Ballistic weight training, for the uninitiated, is the performance of explosive movements with added weight, generally to the wrists (boxing), ankles (running and leaping), and torso (any madness you can imagine). This may also include explosive movements via conventional lifts with traditional weights, kettlebells, or bands.
While many training modalities from gymnastics to martial arts to track and field to dance incorporate this practice in some form, Weightlessness Training relegates it to advanced Lightness Training protocols, along with high-tension strength training, dynamic stretching, and qigong.
This is a fascinating and deep practice with many nuances and benefits. And while I covered some of the technical elements of the practice in The Essence of Lightness, I didn't go into great detail as to the WHY of it - why does it deserve a critical seat at the table with only three other pillars of training?
Most people are motivated by the benefits to speed and power. And while these are awesome, and I do believe Weightlessness is the best approach for their development, that's not why we do it. The weight, at higher levels of strength and sensitivity, becomes your teacher, and one of the greatest tools for improving global (embodied) awareness under pressure.
Take an awesome journey with me.
An Obvious Starting Point
When I was 12 or so, and had my first weight training in junior high gym class, there was always that guy that had you bench as much as you could, and afterwards, pump your arms in the air as if still pushing the bar.
My arms felt weightless, light as a feather. It creates a laughably freeing experience that is quite puzzling at first, but which nonetheless sticks with you.
A couple years later I added weights to my ankles during solo martial arts practice. A similar experience manifested when I removed the weights. Movement felt easier, kicks felt lighter. And before long, my speed increased substantially.
Anyone who’s ever trained can understand this contrast - from weighted effort to unencumbered movement, and the sense of freedom it generates. And while this is a byproduct of ballistic weight training a la Weightlessness, it’s also where the uninitiated make the biggest mistakes.
Lightness Training isn’t a mindless process of adding weight to the torso and limbs. It’s a process of mind-body connection and global, conscious awareness… if trained properly.
The Anchored Buoy | The Dynamic Application of Static Principles
I’ve said for years that meditation is the beginning and the end of Weightlessness Training (and Lightness Training, for that matter). And this reminder is critical in the category of ballistic weight training, which ought to be, if done properly, moving meditation. More on that shortly.
First we need to cover what it is about standing meditation that has any relevance for ballistic weight training.
Much can be said about this practice, but for our purposes here we’re going to look at two dynamics in particular - the development of structure and the release of tension.
These are the composite parts of what I call ‘anchored buoy practice’ within standing meditation, and the very static principles that ballistic weight training converts to dynamic skill.
You’ve seen a buoy, bobbing, floating, weightless in its own right. But it's not entirely free. It’s anchored to the bottom of the ocean, a force that generates an internal tension - stabilizing and grounding the floating buoy - while the buoy generates an internal tension that elongates the tether.
The embodiment of this visual requires the adding of structural integrity (alignment against the force of gravity) that generates a rising force in the body, and the release of tension, which generates a sinking force, and roots one to the earth. Let’s look at each individually.
Jenga | A Child’s Game, A Master’s Practice
Jenga had its place in everyone’s childhood game time. The removal of structural blocks from a tower, while simultaneously adding those removed blocks to the top, until it tumbles. This is an exercise in balance and structural development against the force of gravity. The better one balances, the less the force of gravity impacts the structure.
And this is the critical, preliminary stage of standing meditation. For one to truly eliminate tension and stress (strain) from the body, one must remove the need for tension or strain from the body. The constant, external force acting on the body is gravity. The poorer one’s symmetrical ‘stacking’, the more tension one must generate in order to keep from collapsing on the ground.
Imagine a Jenga tower getting taller and taller and beginning to sway. That’s the point at which the structural integrity of the tower is insufficient to resist gravity. Generating physical tension due to poor alignment in the body is like adding external angle supports meant to prevent toppling, but which don’t, in the end, improve internal structure. Nor do they prevent the need for more supports as the tower continues to grow in height.
We see the literal representation of this when injured or elderly people use walking canes. Adding legs is cheating.
But, let’s say that we can gain some modicum of competence in structural alignment, now what?
Evolving States of Non-Tension
Now we’ve removed the need for tensions generated in the mind-body that serve no purpose but prevent the collapse of our Jenga tower. The face is able to relax. The shoulders are able to drop. The abdomen is able to loosen, and the diaphragm, rather than chest, takes over as air pump. And the hips sink away from the spine, away from the floating buoy that is your head.
You learn to release and relax.
And within that evolving state of non-tension, you feel things that you weren’t aware you could. Movements and sensations within and without begin to come alive. You even feel the ground beneath you, connected, rooted.
Embodied awareness surfaces, and with it, awareness of subtle energies that comprise the practices of qigong.
Embodied Awareness | The Magical Byproduct of Structure and Relaxation
The deadlift, quintessential power move that represents near 100% power capacity of human biomechanics, is an exercise in structural development. Anyone who has lifted close to their limits can attest, in the moment of the lift, there is no space for anything but ‘move the damn weight.’ The body does not feel. The mind does not sense.
