Reflexive Tension or Cognitive Tension?

Categories: Blog May 30, 2022

And now, an article by OS certified Master Instructor, Mark Shropshire...

Do we need cognitive tension or reflexive tension when it comes to strength training? This is a hot topic. Where to begin discussing the ways of tension? 

Breathing….Let's start here!

Actually, breathing is the beginning and the end if you think about it.  People who study such things estimate that we go through the inhale-exhale process between 20,000 and 26,000 times per day, which is probably about 11,000 more breaths than we need.  However, that topic is for another day (shameless plug: If this seems interesting you NEED to attend the Original Strength breathing course).  

How we breathe matters.  It is not something that happens to us.  We can control how we breathe and the effects of that are wide-ranging.  Largely, these different techniques for breathing have been known for ages, across different cultures and continents, forgotten and then “rediscovered” again and again. There are breathwork techniques that help clear your sinuses,  improve immunity, increase body temperature, relax, focus the mind…even improve a person's tolerance to higher levels of blood pH and carbon dioxide which can aid in athletic performance.  

This brings us to the topic at hand.  Is there a best way to breathe when lifting weights?

I was asked this question a while back and it came up again so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.  But first, let me add a brief tapestry to all this.  I was first introduced to breathing techniques as a “sort of young” student of strength in the kettlebell community.  During that season of my life, I embraced the teaching that was presented to me in all its facets.  I was taught to “power breathe” while lifting and swinging said kettlebells in a sort of biomechanical match to the movements I was performing.  

If you are unfamiliar, power breathing involves:

- A short powerful nasal inhalation when the body is compressing or coming together eccentrically under load, typically into multi-joint flexion.  For example during the goblet squat or swing - you would inhale as the body drops into the bottom of the squat or in the case of the swing, as the arms lay back on the ribs and the kettlebell is swung between the legs during the backswing phase.   

- A brief breath-hold as the body begins to move out of compression and into an elongated/extended position. 

- A powerful exhale via the mouth through a narrowed air space as the body archives full extension through the concentric phase of the lift/swing.  This is done to maximally stabilize the body by creating intra-abdominal pressure to brace the core for the forces being placed upon it.  

It is also taught to the new students to learn the ways of the bell to ensure safety and to maximize power and strength during the movement being performed. When starting out with weight training it might be best to use this method of breathing and bracing.  It will certainly work to stabilize you.  But is there a better way - or, perhaps a different way?  I am of the opinion that there is.  

Hear me out on this before you report me to the Ministry of Truth.

Breathing in this way is a “feed-forward” method of breathing/bracing.  What is feed-forward?  When it comes to breathing and muscular contractions,  feed-forward means that the action is under conscious control.  You think it - it happens.  Autonomic control on the other hand happens automatically and is done without thought.  So when it comes to power breathing to brace the core against the forces encountered with lifting - you are making it happen.  So what’s the problem? What is the cost? 

Power breathing is a form of over-breathing. With prolonged bouts of work and forceful exhale, there is a chance that one can begin to exhale more carbon dioxide than is necessary.  Carbon dioxide once thought of as a waste gas is now being touted in some research circles as a miracle gas.  Without enough of it in our body, we can not effectively transport oxygen to the working muscles.  Known as the Bohr Effect (named after the Danish physiologist Christian Bohr) oxygen off-loading to the tissues is influenced by the amount of CO2 that is present.  Not enough CO2? The oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin picks up more oxygen and hangs on to it.   As a result, physical performance will become limited simply by how you breathe.

In addition, by bracing in this way, you are overriding the body’s reflexive strength - strength that is composed of anticipatory stability and mobility happening at the same time.  In effect, you are teaching your nervous system to brace via conscious control more so than reflexive control.  Reflexive control resides more on the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, done without thought and lightning-fast…hence the term “reflexive.”  Conscious control of bracing on the other hand requires thought and effort and is, over time, draining to the central nervous system.  The short, rapid inhales and exhales excite the sympathetic nervous system - not always a bad thing, but there is a cost.

