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.
This is an awesome article. I did PTTP heavily for years and came away tense & tight with really stupid contraction patterns. Even now, it’s my natural habit when I do a press to tense my biceps really hard. For this reason, I feel like PTTP made me way stronger but a worse athlete. Your muscle control course, Logan, has really helped me fix this!
Glad to hear the course has been working for you. You illustrated one of the drawbacks of full body tension. If you always use it, you can stop being able to NOT use it, which can be problematic. Id’ say lots of people that used those techniques exclusively ended up with similar issues.
Well put, Logan. As we say in NLP, every behavior is useful in some context.
I remember a guy who was explaining how he got up to 100+ pushups and 30+ pullups and he said he imagined his body as super light and tried to relax as much as possible in the movements.
I like this post a bunch, especially in terms of bodyweight exercises. A lot of those require not just learning how to tense the body as a whole, but learning full body awareness and how to isolate that tension to the needed areas to reduce energy expenditure. I learned that with my front levers, which does require a near full body tensing, but less than one might imagine is needed.
Absolutely! Lots of benefits beyond strength come with bodyweight training.
Fantastic article! For me, i can hold my HS longer if I’m more relaxed than super tense.
AFTER YEARS OF WEIGHTLIFTING, progressing into HIT, superslow , splits bb, powerliftin style…. when i tried bodyweight and bridges, i noticed how tight i was and couldnt relax for isntance the back. it made my jaw clench at night and teeth gnarl, and went into burnout on job and in life…. tension was my coping mehcanism in life and in training. because my mind and body once learned it worked… at the cost of the antural relaxation we as a child have as animal… yin yang, night day, relax and tense… all flowing in combinations of necessity…
then i started doing yoga and even quit weightlifting for some years… felt great, i progressed onto Maxicks muscle control , mindfulness, deep breathing, guided deep meditation…. nlp , ericksonian autohypnosis technis, freezing cold etc….
i became too relaxed, too much, people dont take u serious sadly enough if u too relaxed, especially if u become so relaxed it becomes difficult to tense when needed and hard enough… peoplse sense this. some will join ur vibe and calmness, some wont or cant and can become beliggerent and violent and ansty…
now i am introducing again more tension and semi full body tension… most important is the gloots , also abs, but and jaw, but everything follows from teh glootz…… in dynamic excercises liek kicking , jumping punching, the gloots pretense and then relax to activate the target msucles and jumpstart the movement with power and explosion…
and with heavy continous movements if u tense them first and constant and then do teh movement it all becomes easier……. everything falls inplace.
without them nothing gets done. change ur ass and ur mind will follow…
there was this one old time strongman, i believe george j howett who talked about the glutes and nowadays brett contreiras…
emphasizing the tension on the gloots and doing power walking si a great excercise to help get better agility….
and also doing cycling cardio or skating… just do tension of the opposit eglute of the target leg to move forward and i will feel like u turbocharged…
whats msot nicest of maxick is not just the relaxation and isolative tension, but the ability u learn to REGULATE tension in different muscles in different degrees as is required by the specificity of teh movement and direction of resistance..
u break the chaotic overtension we on chance develop as humans and we imprint as a pattern…
its about optimization of the tension and thus preserving energy and brainpower , neurotransmitters and adrenaline to get better performance… relaxation recharges the bmuscle and brainbattery and tension depletes it…. but pre-tension opens up the volume , activates certain neurological pathways to fully open and go hard…
like a echo chamber…
resonance… see tension as a ripple, a akoustik 3d soundwave traveling through teh muscle tissue…
maybe even start the tension with a sound by the mouth or hum like the kia of karate…
i learned about the glutes only after the complete relaxation adn ability to sink deep into nothingness and out of this world. had to completely relearn tension from the ground up, totally lsot full body tension for a while, now able to do both , because of the glootz. never knew that was the key, because if u tense everything always u never learn the body in its optimal pathways of operation…
and bands espically help to learn teh best postures for compelte isolation of muscles…. much faster then maxicks excecises and better… jsut stretch some bands, and move around limbs until u feel the msot and easiest tension in the target muscles , and move aroudn feel the tension dissipate and come back at its strongest when in the key position…. theres a logic to thsi body
when having to spread the tension across the body , it becomes a little less in all muscles, when able to isolate tension into one msucle and relax all others, the tension becomes insanely high , much higher …. the training can generate pump and growth, and soreness, in a short time, powerful, but only possible if the key position si there, and all other msucles are relaxed….. only then