Whenever we move we go through a series of increased tension within an area followed by relaxation in order to create smooth coordinated movement. Typically when you try and learn a new movement (remember when first starting pilates) you find yourself shaking and moving in a way that creates a rigid and disordered movement until we learn to create relaxation and tension in the correct manner to produce a smooth movement.
If all movement is a flow of tension and relaxation then it stands to reason that being in control and manipulation of tension and relaxation will improve your movement leading to greater performance and getting more from your exercise. Whilst every exercise requires a different sequence and position of tension to complete there are many crossovers which can be applied in what is often termed ‘high tension techniques’. Likewise learning to relax after an exercise can improve recovery and aim performance in another set or exercise going forward.
Below are two simple examples of how to both create tension for improved performance as well as a relaxation drill to improve recovery.
High tension techniques
For the high tension techniques we will use a standing position front rack – a basic position which is a prerequisite for many movements when using dumbells, kettlebells or barbells. However the techniques employed can also be applied to matt exercises such as a plank or press up.
With two dumbbells or kettlebells stand tall with the hands up at shoulder height. Each technique can be layered on the first, so practice one then add the next until you have each dialled in. when done correctly just standing there should feel a hard exercise in itself.
Pull the knee caps up
Tensing the front of you thigh will create stability through the leg. In order to not hyperextend the leg, think of drawing your knee caps up to create stiffness in the thigh and a straight leg position
Tense the stomach, draw the ribs down
Tensing the stomach and drawing the ribs down will lock the spine into place and avoid any unwanted extension. When the back overarches the ribs will lift up, avoid this by creating tension in the midsection.
Squeeze your bum
By tensing your bum muscles you lock the pelvis into place creating stability between the hips and spine. This also helps to avoid the overarching in the lowerback by opposing your hip flexor muscles when the buttock muscles are working.
Elbows into the body
By drawing your elbows down towards your hips and locking the elbow down towards your ribs you are creating stability in the shoulder
Squeeze the handle
By gripping the handle you create tension at the point of contact with the weight, this not only creates a more stable link to the weight, it also leads to greater tension further up the chain and helps stabilise the shoulders.
By creating tension in the parts of your body that are stabilising, you improve your ability to produce force and be stronger in a given movement. The thought process of this is a simple one, when would you be stronger – when you are grounded on a firm surface, or when stood on something wobbly or slippery? The more stability you create the more chance you have of displaying your strength.
Creating relaxation between movements
Whilst we wish to create tension when performing a movement, we also want to be able to relax between movements or periods of exercise such as trying to recover between sets of an exercise. By relaxing we give the nervous system a chance to recover and allow blood flow to bring in energy to a muscle that just worked. A simple way of doing this is to use a fast and loose drill which requires you to relax muscles.
Fast and loose drill
Very simply after exercising for around ten seconds is to stand tall and limb by limb shake out tension. This doesn’t sound complicated and it is not! Simply think of moving your body as if you are shaking off water from each limb, In doing so it’s very hard to keep tension in the body and you will feel the body relax and recover.
By employing some high tension techniques you will feel stronger and perform better on many exercises, by relaxing afterwards you will recover quicker and perform better on subsequent exercises. Both of these will accelerate your progress towards your goals.
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