Tendon & Ligament Strength
by Brooks Kubik
In the famous flier for his correspondence course, “How to Achieve Nerves of Steel, Muscles Like Iron,” George Jowett promised to not only help his pupils build their muscles but to develop “sinew and ligament power.” He said that with proper training, the ligaments – “those tremendously powerful cables which support your muscles in gigantic contraction, when required in great demonstrations of physical resistance” – would “become powerfully anchored to bone and muscle like the steel cable of a giant derrick. Thousands of lifters with strong-looking muscles who wonder why they cannot near or equal the strength tests of others learn to realize that their muscular ligaments and sinewy attachments are too stringy and weakly inserted to cooperate with and support the contractive power of their muscles. Through these conditions are found the differences between a cheap course of instruction and a worthwhile one.
“Building your muscles with only sinews is a science I put before you. The strength of your muscles depends as much upon the power of their muscular cables as upon the quality of muscular tissue. There should be an exact balance between the two . . .
“Strong muscles must have strong attachments . . . When the muscular tissue has been developed, it is absolutely necessary that the muscular ligaments also be powerfully increased so that they can support the muscles in all of their movements . . .
Ligament thickening is a science by itself and cannot be acquired form ordinary exercise. My system is especially adapted to the building of steel-like muscular cables. I impregnate your muscles with the atoms of energy that will dynamite your muscles with strength.”
Picture an anvil. A heavy, solid block of iron, squared at one end and formed into a thick horn at the other. More rectangular than square, most anvils come in tow standard sizes: 150 and 168 pounds. The latter is equivalent to an Olympic bar loaded with a 45-pounder on each side and 33 extra pounds of iron.
Back in the 1920s, at a strength show in
To appreciate Jowett’s feat, try swinging a 165-pound dumbbell to your shoulder, then pressing it overhead with one hand. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to lift an anvil than a finely balanced dumbbell. It boggles the mind to think of the physical power Jowett must have possessed.
Although his name is largely forgotten today, George Jowett was once one of the world’s leading physical culture experts. His 1926 book, The Key to Might and Muscle, is still one of the best bodybuilding books ever written. Some years later, he helped a young friend named Joe Weider launch Your Physique, and provided help and guidance to Joe for many years thereafter. Jowett’s writing had the rare ability to not only teach but inspire his readers.
Strengthening the Sinews
Jowett’s superhuman feat was the result of a special type of training that he pursued his entire life. His writing refers repeatedly to a largely forgotten secret of strength and power – a secret to which Jowett attributed much of his progress. He observed that strong muscles alone were not enough to turn a man into a superman. The true secret to strength, he argued, lay in the deliberate strengthening of the ligaments and tendons, the fibrous tissues that connect muscle and bone. Without developing these sinews, Jowett said, a person was never more than half-trained no matter how impressive his musculature, how large his measurements or how dramatic his appearance may be.
What was Jowett’s secret system of ligament strengthening: In the July 1950 issue of Your Physique he revealed in detail his special method of building tendon and ligament strength. The article, titled “Stronger Tendons – Stronger Muscles,” argued that the former inevitably leads to the latter. Bodybuilders, he stated, need to challenge their tendons and ligaments with superheavy poundages at times, otherwise, they run the risk of reaching a point where their sinews aren’t strong enough to withstand the rigors of all-out training. Underdeveloped connective tissues could not only lead to serious injury but also place a limit on the load bodybuilders could handle for various exercises, which in turn would limit their muscle development. In Jowett’s opinion, stronger tendons lead to stronger muscles, which will lead to bigger muscles.
“The reason why the tendons usually lack in corresponding power with the muscles of the bodybuilder is because bodybuilding exercise, in the main, does not require the heavy weight necessary for strengthening the tendons and ligaments,” wrote Jowett. He believed that, rather than resorting to Olympic lifts, a person could strengthen the sinews by performing very limited partial reps of basic bodybuilding exercises such as the squat, bench press, shoulder press and deadlift. The idea is to move the heaviest possible weight through the strongest part of the lift, which is typically 4-6 inches before the lockout.
The near-consensus among present-day exercise physiologists is that, under normal condition, a bodybuilder’s tendon and ligament strength increases naturally with muscle strength and size. Doesn’t that contradict Jowett’s own experience and the theories that it bore? Not necessarily. For one, recent research on the sticking point – the point during the positive half of a rep at which a lifter “stalls” – suggests that factors such as leverage, rather than muscle fatigue, prevent bodybuilders from working their muscles through the final portion of a rep (Elliot, B.C. et al. A biomechanical analysis of the sticking region in the bench press. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise 21(4): 450-464, 1989). If a sticking point does indeed limit a bodybuilder’s ability to exploit what should be the strongest part of the lift – the last few inches of the concentric half of the rep – doing heavy partials makes a lot of sense.
