Psychology, Intensity, and Phenotypical Expression

Kevin Koskella, of the blog and companion podcast Healthy Mind, Fit Body and I recently met in Austin, Texas (the epicenter of Physical Culture) over an awesome cup of joe at my “office”, the fantastic (and thankfully, just down the street from my studio) Thunderbird Coffee.  It’s funny — I’m really a rather reserved, quiet, keep-my-opinions-to-myself kind of person — until, that is, the talk turns to Physical Culture.  At that point, and as I am sure Kevin can now tell you, I can’t be made to shut-up  🙂  At any rate, I really enjoyed our coffee and (one sided?  Heh, sorry, Kevin) conversation, in part because Kevin is a cool and highly intelligent guy, but too because he is really — as I am — heavy into the psychological aspects of training.  Now, in this, the follow-up podcast interview we taped a week or so later, we only touched on the mental side of things (again, I could ramble for hours on this), but just let me reaffirm my opinions here: your psychological leanings, drive, focus and ability to bring intensity into the training theater are everything.  There’s a time to be intelligent, questioning and logical, and a time to let it fly.  When chalked hands finally grasp the bar, my friends, it’s time to go all-out friggin’ primitive.  Make no mistake here: not only are all the commonly assumed training stressors vitally important (load, rep range, tempo, TUL, etc.), but also, too, is the psychological  aspect — do we attack the day’s training with a life-or-death intensity, or with lackluster effort?  Believe me, the body can sense the difference, and will respond accordingly.  Remember, training, to be especially effective, has to be brief, brutal and basic.  And if in fact we are true to those dictates, then training can only be intermittent and fractal in nature, lest we become a frazzled train wreck of disparate CNS, muscular and support structure pieces/parts.  Think this is merely rah-rah psycho-babble?  Think again: the environmental/epigenetic components impart very real, concrete physiological changes (see this piece, for instance) to an organism; this is the stuff of optimized, phenotypical expression.

Quick change of subject here: step back for just a moment and think of all the people you know who agree, in principle at least, that brief, brutal and basic workouts are the way to go, and that a Paleo diet not only makes sense logically, but that the empirical evidence and end results (look, feel and perform) are nothing less than stunning — and yet, these same folks seem mesmerized into believing that they cannot personally make such a change, or that their own physiology is somehow wired different so as to thrive (not just survive, but thrive) on a standard American and/or vegetarian diet.  I can’t tell you how many people I speak to swear up and down that whole wheat does their body good, and that long, arduous and slow is the true way to fitness nirvana.  Yes, my friend, and the heroin addict feels the same for their beloved black tar.  The holiday season is near, and you’ll run across this version of diet-and-health-related cognitive dissonance at an increased frequency.  “I am fat, out-of-shape, and desperately want to turn that around; I will not, however, give up my fresh-from-the refrigerator Snickers bar”.  Well, I’m not sure what to say, here.  Continue on with the tie-off-and-tap-a-vein roller coaster, my friend.  When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  Let’s just hope that metabolic derangement is not the impetus that finally opens the student’s eyes.

Check out this motivational montage from a most unlikely source: Will Smith.  Hat tip to Messus TTP for the find  🙂

No doubt: whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are, sir, absolutely right.

And so that’s the mental side of the game.  And again, let’s not forget, though, the epigenetic factor.  So the question then becomes one of what is a “real” input?  Anything that elicits a change at the cellular level must in fact be considered “real”.  So do your perceptions, attitudes, drives and desires matter in a real sense?  You bet they do.

Two workouts over the past week

Monday, 11/1; a superset of the following:

front squats: 135 x 5; 185 x 5; 225 x 3; 245 x 2; 255 x 2
kneeling DB clean and press: 45 # x 15 for each round

Pogos prior to squats, ballistic push-ups prior to the DB clean and presses, both for a solid CNS prime.

Friday, 11/5; a little Crossfit feel, here — three rounds of the following circuit, completed in 27 minutes.

Pendulum hip press: 400 x 15 (full range of motion)
btn push-press: 185 x 7
RDL: 255 x 7
weighted chins: 70 x 5
Bulgarian split squats: 45# x 10 each leg (below parallel)

Brief, brutal, basic…and intermittent, my friends; this is the way to roll.

