A few days ago I shared some thoughts on The Twinkie Diet as an exercise in first-principle thinking and noise reduction. One of the main takeaways, I hope, is that there is a great deal of insight in the margins, the stuff we tend to overlook because there either isn’t enough data present, or the data is largely anecdotal.
Well, today I’m going to flip that a bit, and talk about something for which there is significant data, but the conclusions may not be terribly helpful unless YOU are in the margins - either looking for peak mind-body optimization, or having trouble moving the strength & size needle at all, and not much in between.
When I started full time coaching around 15 years ago, at that time focusing on general fitness and martial arts, I wrote a different workout for every client for every strength and conditioning workout. I generally spent an hour thinking, analyzing, scripting.
I had stacks of notebooks filled with training prescriptions and kept records for years. And what did I learn from that, you may ask?
I learned it was largely unnecessary. But it’s quite probable I needed to do that to learn that.
Not the writing of workouts parse, but the writing of unique workouts for the sake of introducing variety and keeping things exciting. I was effective, regardless, but I noticed an important pattern - clients didn’t seem to be learning the causal factors in their growth process.
They couldn’t see the patterns, make sense of modifications, correlate different movements with similar muscle groups, and generally speaking, design their own growth.
I’m not sure if I got old, or tired, or just plain disillusioned with the industry, but it wasn’t until I stopped going for exciting and started telling clients, “No, we’re not changing things. Do the work,” that things really started to shift.
For most people, most of the time, a handful of measurable, compound strength training movements trumps a wider range of movements meant to ‘mix things up’ or ‘shock the body.’ There are a variety of reasons for that, which are beyond my particular focus in this letter.
But suffice it to say, if you aren’t focusing on 3-5 large movements that you track with diligence and repeat often, you probably know very little about your body.
That said, there are fringe tactics, fads, and techniques that are worth considering, assuming the basics are sorted.
Choking your muscles is one of them.
In Weightlessness Training these wouldn’t be introduced before advanced levels of training (or unless someone was truly stuck and had very poor mind-muscle connection). But they’re worth considering, because they teach us something very interesting, if not counterintuitive about the body - deprivation leads to super-supercompensation. (Yup, I meant both supers.)
We’ve all heard ‘surplus for growth’ when it comes to nutrition.
We’re told ‘increase blood flow’ when it comes to general training.
We know to ‘breathe’ when it comes to meditation, stress reduction, and physical conditioning.
But what happens when we say no?
The short answer is we grow faster with a lot less work.
The long answer is it sucks, we suffer more, and we may want to focus on the basics mentioned above, unless…
Unless you’re a curious little creature like I am.
The first and more obvious way of choking your muscles is to literally choke them - wrap them with a band or tie, cutting off blood flow. For biceps training for example, you’d place the band where the biceps / triceps meet the shoulder. And you’d tighten it to a point of discomfort.
This could also be applied for the quads/hamstrings by placing the band just beneath the buttocks around each leg.
The second method of choking your muscles is to stop breathing, and if that offends you, then just breathe less. ALOT less. The easiest way to do this without forcing yourself to, is to train at higher altitudes.
But if you don’t have mountains nearby, shutting your mouth and insisting on nasal breathing only, or worse, literally holding your breath for high-intensity exercises, is the key that unlocks the door of rapid adaptation.
Note: This isn’t ideal for standard limit-strength exercises in the 3-5 rep range (power sets). It works best with efforts that would be considered strength-endurance (12+ reps) or high intensity interval training.
Both of these methods rely on hypoxia - reducing oxygen intake and allowing CO2 levels to rise, which, counterintuitively, signals to your hemoglobin to release more oxygen into muscle cells to produce work.
In training, it feels awful.
Post training, it feels glorious.
The former - blood flow restriction training - has the added benefit of increasing the tension and metabolic stress of specific regions, which results in greater stem cell activation and an in increase in anabolic growth hormones… which results in greater protein metabolism and hypertrophy (growth) of targeted muscles thereafter.
