Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

By on May 15, 2018

Weight lifting is not really just muscle training. It is muscle training, bone training, brain training, tendon training and so much more. When you lift weights, you will automatically train the tendons. But it’s also worth devoting some time specifically to developing this aspect of your performance. Tendon strength is a pillar of strength, and should be treated as such.

Muscle and tendon strength

You need more tendon strength if you intend on getting stronger.

I’m sorry.

Seriously though, if you want to develop your maximum power output, then you need to devote at least some time and energy to specific tendon training. Your tendons are made from collagen and are what connect your muscles to your joints. They are what allow your muscles to act on your joints and thereby exert the force that you’re capable of generating. Thus, tendon training was a big part of old-time strength training and could go some way to explaining some of their epic feats of strength.

old time strongmen tendons

And conversely, if you fail to train your tendons, it can lead to injury. Let’s take a look at what you need to be doing.

Injury Prevention

In the past, I talked about how blocking myostatin through gene doping could result in increased muscle mass. Unfortunately, this also leads to an increased risk of tendon damage. This may be partly due to myostatin playing a role in tendon maintenance (study), but it’s also likely due to the fact that unrestrained muscle development outstrips tendon strength in this scenario.

Myostatin tendons

Likewise, steroid users will also often experience tendon ruptures for similar reasons (studies). This is seen more in the upper body.

Steroids and gene doping exacerbate an issue that already exists. That is that tendons receive less blood flow as compared with muscle. That makes them slower to respond to training and slower to recover. Generally, it appears that a new lifter will take about 2 months in order to see structural changes to their tendons (study). This is as compared with muscle tissue, which begins to respond in as little as eight days. The good news though is that connective tissue also retains its strength for longer than muscle.

It appears that a new lifter will take about 2 months in order to see structural changes to their tendons

When we’re younger, this isn’t as much as a problem. When we’re very active and constantly moving and running, our tendons become stronger. The problem is when you transition from an almost entirely static lifestyle, to suddenly heaving incredibly heavy weights over your head. Pop.

Weak tendons

Children interestingly also have more vascular connective tissue, making it quicker to respond to training and quicker to recover from damage.

So how do you get around this? The first tip is to program your training correctly as a noob. Don’t launch straight into PBs but instead spend some time practicing light training and getting used to movement again.

During this time, using higher rep ranges and ‘pump’ work is a good idea, in order to increase blood flow. That means lifting lighter weights for 12-20 repetitions as described in my video and post on vascularity training. Better yet, it might mean using a super-high rep flush-set at the end of a training session, ranging from 30-100 repetitions. This can be a fantastic way to generate pump.

Pump work for tendon training

Also, highly effective for this purpose is the use of eccentrics. That means slowly lowering the weight to stretch the target muscle and tendons under tension. Slow eccentric heel dips for instance have been shown to help aid recovery from Achilles’ tendinopathy (study) – moreso even than the use of rest, physiotherapy and NSAIDs.

Also important is volume. That means training often in order to keep stimulating that growth and development. This explains why children who simply move more have more resilient tendons – they’re getting tendon training naturally. Likewise, it explains why the legs are less likely to experience tendon damage during weight lifting – because we use them every single day for walking and running.

Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple points out the incredible example of rock climber Alex Honnold to make this point. His huge fingers are the result of regular climbing and studies show that performance climbers that have been training for 15+ years show 62-76% greater thickness in the tendons and ligaments surrounding the fingers (study).

Tendon training is fantastic for grip strength generally. Check out my post on creating finger strength.

So, to prevent injury, you need to start slow, use pumping exercises and eccentric exercises and move often. Do this regularly and you will eventually start to build resilient, tough tendon which you can then start to put through its paces. Give it at least 2 months, unless you’re already an experienced lifter.

Finally, massage may also help to encourage blood flow to the avascular tendons, as might self-myofascial release (i.e. foam rolling). If you notice that your tendon is making noise, then trying either of these things certainly can’t hurt.

Tendon Training for Generating Power

Now that you’ve laid the ground work, you’re ready to start putting your tendons under some stress – to do some serious tendon training. Volume goes someway to explaining the huge fingers of climbers, but this also has to do with the simple fact that they are hanging their entire body weight from a crimp position (see my video on finger strength for more on this).

Performance climbers that have been training for 15+ years show 62-76% greater thickness in the tendons

(I once went to a rock climbers house who had a finger board over his door that had the shallowest hold for just a couple fingers. I was determined to give it a go despite the advice of everyone. I regretted not listening to their advice…)

Likewise, the decline squat is more effective for strengthening the patellar tendon as compared with the regular squat because of the increased amount of strain it places on it. Some intensity is required for growth then.

One way to achieve this is through weighted stretching – by increasing the range of motion to stretch the tendon and thereby stimulate it to become stronger.

But actually, rock climbers show us that you can develop impressive tendon strength without stretch as a critical component. If the weight is great enough, that alone is enough to strengthen the tendons.

Another way to achieve it is by using partials and accommodating resistance. What we’re aiming to do here is to increase tendon strength beyond our muscle strength, by lifting weights that are too heavy for us and thereby apply huge load to the connective tissue.

YouTuber Alpha Destiny is a big advocate of the use of heavy partials. I’m not talking about partials such as those used by bodybuilders as a form of forced repetition. Rather, I’m talking about partials used as a method to lift heavier weights than you otherwise could. The perfect example is the ‘above the knee rack pull’.

heavy partials for tendon training

This involves using a squat rack in order to lift a barbell with straight arms as little as a couple of inches. The weight can this way be far greater than it could be for a regular deadlift, which acts as excellent tendon training. This can strengthen the tendons but also has a whole bunch of additional benefits: helping to increase your confidence with the weight for instance and helping to develop more supporting muscles, greater grip strength and technique.

