Why Athletes Need to Develop Tension


As an athlete, there are several qualities you need to develop if you expect to perform your sport at a high level. Strength is the foundation of those qualities and should be viewed as a staple in every strength and conditioning program. Strength can be defined as the ability to exert Force. Since the equation for Force is Mass x Acceleration (F=M x A), you can exert a lot of Force by moving an external load rapidly or by moving a heavier load slower. If you expect to move an external load fast and develop a lot of Force from the acceleration side of the equation, your nervous system needs to be well trained in the quality of rate coding. In short, rate coding is the nervous systems ability to send signals to the working muscles, so movement can occur. In contrast, the Mass side of the equation requires more of a focus on something called Intramuscular Tension. Intramuscular Tension (or just Tension) is the muscles ability to sustain activation and contract at high levels to exert Force. A great example of a population who needs to develop a ton of tension are Power Lifters. The amount of weight they lift during competition requires a lot of tension and does not require as much acceleration simply because the load is so heavy (impossible to move 2x body weight FAST.)

But how much of a focus should the standard athlete have on developing tension?

Simply put, there should be enough focus put on developing tension so the athlete can learn to do three basic things:

  1. Hold good position

If an athlete struggles to hold good position during a lift, flops around during plyometrics or can’t maintain the correct angle when they accelerate, chances are they lack the ability to develop enough tension. Tension helps create something called stability. Stability is just another way of saying you can maintain joint integrity or position during movement.

  1. Put more force into the ground

If you can apply more Force into the ground, you will have better ground reaction force (GRF). Based on Newtons Third Law (which says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) if you are strong enough to develop tension and push the ground away, you will jump higher and run faster.

  1. Avoid loading and landing through the wrong structures

If you can develop tension, you will load through your soft tissue and musculature, not your joints. Its very common for athletes who can’t properly develop tension to load though joints, putting them at a higher risk for injury (Think of loading through your musculature and soft tissue as your landing pad for high impact/high velocity movements)

In closing, being able to develop tension is an integral part of being a well-rounded athlete. Neglecting weight lifting and the associated modalities that help develop tension would only be a disservice to the athletes in your program.