Feed Forward vs. Feedback
At QKB we do things a certain way. In my opinion, what we do is unique. It's unique because we prioritise two things above everything else. The first thing that we think is crazily important is a positive community because community makes hitting your goals easier, more fun, and makes mental health a little easier. The second thing that we place a super high value on is sustainable, effective training. This is the sort of training that delivers outcomes but in such a way that you are exposed to very little risk of hurting your body. It is because of this that we have developed a very specific process that allows people to learn with maximum safety while still prioritising quality movement for the long term.
Feed Forward Tension
When a new client (we’ll call him Joe) walks into the gym for the first time, we take a look at how he moves and make sure that we're the right place for him right now. We do some things to improve his movement and then we begin to give him weights to use (because ultimately, for quality of life, you want to be able to do whatever life throws at you whether it's just moving your body or whether there is something you want to carry - like shopping or a child...). At this point, we employ two separate techniques to help to protect his body.
The first technique we employ is feed-forward tension. This is a fancy way of saying that we get Joe to tighten his muscles before he starts lifting the weight. This means that the right musculature does the job and that even if he hasn't been moving well for a long time, he's ensuring that he doesn't compensate with the wrong muscles. This is important because it allows him to start to lift the weight with the lowest possible risk of hurting himself, and it ensures that his body starts to understand what it needs to do in these positions to move safely and efficiently.
The second technique that we like to employ is power breathing. Power breathing is useful for a few reasons: 1. It stabilises the spine by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. 2. It increases our ability to generate power (it's rather cleverly named some might say...), and 3. It encourages people to use their diaphragm which is important for long-term physical and emotional health (although it's not the most effective way of using the diaphragm; more on that soon...).
Imagine for a second that your spine is a pool noodle. It's not incredibly stable compared to a steel rod, and if you try and balance a lot of weight on it, it's probably going to struggle for stability. Imagine again the same pool noodle, but this time, imagine a giant blood pressure measuring cuff wrapped around the pool noodle from top to bottom and then inflated a decent amount. Would the second pool noodle be more resilient? Our breathing creates a pressure around our spine that protects it and provides stability for our incredibly important spine and spinal cord apparatus. This makes us stronger, more stable all over, and much safer. In a perfect world, you would do this reflexively, but when we are learning, who wants to take a chance?
The second benefit of power breathing is seen most obviously in a karate master's kime as he hits, or in Maria Sharapova's scream as she hits the tennis ball. In both instances, the practitioners are swiftly creating greater midsection stability in order to generate more force. This happens because the person is able to go from a relaxed state to a tight state at the speed of their exhalation, meaning that they automatically tighten most of the relevant musculature without having to think about it.
So power breathing can be applied both quickly and slowly in order to get positive effects for our ballistics (swings, snatches, explosive movements) and grinds (presses, squats, turkish get-ups, slower movements).
Feedback Tension / Reflexive Stability
We don't want to rely on these techniques forever though. Ultimately, people will be most resilient when their body is adept at generating enough tension reflexively to deal with whatever life throws at them. This might be when they slip on wet ground and their body automatically catches them by tightening all the right points to regain balance. Or it might be when someone bumps into you or almost bumps into you and you're able to adjust, compensate and keep on going without worrying about it. These are examples of having great reflexive strength - a critical skill for ongoing quality of life. At its most basic level, our reflexive strength, when tied to a healthy vestibular system, is responsible for us being able to walk on uneven surfaces and change direction without having to consciously stop and compensate for every undulation of the ground.
For people who have developed a solid understanding of feed forward tension and power breathing, we start to focus on developing feedback tension (or reflexive strength) and strong diaphragmatic breathing. These have a myriad of benefits including greater longevity, the ability to respond appropriately to a variety of situations, diminished stress, and much greater day to day resilience.
Developing our reflexive strength allows us to perform movements more beautifully with less thought. Good reflexive strength allows our body to do things in the right order, and with just the right amount of tension and effort to perform an action, meaning greater efficiency, and usually, better outcomes. Without this reflexive strength, we see people picking things up with terrible posture, using stabilising muscles to do the prime movers’ job, and just generally moving in ways that aren't very nice and don't feel really good.
How do we develop this reflexive strength (and a healthy vestibular system and diaphragm)? We use the breathing, rocking, nodding, rolling, and cross crawls taught in the Original Strength system. These movements help to re-establish the foundational patterns that undergird all the movements that we do day to day. Gray Cook sometimes talks about the idea that the patterns we learn first are the patterns that we lose first, and logically, if these are the patterns that our other movements develop out of, then this is going to have a severe negative impact upon our quality of movement, resulting in severely compromised reflexive strength...
Which brings us back to the point; while we are establishing safe patterns in our movements with feed forward tension, we are proactively developing people's reflexive strength so that their feedback response is becoming more and more appropriate. Eventually, they'll be able to perform movements with less deliberate tension and start to employ adequate tension automatically for the task at hand.
A key component of this feedback response is breathing diaphragmatically. Breathing diaphragmatically helps us to respond from a calm, centered, strong place with a solid, supportive midsection. The opposite of this is to breathe using your accessory muscles. These are your fight or flight muscles and tend to encourage a stress response that is neither useful for learning new information nor positive for performing strength movements.
Maximal Lifts / Exceptional Applications
The final application of these ideas, again seen in the bracing, deliberate application of muscular tension and powerful breathing is used for maximal lifts. If someone is about to lift a heavy load, something that is approaching their maximum capacity, then we want them to minimise the possibility of something going wrong. By returning to the techniques that they were taught initially, people are able to take their newfound reflexive stability and then apply rocket boosters to it in order to create a fertile environment to apply maximal force safely.
We love reflexive stability because it undergirds our activities everyday, allowing us to do things better, and with less mental and physical effort. A maximal effort though, is something that we don’t want to take a chance on. You never see an elite lifter do something without preparing themselves mentally, and that’s because they want to maximise the power output through any means necessary, not surprisingly, those are the techniques that we apply.
Pavel Tsatsouline was famously described by the famous Louis Simmons as having reverse engineered the things that elite athletes do automatically so that they became accessible to regular folk. His system, initially the RKC, and now Strongfirst, has been refined across the years through Pavel’s learnings, as well as with input from strength legends who have passed through the system. It’s the StrongFirst system that we use to teach the tension techniques that allow people to lift heavy safely (we also heavily rely upon the programming principles Pavel teaches, but that’s a whole ‘nother article...).
Bob Paisley, former manager of Liverpool Football Club, is famous for having said, “it’s not about the short ball or the long ball, it’s about the right ball”. In the same way, it’s not about more tension or less tension, it’s about the right amount of tension. We want people to be able to control their body automatically and deliberately depending upon the situation to get themselves the best outcome. And by teaching people how to brace and breathe while we help them to restore their reflexive strength, we help them to set themselves up for whatever life throws at them. Whether you are slipping on wet timber and need to catch themselves, or they are helping a friend to move their fridge, solid training can help to set you up for success.