What is evoked in your mind when you consider this concept? If you are like most athletes, you may think of all-out training, characterized by set after set of heavy, low repetition compound movements, with the goal of gaining the most mass in the shortest period of time. It may also be that you consider a laze-faire style of training, characterized by being "in-tune" with what you believe your body's signals to be.
The problem with both approaches is that none of them isolate or identify the true nature and process of so-called "instinctual training." While one style emphasizes muscular contraction at the expense of mind-muscle connection and forces the body into a cookie-cutter workout plan, the other suffers from a lack of structure, and is prone to the emotionalized whimsical states of the trainee.
Instinct Vs Relax
The distinction between instinct and reflex is important to make. Many athletes use these terms interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. For our purposes the distinction between them is of critical importance.
An instinct is a pattern of behaviour present in all members of a given species. Instincts are powerful because they are co-governed by psychodynamic forces within the psyche, and by the biological systems in the body. The sexual instinct, for example, serves to propagate the species and has both biological and psychic components.
Reflexes, by contrast, are involuntary responses to environmental stimuli, and are controlled by inter-neurons, and motor neurons in the central and autonomic nervous systems. Most simple reflexes, like the knee reflex, are governed by simple feedback loop systems that allow the body to act in automatic, stereotypical ways, when receiving signals from the environment.
Through transudation the body senses, perceives and is stimulated by the environment. Environmental signals, known as afferent signals, are the signals involved in reflexive actions, as outer stimuli activate simple neural circuits, prompting automatic behaviours.
Efferent signals are instinctual signals that travel from the brain and spinal cord, to the peripheral nervous system to influence behaviour.
The path of action for each type of signal appear as follows:
Afferent Signals (Reflexive Behaviour)
Transudation » PNS » Spinal Cord » Brain (not always) » Spinal Cord » PNS » Action
Efferent Signals (Instinctual Behaviour)
Brain » Spinal Cord » PNS » Action
Whereas reflexes are autonomic, instincts are largely psychodynamic with a biological basis. The conscious mind, being aware of the body by virtue of its frontal cortex and executive functioning, can activate inhibitory motor neurons in the CNS to impede some PSN (ANS) controlled regulated movements. The brain can then initiate goal-directed action, and drive-reduction theory explains the process of instinct satisfaction quite well.
Strength & Muscle Gain: A Key Process
Strength and resistance training illustrate the relationship between the CNS and the PNS brilliantly.
When an individual undertakes a physical training regimen, adaptation occurs rapidly in the form of strength gains. This adaptation consists of adaptation in the ability to contract muscles in coordinated fashion so as to generate the force necessary to overcome the gravitational constant.
This is CNS adaptation, and this adaptation is, strictly, internal in nature. The signals for muscular contraction are generated in specific neurons, and the signals are propagated down the spinal cord, to the peripheral nervous system and limbic system. CNS adaptation is, therefore, efferent in nature.
After this initial CNS adaptation, muscular gains occur soon thereafter. At this time, the endocrine system secretes anabolic and androgenic hormones from stimulated glands and tissues. Because this hormone secretion is an automatic response to stimulation, it is thus a biologically reflexive behaviour of the body.
In The Principles of Bodybuilding CNS adaptation was seen to occur prior to PNS adaptation. All muscular adaptations are adaptations of the peripheral nervous system.
It is clear, then, that CNS adaptation occurs first, and PNS adaptation later. This example shows clearly that one can begin a behaviour (bodybuilding or weightlifting), and through repetition, make it semi-reflexive. After a while, many variables of the bodybuilding experience can become automatically, and almost autonomically, regulated.
However, no matter how many times a behaviour is repeated, at best the behaviour can become only semi-instinctual, and probably instinctual-reflexive.
What Is The New Instinct-Reflex Training?
A major reason why traditional instinct training is misunderstood, and why few realize success with it, is because of its misleading name. Simply, the name focuses on the instinct aspect of this training only. Furthermore, people tend to believe that instincts are whimsical in nature.
They tend to equate instinct with emotional feelings or internal energy levels. Usually, when laziness comes about (from a lack of mental discipline), many will reason "I do not have the instinct to train today, therefore I will not." Misunderstanding instinctual training can lead to laziness and failure.
A study in The Journal of Motor Behaviour provides a clue as to the true nature of instinctual training. The study consisted of twenty-four participants (n=24) with a mean age of 24.1 years. The recruits were taken from a variety of sports clubs and were asked to do a number of motor tasks, ranging from walking to running. All tasks were performed on a treadmill.
The study examined the predictability of movement from one task (running) to another task (walking). The study concluded:
"Intentional transitions (of movement from one task to another) are less biomechanical predictable than are spontaneous transitions..." 1
This study makes reference to the intentional transition from one activity to another. The wording used here is revealing, in that it demonstrates the relationship between consciousness (the ego mind), and the body. In this example, consciousness can be seen to be interfering with the execution and predictability of movement that would otherwise be automatically generated.
