Many people do not pay attention to how to strengthen tendons and ligaments until they suffer an injury. Once they experience this, they realize training their tendons is just as important as working on muscle strength and endurance.
Our bodies “demand” lifelong, varied activity. Throughout history, most people have always been active from an early age. They weren’t exercising or training, per se, but they were constantly doing all the little movements that prepare the body and prime the tendons to handle heavier, more intense tasks. They were a mechanical world. The human body was a robust machine that was lubricated and ready for occasional herculean efforts.
We don’t have any work today. Rather than sitting at our workstations all day, we tap away on keyboards and swipe through screens. Nonetheless, our genetic makeup craves exercise. Some of us go from couch potato to budding powerlifter, from desk jockey to CrossFit competitor. Unlike our predecessors, we have not used the lubricant of daily lifelong activity which makes those rigorous physical exertions safe. Everyone is now loading weights, but few have safeguarded and strengthened the connective tissue needed for safe, effective, long-lasting exercise.
How to Strengthen Tendons: Training Tendons vs. Muscle
The good news about doing weight training is that you are already training your tendons. In addition to training your muscles, you are also influencing the tendons when you lift heavy objects. You’re also placing stress on the tendons and requiring an adaptive response. They require a greater level of attention than you are giving them, though.
The blood transports nutrients and cells used to heal and heal injured tissue. Because tendons receive less blood flow than muscle tissue, they take much longer to respond than muscle tissue to training. In one study, we trained the Achilles tendon for at least 2 months to change collagen structure and increase collagen density. In addition, it can take weeks or even months to increase tendon stiffness. Meanwhile, we see structural improvements to muscle with just eight days of training.
This simple fact should not slow us down or impair our tissue health, but it certainly does.
What do Tendons Do?
Before we make any decisions, we should understand what tendons do.
Many tendons have two primary properties that determine how they operate:
Tendon Stiffness (Tendon and Ligament Strength)
Tuckered tendons are indicative of a compromised tendon. Tendon stiffness refers to the level of flexibility that a tendon can have while still maintaining its function. Tendon stiffness is the extent to which tendon strain can be increased without resulting in permanent damage. Stiff tendons allow us to produce more force and be more stable in our bodily movements. These tendons require much greater force to elongate, but ultimately compensate by being strong and powerful when fully extended.
Stiff tendons are stiff. More flexible tendons are compliant. We mix compliant and stiff tendons, depending on the type of tendon and its task.
Tendon Hysteresis (How Stretchy Tendons Are)
Tendon hysteresis refers to how well your tendons stretch and resume their original shape. The efficiency of the recoil response is the degree to which your muscles use energy to rapidly return to their original length. If you waste a lot of energy in the rebound, you have high hysteresis. If your recoil is “snappy,” your tendons have low hysteresis. Low is better.
Other things matter, of course, like where the tendon “attaches” to the muscle. The more it attaches from the axis of rotation, the more powerful you will be (imagine holding the baseball bat in the ring or the handle and attempting to swing it; which hand position will enable more strength?). Another is length; longer tendons have a greater elastic potential than shorter ones, all else being equal. But that’s determined by genetics and beyond our control.
Children Have Natural Tendon Strength
Take a look at kids.
They undergo intensive exercise throughout the day. They become upset when you change the TV off. They’re running up the bookshelf, jumping like a kangaroo, crawling like a dog, dancing to any kind of music they hear, jumping from objects as tall as they are.
They’re still young. Kids haven’t yet accumulated the bad habits that characterize sedentary life and harm our connective tissue. They have not yet been damaged.
Their connective tissue is highly vascular. It has an early network of capillaries, so it receives ample blood flow. It is fairly fast and has a quick response time to stress. Mature tendons have few blood vessels and don`t get much blood in spite of having many oxygen molecules. To maintain good health and recover from stress, they need the synovial fluid in our joints to circulate freely. Vascular blood flow is passive and subconscious; it happens whether you move or will it along. Synovial fluid only diffuses during movement. You must actively move your joints to get synovial fluid moving.
