Throughout any given day, our muscles perform both big and little movements which help shape our mobility. Tension always plays a role, but tension can be applied in different manners having various impacts. Learn about the different types of tension and how to balance them creatively within a client’s workout.

Analyzing the Anatomy

Regardless of its location or function, all muscles in the human body bear one thing in common: the duet of muscle tissue itself and muscle fibers. The fibers, responsible for contracting and creating tension, generate what we refer to as compression tension, experienced when executing a deadlift or squat.

Fascia, which wraps around the muscle fibers, aids in the stabilization of the body. Holding a steel mace provides a good example of this function, known as leverage tension.

Here the discussion attempts to highlight the benefits of each form of tension, whether your client enjoys recreational weightlifting or participation in competitive sports.

Utilizing Leverage to the Client’s Advantage

Stability is best targeted with Leverage Based Tension. These exercises involve asymmetrical loads and/or holding a weight far away the midline of the body. This form of training can help many clients push past plateaus and unlock their strength potential.

There are several means through which a personal trainer can create asymmetrical loads when designing a workout program:

-Utilizing a single weight on one side of the body. Think, Farmer’s Walk holding only one weight

-Choosing two different weights on either side of the body.

-Positioning the client’s body into either a split stance, single-arm/leg, or alternating.

The Steel Mace, or the Core Hammer (developed by one of our own NFPT trainers) a unique piece of equipment not yet available in all fitness centers, utilizes loading only on one end. It resembles a weighted globe welded onto a long lever. When using the mace bell as a bodybuilding tool, the athlete holds it such that the load lies far away from the centerline of the body. As such, it confers a significantly uneven weight distribution. Even “lighter-weight” mace bells start to feel surprisingly heavy due to the long-levered offset design.

Advantages of Leverage Training

  • Improves Grip Strength
  • Increases Shoulder Strength/Mobility
  • Builds Rotational/Total Body Strength

The handle of a steel mace bell, typically thicker than the average barbell, fosters the development of forearm and grip strength. In addition, leverage movements create strength in the ligaments, tendons, and muscles while improving shoulder mobility.

Training the Transverse Plane

Leverage-based training enables one to move through all three planes of motion, with primary emphasis on the transverse plane. This plane controls both rotational movements as well as their resistance, making such training advantageous for sports performance. A strong, powerful core that comfortably rotates and resists rotation creates a foundation upon which the client can build balance, coordination, and acceleration/deceleration in all directions.

Leverage-based tension training is comprised of open-chained movements, whereby the end of the chain farthest from the body — usually the hand or foot, referred to as the “distal aspect of the extremity” — moves freely, not fixed to an object.

Variations on a Theme

If mace training does not quite suit your client, offer another great option to consider: dip-to-pushup supersets.

Whether performed on rings or standard dip bars, transitioning from dips to any type of pushup position significantly alters the leverage of the body. Another such superset example, the dumbbell fly-to-dumbbell bench press, serves several purposes. The motion involved in changing levers helps the client derive the most out of both exercises.

Perhaps trainers have witnessed, or themselves experienced, how using too heavy a weight when executing a dumbbell fly puts the shoulder at an increased risk of injury. In choosing this set of movements, or any superset utilizing higher volume repetitions, a lighter dumbbell suffices; one can retain the value of the exercise while reducing some of the potential risks.

Symmetrical Compression and Tension

When executing compression-based exercises, clients train with symmetric weight distribution. Deadlifts and goblet squats serve as prime examples of this type of loading, both of which confer a tremendous amount of compression straight down onto the muscles and joints.

Compression-based tension is an example of a closed chain kinetic movement. CKC techniques emphasize the sequential movement and placement of functionally-related joints, and therefore require coordinated muscle activation patterns to control proper joint movement.

Closed-chain exercises work many muscle groups and joints at once, allowing for more return from the energy expended. They also better mimic the activities of daily living, which means they improve “functional” fitness. Athletes, too, make good use of such exercises, since a multitude of sports require the concurrent movement of multiple joints and muscles.

Utilizing proprioceptive feedback, closed chain kinetic exercises stimulate systems within the body which in turn initiate patterns of muscle activation. When moving through closed chain exercises, the end of the chain farthest from the body remains fixed. Picture a squat, in which the feet remain firmly on the floor while the torso moves along with the rest of the leg chain. In the closed chain, movement at one segment produces movement at all the other joints. When executing a squat, therefore, the movement at the knee joint joins with movement at the hip and ankle joints.

The Value of the Pairing

As we have learned, the combination of tension and stability not only defines one’s ability to perform mechanically but enhances it as well. Thus, we can see the importance of including both types of exercises in a single session, in an effort to provide clients with complete and balanced workouts.


Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!