As a performance coach my goal is to make people faster, stronger, and better. One of the most important means of improving performance is one of the hardest for many novice athletes to understand. When you relax, you go faster. When discussing sports like crossfit and olympic lifting it’s difficult to understand how such a statement could be true, athletes lifting incredibly heavy weight in a second and completing a brutally painful Games event couldn’t possibly be relaxed and still perform. Right?
“Everything you do, if not in a relaxed state will be done at a lesser level than you are proficient. Thus the tensed expert marksman will aim at a level less than his/her student.” When Bruce Lee said this he understood something fundamental about exceptional performance. In order to perform exceptionally the athlete must be relaxed. Absolute performance efforts require, as you would imagine, maximal effort. Despite an individuals metaphorical unlimited potential, there is a limited supply of energy available at any given second and a limited amount of time in which to perform. Maximal performance requires all energy to be expended towards the goal, any waste decreases absolute performance despite the perceived maximal effort exerted. You can try your hardest and still not move faster if your energy is being dispersed in every muscle including the antagonists to the intended action. Relax to release the brakes slowing you down.
In Crossfit we talk about virtuosity, doing the common uncommonly well, and this is often attributed to the exceptional performances of the sports top athletes. While this is true the real secret is not their ability to do common things uncommonly well, but nearly everything seemingly effortlessly. The look relaxed, like they aren’t even putting in 100% effort.
Here is Camille Leblanc-Bazinet is effectively making my point. Notice how relaxed her facial muscles are while she is lifting this 80lb monster ball. All energy is going into the effort, not the perception of effort.
So how do you develop this elite skill? Here are the steps necessary to relax and go faster.
1. On/Off – Practice how to actively tense and relax muscles at will. Practice would go something like this. While sitting reading all of this I want you to smile, yup smile and then count down “3 – 2 – 1 relax” and relax your facial muscles. That’s an easy win. Next make a fist, then relax. This is the easy first step to attaching intention to action and can be done with every muscle. Practice quickly tensing a muscle fully, then completely relaxing it quickly.
2. Relax and move – Now we start adding movement, but let’s keep it simple. I like to start with fundamental movements and progress in complexity. For our purposes the bodyweight squat is perfect. Practice a few reps focusing on perfect position and consistent movement patterns. This deliberate movement tends to be a little tense as focus and control have become synonymous with tension in most adults. As we complete rep after rep we are going to deliberately tense areas and then deliberately relax them to the minimum amount of tension necessary to not fall over, you’ll have to test how little is too little to accomplish this goal. I like to start at the top and work down. Face, neck, shoulders, back, legs. 2 reps tense, and 2 reps relaxed. Through this process begin to identify how little tension is really necessary to control your position and achieve desired movement. Practice maintaining only necessary tension and identifying onset of excess tension in movement.
3. Master every movement – It seems kinda mean to say you have to be a master of movement to learn how to do it easier, but this is a truth to being a great athlete. You can’t just move through the standards, you have to have developed such an ideal movement pattern as to be able to identically replicate that pattern and learn to eliminate waste tension. Use the above relax and move concepts on every movement you wish to master.
4. Only what’s necessary – Speed is the ultimate goal, to this end we will practice deliberately increasing our movement speed and cycle rate by using relaxation to release the brakes when unnecessary. For most movement not requiring maximal effort we want to treat tension like a dimmer switch, where too much and too little are detrimental and where just enough is ideal. On bodyweight squats we will work on maintaining position and range of motion, decreasing tension in the legs during the descent, applying just enough tension to change direction at the bottom, and just enough at the top to open the hips and knees. Free falling and crashing is bad, as is extending so violently at the top that we lift of the ground and slow our descent into the next rep. We want to find that perfect amount of time/tension to control and execute a movement. Deliberate little burst of tension.
5. Laser Beam Light Switch – For true explosive efforts, think max jerk or snatch, we want to be able to turn tension on and off like a light switch. Really more like a laser beam, unidirectional, intense, focused.
Here is one of the fastest lifters, Luis Mosquera. This is an excellent demonstration of the idea of turning tension on and off like a light switch. In order to elevate the bar to the height necessary to catch he must exert as much force down with his legs as possible, however in order to actually catch the bar he has to cease pressing his legs down and instead pull them up off the floor. The speed of this full effort elevation to retreat is otherwordly and isn’t just due to incredible genetics but to deliberate practice to improve this skill. An effective means of understanding this concept is a simple movement, push jerks. For this having a smartphone in which you can slow playback and review is really helpful. Record yourself attempting to extend your legs as aggressively as possible until fully extended, then pressing the bar overhead while aggressively retracting the legs to allow your body to drop. Having a little weight on the bar helps with this. In review notice how long your legs stay extended before you begin lifting your legs, and how little speed there is in the retraction of your legs in general. In these efforts notice how tense your whole body is during these periods where we need to change direction, that excess tension is hindering your speed. We want our legs fully “on” through the drive to extension while the arms are fully “off”, at we want the arms fully “on” and the legs retracting as aggressively as the extension. Like a light switch, either on or off, driving up or dropping down.
6. Relaxed mind – Your mind controls your body. A scattered anxious mind leads to poor performance. A calm focused mind leads to success. Watch world class athletes prepare moments before their winning performances. How many of them look anxious? Personally I enjoy meditation, some enjoy yoga, the means is not the point it’s the end we’re interested in. Being able to relax the mind and focus intention is crucial and is a skill like any other which requires practice. Practice visualization to focus your thoughts and energy on your intended action. Practice diaphragmatic breathing to relax and calm your mind before training, lifting, and competition. Our goal is to eliminate wasted mental energy on everything from worrying about failure, to thinking about work, and everything else our constantly stimulated minds are used to thinking about any given second. A positive focused mental state is crucial to optimal performance.
Relax, breath, and go faster.