One of the most exciting things about mind-body / performance coaching is witnessing clients and trainees make extraordinary progress. I’m currently working with someone who fits that bill. Training modalities and skills that would have been out of reach for her just a year ago have become the focal point of training and topic of deep conversation.
In My Top 18 Faults Inhibiting Peak Performance I discussed the critical importance of taking action, and not to underestimate the importance for those starting out, or those who were once at a high level and have fallen off the path, to simply get started.
Take that first step, even if it’s ten steps behind where you feel you belong.
The greatest challenge to motivation is perceiving the very real gap between where you are and where you want to be. People are rarely frightened of taking steps they’re certain they can take. And this is not a problem of self-doubt, its a very real gap in capacity.
Someone at level one, let’s say, who desires to perform at level three, cannot effectively train at that level today - in either quality or intensity of work. Their mind-body hardware isn’t prepared for it. And while it isn’t as sexy, level two is achievable within a short period of time, and it’s in the accessing of capacities and skills at level two that make the leap to three a plausible reality.
That may seem rudimentary, but even highly intelligent people sabotage their progress because they cannot make the leap to level three today (let alone to Lightness). I’ve even had clients say they couldn’t reach level three, so why put the effort in when they’re only at level one?
To which I replied, “Because you can get to level two! So get there. Moving the needle in the right direction is extremely meaningful. And from there we’ll see what’s possible!”
I mention that to qualify what’s about to follow, as these concepts and their application may be out of reach (currently) for some of you. But I’m writing this in a general letter rather than a ridiculously long private text message for two reasons.
The first is that it’s very easy to lose site of the WHY when you’re immersed in the WHAT. Most people lose track of grand potential and get stuck in the weeds of execution. This is fine sometimes, you can still grow that way. But you won’t activate deep potentials without looking up from rowing your boat to spot the lighthouse.
The second reason is that you may not even be aware there’s a lighthouse, and seeing it for the first time can help reframe every effort and intention you place on foundations today. In the same way that I couldn’t appreciate the technical details of a turning kick until I had to add a jump to it, and then a jump spin, and then a 540 degree jump spin, so too can opening yourself to what’s possible make the basics, and their technical details, that much more meaningful.
While we could look to elite feats of strength like the planche or iron cross as possible symbols of Lightness level skills, in truth, it’s the mind-body connection and control that those feats represent that is truer to the spirit of Lightness. And that has more to do with the level of one’s awareness under stress than it does demonstrations of limit strength.
The skill to design conscious, weightless moments IS THE LIGHTHOUSE.
Lifting heavy weights or performing impressive calisthenics feats are merely facilitators of that experience.
At earlier stages of training (The Weightlessness Spectrum) these attributes are isolated and trained independently. This is one of the reasons Weightlessness expedites mind-body development in a possible 1:4 ratio compared to classical mind-body approaches that don’t isolate these factors, and that coat them with dogmatic and superfluous movement.
To quickly acknowledge primary tenets of effective strength training (and muscle hypertrophy) that don’t stop being true, even if we progress to Lightness-centric strength training:
- Progressive overload: Gradually increasing the amount of weight lifted, the number of repetitions performed, or the level of intensity of the exercise over time.
- Specificity: Performing exercises that are specific to the muscle groups and movements that an individual wants to improve.
- Recovery: Allowing the muscles time to recover and repair after exercise. Exercise is a destructive catalyst. The body heals and super-compensates during rest.
- Adequate Nutrition: Sufficient calorie intake, macro/micro nutrient profiles (including sufficient protein), and a healthy gut microbiome are all essential raw materials of tissue repair and creation, let alone ongoing, daily energy.
There’s more that could be listed here, but deeply understanding these four will get somebody 85+ percent of the way. Other important factors that can contribute to strength training and muscle building include proper form / technique (mechanical advantage that allows for heavy loads, safely), cadence, consistency, and variety in exercises to prevent plateaus and overuse.
