Photography by J Perez Imagery of Oahu, Hawaii
The beauty that is the human neuromuscular system is so complex in both structure and function that we often forget our innate ability to command control over it. Decades of research talk about the importance of the mind-muscle connection. In the gym we often experience a progressive increase in the ability to target or isolate a muscle group and in the future we often learn to integrate it with other muscle groups. Much like working out your brain via puzzles, the importance of learning to recruit muscles on demand is of utmost importance in activities of daily living and training.
Use the Force
To increase muscle force production, more motor units must be recruited. This process of motor unit recruitment occurs in an orderly fashion, beginning with the smallest motor neurons and eventually activating larger and larger motor neurons. This concept was developed by Elwood Henneman and is known as the size principle. As we continue to exercise and innervate larger muscle groups, the greater a likelihood to produce more force. The idea is to start small and create a balance between exercise and engagement of muscle.
Secondly, through regular exercise and activation of musculature, brain health increases—more specifically the efficiency of the afferent and efferent nerve signals carried out by various sections of the brain such as the frontal cortex. By flexing the tissue post exercise as well as during the day, it increases the response the body commands on the brain. Through exercise and conscious flexing, the muscles are required to stay in a semi-contracted state via the muscle tension principle. Contrary to common belief this isn’t grounds for an injury, instead it is a necessary function of muscle when training multiple days per week. However, through understanding how to relax muscle tissue through meditation and during training, one will be able to progress further in the gym virtually injury-free.
Fraudulent Versus Effective Connections
A typical workout session (for some) includes choosing the weight and mindlessly “going through the motions” and ascribing certain rep ranges for “heavier” weight and “light” weight, respectively. In reality muscles do not understand the concept of weight nor rep ranges (in the general sense of numerics). What they do understand, however, is tension-length relationships. In short, how hard does the muscle need to contract in order to produce sufficient force or how much does it need to lengthen to load in an eccentric phase of movement? How long you subject your muscle to stress is also a factor in learning how to cope with pain; a result of metabolic and mechanical overload.
This programming becomes important in “feeling” your exercises. Many of my clients understand this concept due to my emphasis on kinetic feedback. I often use verbal cues in conjunction with physical ones in order to elicit a response from the muscle. This may seem like an “old-school” training concept but proves to be much more important than one ought to think. According to Calatayud, there exists a threshold where effectively working between 60% and 80% of the 1RM and by focusing on muscles used there is a significant increase in the ability to progressively overload during resistance training.
Moreover, it is emphasized during my training regimens to forget the rep ranges (for one minute) and feel your muscles by squeezing and holding (a brief but intentional pause). Your muscles should feel as if they are an extension of your thought—as opposed to an extension of your ego. This is not considered a beginner’s methodology of training by any means, however. After several months of training this becomes pivotal in advancing your progress. Brad Schoenfeld does a great job explaining the integration of drop sets, forced repetitions, supersets, and heavy negatives greatly influence hypertrophy. However, these become useless to the average gym goer without prior knowledge of harnessing the target muscles to their true potential through kinetic cues.
Mind Over Matter
This is a mantra often expressed in sport as well as multiple practices of yoga, martial arts, and meditation. The flow state is a point where the body is simply a conduit for which the mind is able to express itself. We as humans however, have a resistance to change. Our ego, self-validation, and need for “cognitive closure” often impede our ability to relinquish the body to the mind during a familiar methodology. This carries over into the social psychology of “acceptance.”
The fitness industry (in some respect) has become “social media fandom” at its finest; Instagram coaching is a prime example of this. We’ve lost the ability to connect on a deeper level—the idea of an individual struggle with engaging the muscle for the sake of individual growth. The best method to defy being a victim is to embrace self.
