Ever struggled through a workout? For most of us, the answer is yes. We’ve all heard and applied the phrases “Go hard or go home” or “No pain, no gain.” I used to love these. They got me through interval workouts, up steep hills, and to the finish line on long runs. Then I turned 40. The number probably didn’t cause it, but coincidentally, after 40 my body started telling me less subtly that what I was doing wasn’t working.
The pendulum swung wide for me both ways. I went from doing most workouts at max effort to avoiding my limits out of fear (or perhaps using injury as an excuse for laziness). Eventually, however, I made it back to the middle. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say pain is necessary (or even positive) in a workout, I do think discomfort is required to make change. This does not mean crawling on your way out of the gym or days of post-workout soreness. It can be in the form of holding a position just one second longer than you want to, trying a heavier weight (even though it might suck) or busting out just one more rep (with form intact). It could even be just the psychological discomfort of trying something new or working close to failure. Pain is rarely good, but discomfort is necessary.
So for those of us Type A, black and white personalities (and more flexible folks too), where is the line? As much as it pains me to say it (no pun intended), there isn’t one. It’s a gray area that changes day to day, even minute to minute. One tool that’s been useful to me in determining whether I’m pushing into a place for growth or a place for injury, however, has been biofeedback.
I was introduced to biofeedback when I participated in the Unapologetically Powerful online coaching group for powerlifting (more on this in a future post). I had stumbled upon the technique a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t sure how to use it with my current programming. Then a teaser for the Unapologetically Powerful program showed up in my inbox; low and behold it incorporated biofeedback testing. I was intrigued…and sold. About half way through the program I attended a conference where David Dellanave presented the technique and its justification. While there are other tools to determine when you’ve reached your body’s limit for work capacity (heart rate, rpe, vo2max), this one is by far the simplest, quickest, and cheapest. Dellanave has written a lot about how and why it works (and much of his info is free). If you don’t get your fill in this blog post, you can start here. The idea and process are almost too simple to wrap the brain around. Here’s how to apply biofeedback in his words:
“Take your existing program, and test everything before you do it. Test the movement; Do it if it tests well, and don’t do it if it doesn’t. Either skip it or test a similar variation. Test your weights. After each set test to see if you should continue to increase the weight. If you’re at your working weight then stop doing that exercise when you get a negative range of motion test.”
If you’re using a toe touch as your ROM (Range of Motion) test, this simply means testing your toe touch before each prescribed movement in your current program. For example, if you’re doing goblet squats, you’d do a few reps then test your toe touch. If it doesn’t improve or stay the same as your baseline, this variation is not for you today. You can vary the movement (try adjusting your stance or lightening the load) or you can nix squats for the day. If squats aren’t improving your body, why are you doing them? This same sequence can be used to determine if you are at the right working weight or sets.
Says Dellanave, “ROM testing is straightforward. You can use any joint as a universal test. For instance, you don’t have to use an upper-body ROM test to measure an upper-body lift—the results of any ROM test apply to the entire body.“
What does ROM have to do with work capacity? Let me answer that with another question: If an exercise decreases the range of motion you have available, why would you do it? When I first started implementing biofeedback I had a hard time shifting paradigms. If the workout said I was doing 3 sets of 10, I was doing 3 sets of 10 dammit. I didn’t want to quit early. I wanted a full 60 minutes or 30 reps or certain weight if that’s what the plan said. Since I knew I should stop if the biofeedback wasn’t good, I conveniently forgot to test it after sets. Slowly, possibly after another injury, I started to come around. If I’m not improving my body with those reps and sets, what’s the purpose? Yes, I am a remarkably slow learner.
While I was sifting through some of Dellanave’s writing for this post, I came across his short ebook, This Goes Against Everything I’ve Been Taught. Much of it resonated with me, but this really stuck: “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 it?”
You can apply this analogy to sets, reps, and class duration as well. At the end of the day I want my workout (and everything else in my life) to be as efficient as possible. We’re looking for the lowest effective dose. If you apply it right, biofeedback allows you to tailor any program to your body’s needs in the safest, most efficient way.
Bottom line, here’s what I like about biofeedback in training:
It’s stupid simple.
It’s black and white.
It fits every program.
It forces you to listen to your body.
I hit a PR using this with my program.
As we’ve been implementing biofeedback in Tuesday/Thursday classes, Cara and I have had multiple discussions about its nuances. What if the toe touch doesn’t change? Should I see a difference? And how much? After lots of hairsplitting, Cara pointed out that if you can’t hear anything from the biofeedback, you’re probably not listening. Aha!
So the next time we ask you if you touched your toes between sets, you can still roll your eyes. Then do it…and pay attention to what your body has to say. Go hard. And go home…on your own two feet and ready to come back stronger tomorrow.
Want to learn more about how to apply biofeedback in your training? Check out more from David Dellanave at dellanave.com or Frankie Faires at areyouthemovement.com. Or just join us over the next few Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.