Have you ever seen a skinny 70 kg powerlifter out lifting 120kg bodybuilder ? How the heck those gymnasts hold an iron cross with completely locked elbows without dislocating them ? As you probably guessed from the title of this article, it’s a strong connective tissue that makes these athlete’s strength stand out from the crowd. I hate to break a bad news to some of you but training just for the muscle size won’t only make you super strong, but also might lead to an injury and loss of true mobility in your joints.
Importance of Connective Tissue For Strength Gains & Injury Prevention
A tendon simply attaches your muscles to your bones, and although they also play some role in stabilizing your joints its primary function is to transmit force. Ligaments play a big role in stabilizing your joints, are less elastic than tendons, and only connect between bones. Unlike your muscles, tendons and ligaments have very poor blood supply which makes them more prone to injury and slow-healing.
To make a quick analogy without getting scientific, your muscles are your car engine, tendons are the tires, and ligaments are the wheel nuts that hold your wheel in place. Now, you could have a lot of horses under the hood, but if your tires are a low quality you won’t be able to transfer as much power as possible. You will also wear those tires down quite quickly. Having your wheel nuts compromised in any way will simply call for disaster. If your car wheel is loose you can imagine you will not drive very far.
So if you are very muscular and wonder why you’re outperformed by the smaller guy at those basic lifts, the answer might be that your tendons and/or ligaments are too weak to cooperate with and support the contractive power of their muscles. The strength of your muscles depends as much upon the quality of muscular tissue as the power of their attachments. There should be an exact balance between the two . . .
The imbalance does not only mean less strength and power but also very often results in less or more severe injuries.
Tendon injuries are quite common in those with an increased ratio of muscle strength/power to a tendon. It’s not unheard of bodybuilders snapping their biceps tendons while doing heavy curls. Unconditioned tendons will also manifest themselves in a form of tendinitis, e.g. golfers elbow from doing high volume chin-ups or rope climbing. On the other hand, tendons can become stronger than muscles and muscle ruptures can result. Same as your tendons, untrained ligaments will be more susceptible to tears during high forces applied to a joint.
While developing muscular tissue, it is absolutely necessary that the tendons, ligaments and even the bone strength are proportionally developed so that they can support the muscles in all of their movements. . . .The appropriate flexibility is also the very important factor here in increasing strong and functional body. Strengthening connective tissue is a science by itself and cannot be acquired from ordinary exercise.
The metabolic rate of connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) is approximately 10 times slower than that of muscular tissue. This means that tendon and ligaments improve it’s strength and flexibility at 1/10th the speed of muscular tissue and also heal ten times slower. If a slight pull in your muscle takes 4-5 days to heal, the same injury to tendon or ligament will take 40-50 days to regain 100% functionality.
The method and time required to adapt your connective tissue will largely differ between sports, with the time being very much dependent on individual’s ability to recover. Let’s briefly talk about two very popular ways of strengthening tendons and ligaments.
“Partial reps” is a very popular method used amongst strength athletes like power-lifters or strongman competitors. They would train squats, bench press, dead-lifts or any other exercise with the heaviest possible weight through the strongest part of the lift, which is typically 4-6 inches before the lockout.
Partial reps have one major advantage over full range reps: you can target your resistance to the specific range of motion you are working in. During short range of movements, emphasis will be placed on tendons and ligaments rather than the muscle bellies. Challenging your connective tissue during the most disadvantageous part of the ROM with super heavy loads will put high levels of stress on ligaments and on the tendons attaching to both muscle and bone. They will adapt and grow stronger over the time.
But more than anything else, this method of training has a huge effect on your nervous system. “You will develop synchronization with heavy loads far in excess of what you can handle at full range, and that effect will trickle down to the rest of the ROM.”
Time Under Tension
“Time under tension” is a method more adapted by gymnasts or callisthenics athletes. In order to strengthen the connective tissue athletes will manipulate the time during exercise (slow reps) or static holds for a goal of specific time/repetitions and sets.
The advantage of not moving quickly is that while fast movements will enable certain stabilizing muscles to work less or not work at all due to the created momentum, in time under tension these same stabilizing muscles are forced to do their work.
Also apart from benefits of building your connective tissue (ligaments and tendons), this method brings in a lot of blood flow to your muscle-tendon units which ultimately results in accelerating healing. Output forces from slow repetitions are also lower so you further add benefits of less strain on your tendons and ligaments.
Some gymnasts might also supplement their training with partial reps (squats, deadlift), but most of the time they will perform specific drills in a specific way, for a specific period of time.
Although both methods aim to increase strength and health of the connective tissue, you will need knowledge of the technique, intensity and frequency to avoid injuries and gain strength.
Anabolic Steroids & Tendons Injuries
There can be many risk factors for tendon rupture, but one of the most common predisposing factors particularly in competitive bodybuilding and strength competition is the use of anabolic steroids. Most of these drugs lead to increased muscle strength as well as the weakening of the tendons. Laboratory studies have shown that anabolic steroids administered to rats caused a decrease in the elasticity of the tendon as well as a decrease in the load required to cause tendon rupture. Although many athletes who have never used any form of anabolic agents also sustain tendon ruptures when training, in humans, the combined increase in muscle strength with a potentially weakened tendon significantly increases the rate of tendon rupture.