With that said, let’s get to the juicy bits, and the topic of this letter. Let’s assume you’ve cleared the Weightlessness Spectrum key metrics for the pillars of strength, flexibility, and meditation, and are ready to undertake Lightness Protocols. How does strength training change at this level of training, and why?
[For reference, a few of those key metrics:
-1km run in under 4 minutes
-Loaded Deep Squat (ass to heels) - 20kgs for 10 reps with rest pauses
-10 Breaths Lasting 8 Minutes or More]
Lightness is the mergence of stress and sensitivity, not just in principle, but in practice. It’s the dynamic application of principles mastered throughout the Weightlessness Spectrum.
Where one might learn to generate sufficient tension to align their structural frame against gravity in standing meditation, and at the same time release unneeded tensions that inhibit sensitivity - embodying the tensional forces and balance of an anchored buoy - breathing from the abdomen and activating global awareness, in Lightness Training one must learn to do that while running and leaping.
It’s hard to do… very hard.
Which is why preliminary training along the W Spectrum trains each pillar in a focused, isolated manner. It requires a substantial foundation before one can effectively enliven the senses under pressure or stress - because sensitivity requires relaxation (or at least minimal tension), while strength - the underlying capacity for grit - is born of tension and structural development.
They’re antithetical skills, each inhibiting the other… initially.
Now, before we get into the new rules of strength training a la Lightness, let’s discuss a few of the lesser known principles that lead to the conclusions / rules I’m going to leave you with. This stuff is pretty cool.
The Problem of Speed (or Volatility)
This principle is so obvious it may be easy to overlook, so we’re hitting it first. Imagine taking a test in school on a subject you’re still struggling with. Imagine sprinting at top speed. What does that intensity (or pressure) do to the mind in either case?
Is it easy to remain conscious of the depth and location of your breath? Are you aware of stimulus in your periphery - sounds, movements, etc? Or are you zeroed in on the task at hand, all available resources allocated to one focused end?
Hopefully you can benchmark this against personal experience, and come to the conclusion - it requires more focus to execute high-stress tasks, and it makes awareness for more challenging.
Meditation is mostly practiced seated (outside of Weightlessness Training and classical qigong) for this very reason. Movement must be minimized, or removed altogether, so that mind can more easily access visceral and environmental information - sensation. As soon as movement is introduced, attention is strained, forced to choose between a narrowing, or focusing on the task at hand, and a receptive, open state of experience that softens focus and releases tension.
It takes tremendous training to remain sensitive and aware while adding volatility and speed. Hence, walking meditation.
A Lesson From Walking Meditation
Walking meditation isn’t the only form of moving meditation. Yoga asanas, Tai Qi, and various forms of qigong exemplify awareness in motion. And what you’ll notice about both is they’re slow, and often incorporate postural holds.
Why? Because the mind isn’t good at doing things and also feeling things.
Walking meditation is another classical version of mindfulness meditation. Generally, the walking is very slow, laboriously slow, so that minute details and subtleties of coordination can sing through. Awareness of breath, physical structure and balance, tension that needs to be released, environmental stimuli, and the ever present risk of flowing thought and mental chatter, are all observed fastidiously in walking meditation.
Activating various muscles as and when they’re relevant to step, balance, or pivot, allows the mind to more readily associate sensations with action, and ‘feel through’ rather than getting ‘lost to.’
In a way, a bit of movement provides an anchor for the mind, and it makes mundane tasks alive again - experiences for their own sakes.
The slow mechanics of walking allow the mind to feel the nuances in stride, subtle shifts in balance, and very targeted muscles and joints responsible for that motion. In turn, this increases mind-body (mind-muscle) connection, as neural pathways are activated and refined, better able to activate the specific motor units necessary to produce the movement (in this case, walking). Keep this in mind as we hit the new rules for strength training below.
Your Inner Homunculus
The homunculus principle, also known as the motor and sensory homunculus, is a neurological concept that describes the organization of the human brain's motor and sensory areas in a distorted representation of the body. In this representation, body parts that require more precise or complex motor control or have more sensory receptors, such as the hands or mouth, are represented as larger areas in the brain's cortex.
