“The best cure for worry, depression, melancholy, brooding, is to go deliberately forth and try to lift with one’s sympathy the gloom of somebody else.”
I recently received a fantastic email from TTP reader Pieter Derycke, a physical therapist from Belgium, that I’d like to share. Pieter’s got some great insight on the issue of CNS priming, along with some erudite speculation on taking CNS priming/activation to an even more advanced level.
What follows is Pieter’s email to me, which I’ll note in italics. My responses and ruminations will be interspersed, and in bold print. For the most part, I’ll leave Pieter’s wording unedited, as our contrasting styles will make the discourse a little easier to follow. And please do chime in with your thoughts on this subject, as much of what we’ll go into here is speculative in nature.
Enjoy. And thanks again, Pieter, for a fantastic email, and the healthy helping of food for thought.
I’ve been thinking about this idea I have, and, as an avid reader of your blog (and few times commenter), I thought I could email you and maybe get your thoughts on my idea.
I like your blog because you really can describe the essence of strength/power training, diet and health. And this in the evolutionary perspective, which makes a lot of sense to me. Really, it is the only perspective that truly makes sense (as in the famous quote of Theodosius Dobzhansky). As you have often put it: the essence is really simple, the rest is interesting, but a side issue. Of course simple does not necessarily mean easy… And I’m afraid the subject of my mail is rather such a side issue, but hopefully an interesting one.
And I also really like the fact that you put emphasis on the nervous system. That’s the main reason for emailing you.
The idea and question I have is about the threat we have to cause to our organism, for training adaptation to occur. The threat we usually use is a physical, actual threat.
From my experiences as a physical therapist, and from the pain science and literature, I know that the actual threat can be different from the perceived threat. And it is the perceived threat that causes the central nervous system to produce pain. So the perceived threat causes the response.
For an example of what Pieter is talking about here, think of the perceived threat that comes from being spooked. Now, take that feeling — along with the nice CNS jolt — into a power clean PR attempt.
I’m wondering if we could use this principle in strength/power training: changing the perceived threat instead of only the actual threat to augment the response.
Maybe I should digress a bit and first talk about the neurophysiology of pain. (sorry for the lengthy email in advance…) Pain-physiology is the stuff that got me thinking. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
Pain is an active product of the brain, or more correct, the central nervous system. The injured tissue on its own cannot cause pain. It can only send nociceptive signals to the spinal cord. Nociception means ‘danger reception’. So the CNS can choose to produce pain (a little or a lot) or not. So pain is not input, it is output.
The CNS ‘answers’ two questions: is the signal dangerous enough? and is it a priority? It tries to answer these questions with the survival of the organism in mind. So it makes use of the context and environment, and of your past experiences, your culture, gender, education, …
If you sprain your ankle or pull a muscle, it is in your best interest to feel pain and change your behaviour (relative rest, limping and probably some overt pain behaviour (verbal and non verbal) to attract attention and help of your peers).
Now, the same sprain or pull can cause totally different reactions if the situation is different. As when your running away from a dangerous predator like a lion (to use the archetypical example). For you ankle or sprained muscle the same relative rest could be useful, but for the organism as a whole it is better to keep running and not feeling pain. And this of course is what happens: in these situations there is no pain. You probably know some spectacular similar stories.
For those of you who have ever been engaged in competitive sport, you know what it’s like to not “realize” that you’re injured until well after the event. The same can be said of late-onset symptoms of injuries sustained in, say, automobile accidents.
Now this is something that happens all the time, not only in extreme situations. Almost everybody has experienced some pain (e.g. tooth ache, headache, …) that at some time disappears when you’re distracted. The distraction is something the CNS perceives as more important. This makes it really difficult for chronic pain patients to see the causes of their pain.
And of course, this also works the other way round: if your CNS is convinced there is danger, it will cause pain, even if there’s no danger signal coming from the tissues.
A very analogue situation is vision. Vision also is not a passive input, but an active construction of the CNS. We don’t see the ‘blind spots’ on our retina, because the CNS produces a congruent image. Illusions and illusionist use this principle. They use the constructions of the brain that are very useful in a real life situation in nature, but keep fooling us in the case of the illusion.
Even more analogue to pain are: hunger and thirst, the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, and fatigue. This because they all stimulate the organism to undertake some kind of action.
