Being a naturally athletic individual who grew up (and is still growing up) playing competitive sports, I’ve always been able to push myself to the point where I’m keeled over, gasping for air, or where my muscles are burning so much they feel like they’re going to go up in a burst of flames.
Because of this, challenging myself physically has never been an issue.
However, this isn’t true for all and I even see it with my own 2 kids.
Livia is four and a half now and she’s always been cautious. She needs lots of demonstration and help doing new things with her body, whether it’s a new piece of equipment at the park or a new sport. And she often won’t even try if it’s something she perceives she can’t do.
Camden is one and a half now and he’s the exact opposite – he’s not afraid to try anything and if he bumps his big round head he just shakes it off and tries again and again until he gets it.
Perhaps being very cautious is genetic or perhaps it was a result of differences in their upbringing and environment, but either way, it could be what starts the fear I’m talking about here that can limit your physical abilities and well-being.
Lately I’ve been working on being more empathetic and while this intention started because I wanted to improve this quality in my relationships with my wife, kids and others close to me, the work I’m doing is spilling over to every other area and relationship in my life.
Because I identify more with Camden in this regard, I can forget what it’s like to be more cautious with your body and physical skills.
So if you’re a life-long athlete or you have no trouble exerting yourself physically to the max, then you already get what I’m about to discuss.
However, if you picked up sport or exercise in adulthood or by nature you’re more like Livia, I’m hoping that my newly developing empathy will help me better communicate a point and open up a path for you to be stronger, more confident and as you’ll learn, further improve your movement longevity.
First, let’s start with an important distinction: while strength is a term bandied about without much care, maximum strength specifically is defined as “the maximum force a muscle can exert in a single contraction”.
While often associated with the exercises of powerlifting – squat, deadlift and bench press – maximum strength can be expressed in any movement, exercise or contraction type (isometric, concentric, eccentric) including Precision Movement techniques because it’s just about generating maximal levels of force in a muscle or muscles.
Here’s why this is important – if you’re not used to or are afraid of it achieving high or maximal levels of TENSION in a muscle can feel uncomfortable.
It might even feel like you’re going to rip the muscle in half.
Because of this fear, you might stop yourself from generating these high levels of force. And if you’re not getting there, you’re not only not going to gain max strength but other qualities will suffer too.
Here are 3 problems with (consciously or unconsciously) not training in a way that generates maximum levels of muscular tension:
a) You won’t develop as much max strength, which will result in a greater potential number of movements that can overload the capability of the muscle. When a movement overloads a muscle, it can result in a muscle tear or worse, ligament sprain. Basically, your safety buffer from a force/tension perspective is smaller. It’s like the difference between keeping $10 vs. $1000 in the bank – the more you have the greater your safety net.
b) High levels of force induce adaptations of the cartilaginous joint tissues of the joints the muscles cross. Think joint capsule, ligaments and intervertebral discs. The stronger these tissues, the more resilient and resistant they are to injury and better they can hold up in the case of a muscle being overloaded.
c) Force at the muscular level is always a result of the corresponding motor area in the brain sending the signals out to fire up all of the fibers (via motor unit activation) of a muscle. Whether it’s putting a bit more oomph in a golf swing or sprinting away from a bear, training yourself to generate a high level of tension in a muscle is not just having a muscle ready to do the work – it’s the brain having the ability to fire things up.
It’s this last point where fear can stop you – when you fear a muscle tear or injury because the tension in a muscle feels like it’s getting too high, your brain will consciously or not limit you from further activation, which will prevent the benefits in points a and b, which both directly impact movement longevity.
Even if you try to will yourself through it, if the unconscious fear is stronger you’ll be limited in how much force you can generate.
If you’re nodding to yourself thinking, “You know what, sometimes I am afraid I’m going to damage something when things get heavy or it feels like my muscles are contracting too hard” then there are 2 keys to overcoming this fear so it’s not inhibiting your progression.
And it’s NOT about “just doing it” or “manning up”.
It’s about teaching yourself – gradually and progressively – of what you’re truly capable of (and you’re more capable than you probably think).
1) Gradually increase contraction intensities or weights used with isometric exercises (i.e. the ERE techniques I teach) or dynamic exercises (squats, bicep curls, etc) respectively. When you’re weight lifting, do at least 2 warmup sets ramping the weight up each time. The gradual increase will prevent you from shocking your neuromuscular system into retreat and help you ramp up to your highest and safest level of contraction.
2) Progressively overload over time, especially with the dynamic exercises. This is where tracking your progress is important so that you’re consistently pushing your limits. So if you’re squatting with a 25 pound dumbbell right now, do that for a few sessions then try at least 1 set with 30 pounds. Once that gets comfortable, ramp it up to 35 pounds, etc. Even if your reps go down from 8 to 4, from a neuromuscular perspective you’re working max strength and firing up more muscle fibers, which provides the benefits previously mentioned.
One parting note – if you’ve ever labeled yourself as weak or out of shape, erase that label. Right. Now.
You are not weak. I guarantee I can find many people weaker than you. Same with being out of shape – there are definitely people more out of shape than you.
These labels do nothing for you, so there’s no point in holding on to them.
You are simply where you are at this moment in time. Whether where you are is worse off than where you’ve been is irrelevant.
The ONLY thing we can (ever) do, is to adopt the thinking and take the actions that put us on the path we want to be on.
If the path you want to be on is self-improvement – and you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t – then once you’ve done an action that places you on this path, that’s the time to pat yourself on the back and be proud.
This is where you want to be and the beauty is that while the exact route may change, the path never ends and we can choose to step onto it whenever we want.