Master Dynamic Tension for Mobility and Strength

How can you increase the strength of your movements without ever touching a barbell?

There is something primal and satisfying about strong movement. Think of the incredible grace and terrifying power of a prowling tiger, or the way monkeys swing from branches and vines with ease while we humans struggle to pull ourselves up on a bar. Witnessing someone with the level of autonomy these animals have is a lesson in control that leaves an unforgettable impression.

Strength Without Contraptions

This ability has been embodied by generations of kung fu practitioners, Indian martial artists, and physical culturists. One name that rises above the rest in terms of movement culture is none other than Charles Atlas, the father of dynamic tension as we know it. Of course, Atlas did not invent the ability to voluntarily tense your muscles through a range of movement, but his courses highlighted a lack in our ability to train ourselves to peak fitness levels without apparatus.

This raw, animal strength is acquired through the natural tension developed through movement. Animals, including non-predators such as deer and squirrels, develop an incredible physical ability by moving through tension. Atlas applied this principle to his own training, and used it to create his famous workouts that improved the ability to master tension through movement.

Mobility Is More Than Flexibility

There is a quote that is becoming quite popular in martial arts circles: “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast.” Tension mastery is paramount in the physical conditioning of many martial artists, and being able to perform complex movements with control is like having internal resistance bands. You develop incredible mobility as your training develops.

Note that mobility and flexibility are not the same. Flexibility does not account for your ability to produce force in a given range of motion. Dynamic tension for mobility training enables your muscles to produce incredible power throughout your trained motions. Slow, focused training makes the peripheral nervous system highly efficient at quick bursts of muscle contractions.

Mastering dynamic tension allows you to train against your own muscular tension.

For this reason, I address dynamic tension training the way I would address training in a gravity chamber. If you entered a room where the gravity was perpetually higher than outside, your muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and breathing would all be under duress. However, once you left the room, you’d feel more powerful, even though the gravity outside is what you’ve been used to all your life.

Similarly, moving through space under your own muscular tension is like placing yourself in a gravity chamber every time you train. Eventually, you’ll be much more conditioned for “the outside.” This applies especially well to active workout recovery and rehabilitating injured sinews. Tendon and ligament injuries are often the biggest blocks to mobility training. An old shoulder, back, or hip injury can cause major impediments to fluid movement. However, the movement and force of dynamic tension aids blood flow to those injured areas. Because you control your own tension as opposed to using an external apparatus, you lessen your chances of suffering injury, and increase your strength and range of motion for the injured area.

Healing Through Dynamic Tension

A strong example of the potential for dynamic tension to aid healing was shown in a study on the effect of dynamic tension1 on peripheral nerve repair for a transected nerve. It is often thought that nerve repair operations have to be tension-free in order to be successful. Tension can sometimes hamper regeneration and impair blood supply to the nerves, thus leaving surgeons hesitant to apply tension to a nerve gap to close it.

This dogma was put to the test when a dynamic tension device was used on the transected nerve to reduce the nerve gap, and produced a “favorable functional outcome” in the surgery. This saved time and allowed for a smooth recovery comparable to a more expensive and potentially riskier nerve graft. 

What Does Dynamic Tension Look Like?

Below is a video of Sensei Shinyu Gushi (in his seventies at the time of filming) that demonstrates a ferocious example of lifelong dynamic tension training. Focus less on the specific movements, and more on the muscular, diaphragmatic, and sinew tension that is shown throughout these movements.

Improve the Mind-Muscle Connection

As you practice this style of movement, you develop neurological adaptations, strengthen your connective tissues, and improve your muscle control, or the mind-muscle connection. Apply these foundations to your own training, and share the results in the comments below.

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1. McDonald MD, David S, and Michael SG Bell MD FRCSC. “Peripheral nerve gap repair facilitated by a dynamic tension device.Canadian Journal of Plastic Surgery (2010 Spring) 18(1): e17–e19.

Teaser photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 1 courtesy of Jarell Lindsey.