Muscular Tensions: Another Way to Program

I want to first start out by saying that the content this article contains isn’t something you don’t already know, if you’ve been around for awhile. In fact, what is below is fairly synonymous with the Force vs. Time curve with which we’re all familiar. This is just another way of looking at the same subject we always examine, programming.

As strength and conditioning coaches, we deal in tensions; it’s what we do. Though, you would think it wasn’t as simple as just saying this. The development of the human body, specifically as it relates to performance, is dependent on specific tensions to be placed on the tissues and bones at specific times.

When we think of what implements to use, often times you can switch those out by which one will create the best type of tension we are looking for at the time. Without this specific tension, improvement in that specific trait merely does not exist. I really think this simple thought of tension is sometimes overlooked for more complex ways of training when, again, it comes back to which type of tension you need for the desired outcome. The answer to that question will ultimately drive the means and methods of training that follow to accomplish those goals.

As was popularized by Charles Poliquin way back when, time under tension falls right in line with what has been described above. So, what dictates the tension and results achieved? Below are specific examples for what I mean by “tensions” and how they relate to improving certain performance characteristics.

Tensions in Training for Power

Matt Wenning discusses using time as a training parameter a good deal in his training seminars. Time (and space) dictates our world, yes? So, it only makes sense that time could be one of the parameters used in training. And, along with load, time performing an exercise can be crucial to the physiological outcome.

Instead of repetitions, you could prescribe time per set for your athletes. If we know the parameters of a particular sport (say 5 seconds for a play in football), we can train the tension of the muscles or, put another way, muscle contraction to perform the same way. Remaining in those particular parameters, you can build the proper performance trait.

Load is also important here, as too much load provides too much tension. If the tension is too great, certain muscle groups cannot relax (at certain times) in order to then contract again at high velocities. You can think of an athlete who tries to sprint with a sled that is loaded with max weights, compared to that of an athlete who sprints free of external load. In the first case, the athlete is pulling against maximal load and straining to do so, which causes their musculature to be maximally tensed for long periods of time. Cycling, or muscle contraction/relaxation, does not take place because the load is too great. However, in the second case, the athlete is free of external load and they only have to control their internal load (musculature), which allows this cycling of contract, relax, repeat to happen at high velocities.

So, when trying to improve power in your athletes, you are really trying to improve the ability for the muscle to contract at high velocities (and also relax at high velocities), maintaining tension for very brief periods of time. Though, this tension would still be maximal but, again, for very brief periods of time.

Increased tension + increased load

Increased tension + increased load

Tensions in Training for Strength

Tensions in training for strength are going to be different than power; the time and degree of maximal tension will be much greater, though not as quick of a contraction. However, don’t assume that just because an athlete is training for strength, specifically, on a given exercise they should perform it slowly. There is always benefit in performing every repetition with maximal effort – in terms of velocity. This way, even if power is not the focus for the given day, block, etc., it is still being taxed to an extent. As the load becomes heavier, the time to complete the movement becomes greater, but then intent is still to move it as quickly as possible. This should also help to recruit fast-twitch motor units at a faster and greater rate.

Tensions in Training for Hypertrophy

Along the tension spectrum, training for hypertrophy (muscle size) shows a greater time in tension with less load than training for strength. In fact, tension is crucial in creating the stress necessary to damage muscle tissue and force the fibers to grow. So, if athletes are trying to gain mass, it would serve them best to lift at a slower, more controlled tempo in order to cause these changes. Higher velocity lifting would not help here, as that would put the muscle under tension for less time than is necessary for hypertrophy to occur.


I hope this gave you a different look into how to think about programming for your athletes’ cycle (or your own). Have any of you thought about this, or program in this way? What are your thoughts? Please share below in the comments section!

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Doug Berninger, MEd, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW is a guest contributor to the Volt Blog. He was an Assistant Strength Coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) World Headquarters Performance Center in Colorado Springs, CO. Learn more about Coach Berninger at Monumental Strength.