Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

High Tension, Building Strength, Managing Fatigue and Related Questions for Systema

The following Q&A dialogue is between myself and Nathaneal Morrison, Martial Arts/Military Combatives Instructor and Founder of The Morrison System of Physical Training.

Justin Ho:
I have something I am working on which I am asking numerous people about, whom I think may be able to shed light on the matter for me. Like many Systema practitioners I am working on creating a body that is incredibly strong with minimal excess tension, and as adaptable and as free from fear reactivity possible. In order to do this I have been employing a number of strategies; running, swimming, the 4 core exercises, tissue annealing, ground flow, breath work and the full scope of my Systema training.   

I have have been planning to incorporate the work off of Sonny Puzikas's DVD the Forge. I was very impressed with the work and explanations; unconventional 3D movement, strengthening of the connective tissues, creating a strong and adaptable core to serve as a platform to the primary and secondary movers etc.... But most of all the description of “creating a body that is incredibly strong with minimal excess tension”. I wanted to get the most out of the work that I would be doing so I started to consider how frequently I would perform the exercises, and when to alternate between them. A friend of mine mentioned Pavel Tsatsouline's explanation regarding “Greasing the groove, low reps, high intensity, high sets, staying fresh". Given your background I assumed that you were familiar with this gentleman's work. Then when reading the Naked Warrior I came across a photo of you doing a one legged pistol squat holding a kettlebell....Ahhhhhh sooooooo.....   

Anyhow, I acquired some of Pavel's books (Power to the people, Naked Warrior, Relax into Stretching) and began reading. Originally I just wanted to get a bit more information on “Greasing the Groove”, but I continued reading on and was fascinated by his work on developing Strength through “whole body tension” and getting the surrounding muscles to send neuro impulses to the main contracting muscle causing it to contract harder (cheering not cheating) thus developing more strength in less time. By the way correct me if I'm wrong about any of this, as the information at least in this format and description is new to me.   

The information and tools Pavel provided seem like an amazing way to increase functional strength at an incredibly rapid rate. To me Pavel's work and the work I have learned in Systema are 2 different sides of the same coin. Tension/Relaxation for strength i.e. The deepest relaxation can only be achieved in contrast to the greatest tension. However there were a few things I was curious/concerned about regarding integrating this kind of work with my general Systema Training and also the work that Sonny presented in the Forge. I was hoping you might be able to help me out here, as I am not as well versed in such areas:

Nate Morrison: 
a) In response to this: “The deepest relaxation can only be achieved in contrast to the greatest tension.” While this may be technically true at some level, it is not compatible with life and function. The highest tension yields unconsciousness. In a practical setting high tension is very difficult to turn off. Consistent high-tension training resets the resting tonus of the muscle so that it remains shorter (partially contracted). A highly trained athlete is able to functionally contract and relax the muscles further to both ends of the spectrum and up to 900% faster than the average person. This describes the efficiency of the nervous system.
b) Remember that a muscle recovers best when maximally relaxed. So carrying excess tension interferes with acute and chronic recovery. Recovery is required for the best possible second or 102nd rep. Relaxation in actual performance is a state of being in the entire organism.
c) Tension is only needed when you need it. Most of the time you don’t need it but when you do, be able to use it effectively.

Justin Ho:
1. With Pavel's advice using whole body tension such as in the pistol, one armed push up, deadlift or side press. Will this focus on developing predominantly muscle strength, and as a result neglect or reduce development of the strength of the joints, tendons ligaments and connective tissues? What triggered this question for me was work with the static holds, i.e. push up. It seems to me that staying there will result in the muscles fatiguing leaving no choice but for the connective tissues to take the load and eventually grow stronger. This lead me to consider this process in the rest of the material presented in the forge and the rest of my training. Conversely is strengthening of the connective tissues faster achieved by relaxation in the form of fatiguing the musculature?

Nate Morrison:
a) You cannot strengthen a joint. There is nothing to strengthen. 
b) You cannot strengthen connective tissue such as myofascia. While it has a contractile property, it is a chronic capability, not acute and it exerts no force on the structure. The tensile breaking strength actually reduces the more it contracts. 
c) Tendons and ligaments will increase their size, and thus their tensile breaking strength if properly loaded over a long period of time (years). This loading is most effective when it is passive. Active loading (high tension) has some effect but it is limited to the force under time of the muscle contractions. Passive loading such as that occurring during manual labor is the most effective. During manual labor the body is as relaxed as possible to be as efficient as possible. One does not unload a truck or a ship with maximum tension. 
d) It is not wise to attempt to load the tendons and ligaments by exhausting the muscles first. Exhaustion of the muscles will cause overloading of the tendons and ligaments and compromise the safety of the joint. You need muscular contraction, but just enough. A skeleton cannot stand without muscular contraction.

