Saturday, August 17, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron, Part Twenty-Five

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Anxiety presents a special challenge. When mild, it may be handled by an intentional shift to slow, deep, abdominal breathing. When this seems too difficult, an alternative is to shift intentionally to a fuller thoracic breathing (charging) and begin some muscular exertion. Through the expirational and muscular discharge of physical activity one can process much of the energy charge, leaving one in an easier position for then centering. In a contest, for instance, if one feels anxious, and centering breathing and a mantra do not seem to be working, perhaps some fast pacing would help, followed by centering breathing. And, of course, after the first lift one has usually processed sufficient energy that only a little centering breathing is needed, if that. If anxiety is a too frequent or too severe problem, the lifter is well advised to seek the consultation of a psychotherapist.

Returning to the bio-energetics of lifting, there is an optimal level of charge for the task at hand. A warm-up set of an exercise requires less of a charge than does a later, heavy set. A maximum lift begs for even a greater charge. So, an undercharge presents a problem. The solution to this problem is to build a higher charge through appropriate breathing. 

It is also possible to lift while overcharged. And this, too, presents a problem for the lifter. The solution is to lower the energy level by doing some centering - appropriate breathing, muscle relaxation, and, if necessary, the other methods covered.

This phenomenon of an optimal level of arousal is worthy of future exploration. In psychology, it is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. In a now classical experiment by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908, it was demonstrated that people performed best with an intermediate level of arousal, with performance suffering with either a lower or higher level. Many subsequent studies have been done, investigating a wide range of arousal levels and a wide variety of performance tasks. In general, the evidence shows that for a given person in a given situation there is a level of arousal which supports maximum performance; with a level of arousal which falls short of that optimal zone, or exceeds it, performance is less than maximal. Furthermore, the more complex the performance task, the lower the optimal level of arousal. 

So, in scientific terms, the relationship between arousal and performance is curvilinear with optimal performance at an intermediate level. The more complex the task, the more the peak of performance curve shifts towards the lower end of the arousal axis. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has some very important implications for lifters. In applying it to the world of iron the following implications emerge.

First, there are individual differences in optimal level of arousal based on the difficulty level of that task, for that individual. For example, a given powerlifter may find the squat to involve more difficult coordinations than the bench press. For that lifter, then, the optimal level of arousal for the squat will be lower than for the bench press. If, in preparation for squatting, he were to charge to the level that is optimal for bench pressing, his squat would suffer to to a disorganized or inefficient performance. An overcharge, remember, is uncentering.The overcharged lifter's coordination and timing are off, and his awareness is clouded. On the other hand, if this lifter bench pressed with the level of charge which would be optimal for his squat, he would be undercharged and not put out a maximal exertion.

Second, the more one practices the performance, the easier it gets. This is a truism, but it has special meaning in the context of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. As the lifter practices to the point of overlearning his performance, then it becomes automatic, or nearly so. Timing and coordination do not, then, require as much attention. Awareness can be focused on other things. Therefore, the optimal level of arousal is raised, and one can perform with a greater charge of energy. The result is a stronger performance. Simply stated, a higher charge will increase performance on an overlearned task.

Third, there are differences in the optimal level of arousal for different lifting tasks based on their skill complexity. As a generalization, for instance it seems clear with respect to timing and coordination, a well choreographed posing routine is more complex than is Olympic-style lifting, and in turn, Olympic lifting is more complex than powerlifting. So, the optimal level of arousal is lowest for posing, higher for Olympic lifting, and highest for powerlifting. 

Fourth, it is vitally important that the lifter know himself well enough to be able to judge when the charge experienced is optimal for the performance about to be undertaken. This may be one of the crucial differences between a really good competitor and a so-so lifter.

Keep in mind that charging is a faster process than centering. It takes only a few seconds of forced thoracic breathing by a well-centered lifter in order to build a high charge of energy. If overcharged, however, it may take several minutes of muscular relaxation, use of mantra, and slow diaphragmatic breathing to once again feel centered. But, again, knowing one's self will allow a fine tuning of arousal levels through the creative use of charging and centering techniques.


As a side note, I want to comment on some of the styles of psyching up for a lift. Two of the most dramatic which I have seen, and which have become fairly popular in powerlifting circles, are screaming and having one's face slapped. Screaming required forced thoracic breathing. And, it emphasizes the exhalation phase. So screaming can be a good way to charge. I believe that it is the exhalation-emphasized, forced thoracic breathing which is the most important aspect in this method of getting charged. The sound may, of course, add to the adrenaline rush. Face slapping can also get the adrenaline flowing. I personally find that getting mad doesn't help my lifting. For me, getting mad is uncentering, and distracts from my lifting concentration, coordination and timing.

Several writers of the iron world have observed that most highly accomplished lifters build their charge in a manner that shows almost an outward calm. They tend not to scream, yell, growl, or have their faces slapped. The charge is building inside to the point of

a precisely timed

optimal explosion

 Ultimately, the style of psyching up is a pragmatic and esthetic choice. Find what is effective for you, and what seems right. Importantly, though, practice your style of charging and centering. Practice these techniques until you can count on them when you really need them.

That being undercharged will lower one's performance is obvious and smacks of common sense. But, to really know and understand the dynamic of a lowered performance because of being overcharged requires some experience and careful observation. Especially in a competitive situation, one can observe the results of being overcharged. Once in a contest I remember psyching myself up as far as I could before my final clean & jerk. I rushed to the bar . . . cleaned it quickly . . . recovered . . . and tossed it over my head . . . backward. As it crashed to the floor I hardly knew what had happened. I was so overcharged that my awareness was impaired and I totally missed the groove of the jerk. My explosion of energy was certainly adequate, but it was not controlled, not focused, and as I said, definitely not in the groove. A "blind rage" is perhaps the ultimate of arousal, but it's just that - blind.

I have discussed at some length techniques of centering and charging. A important as these are for the lifter, they are an incomplete sequence, bio-energetically speaking. Two additional elements are required.

Next: Grounding, and Discharging.

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