If you workout, train, exercise or whatever, there is one purpose we should all be trying to achieve, to have the ability to fight.
Notice what I said here, have the ability to fight. That doesn’t mean I condone a ‘Fight Club’ style game of trying to start a brawl everywhere you go. Nor does it mean I believe we all need to prepare ourselves for the Zombie apocalypse (not sure if Zombie should be a proper noun, let’s go with that and not piss them off).
What I said was, have the ABILITY TO FIGHT.
We have this built in nervous system that drives many of our physiological processes known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
It largely impacts our heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and yes, even sexual arousal.1
One of the signals the ANS can send to any or all of these systems is what is commonly called “fight or flight,” or a sympathetic response.
This sympathetic response generally elevates the heart and breathing rate, dilates our pupils and puts us in a state of preparedness to do something. Picture being introduced to a crowd of people you don’t know and then address them all as they stare at you, THAT!
But there is that funny ‘or’ word in the common name for sympathetic response, fight OR flight. And that is relevant.
Picture a boxing match that has been going on for some time and there is clearly one fighter who is winning the fight but hasn’t yet delivered that knockout blow.
The winning fighter is calm and collected, measuring each punch thrown, gracefully avoiding punches while landing his own. He’s in a flow state where he is aware of his surroundings and present in the moment while still being aggressive and opportunistic.
On the other side of the ring, you have the losing fighter. He is gasping for air, battered and knows he needs to land a knockout punch to win the fight. He is struggling to stay in the moment, his movements are labored and lack the fluidity he demonstrated earlier in the fight.
The winning fighter is in ‘fight’ mode: conscious, collected and tactically fighting
The losing fighter is in ‘flight’ mode: not in the moment, swinging for the fences and has lost all strategy.
I think you can guess which state is preferred when it comes to training. We want to train to fight!
So how do we get there?
1) Avoid maximal heart rate output
Heart rate, as stated above, is an excellent indicator of sympathetic state. To remain in fight mode, your heart rate must be elevated, but controlled. If the only thing stopping your heart from beating faster is the fact that it is NOT actually possible for your heart to explode out of your chest, you are in FLIGHT.
Instead challenge yourself as your heart rate elevates to spend more time breathing through your nose and focus your vision on a specific spot. This is the flow state where you have high awareness and alertness, but you are in control. There is more of a balanced sympathetic response leading to optimal performance.2 This is FIGHT!
2) Train for technical failure
Oftentimes a training program will state something like this: 5×5 at 85%. If you have ever experienced what doing 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% feels like, you know it is terrible.
We also know that everyday isn’t the same with regard to the nervous system and fatigue. Sometimes 85% feels like 70% and you will CRUSH that lift.
Other times, 85% feels like its maximum weight you can lift for a few reps.
So, it only makes sense to use ‘feel’ as a way to gauge how far you push on any given day.
Studies have shown that that training short of failure with a moderate volume of repetitions could elicit greater enhancements in strength, muscle power and also rowing performance compared to training to failure in highly trained athletes.3 We won’t surmise that everyone reading this is an elite level athlete, but this theory has been proven with informal case studies in gyms across the country.
If you train and constantly push yourself to complete failure on lifts, recovery takes longer and strength gains may actually be reduced because you got into FLIGHT.
If you train to technical breakdown, where you stop a set when you can no longer remain present and hold quality positions, you stand to make better long term progress with training and performance. This is training to FIGHT!
3) Use ‘Nike’ exercises to understand maximal sympathetic output
Many of the movements used in a gym require reasonable to high skill demands. Think about how long it took you to figure out how to swing a kettlebell effectively. Then think about how you had to adjust when the bell was 4kg heavier. Skill is critical to your overall success in training and performance.
High skill movements are the things that should make you want to fight: battle the weight, the challenge of maintaining form, and moving the weight at an optimal speed. Things like a barbell squat, deadlift, press, bench, kettlebell swings and snatches, weightlifting movements like snatches, cleans and jerks.
But oftentimes, novice and even intermediate level lifters don’t quite understand the difference between fight and flight. That is where ‘Nike’ exercises come in.
‘Nike’ exercises are things that are often termed self-limiting in the strength field. Hence why I call them ‘Nike’ exercises: you just do it. When the skill breaks down, you can’t go any further.
Think about a farmer’s carry, when your grip goes and you can no longer hold onto the weight, you just drop it. Despite your internal efforts to battle the weight, it won. This is a self limiting exercise, or ‘Nike.’
Combining a few of these together or just taking one and running with it can get you into a state of pure flight. You will be grinding it out and holding on for dear life until your brain finally says, “NO MORE!”
Once you do that a few times, you will better understand FLIGHT.
When you head back to your skilled movements, you will be able to sense when you are pushing up on flight and either stop to rest or find a way to persevere and stay present.
Then you have maximized your ability to FIGHT!
Every time you step foot into the gym, your singular goal should be to leave a better person than when you entered.
Don’t be the boxer swinging for the fences and hoping for a miracle.
Be the one standing tall and delivering the blows to the workout, that’s training to FIGHT!
References: 1: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (10 March, 2017). Autonomic Nervous System. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/autonomic-nervous-system 2: Chin, M.S., Kales, S.N. (14 August, 2019). Is there an Optimal Autonomic State for Enhanced Flow and Executive Task Performance?. Frontiers in Psychology Performance Science. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01716/full 3: Pareja-Blanco F, Sánchez-Medina L, Suárez-Arrones L, González-Badillo JJ. (12 April, 2017) Effects of Velocity Loss During Resistance Training on Performance in Professional Soccer Players. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27618386