Tension and Power part 1 : Creating Tension for Better Squats
Tension : Not just for awkward family gatherings.
But really, tension is a great companion to have when it comes to picking up heavy stuff. Pre-loading and using tension is essential to being able to fully utilize the strength you already have. Generating tension can be done by using the small, stabilizing muscles of the large joints (shoulders and hips) to get into strong positions for the joints. When you do this pre-positioning, you should begin to feel a tightness and it will take effort to maintain. I’m getting ahead of myself though - let’s talk about why you want to do it in the first place.
In many cases creating tension goes a long way towards reducing or relieving pain as well as helping you generate more power when performing your lifts or movements. When working with clients who have pain with squatting, one thing we cover is proper positioning and creating tension at the top of the movement before going to squat. Sometimes this simple change is enough to eliminate the pain before making any other fixes. Another reason you want to start using tension in your lifting and exercise regimens is it helps you generate more power. A lot of people are on the bandwagon for this, but not everyone seems to understand why or how.
One component of creating tension is getting into a pre-load position and using stabilizer muscles. When you activate and squeeze the small stabilizer muscles of the large joints and get into the pre-load positions, you create the most efficient and strongest mechanical advantage that you can. When doing this with the lower extremity, the tension position lines up the foot to be a contracted double arch; the knee to be a smooth sliding hinge; the hip to be a supported, stable hinge; and the lower abdomen to be a stiff, stable platform with which to handle the load. When each joint is working at it’s most efficient, you don’t lose excess energy trying to compensate for poorly moving parts. Particularly when dealing with knee pain while squatting, a great example of energy loss is the knees caving in while descending or ascending. Not only does it expose the knee joints to unnecessary risk of injury, but you have to expend extra energy to move the knees back into position and stabilize in order to stand up.
Scroll down to the photos and check out the examples of leg positions. Try squatting the wrong way (a little over exaggerated) and then do it the proper way. Doing it the second time should feel considerably smoother and easier to do.
Another BIG component of creating tension is abdominal bracing. Abdominal bracing is when you tighten the muscles of the abdomen and tilt the pelvis into a neutral position at the same time. Think of it as a combination of squeezing your stomach as if someone were about to punch you in the gut, and flattening the curve of your lower back at the same time. When you brace the abdomen, it increases the pressure inside your abdomen. Increasing this pressure has been known to increase your ability to move heavy loads because of physiological changes that occur in your circulatory and neurological systems. It also lets you move heavy loads because you have created a strong, firm base for your limbs to push off of and generate power. Think “proximal stiffness for distal strength” (or stable at the body for strong at the limbs).
In the photos below, I illustrate how to create tension in the lower extremity for squats using position and squeezing the stabilizer muscles of the hip. When you are attempting to do this, remember to brace the abdomen simultaneously.
Step 1 : plant the feet and keep them in a comfortable position for your body. For some people, this is pointing out with the toes 10 or 15 degrees, while for others straight ahead is comfortable throughout the squat.
Step 2 : rotate the shin outward, keeping the foot planted and the knee pointed in line with the toes. This will feel very strange at first, but is a very important motion to be able to do. When you rotate the tibia out like this, it tightens the foot and ankle into a string anchoring position and allows the knee joint to slide smoothly along the angle of the squat under the femur.
This step in particular can be hard to understand what you are trying to do. Your goal is to rotate the shin without sliding the knee out to the side too much, which will make the foot and ankle tighten up and help create the arch. In this comparison, I attached cups to the front of my shin in the same place so you can see the rotation in relation to the foot.
Step 3 : squeeze the hips (or gluteals, or butt, or cheeks - whatever you call them, just squeeze them) tightly. This action should make the thighs rotate out slightly as the hip joint gets pulled into place and ready to move.
Step 4 : take a deep breath and brace the abdomen. This should be like simultaneously preparing for a strike to the gut, flattening your lower back, and pulling your hips underneath your shoulders.
Once you have all these components in place and are holding them, you should be UNCOMFORTABLE. The most comfortable thing to do at this point should be to drop down into a squat. If you have done it correctly, it will almost feel like you have no choice but to slide down into a slot that you have created for yourself. Maintain as many of the squeezed body parts as you can to stand back up.
I encourage you to try it out and see if body weight squats become easier, or if you find that a normally challenging weight suddenly feels much less challenging.
Stay tuned for the next installment on creating tension in the upper extremity and in the deadlift. I will also show some methods for practicing creating tension using bands.
Dr. Paul Harris holds a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Texas Chiropractic College and a Master’s of Exercise and Health Sciences from University of Houston Clear Lake. He is the owner of Delta V Chiropractic and Sports Medicine and an avid human movement specialist.