The Method

Body Sculpting And The Human Mind Games

August 7, 2009

I’m in class working my way through the “thigh” section.  I’m going a low as I think I humanly can (the lower the harder in this exercise) when the teacher says, “last 10.”  On cue I drop two inches lower to finish the set.   I’m motivated to work hard, at least so I think.  So I can’t avoid asking myself: Was I holding back? Could I have psyched myself into doing the whole set in that awesome “last 10″ position?
I’ve seen other Bar Method students play the same trick on themselves. The teacher announces that the exercise will end in a specific number of reps, and they suddenly get a burst of energy. Are we all just fooling ourselves that we’re going all out when we’re really not?  Actually, yes, we are fooling ourselves, say a growing number of physiologists who study muscle fatigue.  But, they add, we’re not doing it consciously.  Our wimpy brains signal us that we’re giving out, even though our true, more awesome strength and stamina has not been fully tapped.

A recent experiment conducted at the University of Birmingham, England, provided clues to why our minds do this to us.  In the experiment, reported on by the New York Times on July 19th, two groups of well-trained cyclists hooked up to electrodes rode stationary bikes for an equal length of time.  As they biked, one group swished and spit out liquid containing carbohydrates, and the other group swished and spit out flavored water containing no carbs.  Even though neither group received extra calories from the liquids, the group that merely tasted the carb-rich liquid did significantly better than the one that had tasted the calorie-free water.  As the NY Times wrote, €¦”the brains of the riders getting the carbohydrate-containing drinks sensed that the riders were about to get more fuel (in the form of calories), which appears to have allowed their muscles to work harder even though they never swallowed the liquid.”

The reason for this phenomenon, say several scientists quoted in the article, is that our brains convey messages to our muscles telling them how much fuel we think we have left, but our brains are not always right.   “I think the training effect of this theory is potentially very profound,” said Ross Tucker, a researcher at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in the article.  “Training is no longer simply an act of getting the muscles used to lactate or teaching the lungs how to breathe harder€¦. It’s also about getting your brain to accept new limits by pushing yourself, safely.”

The Bar Method workout, being an especially intense form of interval training, offers its students an opportunity work towards transcending what their brains are telling them. (Click here to read more on Interval Training.) Over many classes, their brains learn to interpret the prolonged burning they get in a Bar Method class as safe “good pain.”  Eventually their minds and bodies figure out how to connect not to the massive burning sensation in their muscles but to the actual strength and stamina within them.

Back to class the next day after reading the article.  This time during the thigh-work I tried pretending that I was on those last 10 reps throughout the whole set and was amazed to discover I could work down there, or almost that low, from beginning to end.  This mental game is what most Bar Method students play to one extent or another to help them get through the most intense parts of class.  Challenging our minds to respond to our muscles’ potential is part of why the workout stimulates our bodies to change so quickly. It is also why students say the class gets more interesting the more they take it.

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