January 1, 2014

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Constant Tension Is What It's All About

Stimulate – Definition: to excite/cause

Growth – Definition: the gradual increase

Results Are Linked To One Common Attribute

Stimulating growth is the one common attribute that links nearly everyone’s fitness goals together either directly, or indirectly. A larger muscle will directly influence how much force can be generated (this is beneficial for those looking to improve performance, or rehabilitate an injury), and indirectly positively affect ones health (by improving body composition and therefore health, and also contributing to a leaner, more developed physique, which likely also increase self-esteem/mood).

Ya Gotta Lift To Grow...

 ‘Lifting weights’ is likely the most obvious activity associated with stimulating growth, AKA building muscle, but the term itself is very vague, to say the least, and can easily paint a rather intimidating picture to those looking to accomplish any of the goals listed above (bigger, faster, stronger, healthier, happier, better looking) that have limited weight training knowledge. More often than not, ‘lifting weights’ creates the perception that fully loaded barbells are needed to build muscle (which they definitely do quite well), and the muscle built as a result of lifting those weights will resemble that of a professional bodybuilder (which may, or may not be, the desired outcome. IF only it was that easy!).

What You Don’t Gotta Do...

There is a marked correlation between ones strength levels and their capacity to build muscle, in that the stronger one is, the more muscle one can potentially build. There is also somewhat of a ceiling in terms of how much strength one can develop at a given bodyweight. The human body is capable of remarkable things, but there comes a time when the strength levels level off and further improvements occur at a snail’s pace. Gradual continued increases in strength will then only take place in direct proportion to increases in bodyweight. This same thing can also be said about building muscle, as there is only a certain amount of muscle one can hold on a given frame, however, increases in muscle mass can be continue to take place after strength has piqued and reached a plateau (which may then lead to future increases in strength development).

What You At Least Gotta Do...

Lifting heavy is a known potent stimulator for growth, but there is an elevated risk that comes with placing your body under bar-bending loads. Combine that with chronic, nagging, repetitive stress injuries that many seasoned lifters have to deal with, and you have a recipe for disaster, or a missed workout due to a lack of motivation. The good news, as bodybuilders have seemingly known for decades, is that you don’t have to put yourself in a situation where you need several minutes to psych yourself up enough to attempt to lift a given weight in an attempt to build some muscle.

Some literature suggests that the protein synthetic response to a SINGLE bout of training is similar with loads varying between 90% of maximum, to as low as 30% of maximum, and that loads on the lower end of the spectrum, around 30%, also have a sustained synthetic response of specific protein fractions (myofibrillar, sarcoplasmic). This then suggests that lighter load training, to failure, is potentially superior for hypertrophy, AKA stimulating growth.

It’s Not What You Lift, It’s How You Lift It!

As it relates to communication, tone can have a profound effect on how one perceives a message that is being delivered, hence the saying, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’. Well, this same motto can easily be appropriately applied to weight training, given a few minor substitutions.

How many times have you seen someone performing a certain exercise, and you say to yourself ‘(s)he’s not doing that right’? Chances are, even with a limited amount of training experience, anyone reading this has likely experienced a moment like this. This is where the same motto above about tone can be modified to say, ‘it’s not what you lift, it’s how you lift it’.

The manner in which an exercise is performed will greatly affect the end result, but I’m not talking about the actual execution of an exercise in terms of what proper technique is. It should go without saying that if you simply aren’t performing the exercise is a safe and effective manner the end result will be compromised. I’m more so referring to other variables like the amount of weight lifted, and the tempo in which it is raised and lowered greatly affecting the outcome.

Slow And Steady Wins The (Size) Race

Assuming technique is as flawless as can be, one way to increase the amount of intramuscular tension and stimulate growth, without risking injury by lifting near maximal weights, or working around an injury, is to slow down the speed of contraction/repetition.

Generally, intramuscular tension (the amount of force needed by a muscle to perform its function) is proportionate to the amount of weight lifted in that heavier loads generate greater levels of intramuscular tension than lighter loads, if the speed of repetition is the same. While speeding things up, or at least intending to lift as fast as possible, enhances intramuscular tension, it also reduces the duration in which the muscles are placed under tension.

Slowing things down however, seems to noticeably increase the difficulty of any movement (try to perform your current routine with the same weights at a much slower tempo if you are unsure), which would suggest that the lower levels of tension generally associated with the lighter loads needed to slow things down, are more than made up for by the reduction in tempo of execution.

How Is This Possible?

A dynamic muscle contraction (shortening followed by lengthening against resistance) has a rhythmic effect on blood flow. During intense muscular contraction metabolites build up (that burning feeling you get) and leak out of the muscle, resulting in an increased blood flow to the muscle to clear away the metabolic waste. This process is necessary as it enables further muscular contraction to take place, as a buildup of metabolic waste inhibits muscular contraction.