Another argument in favor of using heavy partials to increase sinew strength is that bodybuilders frequently take their muscles beyond their normal capabilities through drop sets, supersets and assorted other techniques. Because of its ample blood supply, high metabolic activity and ability to contract and stretch, muscle tissue can recover from and adapt to such training quickly. In contrast, tendons and ligaments are more rigid, less metabolically active and have a comparatively low blood supply. When a bodybuilder cranks up his training to the nth degree, the muscles might be able to withstand forces that the connective tissues cannot. Again, strengthening the sinews ahead of time would be prudent.
Although developing an entire workout regimen around Jowett-style heavy support work is possible, the average lifter can simply take the most effective of these movements and apply them systematically to their regular workouts. The idea is to replace your primary movement with a partial movement. that works the same bodypart.
How frequently should you employ heavy partials? If you train a bodypart once a week, I believe you should perform heavy partials every workout. If you train a bodypart twice a week, you can probably get by with doing this heavy power work one day and keeping your conventional routine intact for the other session.
If you begin your chest workout with the bench press, replace it on occasion with heavy bench-press lockouts. The range of motion on these is extremely limited – 4 inches for an average-sized person, perhaps 5 inches for someone with longer limbs. Basically, you’re pushing the bar through the last several inches of the concentric half of the rep to full extension. To perform the movement, set the pins in a power rack so that you can take the bar in the start position for the partial and drive it up 4-5 inches to lockout. Six sets, five reps apiece, pyramiding upward with weights heavy enough to make you fail on that final fifth rep should do the trick. All the other exercises in your chest would remain the same. ***In this context, the term lockout does not refer to snapping your elbows into full extension on an exercise. For the purpose of this article, lockout refers simply to lifting a weight through the range of motion and pressing it to full extension.
When back training, substitute heavy deadlift lockouts and power pulls for two of your regular movements. For the former, set the pins in a power rack so that the bar rests anywhere between your knees and mid-thighs. Grasping the bar with your strongest grip, or using straps if needed, stand up with it and lock out. Again, the range of motion shouldn’t exceed 4-5 inches. To perform the power pull, squat in front of a barbell and grasp it with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping you back straight, rise from the squat position until you torso is nearly erect and the bar rests across your thighs. From there, the movement resembles an upright row, except that you push off with the balls of your feet as you pull the bar up toward your neck and shrug with your shoulders. Then lower the bar slowly and under control to the start position above your knees. Use a light weight until you get the hang of it. Adding weight over six sets, three reps each, is ideal.
Occasionally substitute standing press lockouts for your overhead presses. Again, start near the midpoint of the concentric half of the rep and then push the bar up to lockout. Complete five sets of three reps, pyramiding the weight up as you go.
Try substituting heavy partial barbell curls for our regular curls. Starting from the standard curl position, raise the bar through about one-third of the normal range of motion. I use a set of elastic cords with hooks on the ends to measure how far to go on each rep. I simply stretch the bands from post to post on each side of the rack so that the bar hits them at the top of the movement. If I don’t hit the elastic bands, the rep doesn’t count. Of course, you could use a set of top pins to stop the upward movement of the bar, but elastic is quieter and easier on your joints. You’ll get one heck of a jolt if you ram a 200-pound barbell against a set of steel pins.
Substitute quarter squats for your heavy movement while keeping the other exercises the same. As the name suggests, the range of motion for a quarter squat is only one-fourth that of a traditional squat. Using either a front or back squat position, begin by standing upright and then descend 4-5 inches before driving the weight back up. Shoot for six five-rep sets, pyramiding the weight up as you go.
A Cumulative Process
Strengthening the sinews is a cumulative process: Because tendons and ligaments respond more slowly to resistance than muscles do, they need to be trained consistently to produce results. If you perform these heavy partials long enough, you’ll eventually develop the type of down-to-the-bone functional strength that made George Jowett a legend of the Iron Game. To quote the master, “Your tendons and ligaments will thicken strongly, making you immune to tendon strain and giving you a new source of power that will make you more capable and more efficient in your physical performance.” P
The following pointers apply to all the partial movements prescribed in the article.
Although you’re using heavy weights don’t bounce the bar. It does nothing to build your strength and power, and it’s a terrific way to hurt yourself. Remember, partials involve lifting heavy weights, so use your head.
No rack, no partials!
Weight, not movement, is what’s truly important in these exercises. You hardly need to move at all to build connective tissues. When in doubt, reduce the range of motion and pile on the plates. Don’t just lift the bar and then return it to the pins; hold it a while. The act of holding a heavy bar for 5-20 seconds will also build connective tissue strength.