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Tension vs. Relaxation

April 29, 2010 07:56 AM

A brief history

At age 17 I hurt my low back for the first time to the point where I was on the ground unable to stand. WOW! A couple of years later it happened again and continued in such fashion for years to come. Various Doctors later no change. Then one day I read this crazy article by a crazy Russian. The next thing I know I'm swinging iron balls and tying my shoes without pain and I'm in the best shape of my life.

Fast forward almost a decade later; I can swing kettlebells just fine but if I roll on the ground with my Martial Arts students I'm unable to walk without pain for a couple of days. Tack severe tendonitis in each elbow on to that and there you have Brian in 2007. Then I meet another crazy guy promising to eliminate my pain with ridiculously simple looking joint movements and eye positions, not to mention increase my strength. Well, it worked and I am again the best athlete I have ever been in my life.

I tell this story to pre-frame the following debate between the PERCEIVED hard vs. soft approaches of the above systems. Both systems work and they work for various reasons too long to go into in this article.

Arguments for Tension

Hopefully by now we all understand that a muscle contraction is tension and we can't even move without tension. Tension should not then be confused with hypertension or chronic muscle tension. Anyone who has followed Party methods will recount the day they added tension to a weak overhead press by locking their knees or "pinching a coin" and "bracing for a punch" and all of a sudden they could lift more weight and/or reps. MAGIC! I believe it was Steve Bacarri who first coined the terms leakage and linkage, which have become RKC staple principles. Tension on all sides of a joint can create linkage in joints and prevent power leakage.

For those unfamiliar with this concept, imagine a radio tower. It has guy wires on all sides pulling towards the ground to allow the tower to stay upright even in windy conditions. This creates STABILITY or LINKAGE. If the guy wires were loose then there would be instability or leakage. The tower would flop around and a big enough gust of wind would topple it over.

Applied to a military press, imagine bent and soft knees while pressing a huge weight overhead. The "loosey-goosiness' of your knees would allow the upward pressing energy you are expressing to be leaked out in the instable knee joints; this is leakage of energy. However, lock those knees and now the energy you express overhead is driven down into the ground and overhead into the kettlebell. This is linkage. When a boxer punches a heavy bag, if his wrist bends backward he has leaked the power out of his punch. But if he keeps his wrist solid and straight (linked) his power will drive through the bag. Leakage can happen in any joint of the body and thus we strive for linkage so we can express our energy where and how we want it. Even during motion, such as a sprint, we can leak or link joints.

Arguments for Relaxation

Anyone who has ready Pavel's Power to the People book is familiar with the term "virtual belt," applied it to their deadlift and no doubt was quite pleased with the results. However, have you ever tried to use a virtual belt for swings? How did that work out for you? Not so hot eh… Excessive tension will indeed put the brakes on and limit your speed, endurance and power. Any Martial Artist will easily identify that they must stay loose to strike with their full power and that any UNNESSASARY tension will decrease their power, speed and wear them out quick.

In our stressed out modern culture (especially American's living the rat race) we carry excessive amounts of tension from too much sympathetic nervous energy (stress). This creates all kinds of health issues from chronic fatigue, headaches, achy tight muscles, joint sublexations and more. We need to chill out and relax, as George Costanza's father would say, "SERENITY NOW!"

Staying relaxed is both a mental and physical thing and usually staying relaxed mentally transfers into physical. As a trainer of hand-to-hand combat for law enforcement and training with the local P.D.'s in firearms training I can tell you that when you hold excess tension (emotional and physical) your fine motor skills and decision making go to crap. All precision, timing, judgment, endurance and more are lost.

Staying relaxed allows us to be supple, and as Bruce Lee would say, "become water." We bend like the willow instead of breaking like harder trees. It is well documented that people who don't see a car accident coming in advance stay relaxed and thus get less whiplash and other injuries than people who see an accident coming and tighten up first.

A Meeting of Two Opposites

But wait a second…! You are telling me that tension is good because it links our joints for greater energy transfer but tension is bad because is wears us out quicker, increases our risk of injury and makes us slower. How can we possibly consolidate these two extremes?

Back when I went through the RKC in 2006 they used to talk about a "hard style" vs. a "soft style" approach to lifting. This was before the term HARD STYLE was commonplace in the RKC community. The concept was that you could take two opposing approaches, say a soft Kung Fu style and a hard Okinawa Karate style and find strengths and weaknesses in both. The soft Kung Fu style may lack strength, stability and power initially but it will have fluid movement, suppleness and speed. The hard Karate style may lack any of the Kung Fu qualities but will make up for it with an unmovable stability and driving strength.

