test workouts and performance under stress

Test Workouts and Performance Under Stress

Stephane Roberts interviewed me a while ago along with Mark Twight, Martin Rooney and Dan John to contribute for a TMuscle article called Pushing the Limits. He asked me for my thoughts on the “test” workouts to push mental and physical capacity to a breaking point.

Here’s my portion of the interview:

“I don’t like most “challenge” or “test” workouts much because they seldom test much of anything. They just hurt. It doesn’t take any coaching knowledge whatsoever to throw together a random combination of exercises and numbers and then add the words “for time” at the end.

I’m living in a tent in Africa right now and I have a pet monkey named Frankie. If I wanted, I could make a little grid in the sand with exercises and numbers and design my workout based on which ones Frankie left footprints on over the course of an hour.

“Oh, so today we’re doing 25 burpees, then 10 pullups, then 35 overhead presses, then… poop, then more burpees….”

I kinda’ think, based on the types of routines I’m seeing, that a lot of trainers have pet monkeys.

A common one is doing 100 burpees for time. Well, of course it’s hard. They’re fucking burpees! But do you have any idea what that’s doing to someone’s spine?

Go to one of those gyms sometime and watch how those burpees are performed. Violent, uncontrolled lumbar extension followed immediately by a little jump done off the toes, which emphasizes a quad and lumbar dominant movement pattern, flawed mobility, and internal hip rotation.

That pattern will fuck people up, eventually. Why would you want to practice doing it? It’s like saying that someone is a good shot with an assault rifle because they can empty their entire magazine really fast towards a target. Did you hit anything? Consider all the variables involved.

A burpee is a simple movement too, and that’s the thing. Not many people can actually do simple things well. Basic squats, lunges, pushups, and pull-ups are still flawed in the vast majority of trainees. Each rep is reinforcing a movement pattern and if that pattern is flawed, that “hard workout” is just a setup for long-term movement flaws, limitations, and future injuries.

Now take that movement pattern and put it into a grueling test environment with a bunch of competitive people and you make it even more stressful. For many, being physically tested amongst friends and rivals is one of the most emotionally stressful and genuine experiences they’ll have. People want to puke before it even starts because of nervousness and anticipation.

This ingrains these motor patterns in an environment of high emotional stress. However, skill-recall is environmentally specific. If a trainee does ten burpees perfectly in a calm, slow-paced and controlled environment but does them poorly when racing against time and through pain, the only pattern that they’re learning to use in the future under stress is the shitty one.

So let’s say you do this thing called thinking ahead. You’ve got someone who wants to perform consistently at a high level of athleticism under any condition. Competitive environments are stressful and as Brasidas of Sparta said, “Fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless.”

It’s not really what you know how to do when it’s easy to perform that matters, it’s what you’re capable of when your world is falling apart and your body is awash in pain.

How do you bridge the gap between low stress performance and high stress performance without ingraining skill degradation? The same way you teach a new trainee how to perform a complex skill in a low-stress environment: Progression.

Think about it, you wouldn’t take a brand new trainee and have them start ripping heavy deadlifts off the floor. Similarly, when you begin to progress an athlete into emotionally and physically stressful environments, you must regress the complexity of the skill being practiced in order to first establish a foundation of quality upon which to build.

This means breaking movements down into simpler, more easily reproduced components and developing them individually before integrating them into more complex and technically demanding movements.

The athlete must be able to “turn their brain off” and just go, producing simple, quality movement the whole time.

The patterns or characteristics we’re looking for here are things like:

Glute-driven hip extension. Watch that they aren’t trying to dominate the movement with internal hip rotation, knee extension, or lumbar compensation. Very few people are strong enough in their posterior chain relative to their anterior chain.

Spinal stability (lumbar). The lumbar spine should be transmitting force, not generating it. Watch a movement like a burpee. If their spine is flexing like a leaf spring when they hit the bottom, they need to be stopped. Same with deadlifts. It’s either high quality or immediately regressed to something simpler.

Scapular function. Watch their pullups, pushups, and rows. Are they finishing the pulls by locking their scaps into depression and/or retraction? Are they compensating with protraction, elevation, spinal flexion or by wrenching their humeri beyond a normal range of motion? Are their scaps retracted at the bottom of their pushups or are they winging out?

