Heart Rate and Motor Efficiency in a Blink

By Chris Carlsen

I have been a lifelong athlete and performance trainer for the past ten years.  Given my personal and professional experiences, I have acquired a voluminous body of knowledge in strength training, somatics and athletics, which has given me a great understanding of human performance. Having studied of all the great movement coaches, whose philosophies are cohesive and centered on sensory motor efficiency, neural adaptation and prescribing dosages of stress to affect change in the body, I realized the significance of the “right dosage.”  As renowned physical therapist Gray Cook states: “Dosage is everything. If exercise is too stressful, the individual will default to old patterns, and if the exercise does not challenge the primary stabilizers, they will not reintegrate into posture and movement.”

Trainers often refer to the bodies’ anatomy and physical structure to support their training.  Yes, understanding muscular anatomy is important, but when trainers overlook the brain’s responsibility as the control panel of human movement, they fail to see the bigger picture. PavelTsatsouline’s book Power to the People details the truth about strength and performance. Pavel’s citation of Russian strength expert Yuri Verkhoshansky and Dr. Mel Sif, sums up strength development:  “It’s to note that most of the factors underlying strength are functional rather structural. Those determined by efficiency of the nervous system are of fundamental concern to the development of strength, since the muscular ‘motors’ are operated by the synchronized electrical impulses supplied to the muscles by the nerves.”  The brain sends a signal to the spinal cord (where the nerves are located), which is then received by the motor neurons and is transmitted to the muscle fibers.  This system facilitates movement of the muscles. As we can see, the ability to increase motor unit activity begins in the motor cortex of the brain. This increase in neural drive is critical to the athlete striving to maximize strength and power because it allows them to activate their muscles more than their counterparts. If we fail to realize the significant role of the nervous system in this context, we will overlook a highly important component of creating a sound strength-training program.

Just recently, I came across a Crossfit game director talking about athletics. To paraphrase, he said that athletes need to be strong with a high heart rate, which is a factor Crossfit tests and one the organization uses to conceptualize the very notion of what constitutes a good athlete.  I am not here to attack Crossfit or their director. After all, he did not specify what a “high heart rate” looks like and it is difficult to comment upon his statement given the lack of quantifiable data.  However, his words made me ponderous, since all great coaches engage in the practice of regulating an athlete’s heart rate at a certain level before proceeding to the next exercise in a given circuit. It also reminded me of a blog entry I wanted to write, but never did, upon finishing the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is one of my favorite writers and in Blink he analyzes people’s reactions to sudden, unpredictable events. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on Gladwell’s finding concerning the stress response.  He writes:

Dave Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, argues that the optimal state of ‘arousal’ – the range in which stress improves performance – is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. Grossman says when he measured the heart rate of champion marksman Ron Avery, Avery’s pulse was at the top of that range when he was performing in the field. The basketball superstar Larry Bird used to say at a critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion. Grossman goes on to say: ‘Most of us, under pressure, get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information become useless. After 145 BPM, bad things happen…complex motor skills begin to break down and performing an activity with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult.  At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive ability; the forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain – the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s - reaches up and hijacks the forebrain.’  He goes on to say: ‘our muscles become as hard as possible – to turn into armor and limit bleeding in the event of an injury. But that leaves us clumsy and helpless.’

Reaching the point of hyper-arousal is one reason why many police departments have banned high-speed chases. The chase puts officers in a dangerous physiological state (high blood pressure, increased muscular tension), leading to loss of conscious awareness and the ability to accurately assess a situation. When one’s heart rate is too high, it is as if one becomes temporarily autistic. We fail to make sense of the little details around us and our motor efficiency becomes amnesic (especially in situations when we run out of time.)Gladwell also points to the cognitive inaccuracies that occur in this state when discussing an experiment by psychologist Keith Payne:

Payne] sat down a group of people and showed them two pictures. The pictures remained on the screen for 200 milliseconds, and everyone was to identify what they had just seen on scene. Then Payne redid his experiment, only this time he sped it up. Instead of letting them respond at their own pace, he forced them to make a decision within a half a second. Now people began to make errors[i]

This is not a cognitive state that I would like to train in.  In the realm of athletic performance, an overly elevated heart rate causes our sensory motor awareness to shut down, which means we cannot feel our exercise form breaking down, we ingrain poor movement patterns and we lose strength. This is a recipe for disaster. Not only will you become injured, you will have no idea as to why the injury even occurred. 