Start with what you look like in the mirror, then look at the aesthetic that is genetically favorable to you and create ways to enhance it through exercise. Next, choose methods of exercise that create a more functional version of yourself. By doing this your focus becomes less about the body and more about the complete individual who uses the body to achieve its goals. Positive self-imagery will be your guide. We’ve become soft, tons of snowflakes who follow the in-crowd for the sake of feeling accepted while our mind whithers away and our confidence tanks. Instead, work towards small goals so the bigger goal doesn’t seem so daunting for the sake of being a peace with oneself.
Muscle tissue is unique in that it’s super plastic (Frontera, 2014), generates force through movement, and depends on every system of the body to be efficient. However, we take for granted what it means to have felt a workout. Most would agree that feeling “sore” equates to a thorough routine, however, this is largely a misunderstanding of how to continue progress. In previous articles, I express that ideas, such as linear progression being a direct cause for hypertrophy, strength, and overall muscle, is a convention we no longer associate with.
Hybridized periodization, corrective exercise, and performance are the ways for building a better body. Periodization is best considered (in convention) to occur by segregating phases by which one lifts heavy for low reps for a few microcycles, then lifts with slightly higher reps until a peak is reached. At this peak, the person typically reaches their 1RM. I know what you’re thinking, this cannot make sense, as the body is a perfect adaptive machine—and you would be correct. Hybridized periodization allows for a better focal point of training and is what the new paradigm is shifting toward.
1. Strength/“Power” – Maintaining/increasing strength while the focal point is reaching a new 1RM. This focus is witnessed in powerlifters, CrossFit athletes, and Olympic weightlifters.
2. Strength/Endurance - Maintaining/increasing strength while simultaneously increasing cardiovascular conditioning. This is not limited to cardiovascular weighted exercise, rather it is creating a more efficient and versatile training program such that your cardiorespiratory system and neuromuscular system focus on achieving a near maximal condition; i.e. bodybuilding.
3. Strength/“Plyometric” – Incorporating a myriad of exercises which focus on executing reps in short periods of time and exciting the nervous system.
4. Strength/Corrective – This allows one to continue lifting without sacrificing range of motion and working on deficits.
These should be done concurrently, however, the stress will differ from individual to individual dependent on need. Note that the hybridization does not eliminate strength and does not focus on particular rep ranges to elicit a particular response. However, this is not to say that your standard 5 x 5 or Wendler’s 5/3/1 hold no weight, rather it’s being flexible with what your body needs and then fine-tuning during training. Imagine an average 90-minute session which begins with power-based training and eventually becomes a bodybuilding session, such as below:
- Pull-ups, followed by rack pulls, followed by one arm rows, then sumo deadlifts -1 hour passes
The body always requires greater stress, therefore we are interested in attacking the lat pull-down machine, landmine for t-bar rows, Kroc rows, low cable rows, etc for 30 minutes. Those who sing in the powerlifting or starting strength camp may say this might not be effective for strength gains as we are working strength power while floating into strength endurance. However, it can be argued that some individuals do better cross-training rather than focusing on a particular avenue of training. I can attest to this being true for myself during competition season. I’ve had multiple episodes where I’ve needed to spend time doing pre-hab work while increasing my conditioning via endurance and end with power. This typically occurs after I’ve sufficiently warmed up and elicited the correct response from my muscles. I can feel the difference between lifting heavy for reps and lifting heavy with correct form and maximal contraction and full range of motion or even truncated range of motion to target certain muscles.
From a performance standpoint, exercise should ideally be for function first then for aesthetic. Needless to say, the more you put in the more get out and muscle definition is by no means the only outcome. Activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (iADLs) are of utmost importance. These range from tying your shoe (without hunching or getting a knee replacement ) to picking up children and pushing boxes overhead into a shelf or cupboard. Strength training thusly should largely have carried over to your intended life goals and or competitive goals. How do we get there?
To integrate the aforementioned ideally seek out the gym three to 5 days a week. Incorporate one or two power movements such as a squat or overhead press, then three bodybuilding exercises, a corrective exercise that typically bothers you (after an assessment), and lastly two plyometric exercises such as a box jump, muscle-up, or plyo push-up. The general kickback is being a jack of all trades, however for the average individual training for specificity isn’t the intended goal; rather, health is the focus and obtaining some aesthetic that provides comfort along the way is more than sufficient.