Once you own your reflexive strength, there is no longer a constant need for power breathing during training/practice.  You can relax into your strength and breathe normally, through your nose with the tongue on the roof of the mouth.  One of the benefits of this is that you can recover faster - between sets and between sessions.  Since you are not amping up your sympathetic drive as much, there is a quicker turnaround time.  I also believe that this, once learned, is a safer way to train.  By only breathing with the nose while training, you are auto-regulating the tempo and loads you use.  Once breathing becomes driven from the mouth, you are now working in a highly excited/fatigued state.  If that is how you always train, you will end up burned out, injured, or a combination of a lesser or greater degree of both. It’s not sustainable.  

To get yourself gently moving in this direction, try breathing through the nose while carrying things.  Farmers carries, rack carries, overhead carries, etc…Understand that the more complex the movement, the lighter the load will have to be initially as you acclimate.  The implement you use doesn’t matter either. Sandbags, barbells, dumbbells, a small child…all will work.  The same holds true for conditioning work.  Start out with a lighter than usual load or tempo.  The focus will need to be on your breathing when you start.  Don’t worry about your “gains” bro - they will still be there. Over time, you will be able to lift as heavy and go just as fast as you did before, but you’ll be able to do so with less effort and quicker recovery between sessions. The body will adapt to whatever stress you place on it and soon it will learn how to stabilize itself just fine without over tensioning or overbreathing.  


Comments (6)

  1. Timo:
    May 31, 2022 at 10:18 AM

    Excellent read. The style described feels intuitively the way to go.

    What do you reckon is a good ratio between this type of training and the ”cognitive” type? Would you recommend only doing everything in this style or a mixture?


    1. Mark:
      Jun 01, 2022 at 03:02 PM

      Hey Timo, thanks for reading and reaching out. Good question. I'd suggest that using a reflexive strategy would be the way to go. Start with loads you know you can handle in the given lift you'd like to perform. Make the focus of the lift not the load but rather the breathing.
      If you're attempting max efforts, then perhaps a feed forward strategy is initially necessary, but as you acclimate the body to be able to relax into the lift at heavier and heavier loads, in time you'll be able to lift max or near max loads in a reflexive fashion.
      So, the proportion of the lifts you use for the skill of reflexive stability really depends on you and what your goals are. If it's to train your self to use reflex strategies, then my answer is all of your lifts should be that way.


      1. Timo:
        Jun 02, 2022 at 08:45 AM

        Thank you for the answer Mark, clarifies a lot of things. One more thing came in to mind, though. Do you see that reflexive training is a good way to improve proper muscle chain activation (eg. getting sleepy parts wake up and overactive parts dampen down)? I am wondering if, by picking light enough movements and placing focus on the breathing, I can expect some improvements inherently, or would it require some feed-forward practice.

        This training style is very intriguing. Are there any resources you recommend checking out? I own a trio of OS books and have been practicing resets for some time.


        1. Mark Shropshire:
          Jun 02, 2022 at 10:11 AM

          Another solid question! If you have sleepy parts - let's use glutes as an example since that's a common problem for a lot of people. Getting them to fire at a proper time is some parts art and some parts science/physiology. In OS it's a common theme to hear us talk about tying the "x" of the body together. In this case we are talking about the posterior connection between the glute and opposite side shoulder. We'd like to observe that occurrence in our rolling patterns and certain variations of rocking, marching and supine cross crawls. Though you may also notice them firing in prone on elbows head rotations. Sometimes adding a load in the form of weight to the upper body rolls will help the glutes to "get it" a bit easier......too much load and not so much as we may observe a compensatory pattern of movement. If there's nothing happening in those patterns to get the glutes to fire, then by all means we could use some feed forward process to help the person feel the glutes turn on. Then integrate that feeling into the pattern of the reset. Sometimes people just don't know what to expect and have no idea where the glute is (I don't mean geographically on the body) or what it feels like when it's on. So expecting them to find it in the patterns mentioned above may be a fools errand. As a trainer who's job it is to help people, I will use any and every tool I own to get the job done. That said, once the glute is better understood by the person we certainly would want to integrate it into our OS patterns of contralateral and midline crossing movements.


          1. Timo:
            Jun 02, 2022 at 10:54 AM

            Thank you for the swift and thorough answer!


  2. Timo:
    Jun 02, 2022 at 10:59 AM

    I'd like to add that there is also a discussion going on about this article, a previous article introducing a training program (Simple Strength), and OS training in general at the StrongFirst forum:

    Maybe it's something of interest to you :)


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