There’s an inverse relationship between tension and awareness. And when we near maximum systemic tension, as in the deadlift, awareness is a nonstarter. And as we discussed above, your Jenga frame must generate tension if your structural alignment is off kilter, by even a little bit. Once those misalignments are rectified, tensions can be abandoned without a loss of structure.
It's important to note here that a max effort deadlift is extreme, but it's not categorically different than generating muscular tension to compensate for poor structural alignment. These are of the same family. But the farther away from systemic tension we move along the spectrum, from the deadlift to poor posture to exceptional standing structure...
...Something magical happens. You feel things you didn’t feel before. You sense things. You see things. Fleeting moments you previously tried to pass become eternal, delicate, meaningful.
The mind comes alive in the body.
Now it’s time to start moving.
A Man and His Bull | The Long Game
The deep practice of ballistic weight training, a la Weightlessness Training, is one of adding imperceptible resistances over time to global movements, while prioritizing awareness. This is a difficult balance to strike, and so must be approached slowly over long periods of time.
In legendary Qing Gong (Lightness Training), this was a practice undertaken only after 10 years of physical conditioning, and it was a process that lasted three years. Whether or not any such constraints are necessary, the framework is extremely insightful.
We know we don’t need that level of commitment to dramatically increase speed and power. Athletes of all kinds strap themselves up with weights and power through excruciating workouts that do deliver physical sensations of lightness.
But where’s the mind?
Is consciousness embodied in those moments, or are they exacerbating the mind-body problem, with a central computer signaling to a dumb body to move this way and that?
As we discussed in Lightness-Level Strength Training, speed is a problem for conscious awareness. So is intensity. When either factor increases, conscious awareness - awareness of physical and visceral sensation and the flow of subtle energies in the body, plummets.
Adding resistance to the limbs, generally placed at the extremities (ankles and wrists) adds much more resistance than the face value of that weight when it’s placed at center mass. It’s very easy to overlook the impact of adding weight on conscious awareness, because the body can manage a fair increase in weight without too much physical risk.
But to extract maximum mind-body payoff, not just for physical performance, but also embodied awareness and mind-body control, a long-game approach is the only approach. Weight ought only be added after the anchored buoy is achieved in running without weight, and then, increased very slowly over time.
Milo of Croton was famed for his extraordinary strength. He acquired it, as legend has it, by carrying a calf from the field every day. As the calf grew, becoming imperceptibly heavier day to day, Milo’s body adapted to compensate for the additional weight, until the calf became a bull.
When growth is accelerated and results are expected in a short time, big shifts are indeed possible. This is the scope of The Weightlessness Spectrum. But the depths to which the mind-body can be cultivated requires conscientious practice over a long period of time. While someone can perhaps reach 80 percent of their performance potential in a couple years, it may take another ten years to squeeze out another 5-10%.
Most people aren’t in it for the long haul, or accessing deep potentials. But for those who are, this is an indispensable framework for managing expectations and efforts. For not only does speed and intensity retard the process of conscious embodiment, it also leads to excess tensions that impede the elasticity of soft tissue.
An Irishman Bounces Down the Hill
About 20 years ago I travelled through Ireland with a couple close friends, friends who had a good bit of experience in the country already. One of our most memorable stops was visiting Little Liam in County Donegal. Little Liam was… little. In fact, most of the people in his village were little, around 5’ on average, I’d have to guess.
He was an eccentric and brilliant character, thoughtfully navigating a world moving too fast for a small town guy. We all went hiking one afternoon, and Little Liam in his black trench coat and leather boots seemed to speed ahead of us all. We were young, athletic, fit, and we had a hard time keeping up. But it was his descent the really stuck with me.
He sprang down the mountain like his joints were made of rubber. Granted, he was smaller and lighter than the rest of us, but his technique, or lack thereof, was also very different. It was like every bounce absorbed the impact and converted it perfectly into a spring. He wasn’t a strong guy, and it wasn’t strength. He was relaxed. It was elasticity.
In the same way a scrawny frame can chuck a baseball at lightning speeds through the relaxed recoil and snap of the arm, so too can every joint be conditioned to prioritize elastic energy expression over muscular force. But for this to occur, one must not assimilate more tension that absolutely necessary.
And when one adds more weight to the torso and limbs than they can seamlessly manage, excess tensions are generated.
Dynamic flexibility in particular enlivens this skill, but ballistic weight training, if progressed slowly over a long period of time, deeply conditions the elasticity of tendons and ligaments, and at weights/resistances that exceed one’s bodyweight. This interplay, between these two pillars, is what makes the body bulletproof and unbreakable.
But if training accelerates too quickly, while muscles adapt in weeks to months, tendons and ligaments require months to years. So you’re always at risk of joint pain and injury without sufficient time to adapt. Hence the ten year physical foundation in legendary Qing Gong, and the three year progressive adding of weight.
