Monday, July 13, 2015

Biofeedback: Bogus or Brilliant?

Key Concepts:

  • Biofeedback is an autoregulation, or self-monitoring, technique. It provides information about the “agreeableness” of a particular movement with your body.
  • Range of motion testing, like the toe touch, and handgrip strength are two of the easiest ways to apply biofeedback.
  • To find the best variation of a movement for you on a particular day, simply establish your baseline measurement, then repeat the test in between a few variations of the movement to see which one tests the highest.
  • Biofeedback can be used to individualize and optimize training, help get out of pain, or just become more in tune with your body.

Biofeedback. Sounds a little like “bogus,” doesn’t it? At least, they both start with a ‘B.’ At first glance, the principles can also seem pretty far-fetched.

Touch your toes. Do some goblet squats, and touch your toes again. Then do some back squats, and touch your toes a third time. The squat variation that gets you deepest into your toe touch is the one for you.

A video posted by Jen Sinkler (@jensinkler) on

But what does touching your toes have to do with which type of squat you should do? Everything, maybe, if you’ll just suspend your disbelief for a moment.

What is Biofeedback?

The toe touch is one of many ways of using biofeedback to autoregulate training. If you’ve ever used a heart rate monitor, you’ve engaged in biofeedback testing. The particular application discussed below was pioneered by Frankie Faires, the founder of Gym Movement.

Curious about the methodology, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Jen Sinkler and David Dellanave of The Movement Minneapolis. Over the last few years, Dellanave has developed and implemented the Gym Movement Protocol in his own gym, helping countless clients get out of pain and get stronger, while also adding over 300 pounds to his deadlift.

According to Dellanave, the classic definition of biofeedback is “quantifying a state of the body and then acting upon that information.” For our purposes, biofeedback provides information about how inclined the body is to respond positively to a particular stimulus on a given day.

Various ranges of motion can be used, including the toe touch, a shoulder front or side raise, and even finger extension. For the numerically inclined, handgrip strength (as measured by a dynamometer) is another option, though slightly less preferable, as grip fatigue can be a confounding variable.

Handgrip dynamometer

A movement tests well if it improves the result of the test (i.e. increases range of motion or grip strength). This is your body’s way of saying, “Yes, good movement for me today.” If a movement tests poorly (i.e. reduces range of motion or grip strength), it's your body’s way of telling you, “No, not today for this one.”

The idea is that in order to individualize and optimize your training, you want to do only the movements that agree with you on any given day. You can even test groups of movements, like your warm-up and cool-down, to ensure they’re in agreement.

You may think you know which movements you prefer and which you don't; you don’t need a test to tell you. The subtle but important distinction here, Sinkler notes, is that biofeedback provides information about the “agreeableness” of a movement on that particular day -- not personal preference. If the test tells you to do one exercise over another that you thought would be better, suck it up, buttercup!

Whether your goal is to enhance your day-to-day training, get out of pain, avoid injury, or just become more in tune with your body, self-monitoring with biofeedback may just be the ticket.

The Six-step Gym Movement Protocol

So you just touch your toes a couple of times, and that’s it? Pretty much, but Faires’ “Gym Movement Protocol” has established a much more systematic way of going about it.

Step 1. Establish your baseline for the day.

For range of motion testing, stop at the first sign of tension anywhere in the body -- not your absolute end range. If a test causes pain, switch to a different one.

For the toe touch, ensure you perform it in a repeatable fashion by using the same stance width every time (feet together or hip width apart, as long as you’re consistent) and actually sliding your fingers down your shins and feet. If you palm the floor at baseline of your toe touch, stand on top of a box or stack of weight plates.

For handgrip strength, simply squeeze the handle hard and fast (so as to avoid causing fatigue).

Step 2. Select the movement.

A. Perform a few reps of the target movement with the desired implement and a light load (i.e. conventional barbell deadlift). Retest immediately. If the retest is above baseline, proceed to Step 3. If the test is the same or below baseline, move to Step 2B.

B. Perform a few reps of a similar movement (i.e. barbell power clean). Retest immediately. If the retest is above baseline, proceed to Step 3. If not, move to Step 2C.

C. Perform a few reps of an opposite movement (i.e. hanging leg raise). Retest immediately. If the retest is above baseline, proceed to Step 3. If not, move to Step 2D.

D. Perform a few reps of a novel movement (i.e. bench press). Retest immediately. If the retest is above baseline, proceed to Step 3. If not, today obviously isn’t your day. Either go home and have a good cry, or continue to test novel movements until you find one that works.

[Note: “opposite” and “novel” usually mean choosing movements that are totally different from the target. But if it really has to be deadlift day, no bones about it, try incorporating an asymmetrical, rotational, or cross-body component (i.e. Jefferson deadlift).]

Step 3. Select the variation.

