That my friends, is relaxation at it's best.
We want to think that grunting, clenching, and trying super hard is the key to success. Why? This gives the perception of working hard.
You've all seen it, that person at the gym or on the field that is just working so hard they are grunting and panting so everybody can know just how hard they are pushing themselves.
And for most, we believe it, "Wow so and so is really working hard", but while this may get some browny points with a coach, it is NOT working efficiently or optimally.
Muscular contractions create force, which is good, but they also create stiffness. Stiffness is great for stabilization and resisting motion, which is also very good and needed at certain times. On the other hand muscle stiffness also slows down change in muscle shape and velocity through joint ranges of motion, both of which are not wanted when a limb needs to travel at high speeds (McGill).
If you want to move fast, no matter the manner of movement, being able to quickly alternate between bouts of muscular contraction and relaxation is key. Contract to initiate a high speed of muscular force, but then you must relax to let the limb pick up speed through it's motion.
The late, great Yuri Verkhoshansky stated that, "Relaxation is very important for high velocites and rates of movement". Verkhoshansky also noted that high-level sprinters show greater levels of muscle relaxation when compared to lower level sprinters.
More recently, Dr. Stuart McGill has noted that in all his studies and research, the one common theme among elite athletes is the incredible rate of muscle contraction and relaxation.
Just watch how easy Usain Bolt makes it look
Just ask anybody that has or is involved in martial arts and they will tell you learning how to relax during punching (and all other movements as well) is what separates the best from the rest. The ability to punch, kick, and move with great speeds, force, and grace requires the body to be relaxed. This is often one of the hardest skills for people in martial arts to master.
Even Bruce Lee was quoted,
"Overall tension and muscular contraction act as brakes, reducing speed and dissipating energy".
Enhancing your ability to relax allows for more efficient and better coordinated high rates of speed in your movements. After a muscular contraction, a relaxation period occurs. During this period ATP is re-synthesized to fuel the next contraction. If you are constantly under tension, and don't have adequate relaxation periods, your movements will be slower, weaker, and you will get tired more quickly.
You need to remember, A Relaxed Muscle is a Fast Muscle!
One more time, A Relaxed Muscle is a Fast Muscle!
Think back on a time when you ran a PR, or hit a max lift, or played your best game. Ever notice how in most, if not all, of those times you had a sense of ease or comfort. You ran a 100m, got your time, and thought, WHAT! I ran that fast! I didn't even feel like I was running! This is relaxation taking over and letting you perform at optimal levels.
In Sports Psychology this is called the Flow State, or better known as being In The Zone. While there are other factors that contribute to getting to the Flow State, a big one is being totally relaxed. Feeling in control with a sense of ease, not straining, and just letting things happen. Being relaxed allows you to be in a state to perform at your highest level.
Being able to relax will not only allow greater speeds and force of movements, but also decrease risk of injury, allow for better endurance, and better recovery from training demands.
Getting stuck in a state of contraction and tension increase your chance at injury, increase how fast you get fatigued, hinders muscular coordination, velocity, and strength.
The rate of muscular contraction and rate of muscular relaxation determine speed and force of action! (McGill)
Now with all of that, how do you get better at relaxing?
Let's take a look at a couple of Techniques
- Alternating muscular contraction with relaxation - Lie on your back, legs extended and arms out at 45 degrees with palms facing up. Next go through each muscle/body part and do a 2-3-second maximum contraction followed by a deep relaxation of that muscle. For example, start down at your feet, contract both feet as hard as you can, then exhale and relax your feet as much as you can. Proceed to work up your body hitting every major muscle group. While relaxing, imagine each body part becoming heavy, and letting it drop down through the floor.
- Learn to use your breath - Teach your body how you want it to relax during exhalation and let your breath drive relaxation. Breathing initiates relaxation, more specifically exhalation. Exhalation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to turn on, which promotes a relaxing/resting state. Learn diaphramatic breathing strategies and when training, learn to use your exhalation to relax your body.
- Relax your face, neck, and hands - Tension is these parts are a pretty good reflection of total body tension. If these parts are relaxed, then the rest of the body will also be relaxed.
