Written by Callum Melly
Maximise Tension & Gain The Perfect Technique
As a personal trainer, I naturally get overwhelmed with the urge to want to correct people’s exercise technique, especially when I think it might lead to injury or it’s a relatively simple adjustment that can be made to ensure they put the targeted muscle under optimal stress from tension/load. There is nothing I personally find more frustrating than witnessing this modern day craze of swinging weights around without any sense of muscular control in an attempt to prove you can move more load than everyone else.
Apparently, barbell bouncing is the current trend, loading the bar with excess weight and then dropping the bar onto your chest in hope you get enough bounce to drive it back up with momentum and protraction of the shoulders to then re-rack the weight and claim your new 1RM.
When it comes to free weights and resistance training, if you can’t feel the targeted muscles working, it is as simple as you aren’t using that muscle. The body will do everything it can to make any movement that involves load/weight easier, which might include using momentum or additional muscle groups to assist moving the targeted load/weight.
The ultimate aim for any exercise is to put the targeted muscle under optimal tension from an external factor (e.g. load/weight) for a certain period of time; the more you are able to control this targeted tension then the better the results you will achieve. There is nothing big about throwing up 30kg dumbells on a seated shoulder press if your hips are forced into an anterior tilt from the load, causing increased lumbar lordosis and putting excess tension through your lower back. Lift with your ability, not your ego!
Mind to muscle connection is simply the ability to contract the targeted muscle under control for full ROM (range of motion) of an exercise whilst under tension from an external factor (e.g. load/weight). As a result, you will force that muscle to undergo optimal tension, which will ultimately cause more micro tears to that muscle; more tears, more repairs and more lean growth. It is essential that MTM training is controlled; every rep should be controlled equally on the concentric (shortening of the muscle) and eccentric (lengthening of the muscle) in order to ensure optimal time under tension from load/weight for full ROM of an exercise. You will not only promote increased lean muscle growth but develop stronger, more responsive and better-performing muscles, as well as improve core stability.
For example, if you are completing a set of barbell bench presses and you cannot actively feel your chest squeezing to lift the bar, then you are not using MTM training; perhaps you are using the BB (barbell bouncing) technique? The best way to ensure a muscle is activating is to have a friend spot you during a rep and to firmly touch which muscle you are meant to be targeting; if that muscle does not feel rock solid throughout the exercise when under tension from load/weight, then you are likely using another muscle to assist.
I chose the barbell bench press as an example because most people do not apply the “brace position” and will actually push the bar through their anterior deltoid (front shoulder muscle), primarily using their anterior deltoid to move the weight. This is why we have so many cavemen like creatures lurking in our gyms, hunched forward from excessive bench pressing using their shoulders.
Ensure that for every exercise you do you use the “brace position”. By applying the brace position described below, you will maximise MTM Training. The last point to highlight is that if you are performing exercises using MTM and the brace position, then you will not be able to move as much load/weight as usual. Lift with your ability and not your ego, for when we combine these two methods we are forcing the targeted muscle to work without any momentum, and prevent tension being taken off the targeted muscle; ultimately, that muscle is forced to work harder when moving less load/weight and also reduce the risk of injury.
Brace Position – Perfect Form
Perfect form is the key to ensuring you maximise MTM training; when you combine perfect form and MTM training you will force your muscles to undergo maximal effort for every rep and build a strong, lean, shaped and toned physique. Perfect form is based simply on the “Brace Position”, the brace position being the most stable position you can take without holding anything or using support. The brace position can be achieved in 3 simple steps that can be applied to standing, lying and seated exercises.
- Shoulder width stance.
- Chest up and retract shoulder blades (squeeze shoulders back)
- Squeeze in glutes and tense abdominals.
When standing and applying the brace position, you automatically simulate neutral spine, this will ensure on such exercises as overhead barbell press, cable flyes or squats, that you will lift in a safe, energy efficient and most importantly, put the targeted muscle under optimal tension for full ROM. When lying and seated you can also apply the brace position; however, you need to learn to tilt your hips into a neutral position, more often than not a posterior tilt is required to ensure your lower back is always nice and flat against the floor or seat to remove any momentum or excess strain that will alleviate tension from the targeted muscle. Please note that if you have a natural anterior pelvic tilt that makes it hard to “flatten” your back against a seat or the floor then there are postural exercises that can be followed to fix this.
An example of anterior pelvic tilt would be somebody performing a seated dumbbell shoulder press and trying to move to much load/weight that causes him or her to arch their lower back of the seat. In fact, they can lighten the weight, posteriorly tilt their hips and engage their abs to reduce the risk of injury. This will also increase the tension through the targeted muscle.
Breathing is also essential with MTM training and perfect form as it allows you to control the rep and maximise muscle efficiency as well as time under tension. Keep it simple, whenever you complete the concentric part of the rep (often the pushing or pulling) you want to breath out, then as you control the weight back in the eccentric part of the exercise you want to take a deep breath in. This will not only ensure your reps are controlled but help you to maintain a steady oxygen supply to the muscles.
Ultimately, we are using free weights and resistance exercises for a number of reasons, but more often than not, it’s with the goal to change our body composition, whether that’s fat loss or lean muscle growth, there is no point in moving load/weight if you’re not doing it efficiently and effectively. Don’t be a caveman or cavewomen, train smart and the result will follow.