The latter - hypoxic training (or hypoventilation) is a more global approach, but can still target regions of the body that are emphasized, within a bout of breath holding. Think sprinters holding their breath - will produce vastly better stamina in muscles dominating the movement, but is unlikely to make them better punchers, save for general improvements to cardio.
There are risks to this, so it's great to either train with a buddy, or not care if you pass out… because you might pass out. But as long as you don’t break anything, most notably your brain, upon falling, you should be ok, if not better than ok.
You should see a pretty rapid increase in lung capacity, daily energy levels, and power output within your exercises of choice.
Have I and do I practice these?
Should YOU incorporate these types of training?
Probably not… but maybe.
And if you do, here are some things to keep in mind:
Blood flow restriction training arose as a clinical solution to help people rehab who were unable to manage high intensity work or heavier weights. The great thing about this type of training is you get to work with lighter weights - think weights you could normally do in excess of 10-12 reps, if not 20 reps+.
The bad news is it forces a stronger contraction and more lactate buildup… so it burns like hell, and you’ve got to work through it.
Normally I’m a sets and reps guy, with a focus on heavier efforts. But here you can largely disregard those structures and focus on mind-muscle connection and deep, quality reps. And when it starts to burn… THEN you start counting. You’ll know when productive work ends, as the muscles will fail after 6-10 sets. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This can aid in breaching size and stamina plateaus in targeted muscle groups, but won’t help much with limit strength, compound movements like your max effort deadlift. So pick your battles wisely.
When implementing hypoxic training, train with a friend until you’ve gained some confidence to manage what happens to all of us at first - bouts of lightheadedness bordering on fainting, and the sensation you can’t breathe / get enough air in, which is unpleasant.
Note: You’ve got enough oxygen. Of those autonomic bodily functions that can be relied upon, oxygen regulation is an incredibly trustworthy and buttoned-up process. What fluctuates is carbon dioxide, and when those levels rise, you’ll feel like you’re suffocating.
But you’re not.
While you feel like you’re dying, two awesome things happen. Chemoreceptors in the brain stem that read and regulate CO2 levels will become desensitized over time, allowing you to tolerate higher levels of CO2 and acidity in the blood. Those elevated CO2 levels will allow you to produce a lot more work with less oxygen - i.e. dramatically increases stamina by signaling the release of more oxygen from hemoglobin to produce more ATP (energy).
Think free divers. Think sherpas on Everest.
The rest of us need oxygen tanks… but we can learn.
These are obviously not recommended to most people most of the time, but especially to those prone to panic or anxiety… as it can induce those symptoms. It can, and has been, also be used as treatment for those conditions - if one knows the feeling of panic is purely mechanical and intentionally activated, then they’re able to practice facing it. This knowledge and felt sense transfers.
Ok, if you’re still with me, you’re likely wondering why I’m talking about this if I’m not also recommending it. As usual, it contains insights that may be of benefit independently of choking your muscles.
The first is this - balance is fine for those in search of average. But in seeking a life of balance, you design a mind-body that’s exceedingly fragile. You have 200,000 years of history in your DNA that has survived the worst this planet has thrown at it, and you’re alive and well and reading this. You have a history of hominid evolution that is 20 times longer still.
You’ve been imbued with awesome systems that don’t merely compensate to stress, but supercompensate, and with remarkable intelligence and speed. When you give your DNA a little tap over the ledge, it doesn’t fall.
The second is that when the mind-body is depleted of essential resources, it doesn’t merely balance, it overcorrects. When you under-eat for windows exceeding 24 hours, your body does begin to eat itself (in a loving way). But it also triggers compensatory hormones - anabolic hormones - that, when calories are again present and ample, accelerate the rate of reconstruction and muscle gain.
Breathing more raises oxygen saturation temporarily.
Breathing much less is how to tap in and actually use it…
…and it increases strength, speed of recovery, rate of healing, intelligence, and a host of other absurd super-qualities when practiced over time.
Disclaimer: as a general rule of training, don’t be a dumbass. Be safe out there. But fly.