Whenever I would watch a Bruce Lee film with friends or family, the fight scenes were always what stuck out as revolutionary to them.
Surely, they were right, seeing how his fight scenes revolutionized martial arts in modern cinema -- but the part of the films that stuck with me consistently was the dynamic tension that he would do.
Whether warming up for a death match with Chuck Norris, or simply going through his regular training motions on a sunlit balcony, Bruce Lee doing his lat spreads, fist clenches, and dynamic tension always drew my curiosity and attention.
His impressive physique coming alive made me look deeper into it; was there more to what he did than just looking good for the camera?
Charles Atlas thought so -- his studies of dynamic tension exercises (he coined the term) revolutionized the physical culture era of the early 20th century. He attributed much of his strength and physical development to dynamic tension training. Reading this got me to thinking about something my martial arts mentor taught me: slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Dynamic tension has been shown to improve muscle control and strength, but could it also be a secret key to speed development?
For my answers, I looked to a time before either Bruce Lee or Charles Atlas were even a thought; the era of ancient martial arts.
The Shaolin monks have a training classic from many years ago called the Yijin Jing (literally the “Muscle/Tendon Change Classic”) that contains 18 exercises intended to develop speed, strength, mobility, endurance, and balance.
As it goes for anyone who has seen a movie or live demonstration of Shaolin martial arts, the Shaolin monks have certainly developed all of the above from their training.
Reading about the exercises, however, helped me to realize that they are fundamentally dynamic tension exercises. One of the instructions for how to perform the exercises is “Movements are slow but full and tensed, face and body shows relaxed attitude.”
That’s the core of dynamic tension training - slow, but tensed and deliberate movements. How does this relate to speed training?
Well, the goal of plyometric training is often for SPP (specific physical preparation), meaning that someone will explosively train a specific movement to increase speed through nerve and fast twitch muscle development. The problem with this is that often, the health of the tendons isn’t accounted for.
Training which emphasizes such explosive movement often relies on momentum, and the torque on the connective tissues from momentum training often does more harm than good.
Furthermore, when training such momentum and speed, it can be even more difficult to truly master the technique, because continuous repetition at high speed is mistaken for smoothness. You focus so much on trying to explode into a movement, but the mechanics are often lost in the meantime.
“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Dynamic tension training requires slow movement, which is likely why many people believe that it isn’t the key to speed training, but that would come from a misunderstanding of muscle development. Intensity is what determines the development of your muscle, not speed.
If your training is not intense enough to require your fast twitch muscles to fatigue, your slow twitch muscle fibers, which recover quicker, will develop more and take on the work load. If a training is slow but has tremendous intensity, it will still develop fast twitch muscle fibers.
So controlling your tension is important; slow, but intense movement will depend on your own muscle control development.
And therein lies the key to the smoothness -- muscle control.
What people sometimes attribute to not having enough fast twitch muscle fibers is awkward or slower speed and movement. More often than not, however, they are addressing the muscle memory.
If you constantly perform a movement, your nervous system remembers the movement to make it more efficient and reduce the amount of muscle fibers recruited to perform it.
When you use dynamic tension, the muscle control that you use has your nerves tensing just enough to allow your muscles to move. Performing slow dynamic tension exercises can help your tense nerves and muscles get very used to performing the movements you wanna train, and builds incredible speed when you perform the same movements without the tension.
In my article “Master Dynamic Tension for Mobility and Strength”, there is a video of Sensei Shinyu Gushi performing the sanchin kata with hard dynamic tension. He is well into his 70’s in the video, yet his physique and speed, even with the tension, displays a level of physical mastery and muscle control rarely seen.
When you are exercising to develop speed of technique, or maybe just doing some grease-the-groove training, try adding some dynamic tension to your movements. One way I find I can easily train it is by walking -- simply walking while tensing the muscles in my legs has helped their overall strength and speed develop.
The dynamic tension I’ve performed with my upper body, along with isometric training, has developed the explosive strength I need to perform strength feats like bending horseshoes or railroad spikes. But furthermore, it has allowed me to apply sharper technique to all things I apply it to: basketball, football, martial arts, bodyweight training, etc. The slow but intense training has helped my technique in many things much, much smoother.
And above all else, know this -- “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
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