Fire it Up and Back it Down – Applied Autonomics

Over the weekend I had a chance to visit some family and get in a few workouts with old friends and family members. I was there visiting because some people who are close to me are going through a trying time, but they are going to get through it. I did my best to be supportive (which still means I was somewhat destructive, but that’s what you get with a bull in a China shop). I applied Dave Grossman’s advice of leading with “I’m glad you’re ok, and is there anything I can do to help?”. These guys were already pretty overwhelmed, so aside from making my typical snide comments and poor attempts at humor I never really got to give them the advice I would want to.

Before I get in to that I have to give you a crash course in the autonomic nervous system and its two branches. Autonomics are mostly (we’ll get in to that at the end during the advice) subconscious part of the nervous system that works with arousal. On one side we have the Sympathetic nervous system which is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, the other side of the coin is the Parasympathetic nervous system referred to as the “rest and digest” response. We rarely are fully dominate on one branch or the other. The key is the ebb and flow of life tips the scales to one side or the other.

When it is time to train or throw down in general you want a bigger dose of your sympathetic nervous system, it gives you increased contractility of your muscles and your heart. Speeds up your reflexes and lets you physically perform. It does this at the expense of your digestive rate, higher cognitive functioning, fine motor skills, general recovery, and much more. You go too high on this and that’s when you have a total breakdown in skill when it comes to athletics (read about catastrophe theory) and fall apart when it is time to speak in public or otherwise. The bigger part this can have is the vasoconstriction increases your blood pressure especially if you aren’t exercising when this happens and this in turn means you get less blood flow to everything that isn’t exercising muscle. Not a good thing when you are trying to think clearly, recover from anything, and or not beat yourself down.

The parasympathetic system does the opposite, it slows down your heart rate and decreases your blood pressure to everywhere in your body. This is where you are able to relax and recover from exercise. This is a bad situation if you are looking for maximal force production, power, or aggression, but most of your life you want to be here and able to recover. (There is fun research in this area that says couples that have an effect of decreasing sympathetic tone when they are with their significant other are more likely to be together with time (aka you tend to be with someone who doesn’t stress you out)). This is also the state of mind you want to be in while you are learning things in the academic sense or picking up skills for the first time.

Now let’s get in to a few ways to turn up either side of the spectrum when the situation calls for it. These are based on both personal experience and advice I’ve been given over the years along with some literature.


Breathe through your mouth – Sounds simple and it is. I picked this up from Bryan Mann at Mizzou when getting ready for big lifts taking short fast breathes through your mouth can help get your aggression up (which we are looking for an epinephrine response so this is what we want).

Pace – Also from Bryan Mann. Pace back and forth while you are focusing to help increase your drive along with added points for picturing yourself as a caged lion ready to attack. In my experience this works, if you are not in good enough shape to do this without it gassing you out than this is probably not for you

Smack yourself – In the face is the most effective and most likely to get you some weird looks. Turns out pain tends to wake you up and get you aggressive and lord knows a smack in the mouth is high on that scale. I got this from training with Rick Perry (assistant strength coach for Da Bears) before he floor pressed 470lbs. and it was at that moment I figured this works, also to never mess with Rick.

Inhalants – Nose torque, ammonia, or smelling salts are just like the aforementioned smack in the mouth only now this is done to your nasal passages. Be careful not to go too hog wild here otherwise you might get a bit jittery.

Imagery – Picture things in your mind that make you angry or otherwise. Picture yourself dominating the weight, opponent, or event. The more detailed this is the better your outcomes tend to be, and this can be a good way to get excited. This again is from Bryan Mann, read his work if you get a chance.

Yelling – Self-explanatory, but don’t be the guy that screams to deadlift 225. I’m not the biggest fan of this since you can greatly impact those around you, but it can be useful. I also am a fan of having a word or two that you shout, but I’ll save that for a later post. Key here is conditioning with that word (doing it over and over when you are wanting to be in a particular state), and yelling in general can be a good way to speed on a black out or lose your tightness so be careful here.


Rest – pretty simple here, just relax. Don’t be on your phone or playing video games, just sit still or lay down and relax. Let your body come down and lose tension. Turns out losing consciousness for 8 hours a night (on average) is good for not just mental, but physical health. Nearly all of us are sleep deprived and this deprivation does some interesting things like decrease testosterone and insulin sensitivity, but the entertaining effect is over time we become more confident in our abilities with less sleep even though we are testing worse and drugs don’t necessarily help this.

Breathe – This is more than just what you do all day. This is a good way (as described by Dave Grossman and others) as a way to help turn down the sympathetic side and is something we can all gain from learning how to do. The key here is slow steady deep breathes. Dave Grossman recommends “combat breathing” which is 4 seconds in, hold 4 seconds, 4 seconds out, hold 4 seconds, repeat. Doing this can calm you down, I personally used this in a few stressful situations as a means to maintain calm before presentations. Another way to look this up is sometimes referred to as “box breathing” and looking up either will give a much better way to instruct and implement.  Specifically focusing on the exhalation is more important for increasing parasympathetic drive. Also incorporate this while stretching and see how much more effective it seems. Anytime you find yourself in a stressful situation focusing on your breath can help you calm down and stay even keel. This would be my top advice for most everyone after getting sleep.

Take a drink – This is also from Dave Grossman, partially for the fact that it effects your breathing, and lord knows we can all use more hydration. Like everyone else I try and stay hydrated all day and this seems to be another mechanism to be calm. From my personal experience being dehydrated is definitely stressful so having the balance here definitely helps me.

Mindfulness and slow exercise – You can do Tai Chi, Yoga, slow cardio (like walking). This does elevate the heart rate slightly, but keeps you relaxed and most likely will help enhance recovery from hard exercise due to increased cardiac output with no increase in vasoconstriction like harder exercise will cause.

So there are some simple ways to help turn up or down whichever side of the autonomic nervous system you are interested in. Both systems are good and necessary, but we need to avoid having too much dominance of one over the other (most of us probably have a bit too much sympathetic in our lives). The parasympathetic stuff was what I hoped to have time to explain, but there was enough already going on without me adding in my two cents. If you are going through stressful times in your life try applying a few of these ideas to help your body along, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. If you have any questions on this since it was a crash course let me know.


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