Of course this is also how placebo works: you tell somebody you gave them a painkiller, and the CNS changes its output because the meaning of the nociceptive information has changed. The opposite (nocebo) also happens: you tell somebody the pill will lower the pain threshold, and indeed, they feel more pain. These are very consistent findings in pain science.
So the actual threat (the nociception from the tissue damage) is less important than the perceived threat. The perceived threat causes the reaction: pain. There is even no need for a real threat, there can be pain without nociception. Nociception is not enough, nor necessary for the production of pain.
Maybe also interesting is that pain is now viewed not only as a ‘feeling’ but as a CNS output including the ‘conscious sensation’, the sympathetic response, the immune response, the hormonal response, the behavioural response, and the motor response. We used to say that some muscle contract as a consequence of pain, now we know that this muscle tension is part of the pain (if you’re interested, I could send you some papers on this, often called the neuromatrix of pain).
Now, after this long digression through the incredibly interesting field of pain-physiology, back to power/strength training.
Do you think it is possible to use analogue mechanisms for increasing the physiological response to a workout? Do you have any thoughts about how to increase the perceived threat, without increasing the actual threat. This could have some advantages: could be safer because of the smaller actual threat. Or it could be better because of a greater response and thus better progress and health.
I have got some ideas:
- It could be that whole body, compound exercises are better because of the greater perceived threat. If you break a snatch exercise into components, and execute them separately, you could +/- do the same work, but with less results. Being fatigued from head to toe is (from evolutionary/survival perspective) more threatening than having isolated muscles or body parts fatigued. Of course a snatch could actually be ‘really’ more threatening. And of course it could be a bit of both.
- Another way of augmenting the perceived threat could be using imagery. Like imagining that you are being chased by a lion while doing your sprint workouts. Imagery is used (with scientifically proven results) in training movement/coordination patterns, and with pain patients. I have no idea of this has been used for power training or other physical conditioning.
- Another way the perceived threat influences the power/strength training could be the following: after a while of performing an exercise or exercise routine the organism gets less threatened because it gets used to it. Of course you could augment the actual real threat by making the exercise harder by doing more reps, or by using heavier weights, or your other typical progressions. But often the perceived threat stays rather low because of the familiarity of the organism with the exercise/routine. That’s when the plateau happens. A typical way of trying to get more results is using another strategy, another exercise or another routine. This causes the perceived threat to increase, and thus stimulates the organism to adapt further, even though the actual threat (the workload) may not be very different.
Many elite sprinters will say that immediately pre-race, they will put themselves mentally in an “angry place”; anger/aggression being a huge motivator/CNS primer, where ultra-fine motor skills in not necessarily a factor. And I do believe that the additional “perceived threat” helps explain why a trainee will much such good progress (for a while) following a new program, using new exercises and/or changing environs.
Also, I feel that this is another application in which brainwave optimization could be utilized. This is far from voodoo science in my opinion — in fact, it looks a lot like pin-pointed and highly effective (and intense) bio-feedback. I’m quite sure that one could readily learn how to get to that “hyped”, fight or flight state with limited investment in “therapy” time/money.
Athough I really do think that the threats causing pain (and hunger, thirst, fear, …) are in some way similar to the ones causing physiological adaptations in the muscle tissue, cardiovascular system, …, there probably is a big difference between them.
The pain response (or for that matter, the hunger, thirst or fear) is probably a cheap thing for the organism. Muscle hyperthophy (and…) is probably much more expensive to get (and to keep).
Randolf Nesse (a Dr. writing a lot about Darwinian medicine) uses the analogy of the smoke detector system: it is better to be scared or have pain too often than too few. This would make sense: it is better to be scared too much of a noise in the bushes, although maybe 99% of the time it will be a false alarm. If you’re not scared, it will cause you damage that 1% of the time it is in fact a dangerous animal.
This is especially true if the cost of the response is rather cheap. Muscle adaptations (and …) probably are much more expensive and thus harder to get. I think…
To conclude: a recapitulation (again sorry for the long email): threatening the organism causes a response, and the perceived threat is more important than the actual threat. Using this principle could increase the training effects (and/or make them safer).
So after this long explanation, do you have any ideas on this? Do you think it is a valuable hypothesis? And do you see any practical application? Do you have any suggestions?
Feel free to chime in, folks. Consider this an “open forum”.
Thanks for taking your time to read this. And thanks already for a little response,