The interference of cognition in movement comes from the activation of movement-inhibiting motor neurons that inhibit movement until the brain can calculate the necessary movements required to execute action. Essentially, the interference buys the brain time to think about a movement with which it is not familiar.
Naturally, this interference would make the movements less efficient, and thus less eficious. The key, then, is to reduce the time lag that conscious intention causes in movement transition.
The new instinctual-reflex training aims to do exactly that, and the goal is to bring the practitioner to a place where instinct and reflex meet. This style of training emphasizes the minimization (not elimination) of conscious intention in activity, and seeks to establish "flow" between the instincts of the mind and the reflexes of the body.
The goal, in essence, is to minimize intentional awareness (and thus ego interference) while making the mind sharp and disciplined to the signals of the body so that movement occurs more spontaneously, while still being intentional.
How To Practice
Mindfulness is the key element of getting to flow. Consider the following story:
A student in Tibet had undergone extensive training in the monastery, and he had received his authorization to teach. Naturally he was excited. He packed his belongings, and went to the house of his teacher. Upon entering the master's house, he set down his umbrella, and removed his shoes.
Placing both by the doorway, he entered to the living room and informed his master of his success.
Upon hearing the story, the master nodded his head, and congratulated the young man. "But, tell..." the master said "on what side of your umbrella did you place your shoes?" The student pondered for a moment, and had to answer that he did not know.
In his excitement the student failed to be mindful and deliberate about his actions, and as a result did not know what he was doing. While he was going through the motions like a robot, he was totally unaware. An undisciplined mind taken over by excitement destroyed his awareness. Many bodybuilding students are like this also.
Often when bodybuilders are beginners, they notice massive and continual improvements. Correctly, they get much joy from their successes. Often, however, they lose focus and can become overwhelmed by emotional states.
From this, they can lose deliberateness of thought and action, and can fall into traps like lifting too much weight at all costs, or not enough, and this can result in ignoring the body. The flow, thusly, is destroyed and gains come to a halt.
Taking the middle way here is important. Being overwhelmed by extremes to where you are depressed about your training, or in a state of mania, will lead to suffering. One must maintain discipline for success.
So the key to flow is mindfulness. For many of you, this concept will be new. I have included here an exercise technique to assist you in acquiring mindfulness. It is presented below:
Exercise technique to assist you in acquiring mindfulness:
- Sit in a chair, upright and exact in your posture
- With your feet planted on the floor
- Breath in deeply through your nose
- Following and concentrating upon your breath all the way in
- At the top of the breath hold the breath for several seconds
- Focusing on the beating of your heart
- Concentrate upon this
- Through your mouth, in a slow and steady manner
- Release the breath until it is gone
- Following and concentrating upon your breath all the way out
- Do this technique three times and concentrate on your breathing
- Focusing on breathing in and out
- In and out
- Next while sitting
- And with your feet still on the floor
- Move slowly the balls of your feet
- Raising the heel of your foot off of the ground
- Try to not think but to be aware
- To see
- Break this simple movement into small parts
- Focusing on the sensations you are feeling as your heel moves through space
- Hold the movement in segments
- Move through the full range
- Feel the fluidity of movement in space
- At the same time, picture the image of this in your mind
Click here for a printable version of this page.
This exercise is extremely helpful because it uses the power of concentration to bring about mindfulness. Using the power of repetition, a neuro-physical pattern is created, and then from goal-oriented behaviour patterns, the behaviour can become a conditioned reflex. Repeat this exercise several times a day, and then follow the same methodology with other body parts.
After practice, you will get a "feel" for the awareness of mind, the calmness of consciousness that is your true, undisturbed, mind. You will then be able to manifest this "flow" during your training sessions. The mind will become razor sharp, and will be able to better know the body. Research has shown that techniques such as these are effective.2
Because the CNS can have excitatory or inhibitory effects on the action of the PNS through the activation of inhibitory or excitatory motor neurons, one can, using intention, develop a behavioural practice and, through repetition, make it semi-instinctual. Through further practice, it is possible to make the behaviour instinctual-reflexive.
Over time the mind can be disciplined, and during exercise, consciousness minimized, while still maintaining awareness. At this juncture, the trainee achieves flow and synchronicity between mind and body, and the instinctual-reflexive training style is achieved.
- Gretchell, N., Whitall, J. Transition to and from Asymmetrical Gait Patterns. Journal of Motor Behaviour, 2004 Vol. 36, No. 1. 13-27.
- Park, J., Shea, C.H., Wilde, H. Part-whole practice of movement sequences. Journal of Motor Behaviour, 2004, vol.36, No.1, 51-61.
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