This isn’t just conceptual, the brain actually allocates more real estate for movements and sensory experiences that are highly practiced. There’s no way around using the hands to type, touch and grab, or the mouth to eat, and as such, each has a distorted allocation on your inner homunculus.
The homunculus principle is relevant to mind-muscle connection because it helps to explain why some muscles may be more difficult to activate or focus on than others. Muscles that are represented in larger areas of the brain's motor cortex, such as those in the hands or mouth, may be easier to activate and have a stronger mind-muscle connection because they have more neural resources dedicated to them.
These neural resources, while possibly being of genetic predisposition, are plastic and malleable. PRACTICE strengthens those allocations or resources, or loosens bonds of lesser valued habits.
In contrast, muscles that are represented in smaller areas of the motor cortex may be more challenging to activate and have a weaker mind-muscle connection because they have fewer neural resources dedicated to them. And so we have a bit of a Catch 22.
A Catch 22
Mind-body connection is required to build the body, yet building the body is a prerequisite for (the brain development required for) mind-body connection.
Movement changes the brain.
Specific movements repeated result in the development of "motor engrams," - neural pathways that are activated during specific movements.
As individuals continue to train and practice a specific movement, the motor engrams associated with that movement become more refined and efficient. This leads to greater neural activation of the targeted muscles, as the brain becomes better able to activate the specific motor units necessary to produce the movement.
Movement pattern leads to mental awareness and control leads to better movement pattern.
So there’s no way to develop those regions of the brain responsible for activating relevant motor units for a given movement without doing that movement a lot. And the degree of motor unit recruitment and the quality of movement, at least in part, relies on those regions of the brain actively (consciously) signaling for work to be done.
Where at beginner and intermediate levels one ought to emphasize the first portion of this paradox - the need for a lot of repetition of meaningful movement - that equation can drift more toward mind-dictated, sensitivity based muscle engagement at higher levels of training.
In terms of strength training, that means practicing the five vectors with improving form and increasing loads at early stages of training, and later, throwing away formality and ‘feeling’ your way through a workout, without compromising intensity. This may even include high-rep calisthenics training, so long as you follow the New Rules of Training below.
The homunculus principle above teaches us that the brain of a beginner isn’t yet primed for awareness under pressure, and must first refine the motor engrams responsible for those movements. As time passes and mind-maps grow in refinement, movement, and the motor control therein, can be a living conversation, and sensitivity can coexist with effort.
Marrying Stress & Sensitivity
What I’ve tried to do in this article is demonstrate that mind-body disconnect is not a conceptual problem, but a problem born of a lack of neurological development. What I also hope I’ve demonstrated is that movement, while not absolutely essential (visualization can generate similar neural pathways), is mostly essential for cultivating a mind that can feel and flourish amidst uncertainty and stress (strength training being a proxy for real world stress).
Conscious presence isn’t as simple as paying greater attention more often. The capacity for awareness, as we’ve just discussed, isn’t static, but is something that must be molded into your mind-body hardware, and mapped by your inner homunculus.
Add to that layers of complexity that come from volatility (or speed) in your environment and the ever present risk of stress-triggers, which can have a numbing effect on the senses, and you’ve got a perfect assault on mind-body connection and conscious awareness.
But we’ve identified at least one path back to a unified mind-body, and that is conscientious, present, strength training. Not the balls-to-the-walls Metallica-infused max effort deadlift, where space for only one thought exists - move the damn weight. No, we’ve discovered that mindful movement, even in the context of resistance training, is how we unlock Lightness-level strength - where the mind is fully alive and present in the body, even under stress.
The New Rules for Advanced Strength Training
Inside-Out, Rather Than Outside-In
When most people move weights, attention is placed on the doing, on the moving. Through sound biomechanics and sufficient load, strength and hypertrophy follow. But with heightening mind-body (mind-muscle) connection and conscious attention, more motor units can be activated without the need for as much external load. Your mind can make up the difference in muscle fiber recruitment, directing the effort to specific muscles groups, and forcing equally intense contractions.
