Can a Mind-Body Connection Improve Strength Training?

Riddle me this: How long until a strong lifter starts to break a sweat in a single Pilates session?

Answer: Five minutes.

Usually it starts around the introduction of the c-curl (a deep scoop of the abdominals that lifts the thoracic spine into flexion while stretching the back) and the Pilates hundred.

Recently, I’ve taken a few [very accomplished] athletes from the weight room and into the Pilates studio. They are athletes with Hulk-like strength, excellent kinesthetic awareness, but with the mobility of a crab due to all the heavy lifting they do on the regular.

Pilates is difficult no matter how experienced one is, but among lifters I find a common theme that makes the practice even more challenging for this group: The lack of mind-body awareness in movement.

This is unlike having kinesthetic awareness. As lifters, we understand how to hinge and squat, and can distinguish our right arm from our left (well, most of the time anyways). A mind-body centered approach to movement forces us into mindfulness, which is the antithesis of sports like powerlifting and weightlifting.

Note: Strength sports require mental fortitude, which is not the same as mind-body connection

Consider a common butchered exercise like the V-situp.

Without mind-body connection: Athlete lays on the ground, shoots the legs up in the air while gripping his or her hip flexors, hurls the torso up with momentum (not muscle), protracts the shoulders in an attempt to reach the toes and ungracefully collapses back on the floor. Repeat 20 times.

With mind-body connection: Athlete lays on the ground squeezing the things and ankle bones together, floats the legs up while simultaneously raising the torso and arms using the lower abdominals. The lumbar spine is slight curved, the lower abdominals are fully engaged and limbs feel weightless as they float up and return to the floor.

How we incorporate mindfulness into movement dictates the difficulty and effectiveness of this exercise. If a V-situp aims to strengthen our core musculature, then gripping and lifting the legs up with our hip flexors won’t make us any better. As lifters we need less hip flexor strengthening exercises, not more.

So can we incorporate more of a mind-body connection in strength training overall? We certainly can’t break down every exercise, slow it down and think through every piece of movement like we do in Pilates, but we can practice more mindfulness on the platform to improve general movement.

Eliminate distractions

Remember a time when we lifted with nothing but a good pair of headphones?

Yea, that was a lifetime ago it seems. Today, we’re texting, SnapChatting, posting our lifts, and chasing so many Pokemons in between sets that it’s amazing we end up working out at all!

Whether you film your lifts or not, set your phone to airplane mode and cut out the technological noise competing for your attention. Even better, try one workout without your phone present. It’s a challenge in and of itself to complete a workout where you count kilos in your head, track your workouts with pen and paper, and you know, actually lift heavy instead of tweeting about it.

Learn to breathe

What makes yoga or Pilates so mind-body centric is that every movement is connected to breath. The Valsalva maneuver remains the most effective weight training style of breathing; keep that.

However, learn 3-D breathing – a Pilates style of diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on inhaling into the sides and back of your rib cage (think 360 degrees), and learn when and how to incorporate it. The laundry list of benefits from 3-D breathing include:

– Stronger core stabilization

– Better support for the back and spine

– Rebalances our autonomic nervous system

– Releases tension in the neck and shoulders

While we can’t breathe in this way before a heavy squat or deadlift, we can incorporate this style of breathing into our warm-up. Try this simple drill:

– Sit cross legged with wrists resting at your knees. Sit up tall (against a wall helps).

– Inhale deeply through your nose for 5 counts. Exhale for 5 counts.

– Inhale deeply for a count of 10 counts. Exhale for 10 counts.

– Repeat for 12 counts, then 16.

With every inhale, picture the air flowing into your lower belly, expanding the sides of your ribcage, and into your lower back.

On the exhale, feel your ribcage close in and deflate completely.

You can also try this lying down, hands at your lower belly, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

Use breath more intentionally

There’s a lot going on in a deadlift setup so how can using breath set us up for a stronger lift? Breathing with intention (not necessarily the VM or 3D breath maneuvers) gets us focused. It makes our movements purposeful. Breathing during the entire movement, from setup to lockout, keeps us out of our heads, into the right muscle groups and ready for a big lift. Here’s an example:

– Inhale set your feet

– Exhale set the lats

– Inhale grab the bar

– Exhale lift your gaze and set your focus

– Inhale drive through the legs, lift and lockout

– Exhale set it down

Can you squat or deadlift heavy without breathing into it? Sure, that’s what getting strong is all about. But if you can learn in training to shut off off your thoughts, approach the bar with the clarity, purpose and intention you do while executing the movement, you set yourself up to move in the most optimal way possible. We often get hurt in strength training or sports because we do stupid things, overdo it in training and don’t recover properly (among other things). If we can guarantee incremental improvements lift after lift by simply incorporating breathe with movement when it’s appropriate and safe to do so, why wouldn’t we? We buy all sorts of products and supplements that promise us an extra edge but we can’t learn to just breathe with purpose?

Create space in your body

The Pilates Roll-up is among my favorite mat exercises. It’s simple but also humbling and difficult to execute. Difficult because any semi-strong individual will assume he or she needs nothing but core strength to roll up. But when you slow it down and ask them to “peel their spine off the floor bone, by bone while curling up and over through their abdominals” and keeping the shoulders away from the ears, you realize ‘core strength’ isn’t even the half of it.

Unfortunately, weight training doesn’t lend us an opportunity to learn to elongate our spine or create space between our bones while we move. That is very specific to Pilates. However, we can practice the principle of ‘creating space’ in other exercises like the the hollow rock (with hold) exercise.

– Lay on the floor with arms reaching away from the legs, framing the face. Legs and ankle bones pressed together like magnets

– Think about lengthening your spine in opposite directions. Continue to create this sensation of growing from both ends while maintaining the ribcage closed.

– Take a deep inhale through the nose.

– Exhale, lift the arms and legs into a hover while keeping your arms as a frame around the face.

– Hold this position as you exhale all the air out of your lungs. While doing so, keep growing your spine, lengthening through both sides of your body, in between each rib and maintaining the legs squeezed tightly together.

– Slowly descend the arms and legs (maintain that frame!) to the floor. Repeat 5-8x

In this simple variation of the hollow rock position you get 1.) 3D breath 2.) Intentional breathing 3.) Space creation between the ribs, the spine and 4.) you use more of your abdominals to float the legs and arms up rather than your hip flexors or shoulders, neck or chest. The intensity of this exercise (which I call ‘the canoe’) actually does strengthen your abdominals. Go figure.

In sports like weightlifting or powerlifting, skill trumps athletic ability or experience; strength training with progressive overload is necessary to develop said skills and athletic ability, and having a mind-body connection throughout ensures steady progress in the long-term.


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