Learn how to blend your exercise preferences with biofeedback to help you get stronger and fitter.
Courtney Scott’s back hurt. Bad.
For months, the 43-year-old mother of two had been working with a coach to master Olympic lifts — hoisting heavy barbells overhead. But she soon found that no matter what she did, the lifting caused pain.
“My trainer kept telling me I needed to push through it,” she says. But Scott is a physician’s assistant focused on spinal health, and she knew that was the wrong approach. “I kept thinking there had to be a better way.”
Eventually Scott discovered intuitive training, thanks to Mark Schneider, NASM-CPT, a Minneapolis-based strength coach who specializes in the approach.
Also known as autoregulatory training, intuitive training is based on the idea that every stressor — no matter how big or small — pushes us toward moving, feeling, and performing either better or worse. What constitutes better or worse one day will not necessarily hold true the next. It’s a flexible approach to exercise in which workouts are structured around your daily fluctuations in energy and focus.
Through simple biofeedback tests, you can determine how to train to live up to your body’s fullest potential on that day. The tests clarify the clues your unconscious mind is sending you, so you can distinguish between the days in the gym when you need a nudge, and the days when you need a break.
A test might encourage you to practice squats on what would otherwise have been a deadlift day; introduce a high-intensity sprint session on what’s scheduled to be a rest day; or hold back on the depth of a yoga pose that you normally pull off without a problem.
These biofeedback tests include heart-rate variability (HRV) as well as DIY heart-rate and range-of-motion assessments, which assess responsiveness to different stimuli and readiness to train.
Experts point out that autoregulation has little to do with mood or a sense of desire or obligation to train (or not). Rather, it blends subjective and objective measures of your readiness for exercise, explains Jeff Rosga, NASM-CPT, NASM-PES, senior director of Life Time Academy in St. Paul, Minn. It helps answer the question “How am I doing today?”
Schneider introduced Courtney Scott to one of the simplest DIY biofeedback tests: a toe touch to measure range of motion. She performed the test at the start of every workout to determine her baseline for the day. Then she repeated the toe touch after each exercise. This information allowed both Scott and Schneider to know her capacity for exercise on each training day and see which movements tested best. The pair prioritized those movements and pushed her effort based on her overall capacity. When exercises tested well, she worked harder. When something tested poorly, she backed off.
The system initially felt odd to Scott, who was used to pushing through discomfort, but she kept at it. “I learned it was OK to listen to my body,” she says. “It opened a whole new world.”
Now, two years later, Scott is lifting heavier than ever — pain-free. She’s closing in on a 200-pound deadlift, and her endurance has shot up.
“I have bigger goals than just lifting,” she says. “I want to stay injury-free. I want to keep up with my kids. Recently, I took up jujitsu. I attribute all of it to this intuitive way of training.”
Tune In, Get Fit
At first glance, intuitive training sounds like a fancy name for doing whatever you like in the gym — and avoiding what you don’t. But it has gained recognition in recent years as a viable, even essential, tool for athletes.
Biofeedback is the body’s physiological response to external stimuli, and science has shed new light on its power to guide our behavior in ways that elude our conscious mind. Progressive trainers are discovering how to apply this.
In practice, intuitive training is more structured than its name implies. Before, during, and after your workout, you perform one or more brief biofeedback tests. Some are subjective, like responding to a question or series of questions; others are objective, such as a physical task. Your response or performance determines how you should proceed in your workout. Pass the test and you might increase the weight on your next set. Fall short and you might skip the exercise you’d planned, or even hang it up for the day.
Testing makes the intuitive approach more concrete than simply following a gut feeling. “Intuition is not intuitive. Think of it as your unconscious response to something,” Schneider says. “If you’re thinking, I don’t want to do this exercise, that’s judgment — not intuition.”
Biofeedback tests summarize your mental, physical, and emotional readiness for an exercise or workout, explains Rosga. “You want to do a self-inventory of your physical and mental state — your rest, recovery, nutritional status. All those things help to determine the direction you should take your training that day.”
Training intuitively is a technique you use within the context of a larger, well-designed fitness program. Schneider and his team guide people through this in a group fitness setting.
At Life Time, trainers are taught to use biofeedback testing — including HRV and heart-rate testing — to ensure clients’ safe and steady progress.
Intuitive training gives you the opportunity to make the most of what you have at your disposal, says exercise scientist Eric Helms, MS, author of the Muscle and Strength Pyramid series, and a strength and physique coach who uses biofeedback to inform his programming.
“It allows you to strike while the iron is hot and perform in the sweet spot of your capacities on any given day,” Helms says.
Find Your Biofeedback Test
Getting started with intuitive training is straightforward. Begin with an honest assessment of your physical, mental, and emotional condition, explains Rosga. Take a moment — by yourself or with a trainer — to check in with the general state of your body prior to working out. This is a way of respecting your body’s boundaries, he says, while reducing the possibility of injury.
