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Are You Sabotaging Your Workout?

Are You Sabotaging Your Workout?

By Shane Sauer

The answer could be yes if you’ve ever done any of these while exercising: scrunched up your face, hunched your spine, rounded your shoulders or unintentionally held your breath.

Whether you’re running, lifting weights or doing yoga, any time you mimic the “startle reflex,” it could train your brain to limit your performance.  

What’s the Startle Reflex?

You’ve seen the startle reflex before. In its fullest form it’s call the fetal position. It’s what you do—without even thinking—when someone or something scares you. Here are some of the key features:

  • Shoulders hunch and spine rounds
  • Eyes close
  • Face grimaces
  • Breathing stops
  • Arms and legs pull in
  • Muscles tighten up and brace

The startle reflex is your body’s natural response to threats. Your brain and nervous system are, first and foremost, a survival tool that works on a subconscious level. You can’t control your initial reaction to a threat. It just happens.

But sometimes we mirror elements of the startle reflex when we’re not really under threat—like when we’re working out.

What Happens When You Mimic the Startle Reflex?

It’s important to know that your brain learns in “chunks” or patterns. It usually doesn’t record a single movement, but rather a sequence of events as an entire experience, noting all the conditions happening at the time. This can include (to name a few) body position, visual or auditory cues, smell, mood, and of course the concept of “how threatening is this”.

When a “chunk” your brain has recorded isn’t desirable, it can sabotage your efforts. The most common, less-than-helpful information to be recorded in a chunk is the startle reflex.

If you’re mimicking one or more parts of the startle reflex during exercise, your brain could record the entire exercise as a threat. And your brain might take that information and limit your body’s abilities as a protective measure. The unintended consequence could be that you’ll become weaker, less flexible or feel pain. In other words, your performance decreases!

Retraining Your Brain

The flip side of your brain learning in “chunks” is that you can teach your nervous system to know what’s a threat and what isn’t.

If you exercise without mimicking the startle reflex, your brain will likely learn that your movements are a safe thing.

With practice, you can train your brain that when some or all of these “good” conditions are present again, it is in for a positive experience. Then, when your brain recreates the same movement pattern that you’ve done before, you can perform the pattern with unhindered strength and power. That’s how professional athletes make everything look easier than amateurs—they aren’t subconsciously being held back by their own nervous system.

Creating Positive Signals for Your Brain

If you want to be at your best, make sure you avoid the startle reflex. Since focusing on what to do is the fastest way to develop skill, here are things to focus on when performing your exercise:

  1. Avoid the Pain Face – You can see the Pain Face in the gym all the time. Many people look like they are in excruciating pain when they exercise. Even if that’s the way you feel, it’s best to make it look easy.
  2. Control your breathing – There are many ways to breathe.  In different situations, some ways are more appropriate than others.  Whatever the situation, synchronize your breathing with your movement and don’t let the startle reflex take it away from you .
  3. Maintain perfect form – The first rule is to maintain a long spine. It can bend and flex as needed, but your spine shouldn’t be collapsing on you. From there, try to stay mindful of your technique to avoid injury.
  4. Balance tension and relaxation – This one is tricky and takes practice. It helps to know what you are trying to achieve with a movement so you can tense only those muscles that need to be tense and let the others relax. The simplest place to start is to notice if you are carrying tension in your face or shoulders. Over time, you can explore other parts of your form from there.
  5. Have fun!! -  If you actually enjoy what you’re doing, the chance of your nervous system feeling threatened decreases a lot!!

Try these out during your next workout.

And if you need some inspiration, there’s none better than Michael Jordan!  With his tongue hanging out, you know he’s got #1 and #5 under control!!

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