Do your body weight exercises suck compared to loaded ones?

by Marianne  - December 7, 2017

You can lift heavy KB or BB loads, but push-ups, planks, and other body weight exercises seem to BURN YOU OUT!

If this sounds like you, keep reading.

The other week I came across a post in the Girls Gone Strong Facebook Group, by a woman who described this very problem. She could lift heavy with relative ease, but when it came to push-ups and other body weight movements, she felt so weak, and she's stopped seeing progress. 

She's not alone. 

So what's going on here? How can you be so strong at lifting external loads, yet feel so weak at lifting your own body? 

Here's one possibility: you're too tense.

You've become so good at "bracing" and tensing up for those heavy loads, that you're bracing for bodyweight exercises like they're your 1 REP MAX. 

Any wonder you're tired!

You don't need to be tense or braced for all things or for the entire rep or set. Strength works best when it is paired with cycles of relaxation. You become more tense for exertion, but then you turn it down for the rest... and you must also turn it off when you're done. 

Imagine you have a dial to create and disperse tension as the task demands. Finding the appropriate tension, within the appropriate time will give your muscles a chance to rest. 

Let's consider the push-up:  Have you hit a plateau? Do you feel heavy and sluggish?

Next time you try a set, see how "on" you are during your sets? Do you perform them slowly and carefully or can you let up on the bracing as you lower to the floor/bench, then exert some tension for pushing back up? Speed them up so you can express more power. Slow and careful will only fatigue you quicker.

If you find yourself requiring a lot of tension at the start of your sets, you may need to regress the movement (by elevating your hands) so you can work on your motor pattern. This is a common issue with pull-up progressions: they're too much too soon, and require an over-load of tension before the motor pattern is established.

I've seen people remain tense during their entire set. Everything is done so carefully and controlled that there is no fluidity to their movement. It's just rigid.

Don't be rigid.

What else can contribute to this pattern of being too tense during exercise?

Think about what you're like when you're not training. Are you being overly stiff and tense doing every-day activities? Do you worry about your posture and sit/stand super straight all.the.time? Are you vigilant about not twisting or bending your back when you reach for something? Are you worried you'll get injured if you don't perform things with "perfect technique"? 

All of these habits may be making you better at being tense. But you may not even know you're doing it until you look for it. 

If you do find yourself habitually tensed up, try to relax. Let go and allow your body to move more freely. Take note of what true relaxation feels like. 

During exercises, take some reassurance that injury is unlikely to be due to imperfect form. Form (especially at low loads) isn't as important in preventing injury as we've been led to believe. Sure, there is a greater need for better biomechanics as the load gets heavy, but not when it's just your bodyweight. You're not an injury waiting to happen! (blog/rant to come on this) 

Your body is movement waiting to be freed.

Trust your body. Find your fluidity, smoothness, and gracefulness when you move. And breathe! Consciously look to feel what comes between "being on" and "being off". Most exercises are performed best somewhere in between.  

The more you can find the appropriate tension / relaxation cycle for the task you're doing, and turn the dial down in day-to-day activities (and especially at rest), the better recovered you'll be.

Your body will thank you and your strength should soar.

Below a video I extract from this week's coaching call for the Pull-Up Academy where I talk a little more about this.

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  1. I understand the concept about being to rigid and flexible, but i also think people will go either one way or the other. When they think “relax” we then see people drop their hips or their elbows start to flare out.

    I’ve found that some clients just have to be more rigid in order to maintain control, function and have correct form.

    1. That’s a good observation, I see that too. Though I’d consider that a lack of/deficit in motor control. To have either all on or all off is to be unable to control the dial. So I’d question whether they *need* to be so rigid when that tension is a cover/maladaptive mechanism for being unable to find somewhere in the middle. Maybe we could help them through some controlled movements under low load and see if they can turn it down/become more in control. Or teach them about how there is a place with less tension so they can explore backward from that high tension place. I like the RKC plank for doing that.

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