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Relax To Get Stronger

May 24, 2006 10:11 AM

I've found that using a form of progressive relaxation can aid with two important aspects in strength training. It can facilitate learning the high tension techniques mentioned in Power to the People! and Naked Warrior and it can establish a faster relaxation response during activity.

One of the aspects I enjoy in training is the use of mental imagery and imagination. It's a time to pretend and maybe because I work a lot with little kids I tend to get into imagining a little more than most. I'm pushing myself away from the bar and into the ground, I'm imagining there's a string attached to my head to elongate my spine, I'm pretending I'm a mother with a child stuck under a car when I'm deadlifting (not really but who knows it might help, I might even do another article on it?"Be a Mother and PULL"). Most people don't pretend that much. You ask them to visualize something or do something or tell them how it should feel and then they try what you've asked but you know that they just don't quite get it. You can tell someone to arch their back like so or pull from the hips and they may say they are but most of the time people have a tendency to do the 'smile and nod'.

For as important as the high tension techniques are I want to make sure that clients really understand and are able to assimilate what I'm trying to get across to them. The use of progressive relaxation adds another tangible method of ensuring what is being imagined is actually being felt.

I've always known relaxation was important but it wasn't until I came into contact with Fast & Loose that I began to fully realize the connection between tension and relaxation in the context of strength training. For as great as tension is, it's nothing more than wasted effort when you don't want it. The faster you can relax the lower the overall energy expenditure you'll experience. When it comes down to a competition (whether it's against yourself or someone else,) tension may determine the winner in one lift or event but relaxation will affect the outcome throughout the duration.

For example there are two climbers on a route with equal strength, they both do the route, and 3 minutes later climber A is ready to go again but climber B is still pumped beyond all belief in his forearms. While there may be other factors in different scenarios (different levels of capillarity, fiber type and any other nit picky things) in this case climber B couldn't relax or as one of my friends would so eloquently put it, "climber B blew his wad way too early."

I've been acquainted with progressive relaxation for quite some time; it was a technique I learned initially to help me fall asleep on restless nights. Progressive relaxation involves tensing and relaxing muscles throughout the body. The goal is to feel the tension and then to actively relax to try to release the tension. By feeling the two ends of the spectrum you can gain a better sense of bodily awareness. The intent that I have when using this with clients is to facilitate them getting the hang of the high tension techniques. For as simple as tensing a body part during a lift can be, for beginners it can be a bit of a long checklist for them to go through.

In addition to helping learn the HTT's it also helps the individual learn to relax in a much more rapid fashion because it is much more active in nature. Also since reviewing things before bedtime can be beneficial to learning, you can use progressive relaxation to help you fall asleep while practicing something for your strength training.

The general format of progressive relaxation is to tense one muscle or similar groups at a time then moving on to another. This is very beneficial to practice first and I recommend you check it out. However since you're a Party Member, you don't play the isolation game, here we go for integration. So here's the Party adapted protocol.

As always if you have a history of high blood pressure, muscle spasms, cramps, or any thing else that may contribute to potential injury clear this with your doctor. Before starting take a few breaths taking 4 seconds to inhale, hold for 2 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds, hold for 2 seconds and repeat a few times, make sure you fill your belly first then your chest and then empty the chest first then empty your belly. When you feel relaxed start through the progression begin each step by tensing your abs, compressing your breath and contracting you rectal sphincter.
  1. Lie down on the floor or bed.
  2. First tense up your feet, the same way that you would as if you were to grab the ground with your toes, then relax
  3. Tense up feet and lower legs, then relax
  4. Tense up feet, lower legs, and upper legs, then relax
  5. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, and glutes, then relax
  6. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, and fists, then relax
  7. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, fists, and forearms, then relax
  8. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, fists, forearms, and upper arms, then relax.
  9. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, fists, forearms, upper arms, and back (try contracting your shoulder blades), then relax.
  10. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, fists, forearms, upper arms, back, and neck, then relax.
  11. Tense up feet, lower legs, upper legs, glutes, fists, forearms, upper arms, back, neck and jaws, then relax.
  12. Repeat process if desired
Note you're going to feel like there is some carryover when you're tensing a body part or parts. Don't worry if a part you're not supposed to be tensing, tenses up just keep focusing on what you're supposed to be doing. Besides, by noticing that you have tension there, you're becoming better aware of tension and its location in your body.

For other variations try making each step into two parts doing one side first then the other, turn it into three parts doing one side, the other, then both, start from the end and go in reverse, try generating and releasing tension more quickly or slowly than you normally do, or start gradually and relax quickly or vice versa, try lying in different positions, on your side, knees bent, feet spread apart, etc. Try to use this to adapt to what your goals are, if you like to work on pull-ups you may want to lay down with you arms above you head and go through tensing the hands first, then forearms, upper arms, sucking shoulder in, etc, working your way down the body rather than start from the ground up.

The biggest goals for doing this is to gain a more conscious recognition of how your body is, to notice what is tense and what is not, and to change back and forth between tension and relaxation with greater ease. Try this out for a week or so then come back to Naked Warrior or Power to the People! for a more verbal description of the high tension techniques, then do your exercises and blow your old PR's out of the water. For more specific exercises on relaxation check out Fast & Loose. For more information on the basic techniques go do a search on Jacobson's Progressive Relaxation or check out some other forms of relaxation such as autogenic relaxation.

Kevin Perrone, RKC is a North Carolina based kettlebell instructor and personal trainer. He is available for one-on-one training, small group workshops, and program design. He can be reached at or at 919 260 5393.