Understanding the Psychological Benefits of Intense Weight Training

Benefits of Intense Training

If you've bottled up your emotions.. release them with fitness

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A renowned exercise physiologist and author of numerous high-intensity bodybuilding instructional books urges his readers to train as hard as possible but keep the face relaxed during exercise because contraction of small facial muscle unnecessarily wastes energy and raises blood pressure. I have to disagree. Keeping a serene, relaxed face during an intense set of exercise makes about as much sense as laughing hysterically during Zen meditation. I'm sure any accomplished powerlifter, weightlifter, shot-putter or martial artist would agree with me. You can definitely generate more power if you shout or yell as you make an intense effort at a lift, throw or strike.

But there is a more significant reason why you shouldn't be shy about grunting and groaning loudly or making contorted faces when you're exerting yourself to the limit in the gym. You achieve a better form of physical release for trapped emotional stresses and frustrations than by simply going through the motions with a calm and relaxed demeanor.

Emotions need physical releases, and the more excited the physical action is, the greater the release will be. For example, shouting is a better form of release for anger than merely whispering (especially if you use cuss words), and punching something in addition to shouting would be even better. If you hear a good joke, a solid, knee-slapping belly laugh is a better release than just a gentle chuckle. Have you ever been in a crowded bus or elevator when you recalled something really funny and had to fight off the impulse to burst out laughing? Wasn't too comfortable, was it? So imagine what negative emotions like anger and grief could do to your mind and body if you always tried to suppress them and deny them releases.

If you have some bottled-up emotions you need to let go of, take them out on the weights instead of on your kids, sweetheart or co-workers. Strength athletes and martial artists who train with extreme intensity tend to be very gentle outside the training arena because they are dissipating all their aggression through their workouts. Then specifically how is weight training supposed to help you release emotional stresses?

First, let's look at the fundamental nature of pain and how we react to it. Grunting and grimacing are natural, spontaneous and necessary reactions to and releases of a sensation of physical pain and extreme discomfort. Shouting "Ouch!" and making a contorted face when we cut our finger some-how seems to ease some of the pain. It would be magnified if you were somehow prevented from making a sound or a face. Animals howl in response to pain. Primitive, prehistoric man, like other mammals, had primarily physical pains to deal with. As humans evolved and societies developed, pain became affective - that is, emotional - as well as sensory in nature.

Modern humans have generally done a good job at avoiding physical pain, and consequently have had fewer reasons to grunt or grimace in response to pain. However, they have not had as much control over emotional pain in today's complex society. Weeping became the primary physical release for grief and other forms of emotional pain for humans. For extreme emotional pain you achieve greater release by weeping loudly and with a contorted face, proof that grunting and grimacing are still an integral part of releasing any forms of pain, physical or emotional. If two responsive actions synergistically achieve a desired result, one action without the other can do the same, although to a lesser extent. Thus grunting and grimacing alone without weeping can still provide some outlet for emotional pain, and may be easier for those who have difficulty wailing loudly, although it may not have quite the effect of the two responsive actions combined. Because of the general lack of physical pains to deal with in today's society, humans have lost much of the opportunity, ability and means to indirectly release emotional pain by grunting and grimacing. If you went around grunting and grimacing for no apparent reason in your daily life, you would certainly risk being institutionalized. This was the premise behind "scream therapy" which was in vogue in the early '70s. One was given a safe and permissive group environment led by a competent therapist to recall emotionally painful events and release them by screaming. "Once someone experiences his deep feelings by screaming them out, he is relieved of a great part of the burden ... Within this process he learns to feel genuine pleasure - the pleasure of being himself, full of choices about his life."

Hard workouts in the gym can also give you the opportunity and excuse to make loud sounds and contorted faces to release emo-tional pain without worrying about someone dialing 911. By physically responding to and directly releasing a sensation of immediate physical pain - such as when you're doing a brutal set of squats, grunting and grimacing with each rep - one is able to also provide the necessary indirect outlet for any underlying emotional pain unrelated to that immediate physical pain. This does not mean that prior to an intense set of exercise a trainee is supposed to brood over whatever ails him emotionally. On the contrary, once a body-builder enters the gym he must concentrate completely on his workout and keep all other thoughts out of his mind regardless of how much emotional stress he may be under. Unlike in a scream-therapy session, he need not be concerned with or be aware of the nature of any emotional pain while exercising. Just by focusing on the exercise, being aware of the resulting pain, and physically responding to it, he finds an outlet for the underlying emotional pain. At the subconscious level the outlet for the immediate sensation of physical pain, which is much easier to release by grunting and groaning, will also substitute for the much-needed but unavailable outlet for the bottled-up deeper emotional pain. As a result both types of pain are let go through the same outlet. That is how a guy who is hurt after being dumped by his girlfriend might be able to diminish some of the emotional pain by doing an intense workout in the gym, even if he was not thinking about her during the workout.

The greater the sensation of immediate physical pain and the more acute the physical reaction thereto, the greater the indirect release will be for any deep-seated emotional pain. The louder you scream and the more contorted your face becomes during exercise, the greater the release will be. Nevertheless, the reaction must be appropriate for the sensation. You have to actually experience the physical pain, and that pain must be severe enough to warrant such grunting and grimacing. If you do an easy, lazy set of an exercise you won't feel any physical pain or release any, and hence you provide no indirect outlet for your underlying emotional pain. One must have the courage to actually seek the greatest amount of physical pain and meet it head on in a workout. Those famous last words in bodybuilding "No pain, no gain" apply not just to building muscular size and strength but also to maintaining emotional health.

Intense weight training, especially when you do barbell squats to absolute failure and beyond, can be the most brutal and stressful form of exercise in existence. As long as you keep them brief and infrequent, bodybuilding workouts can provide the severest form of physical pain in short bursts without damaging your physical and mental health, to which one can respond both vocally and facially. By intensifying one's training and pushing to one's limits and by allowing oneself the freedom to grunt loudly and grimace in response to the corresponding pain and discomfort, one will develop a greater mental capacity to handle, release and avoid fearing not only physical pain but emotional pain as well. Don't worry about what other gym members think if you make a lot of noise while working out. Just make sure you're pushing yourself to the absolute limit. If they find you annoying, too damn bad! You need not concern yourself with the insecurity of others. Wouldn't you rather make better gains and feel cleansed mentally after the workout?

Medical studies have even shown that physical release of negative emotions has physiological benefits. Crying is a necessary physical release for sadness. The chemical composition of tears produced when crying as a result of sadness is different from tears produced while cutting onions or yawning. Sad tears contain chemicals secreted when we are under emotional stress. But big boys don't cry? In another research project men encouraged to weep intensively and uncontrollably experienced as much as a 30-percent increase in testosterone levels after crying. A few even grew more hair on their chests!141 Testosterone is of course the male sex hormone necessary for building and maintaining a high degree of muscular strength and size. This means that big boys who do cry when they're sad could have a better shot at getting even bigger!

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