What is Tension?
The ability to create tension and create it quickly could have more impact on your training success than almost anything you could learn. This talent is one of the main differentiations between "Hard Style" kettlebell training and most anything else you may practice.
If you're working with an RKC Kettlebell instructor you may hear "pinch the coin" in reference to creating tension in your glutes. Pavel can be hear loudly demanding "Stay tight" at any RKC event. The skill to create this tension is what allows us to do that last repetition without fear of the lost training time associated with injury.
Getting stronger requires us to learn how to generate increased tension. At the same time, if you want to be able to move effectively you must have the ability to relax fast as well. Movement after all is tension, relaxation, tension, relaxation. One without the other is not movement.
So the question arises...How do you maintain the ability to generate a powerful force and move well at the same time? Try a push up using maximal tension....Squeeze your glutes....Completely engage your core. Cork screw your arms....You just can't do that many reps. That's because full body tension leads to fatigue.
So if you are looking to train purely for strength you may want to do sets under full tension of just a few reps. Get fully relaxed between work sets and then go back to work. This essentially is how you "grease the groove."
When you practice ballistic movements with kettlebells such as the snatch, clean or swing you need to create tension but also be able to relax otherwise you will not move the bell. On presses or Turkish get ups you may use tension for a longer duration. And this results in fewer reps in a set. So you must learn how much tension to generate for the work required at the time.
Managing tension and relaxation is the key to athletic success. If you can imagine my golf swing (actually spare yourself the horror) compared to Tiger Woods you will know what I mean. Tiger looks makes it look easy. On the other hand I "hit" the golf ball and it gets hurt! Tiger has an amazing ability to match the necessary tension with the required relaxation. Better than anyone I've seen. I'd love to see him swing a kettlebell!
So how do we manage tension and relaxation so we are as strong as possible and move too?
First, you must have an incredibly tight “groove” for your movements. As you practice the movement over and over again with correct form, you will eliminate excess effort automatically, and “grease the groove” Second, you must develop a strong, rhythmic motion while performing the ballistic lifts. As an example, I always have the same cadence on my kettlebell swings per minute and I can assure you I haven't always had that ability. Third, control your breathing. Stopping and constricting your breathing creates tension, while exhaling and releasing your breath dissipates tension. Try to match your breathing with the ballistic movements as closely as possible by finding the moments of tension and relaxation and syncing up your breathing with them. This is called “matching the breath to the force”. Last, use less tension at the beginning of your set, then, as you fatigue, use more and more tension, until your last rep uses an almost 1RM level of tension. But you must stay in form.
As I beat my dead horse again. Proper form is the key to injury avoidance and is also vital to learn how to build the tension required for the work at hand.
Sandy Sommer, RKC