Justin Ho:
2. Through acquiring great gains in strength using whole body tension and the principle of irradiation (contracting the surrounding muscles so their neural impulses cause the main muscle to contract harder) is there a risk of acquiring excess/residual/habitual muscle tension through contraction of the whole body to perform the exercises? If so I figured I would counter this by performing various relaxation exercises between sets i.e. tension/relaxation exercises, gentle ground flow, walking, and even at the completion of a work out performing the 4 core exercises slowly with breath and relaxation to regulate the levels of tension/relaxation in the body. What do you reckon? Is there a risk of acquiring excess/residual/habitual muscle tension through contraction of the whole body to perform the exercises? i.e. Excess tension that lingers and thus impedes freedom?

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes. It is a very poor way to train for life in general. 
b) There is a Russian concept that does not recognize the difference between physical training and physical therapy. Top Russian coaches and athletes do not train into dysfunction and injury, then fix it and then do it again. The very idea is dysfunctional. Don’t do it. 
c) If you want to get brutally strong AND fluid, perform that ground work with a weight vest and ankle/wrist weights. In a short period of time you will literally have to throttle back for fear of tearing door handles off. 
d) Tension is important and should not be neglected. But it is better to know when and how to turn it on and off. One should not train in tension inappropriately. Tension is required when the loads are maximal, above 85-90% 1RM. That is when you need it and that is when you should use it. 
e) Always remember that you become what you do consistently. Period.

Justin Ho:
3. Through utilizing the principle of irradiation and tensing the whole body during the exercises is there the likelihood of developing an inability to selectively isolate muscles to get them to work independently (tensing or relaxing) when needed? i.e. using only what is necessary in a given action allowing the muscles not directly required a chance to rest? If so I thought this could be countered by using selective tension methods between sets. But what's your take on this?

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes
b) See #2

Justin Ho:
4. Would the strength developed by using whole body tension be only available by repeating and thus reinforcing whole body tension as a pattern? It's just that to my mind, to be constantly tense all the time would be incredibly tiring, and also would not allow for free and relaxed movement.

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes

Justin Ho:
5. Having so many awesome tools to use for strength development and only having so many hours in the day to use them. (i.e. The 4 Systema core exercises, Pavel's one arm push up and squat, the Work with and without kettle bells which Sonny presents in the forge, also my own groundflow work, not to mention swimming and running) it's like being a kid in a candy store. I know that generally less is more, and it's better to do a few things well than many poorly, but I can't give up any one of them without feeling like I've been robbed. Yes, I know it's incredibly immature, but I'm sure I'm not the first nor last Systema practitioner to have this dilemma. Any advice?

Nate Morrison:
a) You can do all of these activities but do them as relaxed and efficiently as possible. For example, kettlebell training should be performed in the manner it is taught in Russia. Relaxed, lots of breathing, etc… If you are going to do heavy weight lifting (bench, squat, deadlift) you need high tension for sets where the weight is in excess of 85-90% 1RM. Otherwise it is identical in the quest to do more with less and breath properly. Push-ups of all kinds and pistols are also exercises that should be done with relaxation and breathing.

Nate’s Final Thought: 
High tension is incompatible with anything less than maximal lifts, period. In some cases, especially in high fatigue states it is actually worse and will cause immediate failure or unconsciousness. This can be experienced in a max set of push-ups or 100 rep squats. So use high tension only when you are doing sets of 1-5 reps using weight above 85% 1RM.

Nathaneal Morrison

  • 18-year veteran of USAF & US Army Special Operations 
  • USAF & US Army Instructor in the following areas: Pararescue Instructor/Evaluator; Military Freefall Instructor; Mountain Warfare Instructor; Tactical Medicine Instructor; Physical Training Instructor 
  • Strength & Conditioning Coach 
  • Movement & Mobility Coach 
  • Martial Arts/Military Combatives Instructor 
  • Mountain Guide 
  • Founder of The Morrison System of Physical Training 
  • One of the initial cadre to introduce kettlebells into the United States. 
  • The first to introduce kettle bells to the US Military 
  • Internationally published fitness expert 
  • The leading expert on military fitness training 
  • Extensive work with wounded veterans in the area of mentoring and exercise based corrective physical training 
  • Currently works exclusively with wounded soldiers, world-class professional athletes and military/police recruits

For More information from Nathaneal Morrison visit:

Thankyou for your time and well thought out answers Nate. It is very much appreciated and has truly helped make things clearer for me :)

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

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