Tension and Intensity: It's All in Your Head
by Steven M. Ledbetter
5 minute read
The Greatest Pole Vaulter of All Time: Yelena IsinbayevaA lot of my clients want to know how they stack up to my other clients. This is easy in my “Booty Camp” and “Kettlebells to the Wall” classes (they just have to look around) but even they want to know how they stack up to the professional-level athletes and Marine Officers that I have had the privilege of coaching. Sure, the pros can lift more and go faster with less recovery time, but it’s taken me a while to figure out why. And it turns out, it’s two things: Tension and Intensity.
If you’ve never lifted anything heavier than a keyboard and you come to me looking to get hotter, stronger, or more fit, then the first few months of our time are really going to be dedicated to teaching you what to understand what tension is. Because no matter who you are or where you come from, if you are a mammal then you are really just a sack of meat with some interior scaffolding. Your ability to stand up-right, squat, hinge, press, or pull all depends on your brain’s ability to coordinate your skeletal muscles into a complex ballet of tension (agonist, antagonist, global and local stabilizer muscles contracting in harmony) and relaxation (the same muscles periodically going atonal to allow for movement in that plane). Strength is not the ability to generate more force in a particular muscle in a single direction; strength is generating more tension and more relaxation in the all muscles at the proper times so that you develop more force in the direction that you want it to go.
Let’s say you and a friend are ice skating. You go out to the middle of the pond and she wants a push back to shore (your friend is very lazy). If you just put your hands on her butt and give her a shove, then you are both going to wind up on opposite sides of the lake. Thanks, Newton. Your brain has to coordinate movement in the same way. Muscles (meat on scaffolding) have to be tensed in opposing directions to generate stability and if you want to direct a force outward, then it has to be counter balanced with force in the opposite direction, usually the ground via your skeletal system (the scaffolding). So when you press a weight up over your head, your unconscious brain has to not only control the muscles pushing up, but all the muscles pushing down against the ground to generate the force and all the muscles stabilizing you under the weight. Not bad, eh, meat-bag?
People who have experience with lifting just get this tension stuff intuitively. Elite athletes relearn it consciously and spend a career mastering it. At my RKC, Pavel asked Mark Reifkind if he was thinking about the weight when he bench pressed 2.4 times his bodyweight. He responded, “No, I think about getting my body as hard as I could so I could push against the weight.”
I want my clients to be thinking about the same thing. The harder you make your body, the less force leaks out in directions you don’t want it to (we call those “injuries”). Plus for you fat-loss clients, the more you can recruit your entire body into a movement with all the muscles applying as much counter-balancing force as possible, the more calories said movement will burn. Which brings us to the other secret of the elite.
Speed and strength are objective (10lbs is more than 5; 10mph is more than 2), but everyone can be intense. Intensity is how much of your total available speed or power you can recruit when called upon. I like to think of it on a scale of 10 and most of my beginning clients would struggle to give me a 3. And remember, I’m talking about their individual available speed or power. Here is a conversation that usually happens in session #3:
“I want to you sprint back to the truck. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is you ambling and 10 is an ax murder behind you, I want a 9. Go.”
[Clients briskly jogs to truck]
“That was a 3. Congratulations, you’re dead.”
As people get more used to using their body as a tool, they begin to understand its capabilities and get more comfortable letting off the brakes when they go to hit the gas. And just like tension, this is a matter of subconscious coordination. Not just of muscles, but of fuel systems. Slowly but surely, your central governor (the part of your brain that governs your feelings of fatigue) lets you go faster for longer. Yes, there are biological changes as well like an increase in VO2 MAX and OBLA, but these are mostly genetically predetermined and can only change very slightly with training. The majority of “cardio” gains are in your head, specifically training your central governor to learn that you aren’t gonna destroy your organs with a lack of fuel (oxygen, glycogen, and phosphates). Athletes have trained their central governors to back off and let them push harder for longer. The more you work on bringing your body to the limit of what your brain thinks it can do, the higher the ceiling will be for what actually is possible. Just remember to refuel and recover! Otherwise your central governor would have been right about you all along, smart-ass.