It has been shown that exercises the have a sudden unloading or removal of external resistance produce the greatest relaxation response. So this would include things like
Kettlebell Swing - In the KB Swing, there is actually more time during the movement that the body is in a relaxed state than contracted. A high rate and amount of tension is creating when moving the bell out of the hole, but then the body must relax to let the bell move through it's range smoothly.
Med Ball Throws - The same applies to Med Ball Throws. You build the tension to get the ball moving then relax and let the movement just continue as the ball is release from your hands.
Olympic Lifts - In Olympic Lifts, if you cannot relax you'll never get underneath the bar to catch the weight. You contract and initiate the movement, but then must have period of relaxation from that tension in order to change your path to catch the weight.
Like we touched on earlier, muscular contraction creates stiffness, and stiffness limits changes in muscular movements through joint angles. So if you are constantly contracted, you cannot change body position and directions to catch the weight.
Jumping - Jumping, like the above exercises, requires a big burst of force, and then the body must relax as it takes to flight
BBA's other favorite exercises or drills include
Leg Flutters - Great high-speed, high-rate exercise for the lower body. This is going to benefit the high speeds of hamstring and quad contraction/relaxation for high running speeds. You'll notice that most will not be able to keep a good rhythm, pattern while performing leg flutters. This is a sign of lack of relaxation qualities. If you are tense, this drill will be a struggle. Need to relax and breath through this exercise.
This is quickly becoming a favorite exercise here at BBA, as it not only trains high speeds of relaxation, but also is a great for the hamstrings and even hits the hip flexor complex.
Oscillating Isometrics (OI) - Similar to the Body Blade, OI take advantage of reciprical inhibition. There are two ways to perform OI.
1. Establish a position, let's say 3 inches off your chest in the bench press. From here you repeatedly push and pull the weight in this position. So you're turning on and off each agonist and antagonist as they alternate between contractions and relaxation.
2. Again establish a position, so again we'll use 3 inches off the chest in the bench press. From here you build tension in that position for let's say 2-3 seconds (bar doesn't move). Then you relax and let the bar fall down. Before the bar would hit your chest you would contract and elastically return the bar to the starting position. You would again perform a 3 second isometric, before repeating the relax and return portion.
Jump Rope - Jumping rope is a great exercise to teach relaxation throughout your whole body. You cannot be continually tense during jumping rope otherwise you will fatigue quickly and tighten up. Jump rope naturally teaches relaxation in the lower limbs, as the feet leave the ground they will relax and then contract again when they prepare for ground contact. The trouble comes in the upper body. Relaxing the wrists and shoulders is hard for many, and they will tell you jumping rope burns there wrists and shoulders. They want to physically move the rope, but they need to learn how to turn relax and let the rope travel in it's arch and then quickly contract back on to repeat the cycle.
We like to take off your shoes, spread your toes when they are in contact with the ground, relax your wrists, shoulders, upper back, ankles, and control your breath. Build great stiffness and relaxation in your lower limbs as well as in the rest of your body.
Med Ball Tornado - The Med Ball Tornado is a medball with a rope attached. This is not only a great way to train dynamic core strength and coordination, but a way to teach total body relaxation.
You can use the tornado in many different ways, but the ways we like to use it are shown below. Again this takes advantage of reciprical inhibition, and teaches the muscles to contract and relax at high speeds. Troubles with being smooth, coordinated, and controlled in these drills are signs of lacking relaxation skills.
In ClosingWhile much of training is focused and geared towards creating great amounts of tension, we must learn how to release that tension to let the body move with great speeds.
Don't get us wrong, TOO much muscle relaxation is never good, but it is a lot more common to see a state of high tension and contraction than a state of over relaxation.
We need to remember that this is a quality that CAN be improved upon and CAN be enhanced with proper training. Learning to differentiate between contraction and relaxation is a SKILL and a QUALITY that needs to be taught. As this improves so will your performance.
So test out and see what is applicable for you and your training, and start to see the difference. Until next time Go Get 'Em!
Supertraining - Yuri Verkoshansky and Mel Siff