Strength training is something I talk about quite a bit, and for good reason. From increasing strength, adding lean muscle mass, increasing bone density, increasing tendon strength, maintaining youth, and decreasing body fat, it’s benefits are plentiful. I recommend that everyone strength trains at least 2x a week, every week, for the rest of their lives.
This guy has the right idea.
But alas, you cannot enjoy a strength training rainbow without a little bit of rain.
Strength training, along with other forms of higher intensity training (like HIIT, team sports, etc.) does not come without a drawback. And if left unchecked, this drawback can really mess up your results and hinder any progress you’re striving to make over the long haul.
Buuuut in order for what I’m going to say to make complete sense, you’ll need a little background info on how your body works. OH BOY A SCIENCE AND ANATOMY LESSON YAAASSSSSSSSSS BIIIITCH.
Your Nervous System and You!
In the simplest terms possible, your nervous system is the part of you that coordinates actions by transmitting signals to and from different parts of your body via nerve cells and fibers.
One of the branches of your nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system, and its responsible for controlling your bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, your heartbeat, and digestive processes.
Breaking it down even further, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system takes over when you need to start kicking ass and taking names.
It’s responsible for your ‘fight or flight’ response, which basically means your body is preparing to fight something or run away to avoid death or serious injury. The bodily responses that occur when your sympathetic system is dominant include increased muscular tone, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, heightened hearing, dilated pupils, and the stopping of many digestive processes.
These are all really awesome things if you’re about to lift heavy weights, play sports, fight a tiger, etc.
But on the flip side…
The parasympathetic nervous system takes over when you’re in a caaaaaalm and relaaaaaxed state.
This part of your nervous system is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ portion of your every day life. When your parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, the body decreases heart rate, decreases muscle tone, releases digestive enzymes, and essentially facilitates a better internal environment for healing and recovery to occur.
Both of these branches work harmoniously in a very ‘yin yang’ type fashion. The body needs to be both sympathetic and parasympathetic in a oscillatory fashion in order to adapt to the numerous stressors that life places upon it.
Using strength training as an example, here’s a graph depicting how your body responds and adapts to lifting weights.
Starting with your baseline fitness, you go through one strength training session (fatigue generated by overload). This results in muscle tissue damage and fatigue.
Next, your body starts the recovery process by healing any damaged muscle tissue, improving how many muscle fibers your nervous system can ‘activate’, improving motor control, etc (super-compensation facilitated by rest and recovery). This is the beginning stages of your body getting stronger.
Once you have fully recovered, your body is now more resilient and more capable of handling the same stress you initially placed upon it (adaptation). You have now established a new baseline of strength. This is why you’re able to handle heavier loads when you redo the same workout for a second time.
In a very basic nutshell, sympathetic = training, parasympathetic = recovery.
Most training modalities are sympathetic dominant. This includes strength training, HIIT, most sporting activities, and anything that would be deemed as ‘higher intensity’. You need this sympathetic shift to train hard, get strong, build muscle, and respond to emergencies.
But, you also need to shift back to a parasympathetic state to kick start the recovery process. THIS IS BEYOND VITAL TO SEE RESULTS because without adequate recovery, you will not establish a stronger, more resilient fitness baseline.
Now, here’s where a lot of people can run into problems…
Your body is pretty smart. However it’s not really smart enough to differentiate physical stress, like intense workouts, from the mental and emotional stress every day life brings about.
These stressors can include your job, daily commute, relationships, social obligations, bills, issues with your family, concerns with a pet, etc.
To make matters worse, these same mental and emotional stressors can also cause a sympathetic shift in your nervous system, causing many people to become wound up, walking balls of stress and unnecessary muscle tension.
This is no way to live.
This also makes recovery from training (and life) 100x more difficult.
So when you pile mental and emotional stress on top of your physical stress, now your ‘recovery’ graph looks like this.
This isn’t ideal… at all.
Being in a damn near constant sympathetic state can really affect your health, sleep quality, strength gains, mental health, body composition, immune system, and juuuust about anything health related you can think of.
So here’s a simple way to help create a shift back towards a parasympathetic state in 2 minutes.
Laying on your back, prop your legs onto a chair, sofa, or box so that your knees and hips are both bent at 90 degrees.
Place your arms by your side, and inhale through your nose for 3 seconds.
Focus on breathing into your belly, as if you’re trying to expand it in a 360 degree fashion. Push your belly into the floor, out to the sides, and straight out as if a balloon were inflating in your stomach.
If you struggle to do this, place a 5 or 10lb plate on your belly and try to move it up and down with each inhale and exhale.
Try not to breathe directly into your chest, meaning when you inhale through your nose, don’t let your chest be the first thing to rise up while your stomach remains still. This ‘chest breathing’ is usually accompanied with tension in the neck and upper traps as well.
Top: belly breathing (stomach expands, followed by expansion of chest). Bottom: chest breathing… BOOO.
Chest breathing is not ideal because the muscles at your neck and chest are accessory breathing muscles, meaning they’re only supposed to help out when you’re out of breath, like during lifting, running, or fighting. This is good… if you are in fact, lifting, running, or fighting (all of which are sympathetically dominant activities).
The problem is lots of folks breathe like this when they aren’t lifting, running, or fighting. I’m looking at you lawyers, doctors, and anyone with a high stress job.
So, if your breathing mimics ‘sympathetic breathing’ (a term I just made up), your body will treat that as a sort of ‘cue’ and respond accordingly by increasing muscle tension, increasing heart rate, slowing down digestive processes, etc.
So avoid chest breathing curing this drill 🙂
Emphasizing a belly breath, inhale through your nose for 3 seconds.
From here, exhale fully through your mouth for 6 seconds, and then hold that exhaled position for 1 second.
Repeat this for 10 quality breaths.
And yes, the inhale does have to be through your nose as breathing nasally helps stimulate the parasympathetic system.
If done correctly, you should feel more relaxed overall because now your parasympathetic system is behind the steering wheel. #RoadToRecovery
This simple breathing exercise can be done at various times throughout the day too.
- Prior to a training session: the parasympathetic shift will help decrease muscle tone which can help improve mobility, and therefore improve movement quality
- After a training session: this will help kickstart the recovery process sooner. This is ideal because you don’t see gains from training, you see them from recovering from training
- Before bed: this can help improve sleep quality (sleep is the best form of recovery hands down)
- Mid-day (or whenever you’re feeling particularly stressed out): this can be a quick way to give yourself and nervous system a break from the modern day ‘grind’
Give this a try! I promise it’ll help!