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The Power of Meditation, Floating, & the Parasympathetic Nervous System

I’ve always been a “balls to the wall” kind of guy. “High energy, fast paced, intense, and relentless” are some of the terms I’ve heard regularly throughout my life. AWESOME! I love the fact that my energy and enthusiasm are apparent to the people I choose to be around. I’d much rather be the life of the party, the little fireball that dominates the room, and the person that never seems to have a bad day versus being the slow, boring, careless bro who can kill the energy in a room. Merf! That’s right…I said Merf. It’s a totally made up word, but just sounds like it fits, doesn’t it?

Now, back to the topic of controlling the wild and crazy Type A’s of the world. If you’re anything like me, and you too have been classified as fast paced, high energy, and relentless, you better understand how to control this, or you’re going to be a nervous wreck. You’ll eventually experience adrenal fatigue; you’ll be irrational at times; you’ll have a short temper; your mental clarity will become foggier. Basically, if you don’t start to control the highs and lows, the yin and yang, you’ll wreak havoc on your body, specifically your nervous system. Hopefully, by the end of this thing, you’ll have a much better understanding of what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are, and more importantly, you’ll have learned some techniques on how to create balance and harmony between the two.

Before we dive into the techniques to control the nervous system, let’s get a clear understanding of the two and how they differ. They’re pretty much the complete polar opposites of each other. If one is hot than the other is cold. If one is morning, the other is night. Check out the table below. This table will help highlight some of the differences between the two.

fight or flight

Looking at the table above, it’s pretty easy to see which nervous system dominates while we’re training. The sympathetic side, hence the nickname, the “fight or flight” nervous system is the driving force behind getting a killer workout in. Thinking about the polar opposites, it’s like trying to workout after a 90-minute massage, or smashing some weights after slamming a Redline in about 10 seconds flat. It’s not rocket science here…I’m pretty sure the person slamming the Redline prior to their workout will have a little better training session, and this is due to which nervous system is dominant at the time.

Training either nervous system will cost some energy and produce a certain amount of stress. Getting that 90 minute massage will still produce a stress response within the system, as will going for a run, hitting the weight room, or simply going for a walk. I don’t want to explain this in too much detail, but simply put…everything we do costs us some energy and produces a stress response.

Eustress.

Distress.

Stress is stress, and there’s a price to pay for every activity we do.

The first time I heard about the currency analogy and relating stress loads to my bank account, it finally made sense. I want to briefly talk about it here, and if you’d like more info on this analogy, James Cerbie has a nice article on Eric Cressey’s blog that explains this well. If you read this article later, it will help drive home the point here. You can find that by clicking here.

Relating stress to your bank account can really help drive home this message. Think about your bank account. Have you ever incurred an overdraft fee? Many of us have, at one point in our lives. When this happened, you spent more money than you had in your account. In order to get things back in good standing, you had to add some more money into the delinquent account.

Stress and the human body are kind of the same way. You have only a certain capacity of stress that your body can handle before your account goes into the negative and is in bad standing. Your training intensity, volume, frequency, and other factors will play into your overall account tremendously. If you’re hitting it hard, you’re going to need some extra sleep and recovery time.

The training intensity, volume, and load is money out.

The rest and recovery is money in.

You’ve got to monitor stress if you want to have the best success. Having a terrible day at work can create the exact same stress response as an intense lifting session, so start thinking about all of the stresses going on with your clients, and ensure their bank account isn’t going into the negative. If it does, they’ll incur the penalties and this will start to have a negative impact on their health and performance. Again, I just wanted to briefly describe it here, and recommend checking out Cressey’s blog later to help elaborate on this very important topic.

Now that we understand that every result has a price, or a currency it’s going to cost us, it’s important to address some of the factors that contribute to the specific training adaptations we’re working for. If our bank account only has so much it can give, getting a clear picture of where our money, or energy is going is step number one. This is where we develop the plan, or the processes that we’ll be using to achieve the adaptation we’re looking for. Here are some of the factors that will drastically affect the money going in or going out:

FITT Principle:
• Frequency – How many days a week are you going to train? I usually try to keep this number the same. I may adjust what we do based on a number of variables on a given day, but the frequency is steady remains pretty constant.
• Intensity – How hard are you going to train on a given day, week, month, or training block? Using a tool like HRV can really help you dial in the appropriate level, so if you don’t know much about HRV, I suggest looking into it. The three HRV tools I have personal experience with are: Omegawave, Bioforce HRV, and Ithlete.
• Time – How long are your training sessions going to be? How long will each block of training be? When will you add de-load weeks? These are a few of the factors that I think about when designing a program. Don’t forget that high volumes can drastically affect the body’s bank account, so plan time accordingly.
• Type – I like to think of this as the specificity portion of training. What specific goals do you have? Do you want to slam-dunk a basketball? Run a faster 40? How about deadlift 500 lbs.? Each one of these programs would have a different type of training, and each program will also affect the energy stores differently.