Checking in sounds like an obvious first step, but it’s one even longtime exercisers often skip, sometimes to their detriment. When you disregard fatigue, pain, stress, and other factors that affect your body’s ability to work out, Rosga says, you not only set yourself up for a bad workout that might result in injury — you also reinforce the idea that exercise is a chore, which can kill motivation over the long term.
Next, apply objective measurements. They can serve as useful tools to balance or counter subjective -assessments of how you feel.
“Technology [and self-tests] can affirm what you may be feeling,” Rosga explains. “It can also validate what approach to training you should take that day. It connects the objective to the sub-jective, ensuring a better, smarter approach to your training.”
Here are the basic tests and how to perform them.
• Heart-rate testing simply measures the number of times your heart beats in a minute. It can be done either manually (by feeling a pulse point, counting beats for 15 seconds, and multiplying the result by four) or with a heart-rate monitor.
Obtain a baseline by measuring your heart rate each morning for a week and calculating your average. Then compare subsequent days: A resting morning heart rate that’s five to 10 beats a minute above the average can be a sign of fatigue, stress, or even impending illness — good indications that you should ease up on your training. A heart rate that’s at, or a few beats below, average suggests you’re good to go.
• Heart-rate variability is the change in time, or variation, between successive heart beats over time. Applying the right HRV calculations at the right times offers insight into how your autonomic nervous system — your body’s biocontrol center — is functioning.
Many factors affect HRV. Circadian rhythm, hormonal fluctuations, and other internal processes cause it to slowly rise and fall. Mental, physical, and emotional experiences, as well as rest, also affect HRV. Exercise is a stressor to the body; if you’re already experiencing a higher level of stress than normal and you exercise at a high intensity or volume, it is like introducing a double negative — which can negate positive progress. Ideally, you want to trigger acute stressors that cause a change in your HRV every few days, and follow it with adequate recovery to allow improvement. An app such as Elite HRV or HRV4Training will measure shifts in variability, establish a baseline relative to you, and offer training and recovery feedback over time. (Learn more about HRV tracking at “Expert Answers: What is heart-rate variability?“)
• The toe-touch test is a simple biofeedback tool you can use at any time throughout a workout. Bend forward with your legs straight (avoid locking your knees) and let your fingertips fall toward your toes without stretching. The farther they go (in relation to your usual capacity — shins, ankles, toes), the more primed you are for exercise.
There’s nothing magical about the toe-touch movement, says Schneider. “Almost any physical task can work: grip strength, range of motion, dexterity.” The point is to get an objective sense of how well your body is functioning.
Schneider has his clients perform a baseline toe touch right after a general warm-up. Take note of how far your fingertips fall without added effort (say, to your ankles), and move on to an easy effort of your first exercise of the day. After your set, retest. If fingertips arrive at the same point or farther than before, it’s a green light for that exercise. If they don’t, modify the exercise — or try something different — and repeat the process.
Once you find a move that tests well, follow your program as planned, repeating the toe-touch move every set or two. “If it keeps testing well, keep going,” says Schneider. But if you hit a red light — suddenly you don’t bend as far — stop the exercise and move on. Keep hitting that same wall, no matter which exercise you choose? Call it a day.
Schneider has seen impressive results: Long-distance runners perform better with lower weekly mileage; competitive powerlifters come back from injury stronger than ever; regular gym-goers find issues begin to clear up, whether it’s knee, back, or shoulder pain, or structural problems such as scoliosis.
Intuitive Training in Groups
Biofeedback is not relegated to solitary fitness adventures such as lifting and running. While it might feel odd at first, you can apply this self-knowledge in group fitness settings, too, says Rosga.
One of the most motivating — and effective — aspects of group fitness classes, such as cycling, yoga, and boot camps, is the encouragement and guidance the instructor and fellow classmates provide. At the same time, that extra push makes it easy to push yourself too hard or in ways that are not in your best interest.
By assessing your readiness to train prior to a class, you can determine how much effort and intensity is appropriate. Continue to check in throughout the class, and make necessary modifications to ramp exercises up or dial them down.
Rosga suggests having a quick conversation with your trainer or instructor before class about what you hope to get out of the day’s session. If you’re not comfortable initiating a dialogue, simply knowing your intention will make it that much easier to stay true to yourself and get the most out of your training.
Tuning in to your intuition gives you more autonomy — and ultimately more responsibility — for your exercise program. Over time, Schneider says, taking note of how your body responds to exercise (or any stimulus) can become a skill set with implications for your life outside the gym.
Many people ignore their physical and emotional needs. Respecting our bodies’ limits in the gym can help us see the subtle signals we often overlook at work, in relationships, and in our home lives. Once we start noticing, it’s hard to stop. And that awareness is the first step to taking action toward achieving our goals.
This originally appeared as “Body Talk” in the January-February 2018 issue of Experience Life.