In health,

15 responses to “Psychology, Intensity, and Phenotypical Expression

  1. Fantastic article & the podcast interview with Kevin was truly a wonderful interview…not just because I’m biased but because it was good stuff! Love that you included that Will Smith piece, he is truly inspiring! So are you!

  2. That montage of Will Smith was pretty motivating. It definitely was an unlikely source–not because of any preconceived notions or because I don’t like him as an actor (I do enjoy his work, for the record), but because I had no idea he was that deep. Everything he said, one can apply to every facet of life.

  3. Keith,

    I’d like to see how you progress on the CZT-V machines. Given their ability to accurately record your workouts it would be interesting to see what the extra intensity does to your recovery. Please keep us posted.


    • Here’s the problem in putting too much credence in absolute raw numbers (for me, in my n=1 situation): there’s no way to accurately quantify the additive sum of stresses (or of adequate recovery for that matter), from bout to bout. For instance, my last CZT workout came on the heels of two prior days worth of bustin’ ass, so to speak; obviously, my CZT performance suffered as a result, even though I gave it my all in that particular workout itself. Now, I would’ve expected a dramatic increase in performance had I hit this session “fresh”. This is where properly followed Auto Regulation is key — we simply cannot accurately account for the cumulative stresses that the body must deal with workout to workout. Now, if I were to concentrate my future training focus on bettering my CZT performance, then these raw numbers would carry much more credence — but in that case, I would do very little (if any at all) training outside of CZT-concentrated work. Now, this may be an experiment that I’ll undertake winter, when my “outside” training (running, biking, etc) naturally ebbs. And if I do, I’ll be sure to chronicle it.

      • Keith,

        I understand what you’re saying here. I guess I needed to explain why I asked that question a bit more clearly. As far as I can tell the CZT machines allow you to achieve a level of intensity that is unprecedented. I guess it would be possible with negatives and several helpers on normal machines but totally impractical. Plus, the feedback on how much force is being exerted on these machines is much more detailed. Drew Baye reported quickly overtraining on the machines and it took a long time for him to get over it. As hard as you train it seems like you’d be at risk for that as well. Most people in the HIT camp get hung up on the stimulus side of the equation and aren’t concerned with the response side as far as I’m concerned. I could see that with the CZT machines.

        You’re an advanced trainee and already quite strong so I wouldn’t expect you to improve by leaps and bounds on the CZT machines though you might. What I’m more concerned with is whether the added intensity causes you to spend an inordinate time below baseline (as they say on the BBS board). I tried some of the different protocols that were discussed on the BBS site and felt hammered for days. The Max Pyramid method and the real slow 1 rep thing just about did me in. A normal heavy set to failure, rest pause, or anything of that nature and I’m fine but if I go to too much inroad it’s not good. I could see myself needing to limit them to a couple of heavy negative reps.


        • “…the CZT machines allow you to achieve a level of intensity that is unprecedented.” This is most definitely the case, David. And that being the case, I wouldn’t perform a workout like that (whole-body, to failure) very often…maybe once every couple of months, at most. But again, this all relates back to intensity. I have the ability to redline my intensity level, and the CZT design is exquisite in it’s ability to provide instantaneous feedback matching one’s intensity input over the entire length/duration of each repetition. That means that I’m able to dig one hell of an inroad, quickly; and, yeah, it takes me approximately 1 week (give or take a couple of days, depending on my sleep quality, outside stresses, etc.) to fully recover — and I am one of those “off the scale” fast recovery types. Which leads to the notion of an n=1 determination of how much inroad is “sufficient” for each trainee, and how much recovery is required between bouts. This is also further complicated, in my case, by the fact that my training is (by design) fractal — in type, methodology and in duration.

          But more to the point of your question, I don’t really feel “wiped-out” following one of these bouts, so much as I simply don’t have the “itch to train” again for a week or so. This, as opposed to not “feeling the itch” to train for only a day or two following even a hellish free-weight and/or sprint-intensive bout. I know this all sounds rather wishy-washy, and maybe even New-Age-like, but I really just train when I feel like it, according to the dictates of my body. Now, it no doubt took me a long time to get to this point (of listening to and trusting my own body vs some arbitrary, preconceived plan), but this ability, coupled with the ability to redline intensity (no matter what the protocol) are, in my mind, the true “keys” to fitness success.

