You might look like a beast grinding through heavy weight, but you're not doing yourself many favors in the hypertrophy department. Pushing top-end weight with sub-optimal form may help you increase strength, but it won't maximize muscle growth.

 

Performing a one-rep max has little benefit for hypertrophy because form and focus go out the window. As a result, you create little tension in the working muscle. But your body doesn't know how much weight you're lifting. All it knows is the amount of tension it feels.

 

The cool part is you can make a 30lb weight feel like 60lb if you execute a lift properly. By focusing on tension, you'll not only decrease your chance of injury, but you’ll also unlock the door to a beastly physique.

 

Focus solely on the working muscle to create tension.

 

Tension Will Build Mass

According to research from Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, mechanical tension is one of three primary factors associated with muscle growth, as well as muscle damage and metabolic stress. Tension from strength training disturbs the integrity of skeletal muscle, causing cellular responses in myofibers and satellite cells.1

 

Tension has a huge anabolic effect and plays a role in hypertrophy, partially because of an increased rate of protein synthesis.2 Bodybuilders are more muscular than powerlifters because they focus more on stressing a muscle through its full range of motion for an entire set. Bodybuilders decrease the weight or range of motion before sacrificing form, and they don’t pause for long at the top or bottom of a rep in order to keep tension in the working muscle.

 

Other research suggests the amount of time a muscle is under tension is important for muscle growth. According to a 2011 study by Burd et al., a leg extension exercise performed at 30 percent of the best effort with a slow lifting movement (six seconds up, six seconds down) produced greater increases in the rate of muscle protein synthesis than the same weight lifted rapidly (one second up, one second down).3

 

So if you want to get jacked, you may want to lift a bit slower. Keeping constant tension at moderate speeds has been proven to improve muscle ischemia and hypoxia, which assist in muscle growth.1

 

Tension Will Make You Strong

The mind-muscle connection is a term you’ll hear in bodybuilding circles quite often, and for good reason. To work the right muscle, you’ve got to understand when it is fully shortened and fully lengthened. Placing the focus on contracting muscles is one reason bodybuilders emphasize on form before load. Once again, your muscles know tension, not the amount of weight you’re lifting.

 

If you’re trying to build your shoulders, you’re much better off using a lighter weight during a strict dumbbell overhead press and focusing on moving only your shoulder blades and arms. Don’t even think about arching your back or dipping your knees. When training for hypertrophy, never allow motion in any other area of your body.

 

"By focusing on tension, you'll not only decrease your chance of injury, but you’ll also unlock the door to a beastly physique."

To reap the benefits of muscle tension while avoiding injury, you’ve got to learn the function and range of motion of each muscle. For example, the main action of the biceps brachii is to flex your elbow and supinate your forearm, so you must be in full elbow flexion and forearm supination to contract your biceps. That means no flexing your wrists at the top of a biceps curl, bro! Quit trying to be a hero and just go down in weight. You can have a highly effective biceps workout using only 10lb or 15lb dumbbells.

 

If you don’t think bodybuilders use light weight, go to YouTube and watch videos of bodybuilding superstars Phil Heath and Kai Greene. They have more muscle than almost anyone in the world, and they’ll use shockingly light weights on many exercises. Understand how to properly contract your muscles, and your results will skyrocket.

 

Tension Will Reduce Your Chance of Injury

Not only is tension wickedly effective in inducing muscle growth, but it also can help reduce your likelihood of injury. Think about it. If you aim to keep perfect form and focus solely on stressing the working muscle, you’ll keep tension on the muscle without irritating your joints. Your muscles may burn like crazy, but you’ll avoid a trip to the chiropractor.

 

That’s not to say you can’t get injured using bodybuilding-style tactics. If you don’t recover properly, you can certainly strain a muscle. Make sure you spend some time foam rolling, stretching, meditating, sleeping, and eating well to keep your body healthy.

 

Exercise can be a painful experience if done incorrectly, which is why it’s important to seek the assistance of a qualified professional if you’re not completely sure what you’re doing. Quality fitness professionals get paid big bucks because they know how to execute exercises safely to build lean and functional muscle.

