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Maximal Tension for Maximal Results

By: Miguel Aragoncillo

Maximizing the amount of tension you create in most exercises can help put
more pounds on the barbell, facilitate advanced bodyweight exercises, and help
to solidify technique in a previously “unstable” joint (due to lack of coordination
or unfamiliarity with exercise). Does this sound too good to be true?
Well, to provide an overview, the secret to increased strength is simple:
1. Use the diaphragm to master the role of breathing for performance.
2. Utilize localized tension in the hands and shoulders as you grip a weight.
3. If doing an upper body exercise, tense the lower body. If it is a lower body
exercise, tense the upper body.
4. Maintain that global tension throughout the whole movement!
To start, most of these techniques are highly visual and kinesthetic, so reading
about a technique will often leave some room for misinterpretation. Watch the
following video to aid your understanding of the following tips and techniques:
Maximal Tension Techniques:
With that primer out of the way...
If you were an All-American athlete in high school, chances are the standard
push-up is something you do when you wake up in the morning to get the blood
flowing. On the other hand, if the thought of calisthenics gives you anxiety,
perhaps there is a better approach that you can use to perform not only
bodyweight exercises, but in reality almost any exercise.
The techniques I’ve come to know and love involve the use of maximizing
tension in order to move both the barbell and my own bodyweight through space
(and some say time!). Whether you lift heavy stones or a briefcase, you utilize
some muscles that involve your breathing, abdominals (to resist movement), and
grip (to hold on to varying loads and weights). Using these techniques for

advanced exercises will help to increase muscular strength and hypertrophy.

They are also used to perform awesome party tricks, like doing a human flag!

Technique #1 - Inhale and “Woo-Sah”
With athletes who are performing new exercises for the first time, one aspect
that is often missing in their initial movements is stabilization of their core (4). To
be succinct, the abdominal muscles are “stabilizing” the body in incorrect
strategies, and the true stabilizing muscles are simply not working in the correct
pattern (3). McGill et al. note, “Ideally, good stabilization exercises that are
performed properly produce patterns that are practiced... Any exercise that
grooves motor patterns that ensure a stable spine, through repetition,
constitutes a ‘stabilization’ exercise” (6).
For starters, the diaphragm is an important muscle found deep to the abdominal
muscles that more or less controls breathing in everyday life. So, how can you
best utilize your diaphragm to help aid with exercise? Whichever semantics you
want to use, the idea stays the same for optimal breathing for both performance
and activities of daily living. Fill up the air in your lungs by using your diaphragm
to fill out the lower half of your abdominals, expanding in all directions as you
inhale. Next, create tension via intra-abdominal pressure by providing a slight
exhale through the abdominals, which will help facilitate force production and
connect the upper and lower halves of your body (5).

So how can you best use your diaphragm?
Think back to that one time when your sibling or friend decided to give you a
punch to the gut; what did you do?
A. Broke their hand with your six-pack.
B. Reflexively braced your abdominals.
C. Cried and clutched your blanket like Linus from Charlie Brown.
If you answered “B,” then you were functioning appropriately (12, 13).
Elaborating on this idea further, let’s do the following to make this action more
specific and relatable to exercise.
1. Set up on your back on the floor, knees bent with feet flat on the floor.
2. Place hands on sides of the ribs/stomach.
3. Achieve neutral spine (posterior tilt of the pelvis in most cases).
4. Bring stomach/navel to the floor (flattening lower back to the floor if in
lower back is in extension).
5. Inhale, feeding pressure to the floor and slightly out to the sides to your
6. After fully inhaled, exhale very slightly, just enough to exert pressure in a
360° fashion.
7. Voila! You’ve effectively braced your abdominals.
Technique # 2 - Irradiation
What is irradiation? No, it isn’t something a
mechanic would charge me a couple hundred
bucks for if I’m missing it from my car.
If you are performing a unilateral exercise that
involves holding anything, such as a single arm
dumbbell bench press, or a one-arm push-up,
do these steps to maximize use of this phenomenon:
1. Maximally grip the weight (kettlebell or dumbbell).
2. Squeeze the free hand into a fist.

