Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to build epic strength: why tension matters

I am about to tell you, my dear readers, a story that is, objectively speaking...


My Pistol is Loaded.
All right, that’s not entirely true, but in my (correct) opinion, it’s still pretty awesome.  It’s the story of how I worked up to a pistol on each leg with a 70 lb kettlebell, using nothing more than my own bodyweight in practice and with an ultra-simple program.   

Ever since I discovered the one-legged squat, or “pistol”, upon reading Pavel’s bodyweight masterpiece The Naked Warrior, I’ve been in love.  It’s the ultimate go-anywhere leg strengthener that lends itself perfectly to all sorts of beneficial things: strong (and shapely) legs and butt with zero equipment, a power-enhancer for kickers of all types (martial arts, soccer, football, etc.), and if you do a few in front of friends who have never seen a pistol before, they’ll think you’re Superman.  So far I haven’t been able to impress any women with them, but you can’t have everything, right?

I’ve practiced pistols sporadically since 2008 and always had dreams of knocking off reps with heavier weights.  Wanting, of course, isn’t enough, and when push came to shove, I just wasn’t willing to put the time and effort into them.  However, at the beginning of this month and after a lot of thought into what I needed to do to improve on my pistols, I started to “grease the groove” (practice a few reps here and there throughout the day) and progress quickly followed.  

I focused all my attention on two things.  The first: technique, and specifically, really mastering the negative.  Too many people overlook the negative on any exercise as a critical part of mastering an exercise (Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates correctly points out that ignoring the negative amounts to “missing half of the rep”), and I think the pistol is a prime example.  The best I can say about many aspiring pistoleros is that their negative looks like they’re falling with style (to quote Buzz Lightyear).  Not a good habit to get into unless you get “style points” for your falling.

My second focus: tension.  A lot of it.  More than what I actually needed to complete the rep.  Typically in the RKC we focus on maximum tension with less-than-maximal weight and gradually peel away the tension as needed in order to build up the skill of full-body tension, which is (as you'll see) the keystone in the arch of true strength.  Since I was planning on building up to pistols with added weight, I ramped up the tension that I practiced.  The results?  Outstanding!  Within twelve days of greasing the groove with high-tension bodyweight pistols, I nailed a PR and did a solid pistol with a 53 lb kettlebell on each leg – something I had only dreamed of years before.  

 Inspired by my successful experiment, I decided to see if I could go up one size of kettlebell after REALLY ramping up the tension.  I took a few days off and practiced producing higher and higher tension with each practice session, squeezing everything I could out of each rep (again, with my bodyweight only).  Within one week, I got my 70 lb pistol on each leg.  They weren’t especially pretty, but for the time being, I’m counting them.  

 Proper practice pays off

This leads me to two important points: One, when it comes to building strength, technique matters.  Two, when it comes to building strength, tension matters (Understand now why I put my emphasis on those two things above merely adding weight?).  Other variables come into play, sure, but if you plan on skipping those first two steps, don’t plan for much else.  Have the patience and focus to put your time into improving these two aspects of your lifting and don’t get ahead of yourself.  Nail these and a lot of other things will fall in place.

I'm a HUGE believer in bodyweight exercise, and I can't speak more highly of both the book and DVD versions of The Naked Warrior .  The book and DVD together helped me achieve the two exercises dissected in both of them - the pistol and the one-arm pushup .  That's why they're this week's...

Products of the week!
Click HERE to buy the book and HERE to buy the DVD and make an investment in your strength, your health, and your all-around amazingness.  And if you're in the Omaha Metro area and you want to take your epicness to the next level, contact me for a consultation! 

And since strength is only part of the health equation, be sure to try out my free (and new favorite) recipe of the week!  It's a dessert, so I know you'll find room for it.

You'll need:
2 bananas
1 handful of almonds
1 pinch (or two) of coconut shavings.

Chop up the almonds and bananas separately.  Mix them together in a large bowl and add the coconut shavings.  Mix liberally, serve, and enjoy.

Until next time folks, lift heavy and eat clean!



  1. Great stuff, Aleks! The pistol is SUCH a powerful exercise, and technique is so crucial :)

  2. So true, Adrienne! I never had great results with the pistol until I started taking it seriously. If only I had done that from the outset!