Then there’s the post-activation principle, that means you’ll then be able to drop down to a lighter weight and find it crazy easy. You can use a similar strategy in order to perform very heavy negatives (a natural progression from our previous eccentric movements).

Accommodating resistance is a similar concept. Here you might use bands attached to barbell and the top of the rack. The idea is that as you lift the bar, the slack will increase in the weight thereby making it heavier. The weight becomes heavier as you get to your strongest range of motion – again allowing you to lift even heavier if only for a short period. Another way to do this is by hanging chains off of the bar, which will then pile up on the ground as the bar is lowered. Mark Bell’s Sling Shot is an ingenious device that does something similar by wrapping around your triceps and chest to provide extra tension. It’s like an external tendon!

acommodating resistance tendons

I didn’t have this stuff to show you at my gym, but using a belt with a weight plate and performing dips close to the ground achieves a similar effect.

Overcoming isometrics can achieve something similar with regards to tendon training, as can weighted hangs.

On top of all the tendon training benefits of this technique, it’s also possible that this will help to override the golgi tendon organ. This is a proprioceptive sensory organ that is able to detect changes in muscle tension. It is located at the insertion point of skeletal muscle fibers into tendons and one of its jobs is thought to be ‘shutting off’ (inhibiting) the contraction of the muscle when you risk damaging the tendon.

It’s also possible that this will help to override the golgi tendon organ

This is theoretical at best and is often oversimplified. The golgi tendon organ is in fact a highly complex piece of machinery that is involved in all find motor control. But the general concept is interesting: if you haven’t developed tendon strength to cope with the weight, then your body might stop you lifting to protect itself from injury.

Explosive Performance

As well as helping you to raise your maximal strength, tendon training can also play a role in explosive strength thanks to their elastic properties. Hysteresis refers to the efficiency of the recoil response and lower this is, the less energy you need to use when rebounding out of a depth jump for instance.

And actually, many athletic endeavours and movements have a large tendon component. For instance, during running, the calf muscles actually play a surprisingly minimal role during plantarflexion (reference – great article) because the Achilles tendon is doing a lot of work by releasing stored energy. It has been suggested that instead of thinking in terms of discrete muscles, it may make more sense to think in terms of ‘muscle tendon units’ or MTUs.

Thicker tendons are stiffer, meaning they can store more energy but are less easy to stretch. Compliant tendons on the other hand are thinner but less able to store energy. Complicating matters is the fact that different tendons are better suited to being thicker or thinner. Sprinting actually requires more compliant tendons in many parts of the body for instance. In general, the smaller the range of motion, the stiffer the tendons should ideally be. You need to consider this in your tendon training.

Heavy weight lifting increases thickness, while flexibility exercises increase compliance.

As ever, the best way to get the results you want here is with SAID: specific adaptations to imposed demands. In other words, to get better at sprinting… sprint! To get better at explosive jumping… practice jumping explosively! I’ve talked about depth jumps and how they can be used to increase maximal strength and jump height (study).

Depth jumps and clapping press-ups are effective not only because they train the fast twitch muscle fiber, but also because they are able to increase your myotatic reflex controlled by the muscle spindles and no doubt the tendons play a role here.

Remember too that tendons training works in conjunction with other types of connective tissue: ligaments and muscle fascia. Ligaments are similar to tendons but connect bone to bone and are found around the joints. Fascia is a kind of ‘sheath’ of connective tissue (primarily collagen) that surrounds the muscles and internal organs in order to stabilize and separate your internals. It’s a bit like a kind of shrink wrap around your entire musculature.

During running, the calf muscles actually play a surprisingly minimal role during plantarflexion (reference – great article) because the Achilles tendon is doing a lot of work

Self-myofascial release is all the rage these days as a means to remove scar tissue and ‘adhesions’. Just how useful or accurate this is in practice remains to be definitively proven (here’s an interesting discussion), but the fact of the matter is that explosive movements might also be training the elasticity of the fascia.

Diet and Recovery for Tendon Training

Of course, the final piece of the puzzle as ever is diet and recovery: you need to back up all this training with rest and protein. Consuming more vitamin C will help to support collagen production, as can vitamin A. Calcium will also support tendon strength.

For tendon injuries, a cold compress can be used to reduce swelling, while heat can help to improve blood flow to promote healing. Thus, contrast therapy may be a useful tool for recovering from damage. Should you experience tendon injury, then you need to provide ample time to recover before returning to heavy weight training. Follow your GPs advice, but we’re talking 3-6 weeks as a rule here.

I spoke recently of the importance of rest and recovery generally in order to prevent injury and maximize progress. The same is true for tendons and ligaments. As discussed, these receive less blood flow than the muscles, meaning they might take longer to recover and be more susceptible to damage. As a general rule, aim to leave around 48 hours between workouts targeting the same area. But listen to your body and if you suspect you have a tendon injury – take some time out.

Closing Comments

So tendon training is a very complex subject matter with a lot of aspects to consider. Generally though, you need to start training with heightened frequency and light-weight-high-reps to begin with in order to build resilient connective tissue. Then you can start building up to taking on heavier loads, stretching in the right places, using weighted stretches and adding in explosive eccentrics. Combine all that with adequate rest, recovery and nutrition, and you can build tendons like steel cables! That is tendon training in a nut shell but of course there’s much more. In future, I’d like to talk about which tendons to make tighter and loser for specific types of movement and how to go about doing that.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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