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What is Light and Heavy Tension - Lock Picking
Ryan Brown
May 21, 2020

Light vs. Heavy Tension: Benefits & Best Uses

Stop using that light tension!

Just kidding... sort of...

Perhaps the greatest misconception – and honestly one of the greatest hindrances – many lock pickers have is the inclination to only ever use light tension. That anything other than the lightest touch on our turning tools is one of the cardinal sins of lock picking.

The truth is, light tension is extremely useful in many ways – as we’ll learn in a minute –, but it has its limitations. Furthermore, when we restrict ourselves to only using light tension, those limitations become our limitations.

So before we get into the meat of this guide and cover the characteristics of light and heavy tension, I feel it’s important to give you a new foundation, a new paradigm, that will perhaps change the way you think about tension forever.

The Bias of Light Tension

When the majority of us first learned how to pick a lock, we were likely given the advice to use light tension.

This isn't bad advice, however, it's natural for us to infer that because we were told to use light tension, that we shouldn't use heavy tension – thus a bias was born. A bias that we are going to crush right now.

See the truth is there is an entire spectrum of tension at our disposal ranging between the "lightest tension possible" and the "heaviest tension possible."

Let’s take a second to define those two terms:

Lightest Tension Possible: This is the minimum amount of tension that we can apply to the lock and still successfully bind and set a pin. Any less and lock picking is impossible.
Heaviest Tension Possible: This is the maximum amount of tension that we can apply and still have the ability to move and set pins. Any more and the pins will bind so hard that you either can’t move them or you risk breaking your pick trying.

Everything between these two points – the lightest tension possible and the heaviest tension possible – is the range of tension that we can use to bind and set pins. It is what we will call usable tension.

The point I really want to drive home is this. Both light tension, heavy tension, and everything in between is extraordinarily useful to you as a picker. It is up to you to develop your own preference and style of tensioning without limiting yourself to only one side of the spectrum.

So with that out of the way, let's jump into the benefits of each side of the range so that you can utilize both to their full potential!

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Benefits of Light Tension

Now it's right here that many will expect to find a detailed list of locks that light tension works best on or a set of guidelines to which lock characteristics to use light tension. The problem, however, is that this information is mostly subjective – it is personalized to my style of picking and my approach to locks.

Two different people can pick the same lock in two different ways and swear by their method being the best way. To that end, instead of just giving you rules to follow, I'd rather give you concepts to apply, so that you can best develop your own style of tensioning.

Now that being said, it is true that some locks just plain pick better with light tension, such as locks with dead cores or super tight tolerances. However, beyond the "it just works better for some locks," there are 5 universal benefits that light tension does offer us!

Note: Not all of these benefits are advantages to the act of picking itself, but rather some benefit the development and progression of our lock picking and tensioning skills!

Benefit 1: Tender Love

Our first benefit of using light tension is that it's much more gentle on our lock picking tools and practice locks.

Lighter tension means less force being applied to the lock, which in turn means there is less friction restricting components from moving — in other words, less tension means everything moves easier! When things move easier, we don’t have to apply as much force to the pins with our already fragile and thin picks!

Additionally, when using lighter tension while raking, there is less of a chance of snagging and breaking your rake on a pin that doesn't want to move.

So in a nutshell, light tension is significantly easier on your tools and is a proactive way to increase the lifespan of your lock picks.

Benefit 2: Learning to Drive

Light tension is significantly harder to apply and even harder to continually maintain while picking. It requires considerably more focus and mental endurance.

While this may not seem like a great benefit, this increased demand for our focus forces us to become more perceptive of our inputs. It forces us to develop our tensioning skills and refine the amounts of tension that we give and retract.

Much like learning to drive a car. At first we begin to steer using large movements that cause us to swerve between the lines. However, after some time we learn to refine our movements into more subtle motions that keep us more controlled.

