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High Tension: It’s More Than a Technique Requirement

High Tension RKC HardStyle Kettlebell Swings at Cal Poly

High tension is more than a technique requirement... it’s an attitude. It’s an intention. I have been doing this work for a very long time. I’m closing in on fifteen years as an RKC and I have been a college strength coach for nearly twenty years. What I can tell you is that 99.999% of the population have no idea what high tension is. They think they do, but they have no relationship with intensity. They are all like pretty little flowers. All have their own beauty, and their own experiences. Most—if not all—of those experiences have been more of the (ahem), softer variety.

It’s Not Their Fault

It really isn’t. You wouldn’t smack a four-year-old for not knowing the atomic weight of dysprosium, so don’t get frustrated with your clients or your athletes if they can’t get their intensity where you want it on day one. They don’t have the language. And as I said above, it’s primarily because they haven’t experienced what it means to be intense.

I have coached over 4,000 athletes in my career. The majority spend at least three years with me, many of them five years or more. You would assume athletes would have a natural slant towards high energy, big intensity and aggressiveness (like a football player), but most of their experiences have not been that intense. My friend Master RKC Phil Ross would likely agree that the only populations who have a genuine understanding of red line intensity are fighters and wrestlers. You would understand if you were in the cross-hairs of a left hook or being choked out on a daily basis.

With that being said, do you think a thirty-something desk jockey has the slightest understanding of what it means to push? Does that guy have a handle on what it means to cramp your glutes? Has he ever needed to brace his midsection to armor for a punch or kick? Has he ever pushed himself so hard that he’s familiar with the feeling of almost blacking out? You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding a regular Joe who has had experience with some of these concepts.

So, What The Hell Is It Then?

One of my favorite parts in Power to the People is when this very topic is discussed. It reads something along the lines of "the only time a person fully contracts every motor unit in their body is when they are being executed in the electric chair." Gruesome and poetic all at once. The brilliance of that statement is that it paints a very clear, concise message that every person, from every walk of life can understand.

The general population walk through their day with a governor on. Your nervous system has one job and one job only—to keep you alive. Everything else is fluff or a gracious bonus. It keeps your heart beating, your respiration consistent, and your defenses ready. The reason we have the "fight or flight" system is to give us a chance to escape from the charging bull. And this is all thanks to our trusty CNS.

Performance qualities like grace, power, fluidity, and athleticism are all nervous system adaptations that happen over time. Yes, take two very highly tuned individuals, throw in a bottle of wine and some Luther Vandross and viola—we have the next Michael Jordan. But even that genetically "gifted" offspring must take the time to develop their amazing talents to fully flourish. They must continually send very specific messages to their brain, and burn pathways into their CNS for that specific skill to be readily available. Think of downloading software on to your hard drive. That wonderful computer of yours, straight out of the box, is just a machine with a ton of potential. You then installed the appropriate software on that machine. Now it can do all the things you need, and do them lightning fast. Your brain is no different.

High tension falls into this spectrum. It’s something that you have to learn. It’s a quality that needs to be developed and then honed. Practice, practice, practice, especially if you want to see very specific results—the ones that athletes need.

Simple Science

The best way I have found to justify what we do is to take some very complicated biological and physiological phenomena and distill it down to the point where anyone can understand our "why". Once our super athlete above is born, there are some muscular-driven facts which typically cannot be altered. There are three basic types of muscle fibers in the body. Fast twitch fibers have the potential for huge power, but they burn out fast, slow twitch fibers cannot produce as much power but can go go go, and there are also intermediate fibers. Once a person enters their toddler years, those fibers have all but totally distinguished themselves as what they will be for the entirety of that person’s life.

If you read the science, what you will discover is the fast twitch fibers—the ones most of us are interested in developing because we want to be strong and fast—are very difficult to train. It takes a tremendous amount of incredibly high intensity and maximal load with Olympic lifting types of movements to really get them to change. Many of the complimentary power structures in the body (most specifically the connective tissues of the muscles and joints) reap the biggest alterations to traditional strength training, not the fibers themselves. There is some similarity with slow twitch fibers, and we have to get into enzymatic discussions and a bunch of other elements that further complicate and confuse the discussion.

What we all need to know is that the intermediate fibers are where the money is made. In the most basic sense, their job is to take on the qualities of either the fast twitch or slow twitch fibers as it pertains to the training stimulus. They can become whatever you want them to be. Herein lies the magic of the RKC system. We want those intermediates to act as fast twitch through our rules, so that the user can become as strong and powerful as possible. What the intermediate fibers typically cannot do is divide and split duties. So, you are either training for big output or for long output. You won’t be able to get both at once.

