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© Pieter Derycke 2019
  • Pieter Derycke

Threat value and strength training - a question

“We are highly adaptive creatures. The predictable becomes, by definition, background, leaving the attention uncluttered, the better to deal with the random or unexpected.”

—Ian McEwan, Enduring Love


In 2009, I sent Keith Norris (from the Theory to Practice blog) an email with a question. Now I’m presenting it to my readers.


I recently thought of that same question and I’m still intrigued by it. Below is my original question, edited a little bit for the reader in 2015. The question needs quite a bit of introduction, so bear with me…


Music: You’ve got a friend (a fantastic live version of Donnie Hathaway!)


The idea and question I have is about the threat we have to cause to our organism, for training adaptation to occur. The threat we usually use is a physical, actual threat.


From my experiences as a physical therapist, and from the pain science and literature, I know that the actual threat can be different from the perceived threat. And it is the perceived threat that causes the central nervous system to produce pain. So the perceived threat causes the response.


I’m wondering if we could use this principle in strength/power training: changing the perceived threat instead of only the actual threat to augment the response.

Maybe I should digress a bit and first talk about the neurophysiology of pain. Pain-physiology is the stuff that got me thinking. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.


Pain is an active product of the brain, or more correct, the central nervous system. The injured tissue on its own cannot cause pain. It can only send nociceptive signals to the spinal cord. Nociception means ‘danger reception’. So the CNS can choose to produce pain (a little or a lot) or not. So pain is output, not input.


The CNS ‘answers’ two questions: is the signal dangerous enough? and is it a priority? It tries to answer these questions with the survival of the organism in mind. So it makes use of the context and environment, and of your past experiences, your culture, gender, education, …

If you sprain your ankle or pull a muscle, it is in your best interest to feel pain and change your behaviour (relative rest, limping and probably some overt pain behaviour (verbal and non verbal) to attract attention and help of your peers).


Now, the same sprain or pull can cause totally different reactions if the situation is different. As when your running away from a dangerous predator like a lion (to use the archetypical example). For you ankle or sprained muscle the same relative rest could be useful, but for the organism as a whole it is better to keep running and not feeling pain. And this of course is what happens: in these situations there is no pain. You probably know some spectacular similar stories.


Now this is something that happens all the time, not only in extreme situations. Almost everybody has experienced some pain (e.g. tooth ache, headache, …) that at some time disappears when you’re distracted. The distraction is something the CNS perceives as more important. This makes it really difficult for chronic pain patients to see the causes of their pain.


And of course, this also works the other way round: if your CNS is convinced there is danger, it will cause pain, even if there’s no danger signal coming from the tissues.

A very analogue situation is vision. Vision also is not a passive input, but an active construction of the CNS. We don’t see the ‘blind spots’ on our retina, because the CNS produces a congruent image. Illusions and illusionist use this principle. They use the constructions of the brain that are very useful in a real life situation in nature, but keep fooling us in the case of the illusion.


Even more analogue to pain are: hunger and thirst, the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, and fatigue. This because they all stimulate the organism to undertake some kind of action.


Of course this is also how placebo works: you tell somebody you gave them a painkiller, and the CNS changes its output because the meaning of the information has changed. The opposite (nocebo) also happens: you tell somebody the pill will lower the pain threshold, and indeed, they feel more pain. These are very consistent findings in pain science.


So the actual threat (the nociception from the tissue damage) is less important than the perceived threat. The perceived threat causes the reaction: pain. There is even no need for a real threat, there can be pain without nociception. Nociception is not enough, nor necessary for the production of pain.


Maybe also interesting is that pain is now view not only as a ‘feeling’ but as a CNS output including the ‘conscious sensation’, the sympathetic response, the immune response, the hormonal response, the behavioural response, and the motor response. We used to say that some muscles contract as a consequence of pain, now we know that this muscle tension is part of the pain.


Now, after this long digression through the incredibly interesting field of pain-physiology, back to power/strength training.


Do you think it is possible to use analogue mechanisms for increasing the physiological response to a workout? Do you have any thoughts about how to increase the perceived threat, without increasing the actual threat? This could have some advantages: could be safer because of the smaller actual threat. Or it could be better because of a greater response and thus better progress and health.


I have got some ideas:

  1. It could be that whole body, compound exercises are better because of the greater perceived threat. If you break a snatch exercise into components, and execute them separately, you could +/- do the same work, but with fewer results. Being fatigued from head to toe is (from evolutionary/survival perspective) more threatening than having isolated muscles or body parts fatigued. Of course a snatch could actually be ‘really’ more threatening. And of course it could be a bit of both.