One way is to be born small and weigh little. Not much tensional strength of connective tissue is required. The other way is to live in the body of someone much heavier, and acquire the tensional resilience and elastic capacities of a little Irishman.
"Tai Chi is for the Infantry, Baji is for the Generals"
Moving really slow is the same as moving really fast with weight… or at least close enough, when accounting for force vectors.
In my first trip to China I explored a bit of Tai chi. I also explored a lesser known art called Baji, that has a reputation of being the Yang to Tai chi's Yin. These arts have similar roots, and similar mechanics. But the training approach is vastly different. Where one might say, after initial conditioning is sorted, Tai chi is somewhat pleasurable - relaxing, energy enhancing.
Baji never got there. Where the slow movements of Tai chi can be tedious, the static holds of Baji were downright torturous. Positions were often held for 5 minutes or more. With sessions lasting about an hour, twice a day, every part of the body screams for release. It’s an altogether different kind of pain, and the mind does some crazy things in those minutes.
I bring this up because similar adaptations happen to the body when one is practicing ballistic weight training as when practicing slow moving, or no moving arts. When speed (momentum) is reduced, the limbs, by default, become heavier. A slow moving Tai chi strike will, in the beginning, feel as heavy as a weighted punch at faster speeds. Your body doesn’t know the difference.
Similarly, in the beginning, the body generates tension to control slow movement and/or static holds (as in horse stance / isometric training). Over time and adaptation, real Tai chi (translated as the grand ultimate, or ultimate skill), is effortless movement with no tension at all. See any similarities here?
Most don’t understand this about Tai chi, but it was once considered the most lethal of arts because of the blinding speed it’s training methods generated.
Speed from slow, relaxed movement?
Yuppers. Speed is a byproduct of coordination - the flowing wave of tension and relaxation that forms movement. As you move slowly, or not at all, your mind has nowhere to go but make intimate connection with points of tension that inhibit free movement and perhaps even lead to burning pain.
At first, it is what it is. Eventually, the mind can dissect and eliminate those impediments to movement, and the result is blinding speed WITH CONSCIOUS AWARENESS. This is a process that takes decades in Tai chi. Ballistic weight training a la Weightlessness achieves the same outcome in months to years. But to do so, the weight must be your teacher.
The Final Lesson: Let the Weight be Your Teacher
This is the hardest principle of all, as it’s not one embodied by effort, but by nonresistance.
For the weight to teach you what it can, there must be no independent will fighting for growth or gains. This is a paradox that exists in principle, always, because why train if not to improve?
But it’s not a paradox that exists in practice, in those moments where mind is fully immersed in physical movement, and the mind-body is alive with sensitivity. As we discussed above, if weight exceeds one’s capacity for awareness, this whole model breaks down.
BUT! If one takes the time to do it right, to condition the body to move with greater ease, and the mind to perceive more of one’s experience, then there is space for a teacher of a different kind - one that doesn’t care about technique or model or approach, but which reveals every gap in awareness, and every encumbrance to seamless movement.
Where Wim Hof, the Ice Man, has claimed the cold is the ultimate teacher, it’ll teach you how to breathe, in Weightlessness we might say the weight is the ultimate teacher, it’ll teach you how to feel.
Somatic Competence and Hippie Sensitivities Revisited
On philosophical explorations of performance I think it’s always important ground the conversation by coming back down to earth with samples that draw universal relevance. Ballistic weight training can be considered an advanced, if not elite practice, but that doesn’t mean the insights it bears are not valuable for all of us at all times.
In Respect the Cane we looked at mind-body deterioration and somatic coaching - somatic faults revealed through cane evasion practice, and a hippie I got in a fight with. One of the core insights of that practice is that all things, including your mind-body, break down under volatility. When stress elevates, who you believe yourself to be, shifts dramatically. And your higher self, the self you’d like to be most of the time, disappears for a bit while the beast comes out of the cage.
One of the prerequisites of somatic experiencing is… experiencing. Is feeling, sensing, experiencing more of your present experience, and in particular, feeling more of and through the body. When stress elevates, literal tensions rise, akin to off kilter Jenga posture. At such times, your structure deteriorates, your stress hormones elevate, and your prefrontal cortex shuts down (your rational mind) and your fight or flight impulses take over.
These are happenings that all coaches and mind-body aficionados are well aware of. But the lessons of the cane and ballistic weight training are often overlooked. Movement (volatility) changes the game. Somatic competence in dynamic situations isn’t the same as somatic competence under calm, controlled settings. Your psychobiology isn't the same.
The cane reveals somatic faults and mind-body deterioration in real time. Ballistic weight training reveals to the conscious mind tensions and encumbrances that impede relaxed, fluid movement, and therefore impede sensitivity and embodied awareness.
You’re already training at speed, under pressure, and enlivening the senses throughout. These are skills that transfer to real life under less than ideal circumstances. The masters of Lightness retains mind-body control, even when the clouds are forming. But to do so…
...They must listen to the weight.
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