Today’s post is the grand finale of a 5-part series (click here to read the previous posts). Here’s a quick recap: Master instructor Mark Reifkind recently retired from StrongFirst and was asked to summarize his decades of coaching experience. Instead of writing an entire novel, he boiled it down to just 5 bullet points. Here they are…
- We stand on the shoulders of giants. Study the greats that came before you.
- N=1. What works for you? We don’t need to discover the training “theory of everything.” Just what makes you progress.
- Consistency trumps intensity, and intensity is born from consistency.
- Control the breath, control the body.
- Feed-forward tension is the master key to strength.
In an effort to honor him and everything he’s done for us, I’m writing a post on each of these topics discussing what I’ve learned from Rif in the context of each.
Lessn 5: Feed-forward tension is the master key to strength.
I remember when I first heard these words uttered in a certification. Pavel asked if anyone could explain what this meant. Zero hands went up.
Fast forward a decade later… feed-forward tension makes Rif’s top 5 list of things he’s learned from five decades of training/coaching. I guess it must be important, so let’s talk about it…
Let’s Start With The Opposite
The opposite of ‘feed-forward’ would be ‘feedback’, right? Feedback, a much more commonly used word in the English language, refers to providing information about a reaction to a person, place, or thing. In terms of strength training, some exercises provide better feedback than others. A good example is the barbell back squat. In order to initiate the lift, one needs to get the bar off the pins.
Once this is done, the full weight of what’s on bar is felt on the body. This gives immediate feedback to the entire skeletal system. This signal is basically screaming, “Hey bozo! This is really flippin’ heavy! You better pay attention here and get your muscles really tense, or else this thing is going to crush you!”
In stark contrast, let’s look at the deadlift: Let’s say we have a deadlift bar sitting on the ground loaded up with 315 pounds. You walk up to that bar and get ready to lift it. How much of a load does this bar present to your body? The answer is zero pounds. You can even wrap your fingers around the bar and make a mean face… still zero pounds. It isn’t until you try to lift it, and can see daylight under those plates, that your system arrives at the uncomfortable realization that it really does, in fact, weight 315 pounds.
However, In the grand timeline of human history, strength training with traditional weights is a fairly new technology. The first barbells didn’t come along until the 1860s. And the first commercially available ones weren’t available until much longer afterwards. Even today, there are tons of people (think of competitive gymnasts) who have gotten insanely strong without the use of barbells… or any other weights and/or machines for that matter. How did they do it?
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Rif’s Example: The Two Suitcases
Rif uses the example of two suitcases…
“Suppose I put a suitcase in front of you that I told you was packed to the gills. The airline enforces a max weight limit of 40 pounds. Can you please lift my suitcase really quick and tell me if you think it’s over or under 40 pounds?”
In this situation, you’d probably step your legs in between it, grab the handle with both hands, and brace for a 40ish pound case.
“However, I decided to play a joke on you… the Suitcase is empty!”
You’d probably end up nearly falling over backwards, because you were prepared to lift a much heavier suitcase.
“Ok, now let’s use another suitcase example: I have an empty suitcase. I know I can only put 40 pounds of stuff into it without incurring extra baggage fees, but it’s not really 40 pounds of stuff. The suitcase itself has to weigh something, right? Will you please just pick up this empty suitcase and tell me what you think it weighs with nothing in it?
You’d probably not pay too much attention… just grab the handle with one hand and heft the case to get an idea of what it weighs.
“However, I decided to play a joke on you. I filled the suitcase full of bowling balls.”
As soon as you tugged on that suitcase, you’d be in for a rude awakening!
The example Rif is illustrating here is that, in order to become a better lifter, one must practice the skill of generating body tension regardless of what sort of loads we are working with. This can even be done with no weights at all…
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Hardstyle Plank… With A Little Tough Love…
In the kettlebell certification, Rif would have folks partner up and get into a traditional plank position. While one partner is in the plank position, the other gives a little “tough love” by (gently) moving the individual side to side at the shoulders and hips… trying to disturb the plank position. If the person holding plank is generating the necessary feed-forward tension, they will be difficult to move. If they are ‘soft’ in the position, they can easily be tipped over (or moved off their position)
Kettlebell Deadlift… With A Little Tough Love…
Another example is using the kettlebell deadlift. In this drill, the lifter will deadlift single (or double) kettlebells and hold the top of a deadlift position. Similar to the plank drill, a partner will come and administer “tough love.” A lifter who is ‘tight’ will not be able to be moved from this position. For most folks, even the heaviest kettlebells are much lighter than one’s max. However, they should hold tension as though the weight they’re lifting is their 1RM. Or, as Rif says…
“If you can learn how make a light weight ‘heavier’, soon you’ll be able to figure out how to make a heavy weight ‘lighter’.”
“Breathing Behind The Shield”
In a one-rep max attempt of a powerlift, the Valsalva maneuver is the most common breathing drill used. However, in most sports, this high-tension style of breathing is simply impractical. Imagine a UFC fighter trying to hold abdominal tension to be able to absorb a blow to the abs… for the entire 5 minute round. Impossible. Therefore, “breathing behind the shield” is another valuable principle Rif teaches. In this technique one must hold tension, but not so much that taking beaths is not possible. This skill allows one to stay tight enough to train without risk of injury, but also endure working sets lasting longer than 10 seconds. This is work capacity. Or, as Rif so eloquently puts it… “All day strong.”
Back to the Barbell…
One of the practical ways we utilize this principle in barbell training is figuring out ways to safely expose the neurological system to weights that are greater than 1RM. In the squat and bench press, we will do ‘heavy holds’ which consist of loading a bar with a weight greater than the working weight for the day and practice just holding that weight for a few seconds. This continues week after week until we get to the end of a cycle where the weight being held is far greater than 1RM.
Once we unload the bar back down to our working weight, comparatively speaking, it feels light! In the deadlift, rack pulls are used to accomplish the same thing.
The idea is to learn the skill necessary to handle the suitcase full of bowling balls… then be pleasantly surprised when it’s only filled with clothes and toiletries.
Paul McIlroy, founder of The Amazing 12, says, “Strength is not built. It is granted to you by your nervous system.” There’s a lot of wisdom to that statement.
It’s one thing to read about this in an exercise physiology textbook, but a whole other thing to actually feel it on your own body. I remember one time towards the end of a 12-week deadlift program: My lifts were going great and I was looking forward to the following week because it was going to be a big rep PR for me. I swaggered into the gym feeling pretty good about how things were going to go that day. I worked up to my last warm-up set before taking my working weight… and it wouldn’t go. It was like someone played a joke on me and super glued the bar to the floor.
At this point in my training life, I knew what had happened so it didn’t freak me out too much. I realized that the lifts from the week before had fried me, and my nervous system hadn’t recovered. It also didn’t help that I had a pretty stressful week coming into that training session. The funny thing about the nervous system is that it has a really tough time distinguishing the difference between a one-rep max deadlift and being worried about a loved one. The fight-or-flight response works almost the same in both of these situations.
It doesn’t matter how much protein you had for breakfast or how tough and huge you think your muscles are… the nervous system calls the shots. Anyone who doesn’t believe this has never come face-to-face with it.
This concludes our little five-part series. Mark, I hope I represented your thoughts well. For everyone else, I hope there were some gems here that help with your training as much as they have helped me with mine.
Until next time,
Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached “Team Protocol” to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife, Marie, and dog, Asher.