Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Potential: Reaching your Max

Its a funny word Potential, especially if you say it too many times. If English is not your first language let me explain what 'potential' is.

In terms of exercise and strength, your potential is what you are capable of, if everything was perfect.
Reaching your potential I suspect is near on impossible. Only in truly freak occasions has anyone seen their true potential.

Its what you say to someone who doesn't know what weight they can lift, and you look at them and guess by their shape and weight what they might be able to do if they practiced and tried really hard.

Olympic weight lifters when under highly competitive situations and highly stimulated will reach some of the highest levels of their potential. Some research have rated that to be around 90% of their potential.
So thinking about that, thinking about a sub53kg lady in the London Olympics Clean and Jerking 131kg! and thinking that they still had another 13kgs they potentially could have lifted! Now that is scary!

We have all heard of the miraculous feats of strength and endurance over the years, the most famous example is the mother who picks up the car which had run over her baby child.
My personal experience was meeting a man who on the day of the 7/7 bombings in the UK was in one of the train stations minutes before it all went off. The man, a computer nerd, obese, and general gym phobe ended up running 7 miles from the train-station to his house. 7MILES! he said he had never run that before, and had never been able to run that since.
Ok so, adrenaline, and shitting your pants with fear will have greatly contributed to his monumental feat of fitness but HULLO! I think we just found out what the fatties potential at that time was!
Imagine if he could tap into just half his potential, He could be running 5ks every day!

However, we have lots of different types of potential, fitness potential, strength potential, endurance potential, pain potential, shyness/confidence potential, business potential, maybe even health potential.
and what about intelligence potential?  Ever think you were too thick to learn something then you got a good teacher and bingo it all made sense?
A lot of the time I think the superheros you read in comics or in cartoons wouldn't be really that special if we could all tap into our true potential.

Lets now think, why can we not reach our true potential...
This could be a lead into many many books on this subject so lets keep this more to do with exercise.
Why cant we use our 100% potential, even if we feel we are putting in 100% effort? And even if we are highly trained?

Cos  you will die!

Joking, I think...  But seriously lets figure it out.

Lets just use a squat as an example. Just now I can squat 110kg quite happily, My PB this year was 132kg, However put that weight on me now and i'll crumble, but already I know I have another 22kg in the bag of potential, and I suspect if I were to reach my potential I would be squatting 200kg before I noticed I had a weight on my back.

There is something holding me back. I suspect it is my Brain.

Protective mechanisms. Survival inhibition.
Lets go caveman style here for a moment and consider what would happen if we used all our potential.
Caveman see tiger, caveman want to kill tiger, caveman runs after tiger, tiger runs away, caveman taps into full potential and runs at Usain Bolt beating speed. Caveman gets closer to tiger. 2 seconds later, caveman have no more power to send to leg muscles, cave man stumble and fall, cave man panting with face in dust. Tiger turns round...... 10 minutes later, Tiger full, caveman dead.


Ok then.

What is happening is that within your body, your brain is trying to control everything. There is a lot to control and the biggest aim is a level and stable homeostasis. Ie everything in your body is equal. that's why when you run, instead of your muscles just burning up ATP and then giving up, your heart and lungs with increase their rate and provide more oxygenated blood to your cells so that you have a second form of energy, and while doing that it takes away the lactic acid you have created along with some carbon dioxide and so on. And your brain knows you need to keep doing this for longer than just the length of the exercise or even which your body is being subjected to, so instead of it sending out all its power all its electricity to your muscles thus giving it a harder job to stabilize  your homeostasis it holds back a little.
Perfect example is this: Go into the gym, get on the rowing machine, and before any warmup just go for 10-20seconds full on balls to the wall rowing. see how far you can go.  Then do some more actual warm ups and intervals and then give it ago again, and without it seemingly feeling any more difficult, your will magically be able to row further in those same 10-20s blow out. WHY? well your body is now at an elevated level of homeostasis and is capable of stabilizing you from a higher exertion point.

so tip 1, The better the warm up, with the greater the increase in homeostasis, combined with not fatiguing the muscles needed for the task = greater ability to tap into potential!

Our survival needs us to keep some strength and energy in reserve otherwise if we complete the task we set out to do, we will have no energy or be able to function after doing so.
Its a bit like having a speedboat with a massive powerful engine, you can make it go fast as feck but if you run out of fuel, you are then stuck in the middle of the ocean. so you always keep a little extra petrol canister in the back to help you get home.

However, if you know you are just sailing by the coast… you would only need a smaller canister…
This is where my next point comes in.