When a muscle is maximally contracted blood is unable to get into the muscle. When the muscle relaxes however, either between repetitions or during the eccentric portion of a repetition if it isn’t controlled, blood is able to clear out the metabolic waste that accumulates from sustained muscular contraction and provide the oxygen needed for slow twitch muscle fibers to activate.

*Worth noting is that the larger, high threshold motor units are preferentially recruited in the absence of oxygen and you don’t need to lift fast or heavy to make this happen, as slow twitch muscle fibers rely on the presence of oxygen.

But what happens if you consciously attempt to prevent the muscle from relaxing, and allowing blood to clear the metabolic waste?

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

The body is reactive organism. If we want to get a specific response from our body, like stimulating growth, we need to consciously make decisions that breakdown or reduce our current level of physical preparedness, so that it responds by heightening our level of physical preparedness by adding more or building up in an opposite manner.

For example, lifting weights in general breaks down muscle tissue, and the body responds by building up bigger and stronger than before the weights were lifted (assuming the workload was not too much, and rest and nutrition are adequate). The body has no other choice but to operate in a reactive manner, as it cannot predict future behaviour, only adapt to most recent behaviour. It’s a cyclic organism, and all systems of the body work in this manner.

Occlusion, Hypoxia, And Hyperemia... What?

Three notable things take place when you consciously attempt to prevent the muscle from relaxing.

1.    The constant tension, known as occlusion, prevents blood from entering the muscle and clearing out the metabolic waste/by products.
2.    This creates a hypoxic, oxygen deprived state, in which the high threshold motor units are left to take on the work, and also sets the stage for a surge of blood to enter when tension is released.
3.    The body reacts to the hypoxia (oxygen deprived state) by flooding the area with as much oxygen rich blood as possible (which increases nutrient uptake as well), called hyperemia, or in this case reactive hyperemia since it is the body’s way of reacting to what’s taking place.

This is best accomplished by maintaining maximal tension for as long as possible before allowing the muscle to relax, which is best accomplished by lifting a weight you can completely control. The more tension produced (voluntarily by squeezing), the more muscle damage (protein degradation) that occurs, especially as the duration increases. The longer the set goes on for, the more metabolic waste and lactate that accumulates, creating a very acidic pH which the body responds to by producing more growth hormone and IGF-1, as well as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) which increases satellite cell activation and proliferation. Talk about stimulating growth!

So What Are You Trying To Tell Me?

There’s a misconception in regards to stimulating growth in that you have to lift heavy weights if you want to get bigger, or stimulate the growth needed to accomplish pretty much any fitness related goal, but this simply is not the case.

While lifting heavy weights will generally equate to greater levels of involuntary intramuscular tension and protein degradation (involuntary being the key word there), if you voluntarily focus on tensing your muscles as hard as possible while lifting a relatively lighter weight that you have complete control of, you can quickly level the playing field, so to speak. Doing so, results in a very favorable positive hormonal response, increased nutrient uptake, and satellite cell activity.

The Role Of Fascia In All Of This

Another primary benefit that comes from lifting lighter weights and trying to pump the muscle up as best you can has to do with the effect on the enveloping fascia. Muscle (along with everything else inside the body) is enveloped by connective tissue known as fascia, and this fascia can limit growth if it doesn’t expand to allow for the muscle within it to grow to its potential. This means that the fascia can essentially have a limiting effect to how much muscle can be built within it if it isn’t forced to expand in direct proportion to the desired increase in muscle mass. If the fascia is resistant to expand and allow for the muscle within it to increase in size, you will not get the greatest return per investment of time/effort.

Fascia, like muscles, is reactive, which means if you want it to expand it will respond best to pressure that is continuously exerted upon it. Therefore, if you want to force the fascia to expand to allow for more muscle to be built within it, you need to exert as much outward pressure upon it as possible, and the way to do this most effectively is to pump up your muscles with the techniques suggested above.

Don’t Forget About The Other 23 Hours In The Day

Thus far this article has had to do with what you can do, and what you don’t necessarily have to do, in the gym to stimulate growth and accomplish your fitness related goals. But where a lot of people go wrong is they fail to acknowledge the significance of the other 23 hours that make up the day in which you are not in the gym.

Pumping the muscles with lighter loads is very glycogen depleting, and if you fail to provide your body with the nutrients needed, you are leaving gains behind that you would otherwise be able to capitalize on. Given that the body works in a reactive manner, it only makes sense that replenishing the muscles with carbs in the post workout window is in your best interest, as this is the time that your glycogen depleted muscles will be ready to soak up more than they originally had, leaving you with a larger, fuller muscle, to exert outward pressure on the surrounding tissue to facilitate newfound growth.

Also worth noting is the importance of water, and how being adequately hydrated will positively affect performance and subsequent results. Given that muscles are roughly made up of ¾ water, and fascia heavily relies on water to be able to function properly and facilitate fluent movement through a full range of motion, it would be in your best interest to provide your body with an adequate amount of water so that you can perform and recover to the best of your physical ability.


