PictureObligatory rattlesnake pic

Something we see commonly in treating and training movement is the chronic use of high tension movement strategies (aka over-recruiters; aka high threshold movers). These are the people with excessive amounts of muscular tone and contraction when trying to move. Literally, these are the people who can’t perform a squat slowly, struggle with relaxing onto a foam roll, are super inaccurate with limb movements (shooting a basketball, kicking a soccer ball, etc.), and can’t fall asleep at nite. 

But they can typically produce some monstrous short-term power output – which is great and 100% necessary for going after a 1-rep max and all-out efforts. The problem is they can’t perform a movement without so much tension. It’s not an adaptable system because not every movement is a 1-RM. Even most competitions have rest breaks and slow portions. 

Think about it this way: if all you ever did while driving was mash on the gas and then slam on the brakes, you might get places quickly but pretty soon you’re gonna damage the engine (or the chassis? I don’t really know much about cars, man…). That’s essentially what using unmitigated high tension movement is: flooring it to a red light

The most excellent and injury-averse movers are still able to generate massive amounts of tension but only when necessary – like a rattlesnake, bro. Using high tension all the time only threatens the system and is inefficient and expensive – both physiologically (joint compression, tendinopathies, neural tension, etc etc) and neurologically. 

There are several reasons why the use of unnecessary high tension strategies occur:

  1. Hyperinflated breathing pattern and consistent breath-holding
  2. Loss of nervous system neutrality
  3. Poor motor control/loss of variability

How to address these:
1. Restore diaphragmatic breathing. As I’ve written before, a hyperinflated breathing pattern pulls us into extension. And extension = excitation and tension. By facilitating neutral – via flexion patterns – we can better access a relaxed state which is much easier to move out of. Restore posterior ribcage expansion and anterior abdominal control to get us to a neutral spine and we can breathe thru the diaphragm without increased stress on the system. 
And as Gray Cook would say, if you can’t breathe during a movement, you don’t own that movement. Unless you’re going for a PR on your squat

From Dr. Quinn Henoch:


2. Achieve nervous system balance. Moving from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state brings us closer to neutrality. Neutrality is a place or state of transition. When moving from one end-range of motion to another we should naturally transition thru neutral – like a pendulum. From this state of balance we can quickly and easily move into all 3 planes of movement – with the capacity for max tension and max output when necessary. There’s some tension left in the tank for when we really need it. Otherwise you’re just red-lining it all the time. Approaching nervous system balance = decreased threat = decreased rigidity and tension. 
So how do we do this? Reduce asymmetries, restore diaphragmatic breathing patterns (see above), maintain healthy brain maps and motor control (see below), get more sleep! Kids who get less than 8 hours/nite are almost 2x as likely to get injured – that’s not a balanced nervous system. 

3. Improve motor control. The inability to perform the movement with the right muscles at the right time and in the right sequence often results in excessive muscular tension. Extensive literature supports that untrained, poorly learned movements use excessive muscle contraction. We see this often because people are chasing capacity instead of competency or only playing one sport while growing up and before ya know it, they use the same amount of muscular tension to pick up a pillow as they do a loaded barbell. If we really take the time to understand and actually practice moving, sequencing improves and the tension threshold is lowered.  

Maybe we need to practice movements more slowly in order to reduce excess tension. This does a few positive things: 

  • Moving slowly increases the time allowed for the brain to process sensory information – how the floor feels, where the joints are in space, etc. This helps us because the brain makes movement decisions based on the sensory information it perceives – so more sensory information may allow for better movement choices.
  • Lowers threat of the movement because the brain has time to allow access to ranges of motion it may otherwise feel unsafe in – I mean, this is why you slowly lower into the splits rather than dropping into them off of a plyo box. 
  • The increased attentional focus of a slowed movement may allow the brain to more accurately interpret the movement feedback and maintain a healthy body map within the cortex. 

I’m not saying all we do for training now is a bunch of weird, slow movements while ambient music plays in the background. But integrating some slow, exploratory movements pre- or post-training session may help solidify more accurate muscle recruitment

An efficient movement pattern is one that adapts to the demands placed upon it. One that creates tension when necessary and an appropriate amount of relaxation when it’s not.

– Seth

P.S. BONUS PRO TIP: Stretching doesn’t work for these people (or anyone really) because it doesn’t shut off the tone. Stretching only serves to amplify the forces acting on muscles and, if anything it just amps up the tension more. Just ask one of these high tension movers: stretching often feels terrible for them. Why? Because it’s just another threat to the system. 

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