Hormonal Nitrous Oxide
Body-shocking physical effort, maximum effort of a very specific type and kind births an exercised-induced altered state of pure awareness that elite athletes routinely experience, yet fail to identify. Access to this exercise-induced zone of pure awareness can only be attained when the degree of difficulty is sufficient to cross a hormonal threshold.
How difficult is difficult? In progressive resistance training difficult means exerting to a degree equal to or surpassing whatever you are currently capable of. To enter exercise-induced Nirvana, you must equal or exceed your current physical limit in some way, shape or form, in some manner or fashion.
I have been self-inducing this physiological phenomena for fifty years and can say with the certainty that comes with half a century of concentrated practice that 100% maximal physical effort, and preferably 102% or 105% effort, is necessary to gain entry into the post-workout bliss-zone.
I am an athlete in a sport of complete mathematical certainty: I have been a national champion in both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. My sports are all about pounds lifted. It is a universe of numbers: sets, reps, frequency, duration, time under tension–everything in the elite strength world can and is assigned a numerical value. The iron elite create complex training matrices using cold logic and empirical data; this approach is the apogee of sophisticated rational thought applied to progressive resistance training.
How metaphysically ironic that we utilize the Yang rational left-brain, with its Spock-like coldness, its numerical and mathematical certainties, its science and logic to create the savage training regimens that unlocks the ethereal, intuitive artistic consciousness that lies dormant in the Yin right brain.
The rational goal of powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting is to increase the sheer amount of poundage lifted in the three powerlifts or two Olympic lifts. This can be accomplished by honing technique and/or by becoming stronger. The way in which we become stronger is to stress the body to such a degree that we invoke an adaptive response. We traumatize the body in a deliberate and systematic fashion in order to elicit a specific and desired physiological reaction.
When the body is purposefully stressed–and stressed to a dramatic degree, new muscle tissue is constructed: cells split and divide and strength increases; all as protective response to the self-inflicted trauma of an expertly applied progressive resistance training session. If the degree of difficulty is sufficiently intense, a hormonal threshold is crossed and a tsunami of hormones are released into the bloodstream: endorphins, adrenaline, cortisol, growth hormone are shot into the bloodstream like hormonal nitrous oxide.
A productive training session is a body-shocking event. The sheer physicality of the effort is so muscularly exhaustive that it completely depletes and drains the human body. There is a concurrent hormonal floodtide. Somewhere in the immediate aftermath, the mind grows silent and the shattered body becomes enveloped in a relaxed and blissful state of pure awareness and contentment.
In this post-workout state, clarity, vividness and cognition are amplified. Effortlessly, without suppression, the conscious observer ceases its endless babbling inside the athlete’s skull. As my mental mentor, Krishnamurti noted, “The cessation of thought is the awakening of intelligence.” When the never-ending unceasing internal dialogue ceases, the athlete is able to experience the electric crackle that imbues the very atmosphere of the instantaneous present.
As the exhausted yet elated athlete basks in his endorphin afterglow, he looks out at the gym from inside his head without the inky film of thought blurring his vision; every thing, every object, every person, every object and color is vibrant and enhanced, visually amplified. The athlete glows and basks in his centered, peaceful post-workout state of intense quietude: he is content, he is exhausted, he is at peace and centered. This post-workout glow, the beatific state-of-being bears many overt and subtle similarities to the amplified states of consciousness achieved in sitting meditation.
Like base jumping, big wave surfing, skydiving or cliff jumping, big poundage teaches with a big stick. Any man that attempts more than he is capable of, via psych and preparation and sheer effort, must learn how to create a totality of effort–nothing less will accomplish a muscular task that exceeds current capabilities and capacities.
On the other hand, dare to struggle, dare to win. No one ever improved by doing the same thing, over and over in the same way. To approach, equal or (optimally) exceed current physical capacity, the athlete must successfully achieve a synergistic melding of mind and body. We seek something profound: we seek to perform past all rational and realistic expectations. To do so will require more than human effort, it will require superhuman effort. Superhuman effort can only occur if a mind/body melding has already occurred.
