The Importance of Maximal Tension

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Fitness

TomHamilton_LogPress.PNGIt was on a trip out to California many years ago that Diamond first taught me the importance of staying tight and how it could bulletproof me against injuries and instantly add 20-40 pounds to all of my lifts.

I arrived from Newark Airport on a Wednesday night in LA and was scheduled to meet Diamond at Gold’s Gym in Venice the next morning at 10am. His name was Darren but everyone called him Diamond. Apparently it had something to do with his time playing for numerous baseball teams in the minor leagues.

Diamond was about 230 and ripped at 6’2” with huge tattooed forearms and a scar over his left eyebrow, apparently the result of a bench clearing brawl he initiated in Alabama one night after being hit by a pitch.

A buddy of mine had set me up with him to help improve my technique on the big lifts. Any time you can get a session with an expert lifter who is significantly stronger than you it’s an opportunity worth taking.

I met Diamond out front, shook his hand and he immediately suggested we start with the military press the move on to squats and deads.

So much for small talk, I thought as I glanced around at the scantily clad fitness models. For a kid from Jersey who doesn’t see a square inch of female flesh anywhere in public from September to mid May every year it was quite a sight.

“We’ll cover those three lifts today,” Diamond said to snap me back to reality.

“No bench?” I asked.

“No bench,” Diamond told me as we went over and set up a bar in the power rack.

At that time I had no idea what it meant to create tension and torque. I just unracked the bar, took a step back and pressed it up. Sadly, this is what most people do. That’s why most people are weak.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, put the bar back on the rack,” Diamond yelled. “You gotta get TIGHT!

When you grab that bar you’ve gotta create massive amounts of tension throughout your body. Try to crush the bar to dust.

Now, before you unrack it pull your ribs down and in. Brace your abs hard like you’re gonna take a Mike Tyson hook to the gut. You’ve gotta keep that braced position throughout the set to help transfer strength and to protect your lower back.”

I did what he said and unracked the bar.

“Hold on, put the bar back. Before you unrack it you’ve gotta create a shelf with your lats which you’ll press off of. So crush the bar, get the chest up, the abs braced and tense the lats.

GOOD! That’s it.

NOW, you can unrack it and step back.”

I did so and pressed the bar overhead a few times.

Diamond was already turning red and sweating; a guy who was obviously very passionate about moving big weights and coaching other’s to do the same.

“Ok, now the next thing you need to do is tighten up your lower body. Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can. You’re going to maintain that position throughout the set. That will make a huge difference in protecting your back and making you feel much safer and stronger while you press.”

I did a few reps with the bar and after only five minutes or so I was already drenched with sweat from just 45 pounds.

“Man, I can’t believe how much harder and how much more work this is,” I said.

“Yeah, no sh*t, bro. Most people have no clue. Look at that dude over there. He’s like a noodle from head to toe. That’s not how you get strong. And look at the girl doing endless reps with zero tension. Lazy f*ckers…”

After a quick break I grabbed the bar again.

“This time I want you to add another element. Once you’re in position I want you to corkscrew your feet into the ground. Sometimes you see guys who have no clue what they’re doing, just take two steps back, they don’t even know if their feet are even, they’re not even set. Then they press. And if the set becomes a struggle they may even shuffle their feet a bit during the set.

That is the EXACT opposite of what you want to happen. It all starts at your feet. They’re what’s connecting you to the ground. So they have to be corkscrewed in and you’re just one giant ball of tension from the ground up. That’s how you move big weights.”

heavy-overhead-press
A half hour into pressing the bar I couldn’t even imagine pressing big weights. I was getting wiped out with 45 pounds.

“Is it supposed to be harder to press like this? I mean with all the tension techniques you’re teaching me I’m getting exhausted.”

It’s a maximal effort, for sure. Every single rep is a maximal effort. That’s why unless you’re an advanced lifter you don’t do more than a handful of reps on big compound exercises.

It’s impossible to maintain maximal tension for more then five or six reps until you get really, really good at it.

Eventually you adapt to it and it’s not so hard anymore. It becomes second nature. But the average guy or girl at the gym will never get it. They’ll wonder why you’re breathing so hard after a set and assume it’s because you’re in horrible shape.

The reality is you’re breathing that hard because you know how to train properly and these lazy shmucks don’t. Maximizing tension is way too much work and way too hard for most people. They can’t do it. They’d rather squirm around and kick their feet and whatnot instead of getting tight.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” I said as a light bulb went off in my head.

“Try pressing the bar the old way, like you did a half hour ago when we first started,” Diamond said.

I did three reps with no tension like every other putz in the world does.

Then he told me to go through everything he had just taught me and do another three reps.

“Ya see?” he asked.

“Yeah. Wow. Huge freaking difference,” I said. “I can see how much stronger I’ll get doing this. I feel like I’m made of steel from head to toe.”

“Dude, you won’t even believe it. You’ll be up twenty pounds or so in no time.”

“Awesome. I’m psyched, man.”

“Now, one last thing,” Diamond said. “When you’re pressing the bar up to lockout, at the top I want you to show your armpits to the man or mirror in front of you.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Diamond demonstrated by doing what appeared to be a slight lat flare and sure enough I could see his go from facing slightly out to the side to facing directly toward me.

“Ah I see,” I said as I attempted and failed to do it a few times.

“That one takes time. But you’ll know when you get it. Keep working on it. I’m gonna grab a water. You want one?”

“Can you grab me a Carbo Force,” I asked as I handed Diamond a five.

Four hundred grams of carbs from liquid glucose is definitely required to recover from pressing a 45-pound bar I figured.

pagliaAs I prepared for my next set I noticed Denise Paglia twenty feet away from me doing Romanian deadlifts in short striped shorts and a matching sports bra.

My heart rate quickened and the sweat started to pour even more than before. This was my big chance. The day I had been waiting for.

She’s from Jersey, I’m from Jersey. She’s half Italian, I’m half Italian. She’s blazing hot, I’m… uh… sweating a lot.

How could this go wrong?

Suddenly a big hand slapped me in the gut from behind.

I doubled over and turned around to see Diamond laughing.

“You’re not staying tight. You have to constantly be practicing. Always maintain the ab tension. Now let’s go, grab the bar again and get back to work.”

I did what Diamond said and shortly after I saw Denise walk out of my life for good.

But what I got that day was much more valuable and stuck with me forever. I’ve coached numerous clients to maintain maximal tension and torque throughout the years and it’s helped them stay injury free and get STRONG!

Before you worry about anything else in your training it’s critically important that you know how to get tight, create torque and maximize tension. This will make a huge difference in how you look, feel and perform.

Stay tight, my friends.

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