Postural integrity. This is a holistic concept meaning that everything in the body related to joint balance, mobility-stability, and force couples is functioning well. You don’t induce an axial load and external rotation on someone with a hunchback and internal humeral rotation by throwing a bar on their back. You’re just going to fuck them up.

You have to first break down the foundations of their posture and correct thoracic mobility, scapular function, and internal/external rotator balance. If they begin to regress towards the aforementioned shitty pattern the workout must be stopped and regressed.

All this means that test workouts shouldn’t be complicated. This is why we do things like safety bar carries, farmer’s walks, and tire drags in the NSW Mile. With a foundation established, dragging a tire, carrying a rickshaw, or walking with a safety bar demands “simple yet difficult” motor patterns to be reproduced. No matter how fast the person goes they should be able to maintain quality of movement long after cognitive function is left behind in a wake of suffering.

Cause what we’re really testing here is the mind; the ability to understand that what you’re doing hurts and that the only way for it to end is to do it more. This is where you see people break and it’s not a physical failure.”

A few days later I came across a forum discussing the article and the various responses from the contributors. A number of people expressed incredulity at the importance of mental capacity in an athlete’s performance and at the value of the psychological side of performance in general. I posted the following response:

“There are a variety of occupations referred to as “high reliability occupations” in which demands are high and failure can have catastrophic consequences. Military special operations is easily one of them.

I spent six years screening for and operating in special operations force in the Navy and saw literally thousands of people quit or fail in the selection process.

This quitting and failure is primarily psychological in nature during the selection training and an operators performance in a high stress, high threat environment is as well. The mind drives the body.

This is my opinion, but it is well backed by a growing body of research. For example, look into the work of Dr. Eric Potterat, who is a psychologist working at the Naval Special Warfare Center where SEAL and SWCC training is conducted and who is involved in a large scale project called OptiBrain investigating the psychological foundation of performance under stress.

In an interview on NavySEALs.com he had this to say on the subject, “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the SEAL candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Situps, pushups, running, swimming — off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans — this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”

Further, you can look into the research of guys like Dr. Paul Bartone, who developed the Dispositional Resiliency Scale: A personality test evaluating people for “hardy-resilient” personality traits which has been shown in studies to reliably predict the success of individuals in Army Special Forces Selection training.

Beyond the military, research has been around since at least the seventies (Maddi and Kobasa, for example, 1979) illustrating that individuals with high hardy-resilient personalities are more capable of maintaining both mental and physical health under stress than those with low-resilient personalities in a variety of occupations from taxi drivers to AT&T executives.

Interestingly, a recent study suggests that the individuals most likely to fail under pressure are those who, in the absence of pressure, have the highest capacity for success (Beilock and Carr 2005). These findings suggest that simulations may play an increasingly important role in identifying the potential and training status of optimal performance in extreme environments.

That study, along with a massive body of research by men like Dave Grossman, illustrate the critical importance of stress inoculation training and the importance of psychological resilience for high level performance under extreme stress.

Not only are there studies establishing psychological correlates to performance under stress in avenues as specific as Special Forces Selection, there is also a significant body of research demonstrating biological markers of performance under stress and success in special operations selection. Dr Charlie Morgan of Yale, for example, (The guy whose work I cite in the opening of my Combat Psychology and Sports Performance article on TMuscle) has established that the neurotransmitter Neuropeptide Y as well as the hormone DHEA are positively correlated with successful performance in Special Forces Selection, SERE training, and Naval Special Programs selection courses.

To say that mental strength/capacity is irrelevant or even not a primary deciding factor in high level performance under stress demonstrates nothing more than a strongly held opinion on a subject which the speaker obviously has no actual knowledge. Does mental strength matter when it comes to getting big, pretty biceps? Of course not. Unfortunately, that’s the only frame of reference that most TMuscle (and I’ll assume readers of this forum) readers have and the one to which they will apply what Mark Twight and I wrote.

The mental components of performance are measurable and testable through a variety of means and their importance has been and is still being established within the scientific community.

Does this mean that Dan John’s take on test workouts is “wrong?” No. It’s just the same question viewed from a different perspective. I use workouts like the type Dan spoke about frequently and in fact they do have an odd way of pushing potential in individuals. It’s the type of workout we did and do in special operations communities just as (probably more) often than the type of test workouts that I talked about.”

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