The messages we hear in the fitness world often seem to tell us to ignore pain, fatigue, and discomfort. Certainly, a certain amount of mental fortitude is necessary to make fitness gains. The old adage “if it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you” still rings true to me. Yet, in our current fitness culture that seems to glorify extreme workouts, puddles of sweat, and exhaustion, we’re missing the mark. The goal is not to make ourselves tired: it’s to make ourselves better.
If we want to improve our fitness, we would do well to look at how athletes train: not to copy their routines, which are very specific to their needs. Rather, taking a look at what keeps athletes performing well while keeping injuries at bay will give us insights that can make fitness training more productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of recreational activities and fitness goals.
The thing that strikes me about sport training is that an athlete’s strength coach wants to create the least amount of stress necessary on the body while still producing the greatest performance impact. Injury prevention is paramount. Every workout has a purpose: to make the athlete better. Another related concept in athletics is something called auto-regulation.
Coaches employ techniques with their athletes that help them tune in to what their bodies are telling them. Athletes are much more likely to train intuitively than the average fitness enthusiast. When a recreational Crossfitter (ok, not fair to pick on Crossfitters. Simmer down, it’s just an example) might have a night of lousy sleep and feel awful during a workout the next day, they’re much more likely to hammer through it than ease back and let their bodies tell them what they can handle. Meanwhile, using tools like HRV units, Tendo units, and biofeedback techniques, an athlete will sometimes purposefully work with a lighter effort during a training session.
University of Minnesota strength coach Cal Dietz, author of Triphasic Training, employs what he terms “biometrics”, an auto-regulatory protocol derived from cybernetic periodization. It is a system that harkens back to the Soviets. 1”
If you read the giant opus Supertraining, you can learn more about cybernetic periodization. If you’re like most of us and are not up for that, just know that in essence, on days when you feel really good you train harder. On days when you feel not so good, you don’t train as hard.
These ideas appeal to me, especially as I grow older and my body is less forgiving of the days where I push too hard.. I stink at listening to my body and instead of my war chest being filled with trophies, it’s filled with stories of hip surgery, shoulder pain, and way too much physical therapy to boot. I’m not a pro athlete, but I am passionate about strength training and I want to get better. When I learned about the intuitive training going on at The Movement Minneapolis, a Twin Cities gym highlighted for its innovation recently, my interest piqued. Auto-regulatory principles work well for athletes, though sometimes complicated and expensive devices are employed. Hearing about a gym that makes intuitive training widely accessible piqued my interest. Of course I had to check it out myself.
David Dellanave founded the gym and has been a driving force in exposing more people to biofeedback principles in athletic training. I’d been following the writing of Dellanave and his wife, trainer Jen Sinkler. Fellow trainer and friend Annie Brees was also curious and excited to go learn and so we ventured northward to Minneapolis to work with Sinkler and Movement strength coach Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake. What we learned really enlightened my philosophy about much of what I do for my own training as well as for my clients.
When I first heard about biofeedback, I’ll admit it sounded a little like mysterious, crazy juju to me. I’m a skeptic at heart. I wondered how a toe-touch test could possibly guide my training. It’s a lot more complicated than that… except it’s not. Biofeedback is surprisingly simple to implement into training. It can be done with lifting weights at the gym or even for a runner outside.
Much of the practice utilized in biofeedback protocols that Sinkler and Blake use come from Frankie Faires. Faires and Dellanave have both written extensively on the theory and practice of auto-regulatory training and how biofeedback fits into that paradigm. You can find more links at the end of this article if you want to dive in and learn how to specifically implement it into your own training plan.
What is Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is really about paying attention to the responses that your body gives you. According to Faires, “Better is not a stimulus. Better is a response”. 2 Every person responds differently to stimuli. By paying attention to how your body responds to a particular movement, you can more effectively guide your training.
Annie and I began with a short warmup and decided to work on deadlifts. We then performed a toe touch to establish a baseline of our range of motion (ROM). We reached toward our toes only until we began to feel tension. That tension is an indication of the Golgi Tendon Organ response. That’s a natural process of inhibition within our nervous system that tells our musculatory system to basically turn on the brakes. Why? Because if we didn’t have brakes, at some point we’d break ourselves. Our bodies are pretty good at self-preservation.
