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Chill Out to Improve Your Workout?

It seems that in this day of intensity driven programming and pre-workout supplements that the only way to do things is to get really amped up to train. In this article we will look at why this may be actually slowing your progress, and what to do instead.

We've all seen the young bros at the gym, whose warm up mostly involves smashing 3 scoops of pre-workout then getting under the bar, attempting to get jacked AF. While the surge of stimulants this gives may temporarily increase energy levels, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest this maybe isn't the smartest approach to training.

For starters, many people are resorting to using these kind of supplements because they lack the energy to get to the gym without it. Lack of sleep, poor diet, over use of personal devices and a stressful lifestyle can all contribute to leaving people feeling run down and exhausted. So now you're getting all jacked up on caffeine, beta-alanine, and who knows what else, so you can get in your 'killer workout'. But you have to ask if this is really the solution to what is essentially an already highly strung and stressed out existence.

You Need to be a Zebra, Bro

In his wonderful book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky explains in a very easy to understand format, the way that stress affects your physiology. This is a fantastic book that I highly recommend. I'll admit that I feel inadequate in this area, I tend to be a higher stress individual and many of the things in this book really resonated with me.

The basic premise here is that although zebras live in a potentially very stressful environment (who wants to be chased by lions for a living?), they don't suffer the same consequences of stress that humans do. That's because once the imminent stress is over, they readily go back to the state they were in before, you know, chilling out, eating grass, sleeping. The zebra experiences an acutely stressful event, but then relatively quickly returns to baseline.

Contrast this with the environment modern humans find themselves in- whether you've been stuck in traffic for the last 45min, your boss is asking you to work late again, or its 6am and one of the kids is screaming at you because his Combiner-Force Bruticus' gun is missing, again- you don't have to look far to start seeing all the stresses that impact us on a daily basis.

Dude You Need to Relax, You Look Uptight!

Much like the response when you hear the above comment, what all of this does is leave most of us in state of constant stress. The sympathetic nervous system (think: fight or flight) dominates, which has a number of consequences for the state of our physiology. Resting heart rate and blood pressure go up, pupils dilate and blood flow is directed to selected skeletal muscles. This also effects the biomechanics of the body, with people falling into a more extended posture:

  • Head forward position

  • Lumbar curve increases

  • Pelvis tilts forward

I know I have head forward posture- I'M STRESSED BITCH!!!

All of these things are great to deal with an imminent threat, as they allow for quick movement, but it is a far from ideal strategy to deal with the ongoing low-level stressors that we deal with on a daily basis. This uptight posture and mental state has other effects on people as well:

  • Difficulty relaxing and/or sleeping

  • Increased anxiety

  • Digestive issues

  • Immune system dis-regulation

Bro, I Thought This Was an Article About Lifting?

Yeah yeah, I ramble. So how does all of this impact the training side of things? Well for starters, that awesome posture described above might prime you to run away from a lion, but it does your squat depth no favours. The anterior rotation, or forward tilt, of your pelvis puts your hamstrings into a pre-shortened position. The flow on effect of this is that as you try to squat down, you run out of hamstring length. This is quite often a cause of the all too familiar 'butt wink' in the bottom of the squat, where the lower back rounds as the pelvis is pulled into more posterior tilt.

You also might feel like you are 'super tight and stable' when you force that hard arch before you squat or deadlift, but have you stopped to wonder why that is? If I told you that the stability was coming from jamming the facet joints of your spine together, would that still sound like the best choice? Probably not if long term spine health is any kind of a consideration for you...

So What Should I Do?

Well, the first thing you need to do before you lift is try to relieve some of that tension and reset the body and your nervous system state. This sounds complicated, but can actually often be done with 2 or 3 relatively straightforward techniques. The first of which is 5-7 minutes of foam rolling. I know, I know. It sucks. Its boring. It hurts. Well princess, maybe if a piece of foam can actually cause you pain there might be a little too much tension in the tissues no? For a good primer on foam rolling from Tony Gentilcore, click here.

Next is to target some specific breathing exercises to shift the air around your body in different ways. According to renowned physical therapist Bill Hartman, people with faulty breathing mechanics will either use an inhalation, or an exhalation strategy. Luckily, we can find out which strategy we use relatively easily. You just need to check your infrasternal angle. The infrasternal angle is the angle formed between your ribs, starting at the xyphoid process (the little rubbery lump at the bottom of your sternum). To measure it, simply lie on your back, relax your stomach and use the middle finger of one hand to feel around between your ribs until you find the xyphoid process.

Next, simply place your middle fingers up against the inside surface of your ribs, then holding the angle in place, move your hands to where you can see and estimate the angle. If it is less than 90 degrees, you are using an exhalation strategy, if it is wider than 90 degrees, you are using an inhalation strategy. if you would like a video demonstration of the technique, Zac Cupples provides one here

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