Instinctually we as humans, provide ample excuses for our shortcomings. We tend to seek self-preservation via whichever avenue it presents itself and the same is true in lifting. Today I’d like to discuss the notion of how second-guessing and psyching oneself up plays a role in our training.
Second Guessing in Training
Roush presents a study regarding the idea of second-guessing from the epistemological notion of how substantive information is needed in order to disprove our original intent or claim. In short, this relays that capability to cease second-guessing and creates a more unified thought process while refraining from participating in second order information. As a trained person, it’s quite easy to express what works for me and what does not, however, to the untrained or inexperienced second order, misguidance typically arises from ignorance, fear, assumptions, or grossly incorrect information from non-credible sources. Information overload desensitizes us to our ability to reason logically in the gym, hence the uprising of the bro-science camp in fitness.
Physiological implications in lifting may begin from our ability to lift a weight which, mechanically isn’t heavy for an individual, but psychologically seems unreasonable given particular variables at large (exhaustion, hunger, etc). In a study, it showed that there is an increased likelihood of failing an attempt on a lift if grip wasn’t executed sufficiently. The body tends to relax muscle groups in reaction to perceived threat “shut down” it is a survival mechanism by which impedes our ability to lift weight that would otherwise be an accomplice to suicide and encourages second guesses during an attempt.
Another form of second guessing may arise amid the environmental change. Oftentimes I’ve witnessed persons increase weight based on the doings of another or change the order of exercises to suit a training partner. This is foolhardy and often translates to a dampening in neuromuscular efficiency (Simao 2012).
When we are able to understand how much we can handle and go into the session with a game plan however, the attention of another may rattle our brain for the worst. This also comes into play for the form of a particular lift. Particular movements have what is called “universal biomechanical component” that may include, but are not limited to, the back squat, front squat, barbell bicep curl, deadlift, overhead press, pull-up, and push-up. What this means is, based on the physics of the human body, lever systems exercises tend to have a similar if not anatomically identical mechanical loading pattern and thus second guessing form shouldn’t be an issue. However, we are made differently and some have sustained injury or disease impeding our ability to perform the way we intend.
For instance, standard pull-ups cannot be executed by everyone, despite knowing or seeing the mechanics in action. The nuances between body types contends with the “form police” phenomena in training facilities which, “you’re doing it wrong” is a greeting rather than (at times) a rude and blasphemous statement. Variation, is the spice of life to a fault because previous injuries may decrease range of motion and thus modifications to the original exercise, instead of making a new exercise, may be a better choice.
The fitness industry often spews tales of motivation. Motivation is the driving force behind human behavior and quite frankly it doesn’t translate to a sufficient response in trainees. The reasoning for this often lies in epiphany, revelation, and gratification. Epiphany is the spiritual manifestation of the imbedded ideas behind our goals—a sudden recognition of something important to the self. The revelation usually is provoked by a trigger or occurrence within the training session or leads up to the training session. The gratification can be delayed or short term. However, the caveat lies in the type of of gratification. Often we are granted the ability to stress the human body but we don’t emphasize how and why? What your reasoning is for training will ascertain your how. It’s just as simple as calorie shifting and having a weight goal in mind.
Getting prepared requires much more than a motivational speech or two. It requires a proper “kamae”—the Japanese word for posture. During training, mental posture as well as physical posture effects the ability to perform a given exercise. As stated in a previous article about achieving flow, kamae requires practice in order to be efficient. Often utilized in martial art, kamae can be used in attacking a new PR or fighting through difficult repetitions. However, I drill into each of my clients the importance of spinal, wrist, elbow, and hip integrity during any movement. This is what posture most often times is considered (form). Set your mind right and the body will follow.