3 Strategies for Optimizing Mechanical Tension | Breaking Muscle
While chasing the pump is undoubtedly an effective way to stimulate hypertrophy, it’s not the only way to make your muscles grow. Mechanical tension, the force created when a muscle contracts isotonically against a load, is also a potent stimulator of muscle growth and should be incorporated into your weight training routine for maximal development.
This can be done by simply performing heavy, multi-joint free weight exercises, but there are also a number of training variables that can be manipulated to ensure you yield maximal hypertrophic gains from your training. Everything from loading parameters to exercise selection can be adjusted for better results and in this article, I’m going to share three of my favorite techniques that can dramatically increase the effectiveness of your workouts.
Choose the Correct Load
Using progressively heavier weights is the simplest and most effective way to increase the amount of mechanical tension being generated during an exercise. Load and tension are directly related and as the amount of weight on the bar increases, more muscular force is required to overcome the downward force exerted on the bar by gravity. This produces tension in the muscle fibers in an amount that is almost directly proportional to the load being used in the exercise.
The relationship between tension and load has important implications for program design and the intensity of the load (the amount of weight you lift expressed as a percentage of your 1RM) correlates directly with the number of reps you should perform for each exercise. To increase lean muscle mass, it is advisable that you lift weights in the 3-12 rep range. These rep ranges are equivalent to 90-70% of your 1RM and have been shown to produce the highest amount of mechanical tension during exercise.
In addition to selecting the correct loads and rep ranges, it is also important to apply the principle of progressive overload to your training. This can be achieved by simply adding 1.25-2.5kg to the bar every time you train and will ensure that you continue to place more tension on the muscle over time, forcing them to adapt by growing bigger and stronger.
Increase the Range of Motion
Not all exercises are created equal and the range of motion, strength curve, and the length-tension relationship of an exercise can all exert influence on the amount of mechanical tension generated by an exercise. For that reason it is important that you pay close attention to the different exercises that you incorporate into your routine, ensuring that only the most effective exercises make their way into your workouts.
Exercising your muscles through a full range of motion forces them to contract at the same time that they are being stretched. This creates a huge amount of tension and is just one of the reasons why working through a full range of motion is of paramount importance for anyone that is looking to build a muscular and athletic physique. In some instances, it can also be beneficial to deliberately extend the range of motion of an exercise to create even greater levels of tension.
The dumbbell bench press, for example, allows you to lower the dumbbells into a position past where the barbell would normally stop at the chest. This stretches the pecs to their full length, maximizing the length-tension relationship, before forcing them to contract and press the weights back up to the start position. Given the extended range of motion, you will likely have to use lighter weights for such an exercise so it is recommended that you use this technique for your accessory work rather than your main lifts which should be aiming to create tension by using loads that are equivalent to your 3-5RM.
Create Passive Tension
Passive tension is created when a two-joint muscle is stretched at one joint while it is forced to contract at the other joint. This produces a favorable length-tension relationship and maximizes the capacity of a muscle to produce force. It also increases the amount of mechanical tension the muscle is placed under, potentially increasing the hypertrophic response that will occur with proper rest and recovery.
Used correctly, passive tension can be used to target specific groups of fibers within a muscle which can accentuate muscular development and help you to develop a well proportioned, symmetrical physique.
Training the triceps in 180 degrees of shoulder flexion is a good example of how passive tension can be used to develop weak or under-developed body parts. The triceps are biarticulate crossing both the shoulder and then elbow joint however most tricep exercises, such as close-grip bench presses, dips, and press downs are all performed with the humerus starting or finishing in extension. This places the long head of the triceps in a shortened position, reducing tension and diminishing its role in the exercise. Placing the humerus above the head in shoulder flexion stretches out the long head of the triceps to its full length, maximizing the length-tension relationship and creating a large amount of passive tension. This enables you to target the long head of the triceps more effectively, promoting full and even development of the largest muscle of the upper arm. As well as the triceps, this technique can be applied to all two joint muscles including the biceps, calves, and hamstrings.
Use Loading and Tension to Your Advantage
Incremental loading, working through an extended range of motion, and creating passive tension are all effective strategies for increasing the amount of mechanical tension a muscle is subjected to during exercise. While incorporating these techniques into your routine will undoubtedly produce great results, it is important to remember that mechanical tension is just one way we can stimulate hypertrophy in skeletal muscle. For that reason, it is important that you do not get hung up on one particular style of training and instead utilize a variety of different exercises, rep ranges,