  2. Another way of augmenting the perceived threat could be using imagery. Like imagining that you are being chased by a lion while doing your sprint workouts. Imagery is used in training movement/coordination patterns, and with pain patients. I have no idea of this has been used for power training or other physical conditioning.

  3. Another way the perceived threat influences the power/strength training could be the following: after a while of performing an exercise or exercise routine the organism gets less threatened because it gets used to it. Of course you could augment the actual real threat by making the exercise harder by doing more reps, or by using heavier weights, or your other typical progressions. But often the perceived threat stays rather low because of the familiarity of the organism with the exercise/routine. That’s when the plateau happens. A typical way of trying to get more results is using another strategy, another exercise or another routine. This causes the perceived threat to increase, and thus stimulates the organism to adapt further, even though the actual threat (the workload) may not be very different.


Although I really do think that the threats causing pain (and hunger, thirst, fear, …) are in some way similar to the ones causing physiological adaptations in the muscle tissue, cardiovascular system, …, there probably is a big difference between them:


The pain response (or for that matter, the hunger, thirst or fear) is probably a cheap thing for the organism. Muscle hypertrophy (and…) is probably much more expensive to get (and to keep).


Randolf Nesse (a Dr. writing a lot about Darwinian medicine) uses the analogy of the smoke detector system: it is better to be scared or have pain too often than too few. This would make sense: it is better to be scared too much by a noise in the bushes, although maybe 99% of the time it will be a false alarm. If you’re not scared, it will cause you damage that 1% of the time it is in fact a dangerous animal.


This is especially true if the cost of the response is rather cheap. Muscle adaptations (and …) probably are much more expensive and thus harder to get. I think…


To conclude: threatening the organism causes a response, and the perceived threat is more important than the actual threat. Using this principle could increase the training effects (and/or make them safer).


So after this long explanation, do you have any ideas on this? Do you think it is a valuable hypothesis? And do you see any practical application? Do you have any suggestions?

You can surely feel the strong influence of pain science, and my two main influences on that subject: Lorimer Moseley and David Butler. You can go and read the original post and comments here: http://ancestralmomentum.com/2009/10/more-on-central-nervous-system-priming/


I’ll cite myself (is that vanity?) from the comments:


What I’m really interested in is increasing the response of the training (the super-compensation), not by increasing the actual threat, but by increasing the perceived threat only.


An example (and maybe a rather ridiculous one, I must admit) could be using hypnosis, so an organism ‘thinks’ it has lifted 100kg, but it actually only lifted 95kg. The perceived threat is bigger, the actual threat is the same. Do you think that something like this could cause better training results (hypertrophy, cardiovascular, … real tissue responses) So what I’m looking for is some kind of training method that uses this principle. Something very concrete like: sets and reps, going to failure or not, …


Keith, I agree that a lot of the ‘new’ things in fitness and strength training (core, balance, kettlebells, mace, …) have good results because of the fact it is new and thus more threatening. This does not mean those methods are better, on their own (they could be). But it also doesn’t mean they are worthless.


If used with correct intensity and recovery, they could increase the variety in threats, the randomness in training, and thus the results.


Oh, randomness probably increases the perceived threat. CNS adapts rather quick to regular impulses. Art De Vany talks a lot about this, and it makes sense to me. Regularity = familiarity = less threat for CNS.


Reading all these interesting comments, and thinking some more, I think you could say that increasing the perceived threat can do several things:

  1. Give you a fight of flight like boost (overwriting the protective mechanisms that apply in ‘normal situations), so you can actually perform better, lift more, sprint harder… This can be good, but possibly dangerous (because there’s no protection). This method should be used carefully and maybe sparingly (competition only?).

  2. Block the organism and its performance/output because the perceived threat is too big and the adaptive protection comes in and inhibits action. Even if the actual threat is not really that big. Think fear of heights: walking on a balance beam 30cm above the ground is ok, walking on the same beam 3m above the ground will be really different, although the actual difficulty/threat is probably the same. These performances probably need visualisation/imagery that lowers the perceived threat.

  3. And my third possibility is the most hypothetical one: increasing the perceived threat without actually doing more could lead to better results.


Ok, the question is still the same. Anyone with some ideas? I’d be happy to know about them.


Thanks for reading and contributing,


Pieter