The question: “Can you further explain the argument for the utilization of slow(er) movements as a means to reduce tension and improve output? Also does this mean that you mostly train people to just move super slow?”
Here’s my answer to the Two-Part question:
Part 1: In answering this question I came across the military adage of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” used in reference to shooting speed. The shooters drill often at slow speeds focusing on smooth, nuanced movements prior to increasing tempo. I thought this was perfect in further explaining the argument for adding slow, deliberate movements into training. Interpreting this further, moving slowly facilitates motor control (smoothness) and it is that smoothness that allows for a more efficient expression of output. Basically before you can go fast, you have to be able to show that you can move slow. Rushing the movement leads to sloppiness in recruitment strategies.
I often wonder if excess tension – i.e. more than is necessary for a given pattern – occurs in response to a threatened movement signature or if that tension contributes to threat perception. In my mind, it’s probably a bit of both. Either way, an extension-driven person with high-tension strategies usually finds it difficult to use deep stabilizers because the nervous system is under undue stress. Reducing the autonomic drive (or need) of a sympathetic state, achieved in part by slowed movements, does wonders for nuanced motor control because the phasic prime movers aren’t slammed into action as they are during the feedforward typical fight-or-flight response of high tension strategies. Motor units with fewer muscle fibers are recruited allowing improved modulation of force output. The improved control of the postural muscles (typically these have smaller motor units) allows for proximal control which frees the distal segments for smoothness of movement. Then we can speed it up using traditional tempo and velocity methods: hence the “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”.
From a sensory perspective, moving fast has a lot of sensory noise – it’s loud. I mean do you remember what it feels like in the middle of 5×5 deadlifts or 30 double-unders (other than dude, this kinda sucks)? Most of the time, it’s not until afterwards that someone says “man my back is smoked”. By lowering the magnitude of the sensory stimuli, we can better perceive excessive muscular rigidity and help to regulate it (Todd Hargrove discusses this in his excellent book A Guide to Better Movement). I have seen a lot of clients who say they feel super stiff during a squat but can’t describe it well until I have them go thru it slowly enough that the sticking points become readily apparent. After a number of repetitions going slowly and smoothly – that tension is often reduced; likely because the brain is able to better regulate the movement once its had time to actually assess the sensations being received. The involuntary restriction of the movement is lifted because the threat perception has been modulated by a slower, safer-feeling-to the brain pattern.
So, what we’re really doing by integrating some slowed, and often basic, strength movements (think squat, pull-ups, presses, etc.) into training is reorienting the attentional focus of the brain and improving motor control. I think proper strength training and motor control work are synonymous – and if they aren’t then you probably aren’t doing it right.
Slow movements are helpful as a preparatory movement with ramping up the speed as part of the warm-up. In addition to many of the foundational strength movements, I will use a lot of developmental and transitional positions as they probably improve functional relevance and importance to the brain given their place in how we first learned to move. Crawling, rolling, orienting the head, breathing – all have a neutral, transitional quality to them.
I am a huge proponent of going fast and hard – it just needs to be well-controlled and slowing down the movement is a great tool to improve control.
Seth, I enjoyed this two-part series a lot. It has helped me connect a few dots and provoked some ideas and experimentation.
I don’t know if it’s related, but the research seems to suggest that an external focus improves efficiency of movement. I wonder if these high-threshold types tend to rely too much on an internal focus, hence the excessive muscle tone and rigidity of movement.
Thanks for reading and excellent point regarding focus of attention, I actually wrote a post on it awhile back: https://sethoberst.com/blog/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-coaching-cues-use-an-external-focus-to-increase-performance.
I agree that performance-wise, an external focus clearly is better and that a lot of these high tension movers struggle with excessive internal cueing. Many of the athletes I see have been told to ‘get tight’ and squeeze this muscle or that for a long time, when focusing on the task will often elicit better movement performance.
I will say, however, that turning the attention inward at times, especially during slowed movements, can be beneficial from almost a biofeedback perspective where the person can better feel how much excess tension they are creating. Then they can see how that affects the external task.
What we perceive creates our reality, so in coaching movements we have to determine what inputs are most crucial to creating the reality for that person.
Seth, thank you for responding. Your explanation makes sense to me and is along the lines of what I was thinking. At the risk of going off the deep end, this discussion about the benefits of internal cuing makes me think of the value of “mindful movement.” Moving slowly and deliberately might allow a person to notice things like excess muscle tension and relax more. It seems similar to aspects of a body scan from mindfulness meditation.
Absolutely Rob. Mindfulness is inherent to skilled movement and I will use the body scan method often as a downregulation/relaxation method and remapping tool. I believe it may actually have some benefits with cortical smudging and improving asymmetries. It’s the topic of an upcoming post of mine so stay tuned!
And I live in the deep end bro, way more fun.
Awesome, Seth. I’m looking forward to your post.