If stimulating growth is the goal, as it likely is at one point or another given that pretty much all fitness goals are linked to that one attribute in one way or another, then it would be logical to look to those who have had the greatest success stimulating growth for clues. Even if you don’t want to be a bodybuilder, there’s a lot that can be learned from the way they typically train, that can help you get to where you want to go, faster.

The major clues that can be pulled from a bodybuilder’s style of training, and likely the reason for their impressive levels of muscularity in relation to powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and strongman competitors is that they use weights light enough to:

-          Completely control, and focus on directing as much tension on the muscle, or compartment of a muscle, that they want to further develop
-          Provide constant tension throughout a full range of motion and prevent blood from getting into the muscle, so that when tension is released, there is an influx of nutrient rich oxygenated blood surging into the muscle
-          Expose the muscles to enough volume to create enough protein degradation to stimulate a growth response without completely frying their nervous system
-          Fully deplete glycogen storage and create a need for the muscles to soak up more glycogen than before
-          Spare their joints from the chronic wear and tear that is typically associated with lifting heavy weights
-          Pump as much blood to the targeted area as possible to exert as much outward pressure on the muscles and enveloping connective tissue, which will be perceived as a threat to the structure’s integrity, causing it to respond by expanding and allowing growth

On top of that, by providing the body with sufficient carb consumption in the post workout window, and remaining hydrated throughout the day, they set themselves up to remain in an anabolic state for as many hours per day as possible.

Enough Already, Just Tell Me What To Do – Practical Application (Loading Parameters)

Intensity: as high as 80%, and as low as 30% of maximum to allow a decent amount of reps to be performed for a sustained period of time

Sets: ideally more than 3, as volume is going to be key in stimulating growth at the expense of using lighter loads

Reps: ideally more than 7, as anything under 7 is generally assigned for strength development, because it usually fails to provide the amount of tension necessary to stimulate the most growth

Rest: anywhere between 15 and 60 seconds is ideal, depending on the level of exertion of the previous set, but less rest is more effective if maximizing the duration to which the muscles are subjected to tension is concerned

Tempo: slow eccentric, and even slow concentric, while avoiding pausing in a position where the tension is removed from the muscle, although pausing between the concentric and eccentric portion of a rep can be beneficial if it enables you to squeeze harder, not if the purpose is to relax

*Slow eccentrics with relatively light weights, in which you feel the muscle stretching under load, will not cause serious muscle tearing and impair recovery, but it will activate the mTOR pathway which is responsible for protein synthesis.

Number of exercises: depends on how many sets and reps you choose to perform, but ideally aim for 3 or more exercises, as the more angles you can apply tension from, the more thoroughly you will stimulate all of the muscle to grow

*Isolated, single joint exercises work best for providing constant tension because the tension is very concentrated to one area, as opposed to a compound movement in which the tension is divided between all the major muscles involved in the lift.

Is It Even Worth It To Lift Heavy?

The reason I decided to shine light on the benefits of lifting lighter loads to stimulate growth is not so much because of their undoubted effectiveness, when performed correctly, but because of the mental burden that comes with the thought that you have got to constantly lift heavier and heavier to continue progressing. For years my goal was to get continuously stronger and stronger, as I associated increases in strength development with increases in muscle mass, and when it seemed like I couldn’t get any stronger at the bodyweight I was at, and I couldn’t gain anymore weight, I felt demotivated to continue to push myself as hard as possible day in, day out, because the injuries were starting to pile up.

Eventually I got to a point where I had to find ways to work around the injuries I gave myself as a result of relentlessly pursuing strength gains, with the hopes that they would translate into size gains, as my primary goal when I started lifting weights was to develop my body to be as aesthetically appealing in my eyes, as I could (which included adding a lot of muscle mass).

What I don’t want to be mistaken for is that no one needs to lift heavy. That’s not the point here. Heavy lifting will always have a place in any growth stimulating program. The point here is that it’s not 100% necessary to always lift heavy, especially for those who are physically unable to lift heavy anymore due to injury.

For the experienced lifter, who has been at roughly the same strength level for an extended period of time, and is having great difficulty getting stronger at their current bodyweight, gains in size and development can still be made without having to get under an intimidating heavy barbell every single training session, and as long as you are still willing to work hard, you can be smart about your approach and still get results.

For the novice lifter who still has tons of strength gains to be made, I would advise to focus on that for as long as possible, and until you hit that ‘ceiling’ in which it is extremely challenging to continue getting stronger, don’t bother with focusing on stimulating growth as your primary goal, but rather allow it to happen secondarily, as gains in size will come as the strength continues to go up. Once you’ve maxed out your strength per se, you can begin to focus primarily on stimulating growth, as you will be able to handle heavier loads for your ‘light’ workouts, which means more intramuscular tension no matter how you look at it.

If you have any questions about how you can implement any of the content outlined throughout this article into a routine, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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