Nutrition: This one isn’t rocket science. I’m not going to get into any specific nutrition information here, but what you put in your mouth plays a major role on your ability to adapt and achieve positive changes from your hard work and efforts. Eat like shit; get shitty results. Putting processed foods and other poor quality choices in your diet and you’ll pull money from that account. Fuel your body with things like grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, quality eggs, fruits, and veggies, and you’ll add money to your account. If you’re not getting the results you want, be sure to address this category and don’t neglect it. Let’s not try and fool ourselves thinking we can out-train a poor diet.

Sleep – This is one of the best, and most important things you can focus on to ensure you’re always working to improve the energy stores in your body and build up the bank account. Getting the right number of hours each night is a good start. If you’re not getting 7-8 hours each night, I’d recommend changing your schedule around as much as possible to make it a reality. Poor, inconsistent sleep patterns will lead to poor, inconsistent results. Be sure to address sleep, rest, and relaxation when your training load goes up. If you’re training more, your body will need to rest more. Here’s an article I wrote a while back with some tips you can use to help improve this area of your life so you can get better results. You can check it out here.

Stresses of Life – This category is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to explain in full detail, so let me get things started so you can reflect on your life and the stresses you face on a daily basis. My daily stresses are going to be different than yours, and yours will be different from the next person’s. We all have outside stresses going on in our life. Some of them are positive, and some of them are negative. Life will happen…and it will generally happen in the snap of a finger. Outside stresses are a constant. They’re not going anywhere. Unless you have some sort of protective bubble to live in, the stresses of daily life will begin to stack up. Using a tool like HRV (heart rate variability) will help show you how these stresses affect your ability to recover and adapt to your training. Since we can’t live in a protective bubble, free from stress, we better learn how to manage it properly and adapt the other stresses in our life accordingly.

Now that we know some of the factors that contribute to depleting our body’s bank account, it would be wise to discuss some of the things we can be doing proactively to help fill the bank account back up. I’m a big fan of adding these recovery strategies with our clients. Most of our clients are probably very similar. If your clients are stressed out from their work, kids, travel, or countless other variables, try to get them involved in each one of the categories listed below. These categories are designed to help melt the stress away and restore your parasympathetic side of things. They work well for me, and I’m sure if you give them a shot, they’ll work well for you too.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite methods to work on rest and relaxation:

Meditation – I’ve had tremendous success with breaking through plateaus by having people add daily meditation into their routines. Some of our clients, and ourselves, are on the go, all day long, every day of the year. When we’re in constant motion, our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. We have text messages dinging at us, honking cars, kids misbehaving, and life is going on around us at 1000 mph. Taking as little as 5 minutes a day to add some quiet time can provide you with outstanding results and will start to let your “fight or flight” nervous system start to calm down a bit. Many people struggle with meditation to start with, so I recommend starting with guided meditation. There are some good apps out there for free that will help with guided mediation. Start there and then progress. Eventually, you’ll be able to meditate almost anywhere, shut off the distractions going on around you, and focus solely on your breath letting your thoughts and cares dissipate for the time being. If sitting still for 5-10 minutes is challenging for you, that’s a pretty good sign that a little meditation in your life wouldn’t be a bad thing 🙂

Floating – If you’re unaware of what floating is, it’s something I highly recommend looking into. Basically, with floating, you’re laying in the dark, complete silence, while your body is floating on top of water. The pod or float tank you get in is filled with a heavy concentration of Epsom salt water. The salt-water concentration is so dense, it makes the body completely buoyant and floating is effortless. You can just lay back, shut everything down, and go into a deep state of rest and relaxation. Floatation tanks used to be called “sensory deprivation chambers.” This lack of stimulus is the primary benefit of floating. You also get the benefits that the Epsom salt provides, but the main reason I like floating is the fact that there is no light, no sound, no distractions, and no gravity. You can just lay there, completely lifeless, and let all your thoughts just melt away. The water is regulated to stay at your own body temperature, so your body doesn’t even have to regulate it’s own temperature. This is about as close as you can get to absolute nothingness, and it’s glorious.