This means tools / techniques and external loads take a back seat to quality of attention placed for purpose.
Pay more attention to movements and loads that facilitate deep connection and contraction, over objective data, even if it means compromising on strong technical form.
Experts adhere to the rules better than the rest. Masters know when to break them.
Techniques and exercises are tools that facilitate structural development and muscular engagement. As you become more connected to various muscles and the mechanics needed to engage them, you can abandon techniques in the formal sense, and mold your body against your environment as needed.
Movements traditionally considered ‘cheating’ or ‘bad technique’ can find valid homes within your new approach, as they were only ever training wheels. Within every exercise, you can look within, and ask, ‘which angle, what range, how much resistance, allows me the strongest mind-body connection and muscular contraction today?’
Steer stress toward specific muscles with your mind, recruiting different agonists even within the very same compound movement. Can you use the form of a pushup to mentally drive tension to pecs over triceps, triceps over deltoids, deltoids over pecs?
From the outside-in, the form looks the same. From the inside, a world of difference plays out in specific, mentally-targeted efforts.
Volume, like formality (tool selection), is a way to measure effective work. But without accompanying intensity, tension, and fiber recruitment, a number is just a number. A great reframe, rather than ask how many you can do, is to ask how fast can you fail?
Failure here doesn’t mean quitting. It means connecting, efforting, and striving for more with mind surveying and scanning the muscles involved for every last bit of energy. The more motor units you can activate, and muscle fibers you can recruit, the greater the tension, and therefore the intensity, of the effort.
Don’t save energy and postpone muscular and CNS failure. Fail faster, and teach your system to process higher levels of intensity / stress.
Intensity Should Not Exceed Embodied Awareness
This one is tricky. Transitioning into this type of training may mean a reduction in load and intensity for a time, for the reasons we discussed above.
Intensity and awareness are inversely related. So in transitioning from metrics based, quantitive training to more qualitative, sensitivity based training a la Lightness, one must be sensitive within each effort to their own levels of awareness as it relates to intensity / load.
If you’re lifting so heavy that global (or even local in the case of an isolation exercise) awareness isn’t possible, the weight is too heavy, or there is too much movement (volatility or speed) in the exercise. With practice (months to years), near full intensity can be realized without compromising awareness and mind-body connection.
This is Lightness.
Pavel Tsatsouline, the Russian strength coach said it best, “Train as often as you can, as fresh as you can.”
There’s an inverse relationship between intensity and frequency (as well as intensity and volume). The greater the intensity of a workout, the more rest is needed for recovery.
These are not absolute values, but must be studied as you grow. Priority throughout the conditioning and performance phases of training (The Weightlessness Spectrum) should be oriented around intensity. Which is to say, it does no use for you to train sore and fatigued and compromise on the next sessions' output.
Training and rest should be structured in a way that optimizes output on training days, and volume adjusted so your system is taxed only enough to stimulate growth, but not require additional days off. In the beginning, this is an impossible objective. But one can usually clear the phase of extreme soreness after weeks of proper training.
In Lightness, however, we must qualify that further, and remind that the purpose of training is preparation, it’s not an end in itself. But preparation for what?
What’s the point of training if the other 23 hours a day you feel fatigued and sore? What’s the point of training if you can’t train a body part for five days, let alone walk properly in the meantime?
These are compromises we accept at the earlier stages of training to upgrade the machine. But as an advanced trainee, you should be acutely sensitive to that line between doing what’s required to stimulate, maintain, or grow, and deep energy drain that leads to days of sub par focus, strength, and performance. (I discuss this point in greater detail in The Warrior Training Arc: Acheiving More With Less Strength Training)
Weightlessness Training isn’t about that hour in the gym, it’s about the other 23.
Prioritize the other 23. And…