We then performed the movement pattern of a conventional deadlift, then retested our ROM. We paid attention to how the movement looked and felt and compared our ROM to our baseline. We then repeated the process for a sumo deadlift and a Jefferson deadlift. Based on the feedback from our nervous system we were able to choose the movement that would, according to the theory behind biofeedback, produce the most productive training for us at that moment. That’s a key idea: on any given day, a particular movement may feel better or worse for our bodies.
It turned out that for me, a sumo deadlift pattern gave me the best response. A positive response is a better range of motion than the baseline. A negative response is essentially a red light. If every movement tested negative, that would be a strong indication that it might even be best to not train the movement that day. We both we had positive responses to multiple movements and yet each of us had a very clear first choice. Annie’s was the Jefferson deadlift. The Jefferson was a completely new variation for Annie. I hadn’t trained a sumo deadlift in over a year. With a bit of tweaking of my form from Blake, I performed a set. I retested my ROM. I was continuing to see a positive response. So I kept going. My sets felt solid and so I used that as my internal cue to keep adding weight.
Biofeedback is a form of auto-regulation, which I discussed above. The auto-regulatory component of our session is what felt so different to us. We’re accustomed to periodized training plans with prescribed sets and reps. Utilizing biofeedback protocols, you periodize yourself on a daily basis. It’s more flexible than even a traditional, non-linear periodization structure because you let your body decide how many reps you do: at The Movement, they use physiological responses such as breaking the rhythm by slowing down. Blake noted that trainees aim for “effortlessness” instead. David Dellanave corrected my original interpretation of “effortfulness”, explaining that the goal is to have the movement feel like it is without effort – the feeling of effort is your internal cue to stop.
Blake and Sinkler acknowledged that those training for events like powerlifting competitions do implement more structured periodization. In group training classes, instructors may indicate that there are days when participants are told to aim heavier or lighter. In the class I observed I noticed that the women were primarily using their own responses to guide their choice of reps and weight.
Back on the Range
It has been a few months since our trip and I’ve implemented some intuitive techniques already. For my own training sessions, I found more confidence in approaching a set. The mental aspect of intuitive training seems to be heavily entwined with the physiological: having a choice in exercise selection brought me confidence and a more positive attitude toward my training. There may be something to the importance of choice in the mental component of training that contributes to the efficacy of biofeedback protocols. In a 2010 study of beginners in a weight training class, 3 participants followed either a non-linear periodized training program or a flexible non-linear periodized training program. The difference between the two programs was that the flexible group was allowed to choose which day they completed either a 10, 15, or 20 repetition workout. The group that was given greater freedom of choice in their training had improved outcomes on the leg press, though both groups had similar outcomes on the chest press and standing long jump. The idea of choice merits further investigation.
Most importantly, the intuitive training methods reminded me to respect my own body. I had a few days where my movements just felt awful this month. I probably would have powered through before and made the issue worse, but now I give myself permission to make more adjustments.
In my small group training sessions, I have shifted from always prescribing reps and sets to instructing clients to tune in to their own bodies for that sense of effortfulness. I ask them to pay attention to cues like their rhythm, the integrity of the movement, and how they feel. We still do conditioning finishers that use timed work-to-rest intervals. This shift has been really positive for a few reasons. First, even new exercisers feel successful. Class members who need a bit more nudging can get it, but I’ve found that most will squeeze in a few more reps if they feel good instead of just punching the clock and doing the rep count assigned. They’re paying more attention to their own body’s responses.
Want to try intuitive training for yourself or learn more about the ideas behind it?
There are excellent resources to get going. Check them out below:
Are You The Movement: Online home of The Movement Minneapolis.
Using Biofeedback for Better
How to Test Range of Motion Using Biofeedback
Intuitive Training for Fitness
The Biofeedback Solution Faires’ guide
I still have much to learn about Biofeedback but I’m looking forward to more research emerging and further exploration into how we can employ intuitive practices. Many thanks to our gracious hosts, Jen Sinkler and Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake, thanks to David Dellanave for pointing me in the right direction to learn more about Biofeedback, and to Annie Brees, who is always up for fitness adventures.
- Dietz, Cal. “An Interview with University of Minnesota Strength Coach Cal Dietz”. Interview by Jeff Angus. Angus Certified. N.p., 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. ↩
- Faires, Frankie. “The Biofeedback Solution.” 2014. PDF file. ↩
- McNamara, John M; Stearne, David J, “Flexible Nonlinear Periodization in a Beginner Strength Training Class”, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Vol. 24 (2010): pp 2012-2017. ↩