Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Relaaaax, Dude.

Selective relaxation is really important in training.  Try this, for example:  Try to jump as high as you can off the ground.  Now do it again, but tighten up every single muscle in your body, from your face to your arms and shoulders, etc. 

What's that?  You can't jump like that?


That fun little drill demonstrates the value of selective relaxation.  You can apply it to all kinds of things besides jumping.  Running is one.  Now, I am not a runner.  I hate running.  It is not fun for me.  I do it once in a while for my dog, or I'll run sprints to mix things up, or if someone challenges me, I might be talked into running a 5 or 10K (but the chances that I'll train for it are pretty slim).  If zombies are chasing me, I'll probably run.  But that's about it.  However, I know a lot of people adore running, and if you love it, and it's not hurting you, by all means, keep running.  In my massage practice, I get a ton of runners who come in with very sore shoulders/traps/necks/jaws after a run.  This is a sign that they are tensing up their upper bodies when they run.  I believe (and note that I have not seen this proven scientifically, but this is my belief, so take it with a grain of salt) that the body has a tendency to associate running with fear.  As far as your body is concerned, sez me, running is for escaping dangerous situations.  That is why (I think) the tendency for the majority of people is to automatically stick their shoulders in their ears when they run.  It's the body protecting the face from a potential threat. 

Is he deadlifting, or is he watching a slasher flick?

In weightlifting, it's really common-- and I'm as guilty of this as the next guy-- to grit the teeth, shrug the shoulders, and do all that other stuff that happens when you get stressed out and your body goes into fear mode.  Your body, I believe, translates either the weight you're lifting, the movement you're doing, or the face you're making, to the idea that you've been threatened and have reason to be afraid.  Your form often becomes less than optimal as a result.  In addition, when your body senses a threat,  it will generally try to keep you from doing the things that put you in that position.  So it will give you pain, stiffness, sickness, weakness, and other such physical limitations so that you can't get threatened again.  And you'll end up on my massage table, or home watching soap operas, or trying to train with less than optimal movement patterns (which will lead to more pain, and so on and so forth).

The best way to resolve this issue is to get to the point where your body no longer sees what you're doing as a threat.  Breath work will go a long way in helping you do this.  Breathing through your belly instead of your chest, breathing deeply and slowly, and breathing rhythmically and methodically in a way that makes sense for you throughout your activity can make a world of difference. 

Another good practice is to try to relax your face when you're lifting/running/etc.  If you watched the Olympics, you may have seen those slow-motion closeups of the sprinter's faces where their faces bobbled around like Jell-o.  Besides being hilarious, this was actually a great lesson in selective relaxation.  These guys are not threatened by the sprinting they do.  If they were to stiffen up, their speeds would most likely go down significantly, so the only way they can be as phenomenally fast as they are is to stay as selectively relaxed as possible.

If you're trying to train through pain, your body will absolutely create new motor patterns that won't be in your best interests, and will stiffen up when it expects to hurt.  If you're hurting, resolve that issue before you try to lift anything heavy or pound the pavement.

Do you apply selective relaxation to your training?  If so, how, and does it make a difference for you?  Post your secrets in the comments section below!  :)

By the way, I will be doing a mobility drills workshop on August 25 that will cover breathing and tons of ways you can play around with your neurological system to move better in your everyday life, so let me know if you'd like to join us!


  1. Really awesome post, Mel! And I totally agree with you. Tension is important for strength, but a lot of people misapply it and get all jacked up.

    The only thing I disagree with you on is the Zombies thing. I wouldn't run - I would smash those MFers with my bare hands!

    1. Only because you are a beast, and zombies fear you.

    2. Which is why they walk funny.

  2. Very useful info, selective relaxation enables you to have more power! mytravelfitness.com