Q: Why should I do exercises to develop my tendon and ligament strength and what ones are best?
A: Developing tendon strength is vital once you start lifting serious weight. Tendons are connective tissues which join the end of a muscle to bone. Ligaments, which are cord-like fibers that bind bones together at joints are also important in lifting. When we get under the heavy iron, we don’t want proportionately weak tendons or ligaments to be the limiting factors that halt our progress or, even worse, cause a rupture. That could happen if we do not consciously work to improve the strength of our tendons and ligaments. Now, tendons and ligaments will strengthen concurrently with the muscle, but only up to a certain point. When we graduate to the three, four and five hundred pound clubs in the bench press, squat and deadlift, we need to give them individual focus.
To target the tendons and ligaments the idea is to use your standard mass building movements (squats, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, barbell curls), but to perform the exercise over a much shorter range of motion than you would in a conventional workout. This will allow you to use more weight. Let’s take the bench press as an example. Place the bar inside a power rack and set the pins so that the bar will be able to move no more than six inches from the fully extended position down towards your chest. Now, load the bar with 20 – 30 % more weight than you can handle for your one rep max. Get in position and grip the bar with normal bench press hand spacing. Now perform one rep by pushing the bar up to a position of lock-out. Hold the top position for a slow count of five, before lowering it back onto the support pins. Rest for two minutes and perform a second, then a third set. When you can complete 3 sets with a 20 second hold at the end of each rep, then it’s time to add on some weight.
Another variation on the short range of motion style of tendon and ligament training is the no range of motion training popularized by 1960’s bodybuilding star Chuck Sipes. Sipes used no range of motion training (which he called support training) to build super human tendon strength. He once benched 570 pounds at a body weight of 220. In other words, the guy knew what he was doing. No range of motion simply means that you load up for an exercise (typically squat, bench press or deadlift) with a massive amount of weight (Sipes would use as much as 200 % of his one rep max). You then get under the rack and support the weight in the lock out position for up to 20 seconds. Sipes found that this not only stimulated his muscles but dramatically strengthened his tendons. As a bonus, it allowed his mind to get used to the idea of supporting massive weights, so that when it came time to lift them through a full range of motion, he was mentally able to accept the challenge.
Add in your tendon and ligament strengthening exercises (or short range exercises) after your normal workout for the body part in question. This style of training incorporates the use of extremely heavy weights, so it is imperative that you follow common sense safety guidelines at all times. Don’t attempt this training if you have any nagging injuries. If you don’t have access to a power rack, make sure that you have at least two capable spotters to assist you at all times. When you are performing maximum weight holds under the squat rack, do not round your back, but keep it tucked in securely. And, finally, wear a tightly cinched belt on all of these exercises.
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