Should we then be scared to elevate our heart rate? Not if we are smart in how we do so, and if we can apply the correct dosage of stress to improve the efficiency of our heart rates. Gladwell refers to another interesting experiment in Blink, wherein trainees repeatedly confront a ferocious dog. At the initial exposure, their average heart rate was 175. The second or third time they were exposed to the animal, it decreased to 120, and then to 110.  The dramatic reduction enabled the trainees to function optimally even in the face of stress (the dog).  In relation to exercise, if as a coach, I am implementing a metabolic conditioning circuit or some type of conditioning finisher, I will utilize the same program for at least four weeks.  As long as I see my students’ heart rates decreasing and feel they need less rest between sets to feel recovered , I know they are adapting well to the stress.  If, on the other hand, their heart rates do not reduce weekly, I then have to modify the program.  Systematic, consistent programming is the key to enabling adaptation to stress. For this reason, I have always avoided random workouts of the day, as they typically look sloppy and do not enable such adaptation. Although metabolic conditioning has its benefits, one must attain a base of strength (mastering their strength-to-weight ratio) before implementing it.  This gives one a foundation of strength, which permits technical execution and familiarity of each lift before pairing it with other exercises.  Subsequently, one can engage in kettlebell complex training. One type of complex training consists of a multi-exercise circuit  (e.g. the double k.bell squat, kettlebell military press, cleans) with a weight that one can proficiently handle for eight reps, yet each exercise is only performed for up to five reps, usually in scheme such as a pyramid.  One alternates movements and then takes a three to five minute break ( or until heart rate is regulated), performed for three to five sets total.  I like to call it “quality x time.” For an example, click here for Strong First's Moving Target Complex . Conditioning can also be done with one exercise, such as Brett Jones's density training program for snatches. Density Training is work x time but is relative to one's strength. It's a systematic sequence to get the body conditioned without burning it out. Complex training is what all great kettlebell conditioning programs have in common, as it permit students to get a lot of work in at a decent weight and with great form.  Furthermore, this training provides enough of a stress stimulus so that growth and strength gains are promoted, all while conditioning the metabolic system. 

We must remember that almost all athletic endeavors are a series of repeated sub-maximal efforts. In essence, the stronger we are, the easier it is to repeatedly do something. In college, the strength coach would test us every August on the bench press (how many times we can press 225).  In April of one year, my max bench was 305 and my 225 rep max was 12. During that summer I did a 5x5 strength program and hit a max of 345. That August I pressed 225 for 18 reps. My teammates barely made any progress, they worked on high repetition work, thinking it well help them endure more reps with 225. Since I got stronger, the weight felt easier and didn't tax me, which enabled me to go longer. The same can be said for strong legs and running. 

* Type 11x fibers ( from heavy resistance training) are also known as reservoir fibers, they have the greatest potential to change into a more aerobic or oxidative form.

It looks like another win for the strength community (who see strength as a skill) and for the practice of low-to-moderate repetitions, planned progressions and greasing the groove. It’s also another victory for my Somatic training(click here for my blog on somatics and fitness).Thomas Hanna, creator of Somatic training, states: "Somatic education is the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s physiological process. To learn ‘somatically’ means that the learning occurs within the individual. It is an internalized process”. The power of Somatic exercises comes from exploration of movement on the floor, as we did when we were babies. We are re-educating sensory motor movement without the stress of gravity or body-weight. This creates awareness and reverses sensory motor amensia. Weight is a stressor. Sometimes, removing the stress of bodyweight and gravity by lying on the floor allows the nervous system to simmer down and absorb motor learning (proper movement patterns).  Somatic exercise is unique in the fact that it’s one of the only types of exercise regimens that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (which lowers your heart rate). And, as with fitness, breathing guides every somatic movement and we have greater motor control and awareness when our heart rate is lower (which Somatics allows one to obtain).Personally, my lifts feel slower in my mind but still strong and powerful in execution. Somatics will be something I incorporate for the rest of my life, and it is a necessary counterbalance to the aforementioned training modalities that increase our heart rates.

In conclusion, we must not overlook the true function of the human body, from a muscular and neurological perspective, to define our training methods.  We must incorporate exercise that allows our body to intelligently adapt to stress, and exercise that allows us to reset our nervous systems at rest.  We must also tread carefully when asking ourselves for strength at high heart rates.  This is especially the case if every workout is random and strength is asked for in a specific amount of time and reps, since we will always be above the threshold of 145 BMP for performance.  In effect, we need to be able to regulate our heart rate in high-pressure situations, and this comes with practice, patience and strength. 


[i]   Gladwell,Malcom, Blink: Hachette Book Group, Ny, 2005 . p. 232