Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part II

Back in part I (read that first so you aren’t lost), I talked about the unconscious nature of motor learning and skill training, and mentioned how the brain rewires itself in response to outside changes, which include exercise. Now I want to discuss what this means for fitness goals.

If you like what’s in this article…

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We’re taught to fear overtraining from day one. We know, since we’re told so often, that if we train too much, we’ll basically die. A whole culture has developed around how to plan and apply training programs so that we avoid doing too much while trying to scratch out some kind of progress. I know it, as I was part of that culture.

Recent experiences have had me rethinking that viewpoint, to the degree that I’m no longer sure what’s a genuinely physical limit, what’s a psychological roadblock, and what’s just a good idea, limitations aside. ‘Overtraining’ has moved out of my vernacular — and this has happened because I stopped caring about the consequences.

That’s bad phrasing. I haven’t stopped caring. I’m still very aware of the potential consequences, all the nasty things that Personal Training 101 says will happen if you train too much. It might be better to say I’ve stopped dwelling on those consequences. I just show up and train, and oddly enough my body isn’t falling to pieces. The more frequently I do something moderately challenging (moderately being the key), the better my joints feel, the better my training goes, and the better my overall sense of well-being.

On paper, the reasons make sense (better, I can come up with reasons that make sense to me — I’ll get back to this). Training often with a squat, press, and pull, going heavy while using very conservative RPEs, presents a harvest-time bounty of useful physiological changes. Blowing conventional wisdom out of the water, I got to a point where I could go in and hit a max squat or deadlift any day of the week, because I hit max squats or deadlifts every day of the week. Even the granddaddys of body-wreckers weren’t messing me up, even hitting maxes on a daily basis and not even breaking a sweat over it.

I can contrive a whole shopping list of neurological and tissue-level adaptations to rationalize why this worked so well. But that’s all theory. It’s worse than theory, it’s taking research paper biochemistry and trying to extrapolate that to gym-training. This kind of conjecture doesn’t address a bigger concern. It’s easy to rationalize why it works. The question that occurs to me is more relevant: why doesn’t it fail?

Based on virtually all contemporary training wisdom, the squat-to-a-max-daily approach is nonsensical. The body reacts with a stress response, a stress response will eventually overwhelm us, and therefore you can’t train hard on a regular basis. It makes sense. Guys that follow that pattern have gotten big and strong and athletic. Everybody knows this. And yet, it worked.

The only problem: that model of training applies to everything from HIT and SuperSlow, to mainstream muscle-mag bodybuilding workouts, to Anthony Ditillo and the Bulgarian weightlifting system. They’re all using the same set of core assumptions to create wildly different interpretations. And even worse, they all work — for somebody, somewhere.

Not too long ago I asked about keeping it real. I wanted to know whether we were doing ourselves a disservice by clinging to absolute interpretations of scientific facts and accepted wisdoms, with regards to what we can (or should) do at the gym, or with our diets.

Do we create our world-view about training and then let our assumed facts filter down from the brain, into our actions and our physical responses? Or are there really hard-wired physiological responses and we’re just exploring that open space of possibilities thanks to the gap between research and what happens in the gym?

I know that it’s very easy to get caught up in a confirmation bias. This is a kind of dogmatic thinking which creeps into your perspective and causes you to find your own point of view everywhere. You’ve constructed a reality from a set of facts, and now everything filters through that construct.

There’s a very interesting field of study going by the unwieldy name psychoneuroimmunology. Once you pronounce that multisyllabic horror, you see from the roots that it deals with the interaction of psychology, neurology, and the immune system. Mind, brain, and health are not discrete elements; they’re all bound together in ways that, while hardly supernatural, aren’t entirely clear yet.

Your mind, a product of neurological activity, can affect your body. Remember the last time something scared you? You felt an adrenaline rush. Your heart started racing, your focus and attention suddenly turned up to 11, and you were probably trembling at least a little. This is the fight or flight response. You became aware of a threat and your body responded.

This works in reverse. Physical signals influence your mind. Ever been hungry? Thirsty? How about when you catch a bad cold, or the flu? You don’t feel well. You get hot, but also lethargic, maybe lose your appetite, and definitely don’t want to do anything but lay around being miserable. This is called sickness behavior, and it’s caused by inflammatory cytokines working on the brain. The immune system makes you feel like crap so you don’t go out wasting energy needed to get better.

And these are only the most obvious examples. The Skittles rainbow of neurotransmitters operating in the brain regulates (or at least influences) nearly every aspect of your body’s function — including your thoughts and emotions. Often enough, neurochemistry affecting a body process will affect your mind, and the opposite appears to hold true.

Consider the placebo effect. Since asking my original question, how our mind-states and emotional outlooks can influence our training and diets, a paper with intriguing possibilities has been published. You can read the lay-article here, and the fancy-pants science is up on the PLoS One (free full text).

I’m going to offer up my usual cautions. This deals with unhealthy people being told they’re taking a fake pill, and yet seeing improvements in their condition. It would be an irresponsibly large leap of logic for me to jump from that to saying “believe in your training/diet/supplements and you will succeed”.

