Maintain Tension

Maintain Tension
by Erik Castiglione

Maintain Tension
Courtesy of

Why is the bench press easier than the overhead press? And why do many people have an easier time performing a single rep of the squat rather than a single deadlift? Well, most lifts are comprised of two parts: the eccentric (negative) portion of the lift, and the concentric (positive) portion of the lift. The squat variations we perform, and the bench press all begin with the eccentric, while the overhead press and deadlift begin with the concentric [the Olympic lifts are in a class of their own]. When we begin with the eccentric, we tend to have an easier time with the lift. (The bench press also uses more and bigger muscles than the overhead press, but we can forget about that for right now.)


We can think of the eccentric as a “controlled failing” with weight. We’re lowering the weight UNDER CONTROL, but it is still forcing us into a contracted position. In doing so, we prepare our muscles for the concentric portion of the lift and we can (hopefully) get the bar and ourselves in the proper position to lift up. Most importantly, we store energy in our tendons which we can than use to lift the bar. When we start with the bar at rest like in the deadlift or overhead press, we don’t have these benefits. So, the lifts feel more difficult. If you have an easier time with touch and go deadlifts than with a single rep, you can understand this concept – with repeated, touch and go deadlifts, we’re now incorporating the eccentric portion of the lift into our effort, making subsequent lifts easier than the first.


So, how can we make the most out of the eccentric portion of the lift? By maintaining tension. To truly make this portion of a lift a “controlled failing,” we can’t simply drop the weight onto our chests in a bench press, or dive bomb into the hole during a squat. While we might get lucky with bounces and can occasionally re-engage our muscles, we’ll be much stronger and more likely to succeed if we stay tight, engaged, and controlled.

Bouncing Bench

Controlled Bench

Dive Bomb Squat

Controlled Squat

Now, there is such thing as moving too slow. Force is equal to mass times acceleration – if we aren’t accelerating the bar, we stop generating force. If you’ve ever done tempo work, you know that it’s much harder to perform than just a standard lift. That’s because we experience more time under tension, making our muscles work longer. We can only handle so much time under tension before we give out. That’s why when performing tempo work, it’s usually with lighter weights than your typical strength work.


So, how can we tell how fast is too fast, and how slow is too slow? Too fast is easy to tell – it happens when we lose tension and bounce the weight. We can learn what too slow feels like through a bit of trial and error. If you’re lowering your bench press and it feels like you’re fighting every step of the way, and you have no energy to push the bar back up, you’ve gone too slow. With practice and movement proficiency, you can find the speed that works for you. That being said, I’d rather see people move too slowly than too fast. At least then you’ll be in a safe position.


So, next time you perform a squat, bench, or any lowering of a weight for that matter, think about doing so under control. If you’re lowering a deadlift rather than dropping it from the top, control the weight; don’t let it pull you down. Practice this, and I guarantee you’ll see improvements in your lifts. See you in the gym.

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