  4. Hi Kieth

    I’ve been reading your blog for about 6 months. And I have in that time read all the archives. Great,great , great stuff. Learning a lot , and by application I am getting leaner, healthier and wiser.

    I have also picked up a copy of Dr. Doug McGuff and John Littles book Body by Science. Excellent, informative and no nonsense. I have a few questions though. Do you believe it is possible to achieve increased muscle size and strength with only 1 set ( albeit, heavy) once a week ? Or increase ( sorry for this ) ‘aerobic’ capacity with one training session per week? Will it fatigue the body excessively to do 2 or 3 strength workouts per week ? Does varying exercises for 2 workouts per week , or the plane of movement for the same muscles, in some way change or help to reduce fatigue enough to allow proper recuperation ?

    While I understand the theory, and to to some extent the science behind it. I was just curious in what you feel about it ?

    Thanks Mate

    • I definitely think that once per week training in the BBS fashion can impart all the health related benefits afforded to those who engage in serious strength training; metabolic improvement and strength gains, gains in internal organ size, some hypertrophy gains (and most definitely the prevention of muscle loss). If maximizing hypertrophy and/or sporting performance is the main goal, though, it is obvious to me that multiple, properly programmed sessions per week are required. Note that this is a highly n=1 thing, though, and one person’s “too much volume” is another’s de-load volume. Also note that improved hypertrophy and/or sporting performance in no way implies improved health. In fact, in many instances, it implies quite the opposite.

      • Keith, one quick follow up question to your reply to Adrian. In your opinion, is ‘superslow’ repetition speed (e.g., 8-10 seconds for both the positive and negative elements of the repetition) necessary to achieve a successful BBS-type training session? Or can one accomplish the same training inroads with somewhat higher weight, more repetitions per set, and somewhat quicker repetition speed (e.g., 3-4 seconds for both positive and negative)? This has really puzzled me. Doug McGuff and his ‘followers’ seem to valorize the superslow approach, and I’m just not sure it’s necessary (and, it’s incredibly unappealing to me).

        • I don’t utilize the super-slow tempo myself, Will, nor do I utilize it in the majority of my clients. I think the key to finding the right rep tempo again gets back to intensity. For some trainees, a super-slow tempo may be the only way to harness enough intensity output from that individual. I much prefer something along the lines of a 51xo tempo (5 sec neg, 1 sec pause at stretch, a “fast as possible” concentric followed by an immediate turn-around back into the 5 sec neg.). Note that the loading must be such that “fast as possible” is not simply a flinging of the weight, rather, it is precisely the intent of moving the weight fast as possible that really matters — the concentric phase may actually take 2 – 3 secs to complete. I’ve found this to be a much more effective and efficient technique for both ramping intensity and digging adequate inroad. I definitely think that something is lost in (1) not attempting to blast the concentric phase as hard and as fast as possible, and (2) utilizing a load in which an extended TUL in the negative phase of the lift is possible. Doug’s point is well taken, though, in that my preferred tempo scheme does skew toward more potential injury risk (especially compounded over time). Essentially, then, this must become an n=1 determination. Personally, I don’t believe the downside (i.e., increased risk) to be that big a factor in most trainees. There are, off course, always exceptions. And, too, my method is an attempt to train CNS response, as well as to elicit muscular adaptations. One’s training goals may preclude the need/want to push the risk/reward envelope so as to train the CNS. A trainee must define his goals, and address his tolerance for risk in the pursuit of those goals. Again, n=1 determinations are the order of the day.

          • Thanks. My rep tempo is more similar to yours. And, on certain exercises, I also attempt to be ‘explosive’ on the concentric phase of the rep (but, I try to always pause at both ends of the rep). It has always seemed to me that the SuperSlow/BBS devotees overemphasize the risk of injury for most trainees (obviously, some trainees may be particularly vulnerable to injury and very slow rep tempo would be appropriate). My puzzlement with Superslow/BBS is that – beyond injury risk – folks often write ‘as if’ such a slow tempo is necessary to accomplish the requisite intensity.

            • Yeah, my experimentation with the method has proven just the opposite; a forced slow tempo seems to compromise my intensity. But super-slow is just another tool; if it works in certain circumstances, use it. If not, find a better method.

  5. This made me laugh out loud:

    Yes, my friend, and the heroin addict feels the same for their beloved black tar.

    Good stuff!

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