Words by Michael Easter
The strongest lifters in the world have a secret that they use before they even lift a weight: They create tension in their muscles.
The good news: Learning to create tension isn’t a skill that takes decades in the gym to hone. In fact, you’ll know exactly how to do it by the end of this article, and you can use it in the gym to become stronger today.
Think of creating tension as getting your muscles “tight” before you do a big lift.
“It’s like towing a trailer,” says Pavel Tsatsouline, chairman of StrongFirst. “If you don’t take the slack out of the tow line, it’s doesn’t transmit power efficiently. The same happens with your muscles. Tightening them before a lift leads to better transmission of power.”
In the same way, tightening your muscles signals your brain to activate more muscle. The result: “It allows you to use more weight before your nervous system shuts you down,” he says.
Tsatsouline also believes that there’s something about “getting tight” that, psychologically, makes the weight feel comparatively lighter.
Pat Davidson, Ph.D., the training director at Peak Performance, says that leveraging tension forces your body to work the way it’s supposed to during a heavy lift.
When you lift, certain parts of your body need to stay stable and other parts have to move, says Davidson.
“I’d almost bet the house that the majority of people fail on lifts because they can’t keep the still parts still while the moving parts move,” says Davidson. “For example, when people fail on a deadlift, their backs round like a jumbo shrimp because they couldn’t keep their torso stable. When they fail on a squat, they fall forward for the same reason.”
But “getting tight” isn’t just about flexing like the cocktail waitress at a Vegas pool is walking past you.
Both Davidson and Pavel agree that the best way to get tight is to “zip” your muscles up into the joint above them. It’s a popular method that Tsastsouline first proposed in his book The Naked Warrior and now teaches in StrongFirst seminars.
To “zip” your muscles up, start by feeling your feet on the floor, says Davidson. “Then imagine your groin area and shoulders are black holes, pulling your legs and arms muscles into them.”
Before any big strength movement like a squat, deadlift, or bench press, feel your feet on the ground, then “zip” your muscles up and perform a rep. Remain “zipped” throughout the set.