That out of the way, I have to say I’m pretty much stoked by this. For years now I’ve been steadily piecing together a model that would integrate “the mind” with the physical processes of fatigue, stress, and “overtraining”. This kind of research helps to cement that link between thought/emotion, actions we take, and real physical consequences. Again, there is nothing in this particular paper that is game-changing, at least for those of us in the fitness arena, but there is a deeper point: those of us who are (or were) slaves to the hard determinism of laboratory biology are missing a whole dimension of the training process by undervaluing the psychological. It’s impossible to ignore the role that the mind plays on results, even given equal conditions.

Positive framing and an optimistic emotional outlook can and will affect your body and mind in positive ways. You can tell sick people that they’re getting a fake pill, and they make themselves better. The placebo effect can work even if you know what you’re doing is nonsense. From the paper:

Our data suggest that harnessing placebo effects without deception is possible in the context of 1) an accurate description of what is known about placebo effects, 2) encouragement to suspend disbelief, 3) instructions that foster a positive but realistic expectancy, and 4) directions to adhere to the medical ritual of pill taking. It is likely our study also benefited from ongoing media attention giving credence to powerful placebo effects.

To wit: if someone believes in a program, or a diet, or dare I say it, even an overpriced supplement, is it really that bad to just let them believe and go do the damn thing? The mind-via-body process is just as relevant to training adaptation as it is to fighting an illness; while not conclusive, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider the intentional placebo effect as a useful psychological strategy. I’m well aware of the arguments against hucksters and con-men; I’ve made most of those arguments. Nevertheless, it’s the outcome that should matter, not the path taken to get there.

But this has to go past simple belief. It’s not enough to just believe in what you’re doing; lots of people believe in lots of things, and many (most?) of them fail miserably every day. Bad training has the potential to be directly harmful, which isn’t the case for sugar pills. The cardio bunny doing her daily two-hour starvation jog isn’t going to believe herself lean. The eleet athleet isn’t going to believe his way out of a SLAP tear after 100 kipping pullups for five days in a row. There has to be a component of smart training and biological understanding. I don’t suggest abandoning that, and it would be incredibly stupid to do so for the above reasons and many more. Safety must come first. Training stupid can and will mess you up.

But the positive framing must be there for success; if there is a common factor between the successful, this would be it.

The problem I’ve been trying to attack is how to merge the understanding of biological adaptation, per exercise science, with the psychological elements and Jedi mind-tricks that can maximize success within the bounds of a smart training and nutrition program. We find a smart, productive program and a good diet under the fuzzy umbrella of Stuff That Works, and then maximize outcomes using the mind trickery.

Recently I’ve become interested in mindfulness as a strategy for handling stress. I think that the concept sums up what I was getting at with my original question. We aren’t so much trying to fool ourselves as much as trying to shut off all the conscious garbage in our minds and simply accept what we’re doing. We’re trying to move past all the noise and disorder of waking minds, all the worries about work and kids being sick and oh no if I squat again tomorrow I’ll be overtraining.

Shut all that out. Put it away. Focus on the now. Accept it. Breathe.

Mindfulness moves past belief into a kind of functional relaxation, letting the auto-pilot run the show. You just Go Do It. When you shut out all the nagging doubts and conscious facts that you “know”, you move past your self-imposed limits.

I want to reiterate that this is not removing physical limitations. Overtraining is real. Overuse injuries are real. SLAP tears from kipping pullups are real. If you train stupidly, you will run into these sooner than later. Mindfulness means removing the mental blocks — the layers of assumptions we’ve built into a functional world-view, and which tell us we Can’t Do It. Get rid of those. Push them aside, and see what actually happens when you try.

Mindfulness is awareness and control over your mind in the way exercise is control over your body. You can’t have one without the other. Traditional martial arts teach breathing and control of muscle tension; they teach a kind of disciplined mind which is, effectively, the same thing I’m discussing here.

This isn’t just Zen nonsense pulled out of a kung-fu movie. Mindfulness training is used in treatment for depression, in corporate stress-reduction programs, and the US military has taken a recent interest in the techniques as a ‘mental armoring’ for its soldiers. This isn’t pure woo-woo; it’s woo-woo that’s been studied in a lab for measurable effects in stress reduction and in improving positive emotions, well-being, and even performance outcomes.

This is real stuff, folks. While little, as yet, deals directly with athletes and general training purposes, I don’t see why that should stop us.

The stress response is real. Overtraining is real if that stress response keeps up for too long. But what we’ve neglected is adaptation. What we’ve glossed over is the role of the mind in managing that stress response. Given the opportunity, our bodies will adapt. Our minds can either help that process or they can hurt it.

The more you train, the more accustomed you are to training. Mind and body adapt together. When I was squatting daily, hitting daily max weights became trivial. Casual. You just walk up to the bar and hit it, no pressure. When you can do that with weights at or over 90% of your “real” 1RM, you’ve accomplished something. Training no longer triggers the deadly stress response.

Your mind believes in the training — or better, the mind has accepted that the training works — and the body follows. You just Go Do It.

I’d be interested to touch on supplements, in as much as they work by making you believe and by making you train harder and eat better, but I think that’s too big a can of worms. I do wonder how much all the reported miracle effects of the latest fad supplements are due to the psychological effects — and whether or not you could make sugar pills ‘feel like Deca’, but that’s a topic for another time.