Pairing the understanding that the CNS is going to adapt to what you give it along with the idea that we have an opportunity to directly affect fiber distribution should get everyone excited. Make the declaration today that: I’m going to burn neural pathways into my body that will going to allow me to move with precision, speed and power; and, I have the opportunity to completely change the actual quantity (not quality) of muscle fibers to take on the role of big, powerful fast twitch fibers. The only necessity is a very succinct stimulus, effort, and massive amounts of tension.

Chris Holder Article Killian Double Kettlebell Press

How Do I Coach It?

I thought you would never ask. What you need to do is decide where you stand, philosophically. Anyone reading this is likely an RKC, HKC or PCC (or thinking about becoming one), so you have been through the ringer. You know what the standards are. Take the RKC for example, we have a very clear intent. We do it "this way" and not "that way". We are a high tension system because our goal is to bring about very specific qualities via the kettlebell. With that in mind, you have to make the decision to buy into this philosophy, whole and total.

The next thing you need (must have) is the ability to demonstrate precisely what you want. You have to embody exactly what your athletes are to replicate. This means realizing a few very real and potentially unpleasant truths about yourself. First, do you continually work on your skills? In order to run with the big dogs in our program, you have to keep your skills sharp. Next, do you perform the exercises with maximal tension in your own training, so that when the time comes to demo, you can give a clear example? If you can’t answer "yes" to both, don’t coach it. You aren’t qualified to demonstrate the RKC way and what we insist on, with any accuracy. Your clients can only mirror what they see. You might want to teach them how to swing hard, with maximal tension, but if you can’t provide them context, you will never get them where you want them to go.

Are you a dynamic speaker? Do you have a vast training vocabulary so that—no matter who is standing in front of you—you can say it multiple ways so they can eventually understand? I have to be a wordsmith in my job because I have kids from all walks of life coming through my doors all day long. I have seen brilliant coaches fail miserably while teaching an exercise because they are so locked into one way of saying things that they lose their audience. We all aspire to be Dan John-like. He’s a brilliant coach, but he’s not Dan John because he’s so smart. He’s Dan John because he’s an amazing speaker. He’s got an endless supply of stories, relatable anecdotes, and tips that allow him to have even the most snooty science guys at the edge of their seats. You could know only 10% of what is possible about training, but be a ninja with words, and get your clients and athletes in fighting shape. You could know 90% of what is possible to know, but be a total dunce with your words, and that 90% won’t matter. You will spend a lifetime of frustration in this profession. The reason Dan John is a force of nature is because he’s on the very high end of both.

In my mind, the last requirement for teaching the high tension philosophy is the insistence of maintaining a standard. A + B= C. It will never equal D. As long as you know that, then demand that you want C, and not D, and never waiver, your client will eventually find the sweet spot you are working so hard towards. The great thing about this little ditty is for me to get off my high horse and come clean with a couple things. First, I made the decision a long time ago to buy into the system the whole way. Second, I can demo a swing, a snatch, and a press with the best in the business. Third, I can talk circles around most anyone because I work on my vocabulary, my delivery, and I spend an enormous time refining how and why we do what we do (in my shop). Fourth, I have not always been on top of standards. I can tell you all a thousand reasons as why, but they excuses mired in laziness rather than true reasons.

What I can tell you for a fact is that your clients—and in my case, athletes—will always seek the path of least resistance. It’s human nature, and in our business (because most of what we do is either uncomfortable or painful) it’s almost a reflex for them to find the easiest way to do the job. High tension techniques are not, and never will be, the easy way. It’s the hidden second definition to HardStyle. In order for it to truly be HardStyle by the way we define it in the RKC, it has to have very specific elements. High tension is the gold standard for nearly everything we teach. Gold. Standard.

What will separate you from every other trainer in the business is your ability to be clear about what you want. Convey that message accurately, and then demand it every second moving forward. Our HKC and RKC systems in particular have well defined expectations when it comes to technique, intensity and tension requirements. In order for the system to work as it is designed, strict adherence to those requirements is mandatory for the type of adaptations we are all chasing. Power development, strength, speed, explosiveness, huge cardiovascular benefits, and fat loss like no other are at your fingertips...once you understand tension.

ChrisHolderQigong thumbnailChris Holder, Master RKC can be contacted by email at (mention RKC in the email subject so your email isn't accidentally deleted).