Massage – Everyone reading this article probably has a good idea on what a massage can do for you. Going in for a regular massage can help keep the rest and digest system keep going strong. Professional massages and luxurious day spas are very popular and pretty mainstream. I have a few massage therapists that I recommend to clients. Referring them to the right professional is critical though. Even though they’re going in for a professional massage, they could be getting a completely different experience. I have a therapist I send clients to for structural integration, trigger point release, and other specifics that will help that individual get better. The type of massage I’m talking about here doesn’t require a bad ass in the field. Sometimes my recommendation is purely from a standpoint of getting that client to chill out and have another human being touch them. Nothing sexual here, but there’s something powerful about relaxing, shutting off the mind, and having the warmth and gentle hands of another human being touch us.

Active Recovery and Cardiac Output Workouts – Working on rest, recovery, and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t always have to come from taking a day off of training. It does, however, mean you’ll need to alter what you’re doing if improving parasympathetic actively is a goal of your session. One of the best things you can do to stimulate the rest and digest system is to go for a walk outside in the natural sunlight. There’s something about getting outside and soaking up all the goodness that Mother Nature has to provide…simply put, it’s just flat out good for you. Foam rolling, mobility work, light sled work, and other various low level, low heart rate, low blood pressure skill work are ideal for training your parasympathetic side. Once again, if you’re using HRV, you’ll eliminate the guesswork. If you’re on a red day, adjust your training accordingly and you’ll always keep progressing.

Hot Tubs or Saunas – Just talking about the benefit of hot tubs makes me miss mine. At my old house, I used to have one of these bad boys. There was nothing like getting into the hot tub on a frosty winter day and just chilling out. My muscle soreness would be reduced dramatically. My mood would be instantly improved. The use of hot tubs and saunas are great for rest and relaxation. I’ve almost been tempted to join the local gym near my house due to the fact that they have a hot tub. I’m surely not going there for their quality weight machines, lines of treadmills, or quality training staff. If I’m almost willing to pull the trigger on getting a local gym membership when I own one, which should tell you how much I like these luxuries.

I know that was a lot to digest, so let me give you a quick breakdown on what we just covered.
1. Most people are stressed out. Their sympathetic side overpowers their parasympathetic side. Mr. Yin kicks Mr. Yang’s ass on the regular.
2. There are a lot of variables that affect our ability to maintain homeostasis, or to keep in balance. The exercise program we’re following; the sleep we’re either getting or missing out on; the quality of the food we’re putting into our bodies on a regular basis; the kids kicking and screaming because they want ice cream. Stress is stress is stress! Did you get that? Stress is stress and we need to be aware of that.
3. If you’re not using HRV, you should. It’s the only way I know of to actually manage stress, training and non-training related.
4. Try out some of the techniques used to stimulate the parasympathetic side of things. This will help recovery, results, and enhance your ability to train tremendously. If you get good at this, you’ll be able to out-train your opponents without killing your body and mind in the process.
5. Keep studying and learning about this stuff. Learning how to create intervention strategies in and away from the gym will help you get better results with your clients…GUARANTEED!

How Changing the Environment Can Drastically Improve Performance

I just got back from a Perform Better One Day Seminar in Boston.  The weather was cold and balmy, it was snowing outside, and it sure didn’t feel like the beginning of spring.  However, the presentations and hands-on demos made the trip to the Northeast worth it.

Each presenter brought his best, and everyone did a great job.  I always love going to Perform Better events because the quality of information and presenters invited are top notch.  Nick Winkelman was one of the presenters this year, and his topic really resonated with me.  I’ve seen Nick present before, and he’s always got some good stuff up his sleeve.  Previously, I’ve seen him present on cuing and how to use minimal words to provoke a positive response we’re looking for.  What he talked about this year was similar in nature, but yet completely different.  This year he talked about how changing the environment can produce positive results without having to make one cue or say one word at all.

The presentation started off by talking about how the environment has been proven to change the rate of development and how quickly learning can take place.  Nick pointed out some research done on the development of babies and how quickly they learned to roll, crawl, kneel, stand, and walk.  Basically, in developmental kinesiology, there are certain milestones that babies will hit at specific timelines.  All babies learn to roll somewhere around 5 months.  They learn to crawl somewhere around the 7-10 month mark.

Each developmental pattern is innate and happens naturally.  These patterns aren’t taught.  They are natural to the human race and are hard wired in our brains.  As our brains develop and we explore movement, the patterns are learned naturally and within specific timeframes.  If certain milestones are not hit, it’s not that there’s something necessarily wrong, but you’d want to pay attention to other milestones and see if the child is developing to be a healthy adult.  What happens if the child develops early though?

Winkelman pointed out some research that looked at African children and their rate of development.  This research is interesting because it looked at the same race, same country, and the same people.  The only difference was choosing the environment to look at the rate of development and when babies hit milestones like sitting, standing, crawling, and walking.  Africa was a great place to look for answers.  Parts of Africa are Westernized cultures and share many similarities to what we see here in the United States, however, the other parts of Africa are a little crazier.  Snakes, Lions, Hyenas, and other critters can come from anywhere.  Tribes may have to move on a whim due to their surroundings.  Simply put, these sections of Africa are drastically different than the Westernized sections of this country.  The environment is much, much different.