Just like driving, the force that we put onto our tensioning tools can be refined and will eventually require much less focus to apply and maintain – additionally allowing our attention to fall to other aspects of lock picking, such as feedback.

Benefit 3: Good Directions

Light tension reinforces the concept of the binding order — or in other words, it forces us to become more conscious of what we are doing.

Minds eye within the lockLearning to identify and follow a locks binding order will develop the mental ability for us to better understand what we have done thus far in the lock and what is left to be done.

It develops the ability to draw a mental map within our minds of how that lock is picked — from start to finish!

Being able to consciously keep track of what is occurring within a lock (such as what pins are set, which pins are not, what pins tend to overset, what pins tend to fall, etc) is where you will reach a whole new level of picking. It is where you will discover a state of flow, in which the world falls away and all that is left is the feedback and your mental map.

Benefit 4: An Easier Fight

The last great benefit of using light tension is when picking locks with security pins — more specifically, feeling the counter-rotation that they provide.

In order for a security pin to give us counter-rotation, the lifting force we apply to that security pin must exceed the torquing force that we apply to the plug.

So light tension allows the security pin an easier fight while it counter rotates. As a result, we can more quickly and more successfully identify security pins.

Note: Picking security pins with heavy tension works great as well, however it much harder to naturally feel the counter-rotation and sometimes requires you to let off of your tension to test and set pins.

Benefits of Heavy Tension

It's important to understand that heavy tension doesn’t mean the heaviest tension possible – if you are biting your tongue or finding creative ways to leverage your body to put more force onto your wrench then you are probably using too much tension.

Too much tension can cause two issues… well three if you count breaking or bending your tension wrench. First it will bind the pins so tight that you can not move them, which isn’t particularly helpful in your endeavor. Second, because the pins are so tight, you risk breaking your picks while attempting to push on a key pin — also not useful.

So let's look at two awesome benefits of using heavier tension!

Benefit 1: Loud & Heavy

The moment that the driver pin hits the shear line when setting a pin, the torque being applied to the plug will cause the pin to violently shift over to release itself from the bind.

This violent movement will give us auditory and haptic feedback that will not only make a very noticeable click, but also send a vibration through the lock, turning tool, and our pick.

However, the more force we apply to the tension wrench, the greater the force the pin will have when successfully set. This means a greater impact and more feedback when the pin collides with the pin chamber.

In a nutshell, heavier tension will increase the feedback that the lock gives us. This can be very beneficial to newer pickers who don't yet have a solid grasp of what certain feedback means or who can't yet detect the subtle feedback of lighter tension! It is also very helpful to pickers who have some degree of nerve damage in their hands.

Benefit 2: Be a Bully

Perhaps the greatest reason many people utilize heavy tension is for its ability to bully pins and quickly pick locks.

Let’s quickly explore that.

When we apply heavy tension, we typically cause more than one pin to bind.

The benefit here is that rather than searching for a single binding pin to set – like we do with light tension – , we now have several binding pins at any given time that we can set. This gives us the chance to find and set more pins on every pass through the lock.

In addition, because we have applied more force to the plug, each pin will be harder to lift and in some instances we have to kinda force them into a set – or as we call it “bully" them into a set.

Now it's important to note that if you are not careful, you stand the chance of breaking a pick while bullying pins. Be aware of how much force you are applying and if in doubt, lighten up on the tension. It's truly not worth the broken pick!

To Conclude

I hope this short little guide gave you some new insights into the more obscure benefits of tension.

Remember that both light and heavy tension teach different lessons and in many ways make up for each other's faults.

It’s fully up to you to develop your own style and rules about tensioning. Play around with different levels of tension and don’t limit yourself to one side of the spectrum.

The question should no longer be exactly how much tension should be applied, but rather what range of tension can you play within. How much is too little and how much it too much?

So long as you can move and set pins, there is no wrong way to tension a lock.

If you have any questions or comments about this guide or other topics, be sure to drop that in the comments below or throw me an email here.

Happy Picking!

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