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Deliberately Non Optimal

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

In previous posts we opened the door to a particular expansive subject, which is to say the art and science of using physical training to change emotional and mental states. Now just about everybody knows that physical training has positive effects that reaches beyond the physical sphere. But the inquiry usually stops there, which is unfortunate. When the discussion does go further then it mostly focuses on discussing ‘runner’s high’ and the endorphin released after endurance events.

We are after altogether different game here. How might the use of strength work be utilized to achieving specific changes in emotional and mental states? In this post we will be taking the beginning steps to discuss just that. It is difficult subject to broach in which no final answers can be given – at least yet – for one because these tools will differ from person to person depending on psychological makeup and training experience.

Lets start by touching on why we would want to use resistance training for these ends to begin with. First of all, in resistance training we know before the fact what we are going to do. In other activities, such as martial arts, it is much more chaotic – and this can make it difficult to control the intensities and thusly achieve the specific after effects. Following on from this, it is possible to achieve modulate the levels of exertion without incurring an increased risks of injury. And corrections can be made in real time. Making effective and safe corrections largely hinges on the skill of the coach. No, I am most definitely not talking utilisation of Olympic lifting here.

One place to begin looking for the answer is in the immediate and practical. What does practical experience tells us? Years spent in the gym, doing different programs represents valuable field work. We would learn more from talking with experienced gym rats and bodybuilders than any physiology book. Possibly a deep dive into some of the murkier internet forums would be a viable field of research.

In either case the first and immediately obvious point here is that different workouts have very different effects. A low volume workout, but at done at a high intensity leaves you feeling altogether different from a workout with a massive volume and at a lower intensity. The former often has an energetic quality, leaving the body feeling non-exhausted and often have a similarly motivating effect on the emotional tone. The latter tends towards more bodily exhaustion, but if the workout has a good feel works better for digesting heavy and brooding emotions.

Personal experience with particular exercises also plays into this, and varies from person to person. Also, some individuals may respond in altogether different manner.

Then there is super-effort type workouts, the super classic example being 20 rep squats. Which pushes beyond what we would normally do. This pushing quality has value, although it is a tool that should stay in the box most of the time.

A point about programming, that is the relationship between workouts, is that the optimal training frequency for a particular trainee might be 3x/weekly full body workouts for their goals, training age etc. But that may not be in keeping with the best use of after effects on emotional and metal states. In this instance, it would feasible to prescribe mini workouts, working on smaller muscle groups which have shorter recovery times, in between the big workouts – or prescribe gym work that serves as active recovery.

Another place we can look for clues to for a taxonomy of the effects of different training methods is in the literature particularly older physical culture and martial arts literature. When reading such texts you will often come across passages describing the exercises as having ‘invigorating’, ‘a tonic’ and ‘uplifting’ effect. Rather than focusing on these texts as antiquated and premodern attempts at formulating present day training physiology this could potentially tell us something about what the people who did these exercises experienced as a consequence of doing them.

What we will eventually run up against here is that the indicated training methods for the individual will begin to diverge from what is currently known as ‘best practice’. That is of course why I have labelled this post ‘deliberately non optimal’. The training may be non optimal from the perspective of maximum progressive overload – in the short term that is – but instead be optimal be optimal for the effects that it induces in the whole human.

[This blog was first posted on]

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