Uri Gellar Magic trick...
My Dissertation: Exercise performance
My University dissertation was: The effect of Suggestion on Exercise performance. I Remember seeing a magic trick on a tv show where the magician pulled up 5 members from the audience, and put the heaviest looking person on a seat, and asked the other 4 members to put their hands together and try and lift the man with just their 2 index fingers each. One in each armpit and kneebend.
Seebelow for awesome example

So what is actually happening here?
Try it out for yourself, it is kinda amazing.
But the trick is that it is not a trick. Its simple psychology.

The first part of the trick the magician tells everyone to Give it a try, but make sure you don't hurt yourself, try not to strain bla bla bla" Lots of negative or weakening suggestions, People put their fingers in place with no expectancy to be able to lift and their brains also worried about injury.
the result, no chance of lifting the tubby bitch up.

Then the magic part where they all put their hands above the persons head.
The magician advises everyone to imagine energy flowing from your hands going down into the person making them become lighter, and you stronger and all that jazz. and also advises that this time you will easily be able to pick the person up and they will feel light...

Massive amounts of possitive suggestion and reinforcement and belief. The people believe they can now lift the person up and also that there is no danger,
Their brain now is happy to send out as much charge as is needed and magically they lift the person into the air. 

If we can get our brain to believe that what we are about to do, we can do, then we can do it!
How many times have we done one more rep because we knew that last time we did a certain number?
or how many times have you lifted a weight and though, oh i must be a little more tired than expected to then only find you put on the wrong weights and you were lifting more than expected.

Energy pathways and neural pathways

For every muscle to move, it needs and electrical pulse, Our brain is a fist size electric power station that with tiny neuro chemical reactions it can send pulses of electricity down our neurons/nerves to our muscle cells and stimulate them to contract.  Put an EEG meter on your brain to measure your brianwaves and one on your bicep, now tense your bicep and you will see waves from brain and electricity in your guns.
Alternatively get an EMS machine like those ones you see girls using to get toned abs.... or Bruce lee/jason scott lee using. And ramp it up to the MAX right at the start and feel how much your muscle feels like it is going to explode!

There is only a certain amount of electricity/neurochemical reactions that can happen at any given moment.  The more you train the greater the connection and the ability to send greater pulses of electricity down the nerves.  You may not be actually making more electricity but there may just be less resistance between nerve endings and the nerves themselves may get larger, a bit like a thick electrical wire.

The same can happen at the other end, ie at the muscle end.  The cells/fibers have to be receptive to the signals, the more fatigued you are the higher the voltages that is needed.  Again put on the EMS toy, after about 20minutes you will find that you will have the power setting up to the max and it will feel just as intense as the lowest setting did at the start.

However this electric stuff is only a small part of the equation, as your cells have a shitload of functions it needs to perform to be able to contract, especially repeatedly.
We have multiple energy systems that kick into gear at different levels of A) intensity and B) duration
Simplest way to explain is by saying some exercises are Anaerobic(without oxygen) and others are Aerobic (uses oxygen)

Your body has to be able to switch fuel supplies and fuel consumption, smoothly and on the go when you do any exercise, starting off with your first energy provider ATP which can give you power for a very short length of time under 10 seconds, then you have your CP which may take you up to 20 seconds then you have your glycogen then fat.

So again the idea of being able to be at 100%potential is an impossible request as there is different levels of potential for different levels of exercise duration and intensity.  But again lets keep this back on something like Benchpress.

You also have 3 different types of muscle fibers, Imaginatively labeled as Type 1, Type 2a and Type 2b.

Type  1 is for long distance stuff, type 2 is more anaerobic. So again even if you were able to send down enough electricity to stimulate all the muscles some fibers don't work as well as they do at different intensities.  However you can change your muscle fibers, the more you train something the more a fiber will develop the necessary parts to fulfill its job, ie if you become a long distance runner your fibers will incorporate more mitochondria in them and become more efficient in longer duration exercises. (up to a point)

So again the potential of your muscles is actually only the potential of the type of muscles you can activate at any one time.

Take-away Message

Ok now that we know it is almost impossible to reach our true potential, what conclusions can we make that will help us get close to it?

1) To get close to the potential of the exercise we want, we need to aim for it.  By trying to do the heaviest bench-press each time, or alternatively, run the longest race each time, we develop our neural pathways and even muscle fiber type to better suit our goal.

2) Having a spotter is not as powerful as having a Great Spotter. Someone who can motivate you, help you focus, help you visualize and even pretend to help you when they are in fact not even touching your weights. This will decrease your inhibition, increase your security and promote you to unconsciously produce more power and force.

3) Its impossible to know what your potential is, so make a good guess, then double it. and strive to beat that.

4) Strength that can seem like magic can be obtained in just a few seconds, you just have to believe.

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