The research showed us that the rate of development was slower in the Westernized portions of the country.  Why would the same people, living in the same country develop at different rates?  Why are the Westernized cultures developing a little slower?  These questions led us to believe that the Westernized cultures have different lifestyles due to the environment they live in.  We sit a lot in Westernized cultures.  We just don’t have many threats in Westernized cultures.  Basically, the non-developed cultures hit these milestones a little earlier out of necessity and survival.  It seems that the environment changed their rate of development and speed of learning.  They still learn to roll over, crawl, and stand, but they seem to pick up on things about 6 weeks earlier.

Does this work for performance?

Can the environment change the rate of learning in adults?

ABSOLUTELY!

Let me help explain how you can change the environment without having to be chased by venomous snakes or other dangerous animals.  I’m going to give a couple specific examples, one related to speed development, and the other for motor control and learning how to perform a basic exercise without compensation.

For example number one, let’s imagine a sprinter.  The athlete coming out of their start has good overall mechanics.  They’re not reaching out in front and pulling through the sprint.  This will be the athlete who has good mechanics, but doesn’t get any power into their steps.  I’m sure you’ve seen this before.  The form and mechanics are great, but the speed isn’t quite up to par.  A couple ways we can change the environment would be to move to the sand or add something a little squishy or soft to the ground.

Think about this for a second.

Changing the environment (floor surface) can create automatic changes without one word being said.  Take that same athlete to a large sand pit or on the beach, and they’ll automatically start to learn how to push into the ground to develop power.  If they don’t, the sand will slow them down due to the softness and “give” it has.  It’s a much different surface, and sand requires more power to push through versus concrete or an indoor track.  BOOM!  Changing the running surface gives the athlete the feel of pushing through the ground for power development.  Zero cues were given.  The coach here would get significant changes without cueing them to death, and the fewer the cues generally, the easier it is for the athlete to have the desired outcome actually stick.

Don’t have a beach to run on?  That’s all right.  I don’t either.  I live in St. Louis, Missouri.  And for those of you that are geographically challenged…that’s about as far away from a beach as you can get.  However, this doesn’t mean this exact same example wouldn’t work for you.  Sure, I can’t take my athletes to a beach to get this kind of work done, but I can create an environment that makes the athlete respond and adapt the exact same way.  Simply throwing a couple exercise mats on the ground and having the athlete sprint on the mats can create that soft feel, or “give” that the sand creates.  Sometimes you have to get creative to change environment, but if you’re able to think outside the box, you’ll have a lot of success with this.

The second and final example relating to the environment is on motor control and learning to do a basic exercise.  In this example, let’s look at a Step Up.  The athlete performing the Step Up continues to have valgus (knee cave) on the stepping leg.  Whenever I see this, I always fall back to changing the environment to make long lasting change.  Using a form of RNT (reactive neuromuscular training) to help the caving knee works like a charm.

If you’re unfamiliar with RNT work, I highly suggest learning more about it.  I did an article awhile back on this exact topic, so if you’re not using RNT right now, check out the blog post and implement immediately.  You’ll be happy you did.  I promise!  You can learn more about RNT here: http://smartgrouptraining.com/reactive-neuromuscular-training/

Using RNT is another way we can change the environment.  Before using RNT, there wasn’t a force pulling on the knee while stepping, but by changing the environment and adding a resistance band to the equation, there is now a force pulling that same knee into excessive valgus…WAY more than they had without the band.  However, you’ll quickly notice that adding the band didn’t make it worse, it made it better.  The body learned to adapt to the environment (band pulling the knee into valgus) quickly.  Without this quick learning adaptation, the knee would have caved so far in, the risk of injury would have spiked up immediately, but the human body is much smarter than that.  Rather than letting the knee cave in so far the risk of injury goes up, the body naturally adapts and fights back.  Changing the environment and adding a band to exploit their weakness automatically corrects things.  Again, the body learned to adapt without saying a word.

When you’re really trying to get things to stick with people, start looking at how you can make the environment create the changes you want to see.  Proper cuing is great, but getting desired outcomes with little to no cuing at all is just great coaching.  These changes will start to be deeply engrained into the brain and will eventually become the new pattern.  This is a great way to coach.  The coach who can get desired outcomes with as few coaching cues as possible will be the most successful.  Start toying around with environment changes to make the body react a certain way.  Think outside the box, be creative, and have fun with changing the environment to change the athlete.