How to Engage Your Brain for Your Best Workout Ever

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No one understands the full extent of stress better than soldiers. Studies performed at the U.S. military’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) school found that trainees who perform the best under the stress of interrogation have the highest levels of stress hormones after being interrogated.

The higher stress hormones act as a buffer, protecting the soldier from the effects of stress and supporting better performance despite the stressful circumstances. Interestingly, the soldiers who performed best were members of Special Operations, commonly known to perform better physically than many of their conventional counterparts.

But you don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to harness your brain’s stress response system and translate it to better results in the gym. What determines whether or not you reach your fitness goals is how well your body adapts to the stress you place on it during training. This kind of adaptation requires:

-Sufficient exercise-induced stress to provoke a response. Not doing enough work or doing the same thing all the time will halt your gains.

-The right type of stimuli required for the adaptation you want to create. You get better at exactly what you do and how you do it. If your goal is to look like a sprinter, don’t run slow, long distances and expect to achieve your goal.

-The metabolic resources your body needs to create an effective stress response that results in adaptation.

-Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) to adequately control the stress and adaptation response.

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How Your Brain Handles Stress

Let’s start with a bit of basic biology. The ANS consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and enteric system (digestion). Put simply, the SNS and PNS are always working to keep the body in homeostasis (balance of function) by counteracting each other.

The SNS is used for whole-body responses to fight-or-flight situations. When the SNS is strongly activated, the heart and breathing rates increase, digestion gets turned off and blood gets shunted away from the extremities to the large skeletal muscles to help the body prepare to fight or run away. When the PNS is dominant, on the other hand, the body goes into “rest and digest” mode. Digestion is turned on along with the body’s repair and recovery systems.

Almost all sources of stress fall into three main categories:

  1. Structural distress, which is categorized by poor movement, poor postural control or alignment, disuse (not enough movement), chronic tension or pain (from physical causes) and tissue breakdown post-workout.
  2. Metabolic distress, which involves incomplete digestion, imbalance of good and bad bacteria, infection, immune reactions to foods or allergens, blood sugar or hormone imbalances and micronutrient or amino acid deficiencies.
  3. Mental or emotional distress, which can be caused by work or family stress, chronic anxiety, depression or a host of other things.

All stressors, including workouts, physical movement and lifestyle factors, activate the stress response system. You want your body to produce a strong enough stress response to help you accomplish your task and yet be able to turn that response off and switch to recovery mode when the stressor is no longer present. A strong (but appropriate) stress response to any given stressor allows higher levels of performance to occur.

physique fitness competitor works out in gym lifting dumbbells on weight bar

Use Your Brainpower to Improve Your Workout

While you may not have the body of a Special Operations soldier, your body still functions in much the same way. After all, you’re both human. From the perspective of turning your workouts into progress and performing better tomorrow than you did yesterday, your body needs to be able to do two things:

1. Create a Strong Stress Response

The best way to develop this is through progressive overload in your training. This involves relatively intense workouts that stretch you just beyond your ability and are performed at times of the day your energy is the highest.

Work with a professional or educate yourself about programming your workouts progressively. Going to failure is OK at times, but don’t consider this your primary training strategy. You need to identify your goals, test for your weaknesses, progressively develop and train skills and course-correct along the way by reassessing.

Train hard, but don’t overtrain. When you’re showing up to your workouts and are unable to muster the energy to train with intensity, make sure you take care of the basics first. If you’re not already eating or sleeping well, then focus there first. If you’re doing a good job with your lifestyle but not seeing the results you want, you may consider working with a professional trainer. Look for someone who can help with using a functional nutrition or medicine approach.

2. Switch From a Strong Stress Response to a Strong Recovery Response

A stress response that stays “switched on” can be detrimental to your progress and possibly to your health. Stress hormones such as cortisol are catabolic, which means they break the body down. The natural brake that halts the stress response is the PNS.

It’s important to note, however, that chronically high stress levels may be driven by underlying medical conditions. If you have trouble with poor recovery and don’t see any progress from the exercises detailed below, you should consider an appointment with your doctor.

5 Ways to Stimulate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

Below are five PNS activation drills for you to try after your next workout. Unless you show up for your workout in a highly stressed state, you’ll want to stick to applying this after your workout only. Experiment with doing them within 10 minutes post-workout as part of your cooldown. You can also try them at any point up to two hours post-workout. See what works best for you.

Give yourself enough time to catch your breath and for your heart rate to drop a bit. You don’t have to do all of them, but keep track of which ones you try and which ones seem to help. None of these exercises are intended as a one-size-fits-all solution.

1. Yes/Yes and No/No: This involves keeping your eyes focused on a central point in front of you while shaking your head yes and no. You can find more details on how to do this properly at Z-Health.

2. Ice Water: Splash your face with cold water. This helps stimulate the trigeminal nerve, the nerve that controls your jaw muscles and sensation on the face and helps control the total output of your PNS.

3. Breathing Exercises: Breathing is an essential part of your workout, not to mention your life in general, so give this exercise a try. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for another four seconds, and then repeat the pattern.

4. Gargling Water: Shoot for 10 to 30 seconds for one to three sets. Make sure the water is in the back of the mouth and your gargling is creating a lot of movement.

5. Horizontal Eye Movements (Saccades): Hold your arms out with your index fingers pointed up (to create two targets to look at). Your fingers should be shoulder-width apart. Focus on one finger for three seconds, and then jump your eyes over to the opposite finger. Repeat for five to 10 reps for three sets.

Don’t Ignore the Basics

While it’s fun to try new and fancy-sounding techniques like the ones mentioned above, you need to make sure you’re doing two of the most important things for recovery:

1. Sleep: Take a power nap or at least get enough quality sleep at night (generally seven to nine hours).

2. Food: Post-workout snacks fuel your recovery and help you perform optimally. Focus on food quality, total calories and macronutrient ratios.

Track Your Parasympathetic Output

Heart rate variability (HRV), or the difference in the amount of time between heartbeats, is an easy way to capture data to help you time your workouts when your potential for stress adaptation is highest, as well as gauge any improvements for PNS output and tone from the exercises described in this article. You can use a device like the ithlete HRV system, which is compatible with most smartphones and will also help you interpret your results.

Your body’s built-in stress response mechanism can be a very powerful ally when you start working with it instead of against it. Over the next 30 days, begin adding these PNS activation drills to your workout program and leave us a comment to let us know what you experience!