How to Strengthen Tendons and Ligaments
“Hopefully, people will be able to move as quickly as a six-year-old in the coming years.” Moving like a child is very nice, but many people cannot operate the offices, jump across the large rooms, or run down the stairwells with a programmer on their backs. In addition, we have a lot of work ahead of us. More focused, concerted efforts are required to fight a lifetime of sedentary, linear living and a great deal of sitting.
11 Movements to Increase Tendon Strength and Elasticity
There are 11 exercise types that improve tendon strength and elasticity.
1. Eccentric Exercises – training “the negative”
Studies show that eccentric exercises (decreasing the weight) are an effective treatment for tendon injuries. In one study, runners in their early 40s with chronic Achilles’ tendonitis were divided into two groups. One group received standard treatment (NSAIDS, sleep, physical therapy, orthotics), the other did eccentric exercises. Exercisers did a calf raise (concentric) on the healthy foot and gradually lowered themselves on the injured foot (eccentric heel drop) for 3 sets of 15 repetitions, three times a day, every day, for 12 weeks.
Once they mastered the task and it became easy, they were told to increase the load with weighted backpacks. After 12 weeks, all the former runners could run again, while those who continued with the program had zero success and required surgery.
I’d bet that eccentric movements will strengthen already healthy tendons. Any tendon will respond to eccentric movements. A slow lowering to the pushup position can strengthen strained tendons by inducing muscle-tendon complexes to lengthen. Anything that causes those complexes to contract should improve and strengthen tendons and ligaments.
2. Partial reps – strengthen tendons and ligaments
George Jowett’s “strengthening the sinews” program included partial reps of heavy weights. He focused on the last four to six inches of the main exercises, such as bench press, overhead press, squat, and deadlift.
3. Plyometrics – strengthen tendons and ligaments
Exuberant muscle movements using the recoil response of the tendons can increase that response. In a recent study, 14 weeks of plyometric exercises (squat jumps, drop jumps, countermovement jumps, single-leg and double-leg hedge jumps) reduced tendon hysteresis. The trained group exhibited significantly faster tendons than the control group. Tendons did not get any bigger or longer than at baseline. They just became better at transmitting elastic energy. Previous 8-week plyometric assessments failed to find any changes in tendon functioning or hysteresis, so it is important to give them sufficient time to adapt.
4. Explosive isometrics – strengthen tendons and ligaments
Explosive isometric training involves exerting hand or leg muscles against an immovable force, such as attempting to push a car with the parking brake on, trying to kick with a leg bound with a belt, or punching against a wall. In one study, explosive isometric calf training 2-3 times per week for 6 weeks was as effective at improving calf tendon stiffness and jump height as plyometric calf training while being less hazardous to the joints and inducing less impact.
5. Volume-increasing exercises
Scaling is crucial to free climber Alex Honnold, whose powerful fingers help him scale mountains and cliffs on a daily basis. Those aren’t large finger muscles. These are thick cords of connective tissue. Not enough picture? Performance athletes with 15 years of experience have finger joints and tendons approximately 62% thicker than those of non-athletes. And the crimped hold, which utilizes all five fingers, can stress finger connective tissues and lead to adaptation. So if you’re up for it, rock climbing (indoor or outdoor) is a great way to increase tendon volume and will strengthen tendons and ligaments.
6. Intensity training – strengthen tendons and ligaments
You need to stress the tendons. We see this in the eccentric decline squat study discussed earlier, where decline squats (which place more stress on the patellar tendon) were more effective than flat squats (which place less stress on the patellar tendon) for repairing patellar tendinitis. In a subsequent experiment, women were placed on a controlled bodyweight squat regimen. They developed stronger, their muscles improved, and their tendons became more flexible, but they did not improve their tendon elasticity, the tendon’s ability to store elastic energy, or the age-related reduction of tendon hysteresis.
The resistance and speed used simply weren’t sufficient to thoroughly stimulate the connective tissue. A recent study suggests that in order to change tendon, you need stress that goes beyond the recommended value of daily activities. So, while walking around, gardening, and general puttering is beneficial, it may not enhance your condition enough to elicit an adaptive response from your injured tendons. To elicit this adaptive response, you must increase the magnitude of your applied stress by changing volume, intensity, range, resistance, range of motion, and the ratio of eccentric versus concentric contractions. Movement in a concentric manner.
