Fight Or Flight: Lift or Die?

Posted on 23 Sep 2009 22:24

By Eric Troy

Have You ever heard someone say that in order to lift a very heavy load they imagine they are "doing battle" with the bar? Of course the real hardcore lifters don't say the word bar, they say "iron". "It's just me and the iron in a battle to the death," they say, or some such similar nonsense.1

Well, they verbalize this thinking and, indeed, it can be somewhat contrived but the truth is we DO respond to situations that are NOT life-threatening as if they ARE.

The fitness industry in general is caught up in this attitude. The phrase "survival of the fittest" is a big favorite among "fitness" experts. Clearly, someone who thinks running a mile or lifting a bell is about "survival" has yet to have their survival threatened. But it goes deeper than that into our responses to training and how our attitude and thinking influences these responses. Does approaching your training as if it is a matter of "life or death" really improve your performance? Let's examine the fight or flight response (fight-flight) to see if it may shed some light.

Somatic and Autonomic Nerves

The nervous system has two basic parts. The central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Think of your central nervous system as your brain and spinal cord. Think, therefore of all the sensory and motor neurons as your peripheral nervous system - they carry signals into and out of the central nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system is further divided into somatic and autonomic systems. The nerves that help you move your muscles, feel with your skin, etc., are somatic. The nerves that carry signals to and from smooth muscle like your heart and glands are autonomic.

I doubt it will surprise you to know that the autonomic system is further divided into two more categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. The signals from these nerves are antagonistic, either excitatory or inhibitory, so that the signals from one system often oppose the signals from the other and thus compete for control over the body's systems. Although they are antagonistic their work is actually complementary in it's results.

Difference Between Parasympathetic and Sympathetic

The parasympathetic system is the the "work-a-day" system. It dominates when there is not much going on such as right now, as you sit and read this. I'm assuming you are not reading this while running from an angry bull, after all.

So, for instance, if you've recently eaten, the parasympathetic system should be winning out and stimulating digestive movements of the stomach.

If you WERE running from a bull instead of reading this, however, the sympathetic system would be in control.

So an easy way to remember the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is: The sympathetic is the gas pedal and the parasympathetic is the brake.

The table below gives some examples of the opposite effects of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves. However not all of the effects of sympathetic outflow are directly opposed by parasympathetic outflow so that in general it can be said that the sympathetic system has a broader range of effects.



Parasympathetic Signals Sympathetic Signals
Pupil Contraction Pupil Dilation
Water Salivary Excretiion Thick Salivary Excretions
Stimulate Digestion Inhibits Digestion
Relaxes Sphincter muscles Contacts Sphincter muscles
Decreases Cardiac Output Increases Cardiac Output


Fight or Flight Response

The sympathetic system, as the gas pedal, is responsible for the flight or fight response, which was first described by physiologist Walter Cannon2 in 1929. When that bull takes after you the sympathetic nerves cause the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine which makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe faster. You are prepared to either fight with every resource available to your body or run away as fast as your body is capable. How you decide to run or fight is largely an instinctive decision in this case. It takes no rational thought to make most human beings run from an angry bull! Seeing that running may be the most rational thing to do, although primitive and instinctual, we could argue that "rational thought" does not always mean "logical thought"! But that is a subject for another day.

Fight-flight may seem like just the thing for an intense lifting, exercise, or competitive situation. The vision sharpens, awareness of our environment improves, blood is shunted to our muscles…we even feel less pain.

You should notice, therefore, that this response is not called the "megaman" response. It is called fight or flight for a reason. When you are in this mode, everything around you is a potential threat. Fear and anxiety increase. Your muscles tense. Thoughts become over-charged and negative. Breathing quickens and becomes shallow. Some of this may sound familiar from Getting in the Zone Part I.

All of this is appropriate when you are faced with a charging bull but not so appropriate when we want optimal performance in the gym. Of course, not many people go into full fight-flight mode when beginning an intense workout but one of the neat tricks of humans is that we don't need an actual physical threat to trigger this response. We can trigger it through worry, anxiety, catastrophising, etc. So when we approach a workout in an anxious and worried way, especially when we are likely already stressed, we can trigger an inappropriate and excessive physical response. Appropriately, then, the flight-flight response is more often called the 'stress response' now.

