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Everything You Don't Understand About Dynamic Tension

A young Charles Atlas

Here's everything you don't understand about dynamic tension.

The term itself, especially for those who’ve trained under the system presented by Charles Atlas, presents an whole set of assumptions for the potential of the exercise.

Let’s get real; anyone who uses dynamic tension in the modern strength world does so with the understanding that there is a limit to their potential progress with dynamic tension, and that it’s a filler training until the nearest weight set finds its way into your hands.

Even Atlas himself had allegations of weight usage outside his incredible system of exercise, though his closer associates like Tom Manfre (Mr. World 1953) and Charles P. Roman (Atlas' publicist) say they never saw Atlas training with weights.

Nevertheless, you won’t find many people in the strength training world who attribute their massive gains to dynamic tension.

Perhaps, then...you’re looking in the wrong place.

After all, dynamic tension is simply a term that Atlas coined for his exercises...the exercise itself, the art of tensing your muscles to varying degrees through a range of movement…

That art is perhaps as old as movement itself.

So for a true gauge of the limits of dynamic tension training, I looked into one of the oldest documented systems of dynamic tension training:

Martial arts.

Shiny Gushi Sensei, who used the dynamic tension training in sanchin to stay approximately this defined and chiseled well into his 70's

After all, for thousands of years, martial artists have been perfecting various methods of training the human body to its physical limitations, with or without apparatus.

If you look at one of the oldest strength training classics the Shaolin monastery has to offer, the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic), is a critical element in the physical conditioning of the Shaolin monks, and the movements require slow, tensed movements to fully engage the muscle and tendon systems of the body.

Tensing through movement is the core of dynamic tension.

Perhaps you’ve seen the Shaolin and the level of athleticism and power they can produce, but aren’t impressed. After all, they don’t fight competitively, so it’s difficult to gauge the true power input for a true fighting scenario.

Though personally, Shifu Yan Lei can keep the business side of his roundhouse away from me

Then allow me to present to you another dynamic tension trainer with an actual fight record, who you may have heard of:

The Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey.

Jack Dempsey was good friends with both Otto Arco, an oldtime strongman known as the “Magician of Muscle”, and Stanislaus Zbyszko, a wrestler from the era before fixed, entertainment based wrestling matches.

Dempsey would train dynamic tension exercises in order to develop devastating power with his punches, and to develop the thickness of his back and movement of his scapulae.

Dempsey, Zbyszko and Arco at the Zbyszko cottage in Maine

“Alright, Jarell, you’re talking about fighters, what about weightlifters?”

Well you’ve likely already heard about dynamic tension in weightlifting, as the term “mind-muscle connection.”

One of the hang-ups of dynamic tension training for some is that it requires you to have a sufficient level of muscle control for the exercises. What I find, however, is that dynamic tension is a phenomenal way to develop your overall muscle control, and that’s a way that bodybuilders will kick their training into high gear.

The Austrian Oak would talk about his routines of flexing for hours at a time in and through different positions, and how he would tense his muscles as hard as he could while his would do isolating movements.

Alas, dynamic tension goes beyond isolating movements. As you continue to incorporate dynamic tension into your general movement training, you’ll develop the ability to flex groups of muscle at a time. Try doing a full bear crawl with slow, tense focus on your shoulders, arms, legs, and core. The benefits will be incredible once you truly delve into the movements.

Especially if you apply dynamic tension to weighted vest training with pistol squats

“You keep saying ‘slow, tense’ movements. Are you saying dynamic tension can’t develop speed, explosion, or fast twitch muscle?”

No. Quite the opposite. First off, the idea that fast twitch muscle is developed through explosion is a misunderstanding of muscle. When you’re exploding into a movement, your muscle is certainly a part of it, but the kind of muscle that you train is based on the level of intensity you train, not the speed.

They’re called fast-twitch muscles based on the speed that the muscles fatigue, because they produce incredible power and fatigue quickly, as opposed to the slow-twitch muscle focused on endurance with a slow fatigue and quick recovery.

In other words, if your intention is intense tension, your fast-twitch muscle will develop.

The other side of developing speed is the nervous system development. When you first perform a movement, your nervous system isn’t as specifically catered to that movement. As you continue to train it, your myelin sheath in your peripheral nervous system thickens, allowing your nerves to conduct signals much quicker for those specific movements, because your muscle has “remembered” the movements.

Training explosion in order to develop speed may be one way to develop that muscle if the intensity is there, and the myelination can develop overtime. Yet, one of the ignored factors in explosive training, oftentimes, is momentum. You aren’t exploding so much as allowing the force of your movement to carry you through the task, which puts strain on your joints and reduces your chances to develop that myelination for your movements.

My mentor would often tell me the simple maxim: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

As you train the movements with the intention of intense tension, you will develop the truest, myofibrillar muscle that you can develop, with the incredible tendon support to back it up. Furthermore, since you are flexing your muscles through the slow movements, your nervous system is constantly firing to record the movements you perform.

If you’re performing slow, tense movements with dynamic tension, your technique can be much more flawless, and your results will show it.

Any other questions or comments about dynamic tension? Feel free to comment about it, and share the article so others can have their questions answered or produced by this article. Next time, I'll talk about dynamic tension exercises for the legs, and what most trainers get wrong about bodyweight leg exercises. 

Stay tuned.

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Gordon Anderson 
What we call Dynamic Tension today has been around for centuries under various names and has been used to develop the potential power that we all …

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