7. Stretching – full range of motion
Longer, deeper stretches are probably best.
8. Avoid pain, seek mild discomfort
Tendon discomfort is not severe. Stress is uncomfortable. Tendons should not be strained, and they should not experience pain. You should feel some degree of pain in order to trigger a spasm, but you should not endure intolerable pain.
9. Daily practice to strengthen tendons
Training to strengthen tendons and ligaments may not be as exciting as training your muscles, but it is important to maintain this aspect of fitness. You can do that with random sets of eccentric heel drops and static squat holds performed throughout the day. I like Dan John’s “Easy Strength” program, which consists of selecting a few exercises to do every day-every day-with a low amount of effort. Front squats, Romanian deadlifts, and pull-ups are a few of the exercises I perform. Two sets of five participants for each session.
10. Don’t rush; take it easy – strengthen tendons and ligaments
Pick a load and stick with it until it becomes easy. On Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution Podcast, Christopher Sommer from Gymnastic Bodies explains that he creates a tendon-centric program for a gymnastics competitor. They have them work with the same intensity for 8 to 12 weeks. The first few weeks are filled with difficulty. The weight is heavy. At four weeks, it’s still difficult but much easier. You start feeling like it’s too easy at 8 weeks, which is when the tendon-building magic happens.
By 12 months, what you considered difficult when you first began is now “baby weight.” Your muscles are stronger and your tendons have developed enough collagen to be flexible. You do not have to worry about handling heavy weights anymore.
I have mentioned that a good example of an easy-to-use workout program is Dan John’s “Easy Strength.” You can use it every day with lighter to moderate weights, adding weight only after two sets of five reps become very easy. You won’t see the same rapid progress with Starting Strength, but you’ll also have fewer injuries on your body, prepare your tendons and ligaments for more strenuous workouts, and eliminate the need to consume a gallon of milk every day.
11. Massage and myofascial bodywork
The massaging of tendon sheaths can help increase blood flow to otherwise anaemic regions. Self myofascial release utilizing foam rollers, lacrosse balls, or even the good old elbow is also a good idea. A trained masseuse knows how best to relax tendons, applying the correct techniques.
12th way to strengthen tendons and ligaments is collagen.
Collagen is not a substance. It is an amino acid. Collagen is present in every cell throughout the body and is especially concentrated in your connective tissue. Research shows that you need 10 grams of glycine per day for collagen maintenance, more if you are healing from an injury. Getting 10 grams of glycine is difficult for most of us because we eat only tough cuts of meat or offal on a daily basis.
Collagen peptides fill in the gaps left by my diet. Hydrolyzed collagen peptides in powder form are easy to use and mix into any liquid. You can buy unflavored or flavored collagen powder, and you get to choose which you would like. Collagen powder is a valuable protein source for medical research. You can learn more about collagen here.
Why you should focus on tendon health
Tendon health isn’t just for injury prevention. It will make you stronger, too. Everyone knows about “old man strength.” It’s that phenomenon of otherwise unimpressive looking old guys crushing your hand when shaking it, being immovable statues down low in pickup basketball games, and generally tossing you around like you were a child in any feat of strength. What explains it? It’s not the muscles (yours are bigger). It is not the aging that sets us apart (as you are younger and faster). It is our thick connective tissue, which is created through years of hard work.
In the real world, full-body movements and compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, pullups, and gymnastics build healthy tendons that boost strength, power, explosiveness, and resilience to make you more powerful. It allows your strong large muscles to function to their full capacity. A healthy tendon is a conduit for your muscle to express its strength.
Muscles get sore easily, but don’t forget strengthen tendons and ligaments. Be cautious of excessive stretching and if you feel any discomfort in a tendon, back off. Add some unusual movements and explosive isometric exercises to your workout routine. Practice hops and wide jumps as well. Exercise often, and consider adding an early morning exercise routine. Don’t take days off because you feel lazy. Do your best to get familiar with the weight and movements in the warmup before increasing intensity. The main thing is to strengthen tendons and ligaments as you exercise.