Clearly the goal was never for either of these extremes to be the ending points but rather the starting points. Through constant progress and skill development the Kung Fu stylist would develop power, strength, stability and the Karate stylist would develop fluid movement, speed and suppleness. Now before anyone yells, "my style of Karate/Kung Fu emphasizes x,y,z… how dare you blah blah blah…" it's just an example folks.

Tension and Relaxation are Not End Points: They are Beginnings

The aim of either a hard or soft stylist is to refine their technique to the point where their body (brain) knows how to apply enough tension to create linkage and stay relaxed enough to not push the gas and brakes at the same time.

How do you reach that point where you are using an ideal and appropriate balance between tension and relaxation? To quote a wise Russian immigrant "don't workout, practice!" Why do you think Pavel is always admonishing us NOT to workout for the sake of stimulus but rather to train like the champs train which means to PRACTICE our lift with increasingly greater loads, volume and/or density as our technique improves.

Our goal as performance athletes is always to IMPROVE TECHNIQUE; deadlift, snatch, punch, jog, or whatever. Superior technique beats superior program design hands down time and time again. This was another point driven home when I first went through the RKC years ago and I'm proud to say that I now finally get it, apply it and my lifts are improving steadily!

So when you look at things from this perspective we can hopefully stop arguing over staying maximally relaxed or maximally tense and agree that we need an appropriate amount of tension. But how do you determine what is appropriate? If you look at it scientifically it isn't so abstract. Are you leaking energy? Dial in tension until you are no longer leaking and are now linking. Are you driving with the brakes on? Dial back unnecessary tension until you are being maximally efficient. I asked Dr. Cobb, D.C. founder of Z-Health what his opinion of the whole tension vs. relaxation debate was, and to paraphrase, he said, "oh sure when I'm deadlifting a heavy barbell I'm full of tension, when I'm doing a thoracic glide I'm as relaxed as I can be."

This should make obvious sense by now, a heavy deadlift requires that you keep spinal alignment as several hundred pounds are trying to pull you out of alignment but a thoracic glide has hardly any load at all and you are trying to pull yourself out of alignment and put it back again. Two ends of the spectrum practiced both independently and together in more moderate load integrated movements such as a Get Up or throwing a punch makes for a well rounded athlete.

The journey of an athlete is not to be too tight or too relaxed but to be just right.

I dare say no one wants to end up the tight and restricted cliche powerlifter nor do they want to end up the cliche fluid yet weak Tai Chi practitioner. Before a joint attack squad of elite powerlifters and Tai Chi practitioners begin drawing up battle plans to lay siege to my Aurora, CO condo at dawn, please recall I used the term cliche to indicate the general party, not to be all inclusive of either party. For all of you supple and quick powerlifters or strong and powerful Tai Chi practitioners you should be feared and admired accordingly.

Perceived Effort

This leads to another aspect of the tension vs. relaxation discussion. If we can now all agree that we need appropriate tension for the completion of our desired athletic endeavor, now comes the strategy to achieve said balance.

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler"
-Albert Einstein

I love this Einstein quote and try to live my life by it. I have a version I like to apply to fitness. "Exercise should be made as easy as possible but no easier." – Brian Copeland.

Everyone from Charles Staley, to Eric Cobb, to Pavel, and more all have their own version of this paradigm applied to fitness. Charles has his EDT system where he basically tells you that in any given set, if the speed of your rep isn't as good as the first rep in the set then you should not have done that rep. Pavel is quite fond of GTG (grease the groove) training where you do roughly 50% of your capability in reps, several times throughout the day so to avoid fatigue and technique degradation. He also has written numerous times about getting more sets of lower and higher quality reps instead of repping out and training to failure. Dr. Cobb tells people that when doing Z-Health drills it is better to do 3-5 perfect reps and quit than to do 10-20 so-so reps.

Here is where I see the ill side effects of good intentioned trainees who are trying to live up to the program designs of Master RKC Kenneth Jay's Viking Conditioning, Pavel's Return of the Kettlebell or whatever. These high volume programs require a high focus on technique, focus and good judgment regarding when it is time to set the kettlebell down and call it a day. These programs are great but when one does not follow them with the proper intent they won't reap maximal rewards for their labor. As Charles Staley says, "every rep has a cost but not every rep has a benefit."

