Written By: Peter Baker
One of the best responses to a question about training is “listen to your body.” After all, your body knows things on a level you can’t comprehend. At the same time, there are the obvious cues that we pick up on all the time.
We know when it’s time to go to sleep. We know when it’s time to eat. We know when it’s time to use the bathroom. Those are some of the more obvious signals—also called biofeedback—our body gives us in our day-to-day lives. Somewhere between the involuntary and the obvious happenings are events that occur that we don’t know how to assess. At least, not yet.
Bringing it back to training, we hear the advice to listen to our body. We nod in agreement because it’s great advice. But there’s an important component that’s often missing from this directive.
How do you listen to what your body is telling you? Great question. That’s what we’re going to explore today.
Movement: Qualities and Quantities
This was a game changer when my coach Frankie Faires introduced this concept to me. The knowledge of these helped me monitor my own biofeedback better than I ever had before. Movement quantities are those aspects of movement we can measure. For instance, am I more flexible than I was last year? Am I stronger? Do I have better balance? Movement qualities are a different form of measurement.
Movement quality refers to the amount of effort put into the movement. So if your 5RM in the deadlift goes from an eight to a six on the Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE Scale), the movement quality is better. When monitoring our body’s biofeedback, the goal is to measure movement quantity to facilitate better movement quality.
An old example of this is the story circulating about the Russian lifters in the mid-20th century. They would measure their grip strength with a dynamometer, and based on its ever changing levels, they would plan their lifts around that. In this instance, the strength of their grip was the movement quantity.
Most of us don’t have a grip dynamometer, so with that in mind, we have to pick another movement quantity to suit us. The easiest one is flexibility. We can test our range of motion (ROM) by way of a forward bend, also called a toe touch. To do so, stand with your feet together. Reach down and touch your toes. Go slow, and stop at the first sign of tension. Note where you stopped. I use a marker on my shin. Perform an exercise of your choice unloaded for a few reps. Test your ROM again.
If you have more ROM that’s a green light to perform that movement. If you have less ROM, test a different exercise out. What you have witnessed is your body’s own self-governance.
Your nervous system is a governor.It either allows or inhibits conscious or unconscious motions within the body. As you perform an exercise there is a clear order in which this occurs. Those governors are what’s known as the elements of effort. In order they are:
If you’ve ever watched a meathead struggle with a set of bicep curls, you have witnessed these in order. Well, not the death portion. At any rate, the bro starts with a particular bar speed. He keeps going and the speed slows.
Next, their form (position) changes. Or their trapezius helps take over the curl. Or they start moving their humerus a bit too much. After that, they start bracing their abs and tightening the glutes for added tension. They might even make a face reminiscent of constipation for the remainder of their set. After a half minute of abject suffering, they hit failure. If they, for some reason, keep going the pain will set in. In a worst case scenario, they hurt themselves.
Number four can be appropriate, in some instances. But if you want to listen to your body and follow what it’s saying, the first three steps are where you should look. Stop your sets when you slow down or when your form changes. Overtime, your movement quality will improve. In the references you will see me demonstrate this in a video.
You now have a protocol to use that will tell you how your body is responding to a stimulus. If you are a hybrid athlete, it’s important to remember that movement is movement. The variations come in the form of volume, loading, variations, and tools. As such, movement can be tested in this way.
If you are training multiple events for leisure or competition, knowing your body’s signals will help you hit more PRs more often. So how do you choose?
If you intend to compete in a powerlifting meet, you have three exercises to choose from: the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. Your first goal in listening to your body is to figure out on a given day which of these you can do. Some days it will be all three. Other days it might be none of them. The latter is OK. If your body is telling you to save it for another day, you will notice a jump in movement quality.
If you intend to make your practice as specific as possible, you would test out the following things as done in competition, with the cues and the pauses and the like:
- The exercise
- The load
- The reps and sets
While practicing you will test the movement unloaded. If it’s a green light, load the bar. Perform some warm up reps. Then test it again, and keep going until you reach the best weight for you. You’ll know you’re there when you have reached the maximum amount of range of motion you can.
If you get to a point where there is no increase or you lose ROM, you have gone too far. Now you have your best working weight for the day. After that, pay attention to the elements of effort to guide your sets.
When your body tells you to stop, you move on to the next exercise. The last thing to remember is that it’s an exercise in refinement. You will get better at this as time goes by. Practicing this is not meant to replace your gut feeling. It’s meant to inform it.
- Me demonstrating the protocol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=785zqL3hYKo
In addition to being a fan of music and heavy metal, Peter is an avid player of table top RPGs, and he is a personal trainer in Tampa, FL as well as a graduate of the prestigious University of South Florida. Formerly, he was a prefect for House Slytherin.