Perform a few reps of the movement you selected in the previous step with a different grip or stance (i.e. sumo deadlift). Retest immediately. If the retest improves upon the previous test, use this variation for Step 4. If not, stick to the original variation.

Step 4. Select the implement.

Perform a few reps of the movement you selected in the previous step with a different implement (i.e. hex bar deadlift). Retest immediately. If the retest improves upon the previous test, use this implement for Step 5. If not, stick to the original implement.

Step 5. Select the load.

Perform a few reps of the movement with the implement you selected in the previous step plus added load. Retest immediately. If the retest improves upon the previous one, use this load for Step 6. If not, stick to the original (lighter) load.

Step 6. Perform work sets.

Choose the number of reps per set based on what you feel moves easy and fast. Avoid excessive effort, and continue monitoring with biofeedback in between sets. As soon as the test dips below baseline, you know it’s time to move on to a new exercise (or conclude the workout). Your body knows best. Ignore its signals at your own risk.

Try not to get frustrated if you’re only able to perform a set or two before the test trends back to baseline, Dellanave counsels. This may simply be a sign that your previous training lacked variability. Over time you’ll be able to get more training volume in before having to switch exercises.

Biofeedback Flowchart

To help remember all the steps, Faires and Dellanave boil the whole procedure down to two simple sequences, for which I’ve devised a handy flowchart.

  1. Target → Similar → Opposite → Novel
  2. Movement → Variation → Implement → Load

Memory like a sieve? Keep this flowchart handy.

It Doesn’t Take All Day

Although implementing biofeedback may seem like a lot of work, in practice you’ll rarely have to go through all four phases of Step 2. A rep each of several versions of a movement (with testing in between) shouldn’t take any longer than a couple of minutes.

Don’t hesitate to spend extra time on Steps 3, 4 and 5, Dellanave recommends, experimenting with a few different variations, implements, and loads. If time permits, find the best biofeedback-based option for you on that day, not just a good one.

And if you’re feeling really ambitious, test out biofeedback on subtleties like the direction of your gaze, self-talk, etc. Just be careful not to get caught spending your entire session messing around with biofeedback, Dellanave cautions. You’re there to train, not practice touching your toes, right?

Listen to the Test

Say you’re training for a powerlifting meet, and your program for the day has back squats written on it -- 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of your max.

According to the principle of specificity, if you want to get better at heavy back squats, you have to do heavy back squats. On this day, however, back squats at 85% aren’t testing well, but front squats at 75% are. What do you do?

Listen to the test, Dellanave maintains, and use the movements and loads that test well on that particular day. The body knows best. On some days, for whatever reason, it needs something different from what you had planned on paper, he explains. Biofeedback provides this information.

But what about your upcoming competition? Believe it or not, Dellanave says, you’ll actually improve more by following your biofeedback than by fighting it -- even if the movements and loads that test well on a particular day are slightly less specific to your goals.

Not only that, but you’ll feel better after and in between workouts, too. It’s just what your body wants and needs at the moment. The weird part, Dellanave adds, is that tomorrow it’ll likely be different.

When To Use Biofeedback

You don’t have to use biofeedback all the time or for every exercise. (After all, some days you just want to back squat!) Perhaps you wish to use it only for your strength work and to do your conditioning circuits without worrying about how they test. This type of stress is actually good for the body, Dellanave points out, provided it’s applied in manageable doses (#notcrossfit).

So whether you need to get out of an injury pattern or just want to take an ultra-individualized approach to your day-to-day training, you can use biofeedback to guide you.

With practice, as Sinkler showed in the video at the beginning of the post, you can even reach a level of such self-awareness that you don't need to pick up the implement for the test. You can just pretend to have it in your hands or on your back.

Bogus or Brilliant?

As a scientist, I’m always skeptical when I learn something new, especially when I don’t understand how and why that something works. In this case, no one’s really sure exactly how range of motion testing and biofeedback work.

Some of the principles of biofeedback remind me of other tried and true training programs, like Dan John and Pavel’s Easy Strength, where they too have you stop short of failure and train movements frequently. There are also elements of undulating periodization and simple intuitive training, in that some days you lift heavy and others you go light, with plenty of movement variety mixed in.

Who knows? Maybe it’s just the placebo effect. But it’s awfully hard to argue with all the injury-free strength gains that Sinkler, Dellanave, and hundreds of their clients have made.

If biofeedback has the potential to improve -- or even revolutionize -- the way I train myself and others, I’m willing to give it a try. If it turns out I wasted five minutes of my day, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

So is biofeedback bogus or brilliant? You be the judge. All you have to do is touch your toes.

Huge thanks to Jen Sinkler and David Dellanave of The Movement Minneapolis for answering all my questions on biofeedback and coaching me through my first biofeedback training session.

For more information on biofeedback, check out David Dellanave’s blog and his free biofeedback eCourse, titled Gym Movement.

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