3. Next, squeeze the shoulder blades together as you perform your desired
So how is this applicable in your own exercise program? If you find yourself
utilizing free weights like dumbbells and kettlebells, tense the muscles of the
upper body (rotator cuff muscles, pecs, all the way down to the forearm muscles
and hand muscles) prior to performing the movement. To get more specific, try
the above steps when performing a Single-Arm Farmer’s Walk. “Essentially, the
weaker portion of the motor pattern is enhanced by facilitating the stronger
portion of the pattern. Activating more musculature may enhance the ability to
learn the movement better” (1).
Interestingly, there hasn’t been much research validating this phenomenon, but
this doesn’t mean that increasing volitional muscular contraction won’t make an
exercise easier. On an anecdotal level, it works to centrate an otherwise unstable
joint, and thus creating more tension throughout adjacent muscles, helping to
indirectly increasing the amount of weight used otherwise. Next time you are
struggling with an overhead or bench press, or a farmer’s walk, crush your grip
in both hands to increase your strength (2)!

Technique # 3 - Ripping the Floor/Barbell Apart
In the push-up, the action of spreading the floor with your hands activates and
tenses the lats in the movement, and a cue often used is to “pull” yourself to the
floor. Force put into the ground equates to an equal amount of force pushed
back, so by increasing tension globally, you can push even more weight off of
the floor in an advanced variation of a weighted push-up.
This technique gives you an easy way to remember and implement tension in
your lifts, and indirectly translates to more force production in your lifts and
bodyweight movements. It can also be used for barbell lifts, which is a good
segue to the next tip - grip it, and then rip it!

Technique # 4 - Stop Leaking Energy
When you perform the bench press, you use your chest and arms, correct? Not if
you’re trying to put up any appreciable weight. Successful powerlifters will

incorporate their lower body as much as possible, too, in their question to move
massive amounts of weight. How, you ask?
Powerlifters will often describe their preparation for the bench press utilizing
these steps:
1. Driving their upper back into the bench, squeezing shoulder blades together.
2. Gripping the barbell, using the cue to “rip the barbell apart”.
3. Driving their heels or feet into the ground.
4. Squeezing their glutes in place to allow for heel drive.
5. And finally, inhaling and bracing their abs before moving big weight!
While this specific exercise has had multiple resources and articles on technique,
the point I’m making is that a typical upper body exercise – the bench press –
can easily be turned into a total-body exercise utilizing this tension technique. By
focusing attention to the lower body, and with some simple cuing, you can
increase your numbers instantly by putting more force into the ground and the
bench. The end result will be more pounds on the barbell, as opposed to just
“benching” on chest day.
Utilizing this tip should interest bodybuilders, as time under tension is crucial for
muscular growth (7, 8, 11)! Ideally, this technique will help “turn on” some non-
activated muscles, so from a neuromuscular point of view this will help to
improve strength globally in the sense of helping to stabilize a previously
unstable pattern. (9, 10)
Use of this technique for other movements should begin with maximal tension
throughout the whole body. If performing a single leg squat (pistol squat), brace
your lower half, but also squeeze your hands together (or by gripping a
counterbalance weight), and brace your stomach. Feel the tension all over as
you descend into and out of the hole!
Sample Program Utilizing Maximal Tension Techniques
Here is a one-day sample exercise routine that requires utilization of tension
techniques for strength related goals. Initially, it is easy with the help of a

resistance band, so progression would involve performing that exercise without
assistance. Be sure to utilize all of the above techniques of maximizing tension
for maximum results!
(Note: all videos are hyperlinked to YouTube technique demonstrations)

A1. Band Assisted Single Arm Push-Up - 3x3/side
A2. Prone Plank with Shoulder Touch - 3x8/side
A3. Single Arm Farmer’s Walk - 3x20 yards/side
B1. Pistol Squat with Band Assistance - 3x5/side
B2. TRX Inverted Row - 3x10
B3. Band Assisted Standing Ab-Wheel Rollout - 3x8

About the Author
Miguel Aragoncillo is a strength coach and personal trainer
in currently working in South Jersey at Endeavor Sports
Performance, a facility located just outside of Philadelphia.
Mainly working with youth athletes to enhance athlete
development, Miguel also takes great pride in his work and
research that he has devoted to helping the dancing and
breakdancing community specifically.
Miguel holds a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist
certification through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, Health
Fitness Specialist certification through the American College of Sports Medicine.
Miguel received a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in
Exercise Science from Temple University.

You can check out his musings on his blog HERE, as well as follow him on
Twitter: @MiggsyBogues.

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