Psych and Artificially-Inducing “Fight-or-Flight”
Elite athletes access modified consciousness by self-inflicting a cataclysmic event in the form of a body-shocking training session. They train so hard, so intensely and so fiercely that the body is “tricked” into invoking the primal “fight-or-flight” syndrome. We force a mind/body synergistic melding by subjecting our own body to a task that is so physically demanding, so difficult, so outrageous, that it can only be accomplished by exerting a 100% effort.
Any physical effort at or above 100% of realistic capacity demands that mind and body enter into a unified partnership in order to successfully cope. Only through a successful mind-body melding can we make the body do that which it is currently incapable of. If successful, we set a new performance benchmark and simultaneously acquire all the physiological benefits associated with progressive resistance training.
Humans are no longer chased by bears, attacked by invaders, forced to hunt and kill to eat. Only on rare occasions does modern man invoke the fight-or-flight response. Athletes rekindle and reawaken the dormant fight-or-flight impulse, they hotwire it, like stealing a car. Any athlete performs better, light-years better, when aroused, centered, focused, fierce, alert, highly combative and possessing an overall heightened sense of awareness.
The athlete convinces the mind that it is fighting for its life. How? By subjecting the body to a 100% all-out physical effort. The degree of struggle and effort are the tripwire mechanism. The body realizes it is about to be pulverized and the fight-or-flight response awakens in order to cope.
So instead of having a saber tooth tiger leap out of the woods, the athlete voluntarily attempts to exceed a previous best in an exercise, set and rep benchmark. Once the brain becomes convinced that, yes, we have a genuine fight-or-flight situation, the brain declares Defcon 5 and triggers an adrenaline dump–which is felt immediately. When the adrenaline begins coursing through the bloodstream, we throw hormonal gasoline on the mental fire.
Excitation combines with emotion and if channeled properly enables the lifter to lift 5% to 10% more than if they performed the identical lift without a proper psych. The best athletic psychers are getting a full 10% over their non-psyched self. Think of elite athlete “super psych” as the bottled, formalized, artificial version of the 140-pound lady who lifts the back end of the car off her child that is pinned underneath the vehicle. The elite strength athlete is a psych master. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t be elite.
Normal fitness trainees are oblivious to the degree of effort needed to forcibly morph the human body: only in response to self-inflicted trauma does the adaptive response trigger; only in response to superhuman effort does the body build new muscle. Elite athletes have performance benchmarks that they continually seek to improve upon. By continually expanding our limits, the body is forced to transform. The human body will not and does not grow new muscle (hypertrophy) or acquire more strength by exerting sub-maximally.
- Sub-maximal exertion, can, at best, serve to retain the physical status quo. The body will not radically transform in response to sub-maximal exertion.
- Exceeding capacity requires the mind and body unify and assist one another–otherwise the total effort is insufficient to accomplish the task.
Please be aware that you are not expected to perform one-rep maximum single reps in all your progressive resistance sessions. The man with the 400×1 back squat will have a 5-rep personal best of say, 350-pounds, a triple max of 370, a 10-rep PR of 315-pounds, and so on. In any session the trainee can select from an infinite variety of capacity benchmarks. Capacity can have a myriad of expressions.
A trainee that seeks extraordinary results must exert extraordinary effort, superhuman effort; mere human effort can only maintain what has been achieved already. Continually assault the limits. This implies that you have limits to assault. Establish benchmarks; embrace struggle and embrace difficulty. Do so and reap the optimal physiological and psychological benefit: a transformed body and a transformed mind.
Marty Gallagher is the author of Strong Medicine, The Purposeful Primitive and Coan: The Man, The Myth, The Method. Gallagher coached the United States team that won the IPF powerlifting world team title in 1991. He is a 6-time national masters champion and national record holder. He was the IFF world master powerlifting champion in 1992. He currently works with elite athletes, spec ops military and governmental agencies.