Constant and Variable Tension

Know when to squeeze and when to explode.

In Jiu-Jitsu, you'll often hear contradictory advice.  As an example, you'll sometimes be told to squeeeeeeeeeeeeze.  But other times, you'll be told to stay loose.  The crazy thing is, even though these two pieces of advice might sound like opposites, they can actually both be correct.  What gives?

This is what's known as a polarity: two ideas that live on extreme ends of a spectrum, and exactly which idea is the best choice depends completely on the context. 

The "should I squeeze or should I relax" polarity is what we refer to as constant and variable tension.


Constant tension:

Constant tension is when you apply a consistent amount of force over a prolonged period of time.

It's the typical "python squeeze" you create when you use all your muscle against your opponent.

Constant tension is most useful when:

  • your opponent has no base, and
  • your opponent can't attack your base.

In other words: when your opponent is stuck in a position where they can't effectively move either you or themself, applying constant pressure is a good idea because it will make the position even more uncomfortable.

This is why constant tension is a key part of pressure passing,  stack passing, and finishing submissions: if your opponent is already immobilized, adding more pressure only makes things worse for them.

That said, there are risks to creating constant tension:

  • you'll fatigue your muscles,
  • you'll make your intentions easier to predict,
  • it'll be easier for your opponent to get leverage on you, and
  • it's harder to create kuzushi if you're always tense.

So unless you're in a situation where you have base and your opponent doesn't, you're better off staying loose most of the time.


Variable tension:

Variable tension is when you quickly alternate between looseness and explosive tension.  Think of a whip cracking: it's totally loose most of the time, but at the end of its extension, all its force is compressed into a single split second, and the "crack" of the whip does incredible damage.

This looseness, alternated with explosive tension, is extremely powerful because it's very hard for your opponent to time.  If your muscles are loose and relaxed, your opponent can't "feel" the tension, which makes it much easier to mask your intentions.

Variable tension is key when:

  • your opponent has base, and
  • your opponent is able to establish grips on you.

This is why it's so important to stay loose when doing standup: if you're constantly tense and rigid, then in addition to your movements being more predictable, it's also much easier for your opponent to knock you off balance.

Beyond that, it's quite challenging to create kuzushi when your opponent anticipates your movement.  If you stay loose and alternate into explosive attacks, they'll have a harder time bracing themselves to maintain their balance.

Again, think of how Judoka spar: they're generally loose, except when it's time to go for a throw.  At that point they tense and explode like a cracking whip.

When using variable tension, it's best to make your "explosions" of force as quick as possible.  We call this force compression.

Again, if all other things are equal, your default should be staying loose.


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