“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”
– Common Proverb
It’s been said time and time again that exercise is 90% mental and 10% physical. “Mind over matter” is something that gets parroted a lot. But it usually feels like those numbers got switched by accident, and someone must be talking about a very different experience than what you’re going through. And to be quite honest, I would agree that exercise and dismal results are 90% physical and 10% mental. But fitness and/or the results you are looking for, (mental, physical or both) MUST reflect the 90% mental 10% physical model. And today we’re going to explain the means where by which that actually happens, and how to tap into it.
But where do you start?
In a study performed at Pepperdine University, and demonstrated by former CF Games athlete Julie Fouchet, it was found that performing a CF workout (“Fran”) at the highest intensity possible resulted in an elevated metabolism for ~48 hours. Meaning that her metabolism was elevated to a degree that mimicked someone who might be working out for ~48 Hours straight at a much lower intensity. That’s why a CF workout can be so effective. Just in terms of economics, the CF workout vs your traditional cardio training is a vastly superior bang for the buck. It’s not that simple, as we’ll get into in later articles, but for the sake of argument in favor of economics, the CF workout takes the cake. What needs to be focused on here is that Intensity (which requires emotional investment and intention) was the key.
Let’s look at a few other examples:
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard the term “Tabata” used. Generally it’s a theme of:
:20 of movement “X”
This form of exercise has taken on countless forms. However as time has gone by, the method has become diluted as people misinterpreted the work. And now it’s treated as any other EMOM of squat or power snatches, but with a Tabata time theme in its place, etc…
The original discovery by Dr. Tabata, which can be found is this PAPER, and is beautifully summarized in this ARTICLE, was based on what Julian Pineau would refer to as:
“Low W.E.S.” movement.
Low Weight – “Easy” to move
Low Eccentrics – No tempo work or negatives at volume
Low skill – Technique is always there, but it’s not so complex that you have to slow down (I.e. snatches < assault bike)
This looks like:
Sleds, sprinting, bikes, rowers, ski ergs, jump ropes, etc…
You can move at maximal intensity and not overload your joints or even have to think much about the movement. You are left with no excuse, (current injury aside if any) to not perform at absolute maximal intensity. This is anti-pacing in the extreme. So at this point you might see a theme developing: short, extremely high intensity workouts result in the best results. So you can tabata your power cleans at 60%, but it’s absolutely NOT the same as what was intended. You can’t safely do that at 100% intensity, past one round or two.
This is the easy part.
In 2011 Dr. Stephn Porges, published “The Polyvagal Theory”. In this landmark book, he explains how certain branches of the nervous system, more specifically the vegus nerve, affects you mentally, and THEN result in a physical state.
Following it up was a STUDY performed by the Cincinnati College of Medicine, that applied this to exercise. And what was found:
1. A sympathetic state (max intensity/fight state) resulted in a metabolism that was SO high that fat would be lost by default and could not be gained regardless of how much they ate.
2. Stimulating the parasympathetic state results in fat gain or essentially spinning your tires. You work out for years but look no different.
3. The mental state and intention that you approach the workout was required to get the results in either of the former.
For the sake of simplification, there are two branches to your nervous system, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The Vegus nerve is the largest nerve in the body and can be found in the parasympathetic chain. Long workouts and training are generally categorized as parasympathetic driven, and extremely short workouts are generally considered to be sympathetic driven. But this is an oversimplification for the sake of example.
When you are in a state of parasympathetic dominance you don’t feel like pushing hard, but you can endure for a very long amount of time. This is where pacing often lives. And depending on the head space you are in you’ll heavily stimulate the vagus nerve, and essentially get nowhere. Exercising in a parasympathetic state feels like you’re being hunted. You don’t want to be there. You’re thinking about other things, and you don’t want to be there.
When you exercise in a sympathetic state you WANT to be there. This is KEY. You’re the hunter in this situation. It’s you or the workout and you’re going to win no matter what. Simple as that. You have to #behere.
This simple change in mindset puts you in a sympathetic state that will result in loss of weight that will happen regardless of calories taken in. However, when you hate the work out, when you don’t want to be there, when you hate your fucking life, when you can’t push, when you only work out on the parasympathetic side of the arch, you’re put in a state that keeps you from ever progressing past when you initially started, and makes you spin your wheels. Only adding to the frustration more. Over time you only digress.
This is how subjective “soft” things (mind set, perspective, intention), actually create objective “hard” things (performance loss/gains, weight loss/gain, etc…) It is through this interaction with the nervous system, through INTENTION, that hormonal and physical changes take place. So another works you can just show up and move. You have have to show up a train with intention.
