You’re in the middle of a set, or maybe even a rep, and you feel your muscle about to rip off the done. This pain, you’re pumping hard so you know that the blood is flowing, but why this extra part? This tension on the done is caused by a crazy level of contraction and is an example of Mechanical Tension.
To get a better understanding of this, let’s break down the two ways to place tension on a muscle.
Passive tension. Bend over to touch your toes. Feel how your muscles begin to get tension on them while stretching? Your hamstrings will get pull tight and you’ll feel the tension start to mount. Passive tension takes place when your muscle isn’t active.
Active tension occurs when your muscle is flexing or contracting. Flex your biceps to show off your pump. This is an example of active tension.
Both active and passive tension are used when lifting in a full range of motion. Think of yourself on a bench press heavy, as the muscles lengthen (eccentric phase) and shorten (concentric phase), there is a combination of both active and passive tension. During this bench press, you are lowering the bar to your chest and expressing a complete degree of the movement potential of your shoulder and elbows. That means that you are fully opening (extension) and closing (flexing) the joints. In addition, because you are performing a heavy bench press, you are contracting your muscles to raise and lower the bar. This created tension on your muscles.
In order to maximize muscle growth by using the mechanical tension pathway, you must pick movements that include both eccentric and concentric phases, move thought a close to a full range of motion (depending on your ROM), and create maximal activation and contraction in the muscle by lifting the weight (example: maxing out or doing reps to failure)
While all reps build muscle, if you are trying to maximize your muscle-building potential, you must play with heavy reps and reps close to failure. These are by far the most muscle-building potential types of sets. If you perform only one set of full range of motion squats with lightweight, you will not stress the muscle enough to force adaptations and increase in size. But if you use enough weight for the rep range and do three sets, you will put enough tension on the muscles to stimulate growth. But keep in mind, heavy lifting does not always equal maximum tension on a muscle. Say you are doing a dip with weight added on you, you are squeezing at the chest (because it is chest day). You are using the movement to create a huge amount of tension on the chest. Now, let’s say you go to max out in a bench press. You are going to hype yourself up and only think about moving the weight. The goal is not to feel the bench press in your chest. The goal is to set a new personal record. In the dip, we used what is called the mind-muscle connection to force ourselves to concentrate on the muscle we want to build.
How can we use Mechanical Tension in our workouts?
Most programs will have a straightforward strategy of lifting heavyweight with a principle of progressive overloading and using the mind-muscle connection with low to medium reps (1 to 12 reps). Plus longer reps times between sets. There are more advanced systems such as Cluster / Rest-Pause Reps, Heavy Partial Reps, Enhanced Eccentrics, Pause Reps, and Force Reps. (note: I will cover all later in my blog). The take away from this post is having a better understanding of Mechanical Tension. If your goal is to grow a bigger chest or nicer legs, you would need to have a program designed on that goal. Heavy loads do not always produce high levels of mechanical tension on muscle fibers that make them grow. Try out the ‘mind-muscle connection’ and focus on the muscle while training. Let me know if you feel the pump or the muscle wanting to come off the bone your next workout.