We manifest many of the physiological responses of flight-flight in every-day situations where there is no threat whatsoever to our survival. "Road-Rage" is a good example of fight-flight gone haywire because of a simple traffic jam or other traffic situation. Most of us, thankfully, do not allow a physical response to these mundane situations. We control ourselves. Which means that there is no "release" to the stress built up in our systems.

Exercise for Stress

Many trainers will tell you that exercise is just the thing for all this excess stress. It is a physical outlet allowing us to metabolize the stress hormones and give vent to the need for physical exertion. When that bull comes charging, after all, it is just not natural to stand there controlling yourself. The natural outcome is a very powerful physical response. Without this physical response the cumulative effects of our excessive reactions damage our health. Therefore physical exercise is one excellent (though not the only) response to this stress.

complete diagram of nervous system

The exercise must fit the bill, however. For stress reduction, we want simple activities that we are already highly skilled at and comfortable with! Deciding to learn how to do snatch lifts, while it may be fun, is not exactly a stress-reducer. Likewise, while pumping out 30 pushups may be a great outlet for pent-up stress and it's accompanying emotions, a maximal bench press attempt may not be.

A boxer, having thrown thousands of punches, can vent his anger and aggression (both manifestations of stress responses) on the punching bag to great success without damaging himself. But tell that same boxer to "vent" against an equally skilled but calm sparring partner and he may have a problem. Punching bags do not hit back, evade, or counter.

There can be no Doubt

Since many of us are introduced to training and training attitudes in ways that are inappropriate we tend to approach it in ways that ADD to our stress. I've spoken before about the "athletic" metaphor, for example, in my article Drop the Labels.

The athletic metaphor stems from a misguided and romanticized view of athletics and athletic training that leads many professionals to think that everybody should approach their training as if they are "athletes". Similar to the all-or-nothing fallacy they equate success with thinking like a competitor or athlete. I discussed the problems with this assumption in Drop the Labels.

Similarly, we have the "boot camp" model in which people are trained as if they are getting ready for military service. The trainers even come in battle dress uniform to complete the effect. I don't think many people would view basic military training as a stress reducing or even "healthful" activity. It is appropriate to the needs of military service. That does not mean it is appropriate for "fitness" even if it may be successful in the short term.

These are just examples of how training can become a negative stress producing situation rather than a positive stress reducing one and it downright pervades the entire industry today. Strength trainees regularly approach training as if their life depends on its success. In fact their training becomes a part of their self-concept to the point that if they do not perceive their training to be up to a certain "standard" their self-esteem is damaged and they are pushed into a negative spiral of anxiety and failure.

So, after reading this, the next time someone says they are going to "do battle with the bar" you might think it is just a tad dramatic. You might wonder whether this attitude points to a deeper misalignment of environment and response. Perhaps what these trainees express as 'battle' and conflict with the bar is actually disguised doubt.

The idea that there is a contest between the lifter and the bar implies that there is a question as to the outcome of the lift. The very nature of the words battle, contest, conflict, war, etc. implies that the outcome is unknown and that someone will win or lose.

I ask you, is there any place for thinking, even for a second, that the bar might come out on top? Of course not! Self-doubt is self-doubt no matter how macho the language you use to express it is. If you can see yourself as in contest with the bar then you are, by extension, imagining failure as a possible outcome. There may even be an image of failure in your mind alongside that of success.

These thoughts of failure that you have unintentionally allowed to roam free increase anxiety before a tough lift or session. This anxiety gives rise to negative thoughts and emotions, many of which may have nothing to do with the task at hand. These thoughts and emotions further intensify the physiological response, so on and so forth until, instead of what should be a charged and focused energy and attentiveness, you have what is essentially a fight-flight response. This results in inappropriate muscular tension and rapid and shallow high chest breathing.

Such a response can lead to a failed lift or even technical failure resulting in injury. This response can also drain your energy during a tough workout causing you to peak and fatigue earlier than you should. In other words, performance suffers in various ways.

If you would like to explore these concepts further and learn more about what you can do about it, read the Getting in the Zone series.

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This page created 23 Sep 2009 22:24
Last updated 20 Nov 2016 21:57

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