Something that Pineau has talked about before, is the mental phylogenetic hierarchy or progression of engagement in a work out. Since then, he as refined it more, but I don’t think it’s my place to share it here. Instead I would recommend following him on IG @strongfit1 for far more details. But the progression that I can discuss is:
FLOW to FIGHT to FLIGHT to FEAR
Flow is that state where your parasympathetic and sympathetic are in perfect unison. This is something that Csikszentmihalyi, the founder and coiner of the term “Flow State” talks about. It’s that perfect state where you’re 100% present. It could be that metcon that you just loved, and where 100% present for the whole way through, never thinking about anything else. Or it could be that hobby or some other interest that had you 100% sucked in, or that line you rode down the mountain that just felt PERFECT. This is one of the ideal states the work out in. (Fig 1)
Fight is the state where you approach the work out, weight, etc… like you’re going to kill it and you mean it. There’s not a doubt in your mind how little of a chance anything stands that gets in your way. This is 200m sled push, and Heavy Single, a 20 rep max, and benchmark work out, etc… someone who talked shit to your significant other, or threw a brick at your car window. You’re in fight mode. For short, extremely aggressive workouts, this is the ONLY state you should be in. You’re in a fight state. Anything else and you won’t get the desired result. But the mind sent, and the decision to be 100% present, to #behere and commit emotional to it is what comes first.
Flight: You’re loosing. You’ve decided you no longer want to be there. You’re breathing shifts from nasal and mouth to all mouth breathing, the muscled of the face relax, your pupils shrink. All you want to do is run away. You’ve gone full sympathetic. This is the extreme side of the sympathetic arch. This is where you’ve reached your lactic threshold, something we will talk about in a few articles. The deeper you push your lactic threshold off, the greater greater themselves of intensity you can bring to ANY work out. And the effects this has on fighting depression is unparalleled.
Freeze: You have reached the extreme end of the spectrum, and have now gone full parasympathetic. This can be expressed as everything from deep sleep, to shock, dissociation, apathy, or any other form of trying to remove yourself from a situation. In a more subtle way, it’s what you might think of when you envision someone who hates their job and/or is extremely board. Ironically, if you live in this state all the time, sleep is nearly impossible as you’ve essentially burned out the recovery branch of the nervous system.
So what’s the practical application?
It’s as profound as it is simple. How you mentally approach your workout WILL determine the zone you are in. You can’t just show up for a participation trophy. The zone you are in will result in the physical state you are in. The physical state you are in will result in gains or spinning of your wheels.
Let’s take the example of a 200m sled push or Fran. These are a complete and total physical and emotional investments in being 1000% present in order to do it correct. You have to #behere. Yet if you’re approaching it and don’t want to be there and instead deep down you just want to put the sled back and run away… your mindset will have a profound impact on the results you get. You won’t train in a balanced, yet predominantly sympathetic state. You won’t get the increased metabolism, increased lactate, or gains you’re looking for. You might get some of it the first time doing it, but not much past that. Or let’s say you’re going to workout with your friends and you approach the work just “not really feeling it”, or you can’t take your mind off of other things. You’re only going to exacerbate your current state, and drive yourself deeper into burning out your nervous system.
What do kids often do? What they want.
What do adults often do? What they don’t want to. (I have to, I should, I’m supposed to, I’m required, I’m almost done, etc…)
You must train in either the Flow or Fight state. Anything else outside of that and you’re training in Flight or Freeze. Which can only be sustained for a short amount of time. If you hate doing something you’re not going to be successful at it. You won’t stick with it. But it doesn’t just stop with the gym. Living your life in a flow or fight state is to live in the present, and to live in a way that promotes health as is doesn’t burn either side of the nervous system. Which is the system that supersedes all others.
If we’re to go deeper, how familiar does the description of Fight and Freeze sound regarding your life? How often through out your day do you just not want to be where you are? Really think about that. Do you hate your life? Do you hate your job? Do you hate your relationships? Are there things that are making you live every day in a chronic low level state off flight or freeze? If so, this is unbelievably unhealthy. And the physical effects this can cause, all originating at the state of mind as explained in the above provided studs, will only drag you down. Meaning that one side is burnt out and the is probably atrophied due to life stress or your style of training. And one of the best ways to balance it, is to train the opposite side. If you hate your job and have grown apathetic about it, or dread it (Freeze state – Parasympathetic state), then go to the gym, don’t emotionally invest yourself and cant push, then what side of you nervous system is getting burned out and doing all the work? What side has atrophied?
You must train the arch, and the fastest way to access it is how you approach the task at hand. You must apply intention to what you are doing. You need to get out if the shower before you can dry yourself. You need to be present in what you do in life and in the gym.
You need to #behere