This article was originally published in British Strength Magazine. You can subscribe for free at www.britishstrengthmagazine.com
Achieving strength – the importance of threat perception and solid foundations
'Strength is not built, it is granted' (Paul McIlroy) is one of my favourite quotes. Motor control and movement are regulated by the cerebellum and the bodies perceived threat from a given stimulus. If a movement is not viewed as a threat and/or the brain is very familiar with that movement then the cerebellum will 'grant' more neural recruitment to perform it with (this is motor control). Conversely if something is viewed as a threat the neural potential for that movement will be down regulated so the person is less likely to hurt themselves during the movement. For example – I was working with a powerlifter quite recently who picked up a bit of an injury and his strength suffered greatly because of it. In fact you could say that in relation to how bad the injury was the strength dropped disproportionately. It was not as if his body had suddenly become weaker over night, instead his brain regulated the maximal amount of force that it would grant, the amount that it deemed safe to do so without causing further injury. Smart right?
It is important here to make the distinction between the perception of threat and threat itself. For example, someone that may have an old back injury from deadlifting may no longer have day to day problems and the physical damage that was caused has long gone. However, every time that they put themselves in that deadlift position they feel pain. This pain is created by the brain because it remembers that previously it experienced a lot of pain trying to move from this position and so guards against it, as well as there potentially being a psychological factor. There are a number of reasons that may have caused the injury: there was possibly an underlying problem; the lift may have been performed with poor technique; or the individual may have been over reaching. So until that person rehabilitates the injury fully mentally and physically they will likely to continue to feel the pain. (For those interested or those that want a better explanation of how the brain plays a part in the feeling of pain go to YouTube and search for 'Lorimer Moseley – Why things hurt. This is really interesting and informative unofficial Ted Talk to do with the 'illusion' of pain.)
Exactly the same principle may apply to someone that has plateaued in training. Your body could be intentionally, sub consciously, be limiting itself for fear of getting hurt if it 'grants' more strength. I heard a brilliant analogy on the Stop Chasing Pain podcast which is hosted by Dr Perry Nickelston. His guest (I think it was Jason Glass) said think of the body like a rickety old car, if you want to make it go faster what do you do? Sure you can put in a bigger engine, fit a bigger turbo etc but until you sort out the ride, the handling and the brakes you aren't going to drive it much quicker because it would be dangerous to do so. Your body is exactly the same, until your body has confidence that is is going to be able to control what you are asking it to do it is going to limit your neurological recruitment in your lifting ala your strength and power.
From the top athletes that I have worked with in a range of sports, including powerlifting, they all have something in common – they are brilliant at compensating and cheating in an attempt to maximise their potential. It is completely acceptable when you are trying to squat, deadlift or bench 2 or 3 times bodyweight to clench your jaw, hold your breath, grip the bar, screw your feet into the floor, squeeze your pelvic floor and so on. However, a lot of people do this when they are just walking around and performing day to day tasks unknowingly and this is not efficient.
The efficiency of an individuals motor control undoubtedly in my mind adds an extra dimension and edge to someone trying to maximise their potential. Think of your body like an electrical circuit board for a moment. Every muscle has a switch to turn it on and off and is represented by a light bulb, now in people where their motor control is organised and efficient everytime you switch on a particular switch the appropriate light bulb comes on almost instantaneously. In cases where someones system is disorganised, they have niggles, old injuries etc when you turn on a switch a number of different things may happen: there may be a time delay in the correct light coming on; a different light may come on before the correct one does; a number of different lights come on before the correct one does; the correct light may not come on at all because the connection has been broken; or a different light entirely comes on and stays on(think crossed wires). Now in an organised and efficient system no matter what you do in terms of switching lights on and off that should not influence the results of any other switches you use immediately afterward. Whilst working together they are spearate circuits, and in the case of the human body we know that no muscle works in isolation. Any delay in activation, interference from other circuits or crossed wiring is an indication of an unorganised system which is sub-optimal and delayed muscular activation has been show to be linked to problems such as chronic back pain.
So the obvious question becomes how do I unlock this potential and improve my motor control? To build solid foundations you have to be able to breathe properly, as Gray Cook says if you can't breathe in a particular position then you don't own it. There is a very simple exercise that you can do which Kathy Dooley has made a video of (go to YouTube and seach 'Kathy Dooley croc and roll'). This shows a breathing exercise position called Crocodile Breathing combined with segmental rolling patterns which is great way to start re-awakening things that may have been dormant for a while. Kathy runs through this quite quickly so I will give a breakdown below just in case you think the video doesn't explain it in as much detail as you would like.
- Crocodile Breathing – performed face down with your hands above your head, palms face down and forehead resting on the back of your hands. In this position it forces you to breathe into your abdomen as you are unable to shrug your shoulder and expand your chest. Take a breath in through your nose and focus on pushing your abdomen into the ground and your back towards the sky and exhale by blowing out through your mouth for 4 seconds. (You should be exhaling for longer than you are inhaling for).
- Segmental rolling – as Kathy explains the whole of your body except your head and the limb you are leading with should be dead weight. Look in the direction that you are going and reach across, or behind, with the leading limb, whilst doing this make sure you do not hold your breath, clench your jaw, squeeze your hands etc. Go as slow as possible, the slower you go the greater control you have over the movement. Vary the combinations of rolling that you do and don't forget to crocodile breathe in between when you are face down.
If you can encourage your body to breathe as it was designed to do so sub-consciously, and believe me so many people have really bad breathing mechanics, then your body is absolutely going to have a better foundation from which it will be more likely to grant strength from. There is no better 'core' workout than to get your breathing mechanics right.
Please forward any thoughts, responses, questions to Alex and he will forward them on to me. Thanks for reading.