 

Sample Upper-Body Workout

 

So what do you do with all this information? Here’s a sample upper-body routine you can use next time you hit the gym. During all exercises, lower the weight for three seconds and explode the weight back up. Rest 45 seconds between each set and 2-3 minutes between exercises. Pay careful attention to the cues.

 

1. Dumbbell Bench Press

Rep Scheme: 4 sets x 8 reps

How to Do It:

  1. Lie on a flat bench with your shoulders back and down. Pretend you’re trying to put your shoulder blades in your back pockets.
  2. Keep a slight arch in your low back, but engage your core like someone is going to punch you in the stomach.
  3. With your elbows at 45 degrees from your body, lower the weight under control until you get a deep stretch in your pectorals.
  4. Explode the weight up, but don’t lock out your elbows or pause at the top.

 

Technique video: Dumbbell Bench Press

 

2. Incline Bench Press

Rep Scheme: 4 sets x 8 reps

How to Do It:

  1. Lie on an incline bench with your shoulders back and down. Once again, pretend you’re trying to put your shoulder blades in your back pockets and keep a slight arch in your low back while engaging your core like someone is going to punch you in the stomach.
  2. With your elbows at 45 degrees from your body, lower the weight until you get the bar about an inch above your chest.
  3. Press the weight back up, pretending you’re trying to touch your elbows together. Again, don’t lock out your elbows or pause at the top.

 

Technique video: Incline Bench Press

 

3. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Rep Scheme: 4 sets x 10 reps/side

How to Do It:

  1. Put your opposite knee on top of a bench to take the core stabilization requirement out of the exercise. Puff your chest out so your back is flat.
  2. Start with your shoulder blade fully forward. Then, pretend you’re putting your elbow in your opposite back pocket and squeeze your lats at the top of the rep.
  3. Lower the weight under control.

 

Technique video: Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

 

4. Wide-Grip Lat Pull Down

Rep Scheme: 4 sets x 10 reps

How to Do It:

  1. Sit down at the machine with your chest puffed out so your back is flat.
  2. Using the attachment with a long handle, pull the bar with your lats and squeeze hard at the bottom. Don’t focus on lifting the weight. Instead, focus on initiating the pull with your back muscles.
  3. Let the weight come back up until your lats are in a full stretch.

 

Technique video: Wide-Grip Lat Pull Down

 

5. Alternating Dumbbell Curl

Rep Scheme: 3 sets x 10 reps/side

How to Do It:

  1. Stand tall with a broad chest and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Without letting your elbow move, curl the weight up as you keep your wrist extended. As you bring the weight up, rotate your forearms outward until you get a deep contraction of your biceps.
  3. Lower the weight and squeeze your triceps at the bottom to get the full range of motion.

 

Technique vide: Alternating Dumbbell Curl

 

6. Dumbbell Triceps Kickback

Rep Scheme: 3 sets x 10 reps/side

How to Do It:

  1. Put your opposite knee on top of a bench to take the core stabilization requirement out of the exercise. Puff your chest out so your back is flat.
  2. Bring your arm behind your body to take the shoulders out of the exercise and isolate the triceps.
  3. Without letting your elbow drop, lift your forearm up until you feel a contraction in your triceps.
  4. Lower the weight back down without letting your upper arm come in front of your body.

 

Technique video: Dumbbell Triceps Kickback

 

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References

1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24 (2010): 2857-872.

2. Miyazaki, Mitsunori, Karyn A. Esser. “Cellular mechanisms regulating protein synthesis and skeletal muscle hypertrophy in animals.” Journal of Applied Physiology 106 (2009): 1367-1373.

3. Burd, Nicholas A., Richard J. Andrews, Daniel WD West, Jonathan P. Little, Andrew JR Cochran, Amy J. Hector, Joshua GA Cashaback, Martin J. Gibala, James R. Potvin, Steven K. Baker, Stuart M. Phillips. “Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates different muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men.” The Journal of Physiology 590 (2012): 351-362.

 

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