There is a simple thing that I can you that will improve your movement instantly and in everything you do.
It’s not anything about range-of-motion testing, although I think you should do that too.
It’s not a mental trick to increase tension in your lifting.
It’s not a complex screening tool that gives you a score and rules on how to proceed with your training.
No, it’s far more simple than that, and the results can be astonishing. To use it, I usually just say:
“Relax, make it look easy.”
As soon as the slightly bewildered look goes away the person tries it, and the look on their face after the lift is even more confused than before. Inevitably, the movement was more athletic, more graceful, less taxing and often visibly quicker than before.
Before I get back to making that lift look easy, I want to back up and build a foundation.
There is only so much you can do right now, both literally and figuratively. If you have once in your life deadlifted 315 pounds, then at any point you can lift somewhere between 1 and 315 pounds, and maybe a few more if you’re lucky. If you’re not a runner, you may be able to sneak a 3-mile run in under 30 minutes. Taken a bit more abstractly, if you’re a decent cook you can probably make an omelet or some burgers, but you’re not going to be able to plate a dish of sautéed foie gras with roasted veal sweetbreads that would satisfy Gordon Ramsey.
Represented visually, these are all of the things you can do inside of a box. If you step outside the box you break or die. There are things you literally could do, but they’d kill or certainly break you.
Talk about pushing through or testing limits is referring to stepping outside of this box of what you’re actually capable of into the danger zone of what you’re not yet capable of. If you’re lucky you get away with it, but as I look around I don’t see very many people getting away with it, and in fact, despite more corrective exercise than ever I see more complaints about nagging pain and injury. It’s not working.
There is actually a more precise and useful way to define limits by defining it based on the body’s response to the action, or stress. Stress is an often misused and misunderstood word, but all you really need to understand is that everything is stress to the body. Some stress provides wanted and desirable adaptations, and other stress results in unwanted adaptations. Lifting weights is stress, eating food is stress, and fighting with your boss is stress, just as having fun with your significant other is.
Whether the resolution of the stress is “good” or “bad” depends on if it is eustress or distress. Eustress is a term for “good stress” coined by endocrinologist and stress researcher Hans Selye. I learned a more simple and useful definition, however, from Gym Movement founder Frankie Faires.
eustress – stress that is easily resolved
distress – stress that is not easily resolved
Stress being resolved means the body has recovered and adapted to the stress and the system has returned to a new balance, or normal. In training, we colloquially (and imprecisely) refer to this as recovery. (Recovery only implies returning to the same as before, whereas our goal is adaptation to better than before.) Using these definitions, it becoes easy to understand how the reaction could differ between stressors. If you are a 300-pound deadlifter it may take you two days to feel fresh after working above 250 pounds, whereas a deadlift session at 135 pounds may have such an insignificant effect that you’ll go back for more the next day.
Biofeedback Testing? I’ve found that using testing is the quickest, easiest, and most accurate way to determine if what you are doing is within your limits (eustress) or outside of them (distress). Learn how to do that here.
Understanding that how your limits are defined is actually dependent on the response to them is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle of faster progress. Once you understand this, much of what we do in training makes more sense.
Which brings us to why making your training look easy enables you to make faster progress and get better results. Your eustress limits are already much greater and your capacity for improvement in eustress is much greater. There is always going to be much more that you can do easily than you can do with great effort. The goal is to expand that which you can do easily even greater, not try to expand the tiny fraction of things you can do with great difficulty and at high cost.
The price you pay to resolve the stress is what we refer to as cost. We’re not talking about financial cost, of course, although it certainly can become financial when you’re getting an MRI for a torn ligament. The cost you pay is the sum total of all that is required for your body to resolve the stress. It could be sleep, nutrition, additional movement, or psychological machinations we can’t even begin to understand.
The cost of training in distress is significantly higher in every respect. As with anything in life, you should seek to maximize the benefit and minimize the cost. If you got the same results in two training sessions per week as you did in four, would you still train twice as often? You may enjoy your training very much, but everything has a cost. The question is, are you willing to pay the cost?
It’s worth noting that your eustress limits span a wider range than your distress limits. If you stray outside your eustress zone into distress, you do increase the cost but your risk of harm is relative to how far into distress you go. When purposely training in the distress zone the target you have to hit to stay within distress and not step into the true danger zone is much smaller. In other words, the risk is much higher that you will go too far.
You might be thinking, “I’m prepared to pay whatever the cost, so I’m fine with training in distress.” I am not here to tell you that you’re wrong to do what you want, but I want to share something Frankie Faires pointed out to me that I believe is important and have observed to be absolutely true.
“Results happen faster under distress, both intended and unintended.” – Frankie Faires
You may be able to think of some examples of this in your own life, or people you know. I think almost everyone knows someone who got great “results” doing P90X right up until the point where they couldn’t put a shirt on by themselves because their shoulders hurt so badly. The results happened very quickly – under 90 days. Both the visible abs and the acute shoulder injury.
Conversely, when you avoid distress and you do as much of your training as possible under eustress (a minimal effective amount of distress is necessary) you will make better progress in the long term. The trainee who can train 52 weeks out of a year will make more progress than the trainee who is injured for one fifth of the year (conservatively, I’d estimate most people training seriously are too injured to train for at least two six-week windows per year.)
All of this brings us back to making that lift look easy. Making things look easy does two things. One, it means that more than likely what you’re doing is still well within your limits. Two, it means you are doing both the what and the how the way you eventually want to be able to do it – easily.
If you will do nothing else — nothing other than making your training as easy as possible and avoiding excessive effort — you will make more progress and get better results. To learn more about the specific markers of excessive effort in training, check out my completely free Gym Movement eCourse.