But then ego kicks in. "One more rep! C'mon you can do it!" I see people's faces and instead of enjoying a kick arse training session it looks more like they are passing a kidney stone! Dude, put the kettlebell down and slowly walk away!

At the risk of sounding like a weenie allow me to clarify something. I am a weenie! I hate feeling uncomfortable. I put up with severe low back pain for around 7 years, sparred full contact MMA with top fighters from around the world, trained like an idiot at times and earned about every injury you can name and let me tell you, I've had enough to learn my lesson. NOW I take a different approach, I train with precision, technique and science and check my ego at the door. WHO am I kidding? I do my BEST to check my ego at the door ;)

How has this worked for me so far? Well a couple of years ago when I wrote my e-book "Seriously Strong Hands" available on my website, I could quarter a deck of cards plus 4 (56 cards) with a fairly hard effort. Not too shabby, not elite by any means. I don't think Adam Glass is shaking in his boots or anything. Then I took several years off from tearing due to tendonitis (gone now thanks to Z-Health and smarter training). Recently I began tearing again. When I tried a full deck I could barely budge it, no tear! With my new approach I backed off to 42 or so cards and it went easy. I would add 2 cards each session and continue adding just 2 cards and sometimes only 1 as long as the tear felt fairly easy and I could focus on how I tore them not just tearing them. When it would get hard and I tried to effort through it I would always hit a brick wall; the dreaded training plateau. When I came back to my battle plan and relaxed my face, applied appropriate tension and focused on technique I made progress. Well tonight I quartered 75 cards with what I would call a medium effort. No biggie. A deck and a half (78 cards) would have fallen but I'll hit that in a week or two, no rush or else I risk moving into effort stage and losing technique perfection. Look, adaptation happens, you don't have to fight tooth and nail to make it happen. You don't have to work hard to get fat and out of shape, you don't have to work hard to sweat when it is hot out and you don't have to work so hard you puke to play the guitar well. Not that several well-known guitarists haven't spent a lot of time puking but that was for other reasons we won't get into.

One last thought on perceived effort. I recall reading a post on the Dragon Door forum where someone had attained 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 53 lb kettlebell, the SSST. Congrats to this individual, but something he said really stuck out to me. He said it was hard as hell and he never wanted to do it again. I recalled how a couple of months earlier I had hit 200 reps in 9 minutes and it felt like a perceived medium/hard effort. I could have done more than 200 reps but if I did it would have become hard.

Why do you or I need to make training hard? Is the goal 200 reps in 10 minutes, or is the goal to feel like you just got your arse kicked? If you can attain a level of fitness but it was so unpleasant that you can't maintain it then what is the point? I maintain my RKC snatch numbers year round because I keep it at a medium/hard level at worst and a medium effort at best. This from someone who doesn't really train the snatch much, and has no snatch goals.

I feel this is the real disconnect between the tension vs. relaxation argument. When perceived effort goes above the point where we are now very uncomfortable and don't enjoy our training we develop unnecessary tension and performance suffers.

Disagree with me and you are, as Greg Gutfeld host of Red Eye says, "probably a racist, homophobe who eats small children!" Just kidding… or am I? See, you are getting too tense!


How much tension is appropriate will be dependant on a number of factors; the lift (deadlift vs. a swing), the individual's skill and experience with the lift, the load, etc. Ultimately if you have a client you are training who does not understand how to generate tension then try some high tension techniques realizing that you can always back them down as appropriate. If you have a client full of tension then have them do some joint mobility work with the goal of staying as relaxed as possible. I would rather a newbie be overly tense and stable on a lift than loosey-goosy. I'm open for debate on this but if you are a professional and train clients who are motor challenged (slow learners) then you need to make a wise decision about how to proceed with their best interests in mind and it may not always be the same answer for each individual.

Tension vs. Relaxation, RKC vs. Z-Health, Count Chocula vs. Frankenberry???

Go ahead and argue these if you want, I'm going do what works for me; BOTH.

Plug up your leakage with tension and dial down your brakes with relaxation = appropriate balance of tension and relaxation.

Brian Copeland owns Copeland's Core Fitness and Progressive Combat Systems in Aurora, CO where he trains law enforcement, grandmas and all the people in between. Brian has been an RKC since 2006, is currently a Level 2 Z-Health Specialist and is certified by Sigung Paul Vunak in Jeet Kune Do, Rapid Assault Tactics and Force Continuum. Brian enjoys improving his athletic abilities, training his clients and long moonlit walks on the beach… but sadly there are no beaches in Colorado.