you talked about relaxing the antagonist muscles, to allow more energy to go into contracting the needed muscles. However, in calisthenics, I always hear that full body tension is a must. So I’m wondering what you think about this. I’m currently training my planche, so that would be a good example.
This is an excellent question. Its one that I’ve had myself before and it took years of training to come to a satisfactory answer.
To recap, the basic theory about how muscle control can make you stronger, is that if you tense or contract only the muscles needed to do the movement (whether lifting a weight, or a calisthenic) then you will be strong. The tougher part is to relax those muscles that antagonize the movement. The idea is that the opposite muscles (like the biceps to the triceps or vice versa) work in opposition. If both contract, you’re in effect fighting yourself. Its having the gas pedal and the brakes pressed to the floor at the same time.
In a pullup for instance the prime movers are the lats and the biceps of the arms. Other muscles are at work to “stabilize” and perform other functions. The hands and forearms grip the bar. The core keeps the body relatively in the same space.
But the true antagonists might hinder this movement. The triceps shouldn’t be firing as it will “slow down” the biceps. But it also can get fuzzy. The pecs could hinder the lats, but if the arm comes in closer to the body, as it may in some variations, it may be in use as well.
Full Body Tension is Important but also an Over-Generalization
I first became familiar with this concept from Pavel as it was used in power lifting, kettlebells and bodyweight exercises. He used the term irradiation to describe it.
A simple experiment showing the results of this requires a partner. Squeeze his hand as in a handshake. (And if you weren’t aware, if the person extends his index and middle fingers while doing this, it will prevent their hand from being crushed). Now you repeat the hand squeeze except this time you squeeze your opposite, unused hand as hard as you can. The other person will let you know how much harder you squeeze.
And if you pay attention when you do this, you’ll notice the tension doesn’t just occur in your hands but will usually ripple through your body. You’ll feel your abs brace, as if for a punch. If you don’t, you can consciously squeeze those too to increase the force generated.
The key point of all this is to discuss further Sol’s statement that:
“I always hear that full body tension is a must.”
Any time you hear a must you know there’s times when it can and should be broken.
When to NOT to Full Body Tension
With calisthenics like the planche and many others full body tension is extremely useful. But it shouldn’t always be used. Why?
When you do a pushup do you use full body tension? Sure, you can, but do you normally? No…
Because full body tension is going to tire you out quicker than if you didn’t do it. You can tense your muscles so much so that they’re fighting each other and a single pushup could tire you out. Or just holding a plank in the same way.
Some tension is needed. But, depending on your goal, this may be better off at a minimum effective amount, especially if going for endurance.
And then there’s times where you may want to do more then the minimum, but not the maximum.
Now when you’re training the planche you’re going to have to squeeze everything as hard as possible, or very close to it.
But that will only take you so far.
Look at an elite gymnast or b-boyer. Do they use full body tension when doing a planche? Probably not. Again, why is this the case?
Relaxing Into the Tension
When I was training the back lever I had a goal to hold one for 15 seconds. Shortly after I was able to hold the full legs extended position, I worked on increasing my time. With the levered out position, this is one of those typical “full body tension” exercises.
BUT…to increase my time I had to learn to relax into the tension. What I was really doing was relaxing certain areas of my body. Maybe not completely but less than 100%.
Part of this is also psychological. And its also about breathing. Going from holding your breath the entire time (that means tensed lungs and throat), to allowing yourself to breath (which requires some relaxation, even if breathing behind the shield), is a big step forward in any hard exercise.
Full body tension is about tensing everything you possibly can, and often as hard as you can.
This is a very useful skill to have. It’s a great place to start for anyone interested in getting stronger.
But to say you’re always going to tense as hard as possible is not true.
I recall Steve Cotter talking about the difference in the RKC system of kettlebells versus Girevoy sport, back when that became a big controversy. One of the principle differences is the focus on tension versus the focus on relaxation.
In my mind, you want to be able to do both. And ultimately, the relaxation with the right amount of tension, is much harder to do, than to “just tense“.
So by all means, use full body tension to build up to the planche, and in many of the steps building up to it.
AND also see what you can do “relaxing into the tension” with easier (for you) forms of the exercise. This applies not only to bodyweight exercises, but to all other exercises as well.
Although most people don’t point this out, it is part of what they’re doing.
Relaxing into the full body tension is a step towards greater mastery of any exercise.