Personal Trainer Tips: How To Make Tension

Personal Trainer in Raleigh, Mike Richards, reviews several methods on how to make tension before and during some of the main lifts that we perform here at Capital Strength & Conditioning.

Today’s coaching cue for our STACFit Strength class is “make tension”.  Making tension during most exercises is extremely important. It will help maximize your strength by minimizing energy leaks you might have during movement.  Less energy lost means more efficient movement.  It will minimize the risk of injury by creating a stable foundation for your body to maintain appropriate posture during the entire exercise.  Making tension is something you should be doing every time you perform an exercise, if you want the absolute most out of your training.

So what exactly does someone have to do to make tension?  The answer is, it depends on the exercise.  Each exercise might require a different approach to tension.  There are a lot of similarities across the board, so let’s go over a few basic things you can apply to some of your main exercises the next time you come in to train.

First up, the Deadlift

  • Grip the bar as hard as you can.  Imagine melting the bar with your hands.  Then, try to bend the bar turning your hands out and pulling your elbows inward (pointing behind you).  “Bend The Bar”
  • Think about screwing your feet into the ground by trying to turn them out while they stay in the same position on the floor.  Also, drive your knees out like you are attempting to rip the floor in half. “Spread The Floor”
  • Pack your neck as if you are trying to make a double chin (think about pulling your chin to the back of your neck, NOT toward your chest).  And, lastly, before you actually lift the bar, take a big breath into your lungs, expanding your stomach and back.  Think 360 degrees of expansion throughout your abdomen.  Then, as that breath is in your belly, brace your core as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach. “Breathe Behind Your Shield”
  • Be sure that you are already slightly pulling the bar upward even before you lift the bar up, as this will ensure you don’t lose any power as you pull. “Pull The Slack Out”

The squat


  • When you have the bar on your upper back, you should be gripping it as hard as you can and pulling the bar down into your back to keep the entire back tight.
  • Without overextending your lower back, keep your chest up by tightening your upper back.
  • Again, spread the floor and screw your feet into the ground.
  • Before your descent into the squat, take a big breath in, expanding the abdomen 360 degrees followed by bracing your core as hard as you can.

The Overhead Press

People often forget to create tension when performing the press. Let’s review some pointers to make your overhead press stronger.

  • As you unrack the bar you should be gripping it as hard as possible and trying to bend the bar.
  • Before you actually press the bar you should be squeezing your butt as hard as possible while also bracing your core, thinking about keeping your ribs down.
  • Lastly, tuck your chin back and don’t look up or push your head forward.  At the top of the press your head should be between your arms, which is achieved by properly extending the arms overhead, not by jerking your neck forward.
  • Take note: By not bracing your core you’re allowing your ribs to flare out, risking too much extension in the lower back as well as forward head posture, increasing the risk of neck and back injury.  Creating the proper tension will minimize this risk.

Last but not least, the Bench Press

  • Start by finding your position under the bar.  Create a slight arch in your back, then drive your shoulders down and back as hard as you can.  People often lose that tension in the upper back when they unrack the weight, so be sure to stay tight.
  • Drive your feet into the ground as hard as you possibly can.  Grip the bar very tightly, as if you were trying to melt it with your hands.  Unrack the bar without losing position (use a lift off to help prevent this).
  • Once you have the weight in your hands, continue gripping the bar as tight as you can.  Try to bend the bar in half, turning your hands out (external rotation) and tucking your elbows into your lats.
  • Take a deep breath in, brace the core, and begin the exercise.

It may seem like too much to think about during a movement, but if you continue to practice these tension techniques they will eventually become natural to you.   Applying these methods will mean the difference between being all right at an exercise and absolutely owning a movement.  Now get to the gym, get tight, and get better results!