How to Activate "Survival Reflexes" for Improved Strength

January 26, 2004 05:03 PM

When you see all the fancy cars exiting the "drive through" at McDonald's, it may appear fictitious that we homo-sapiens evolved over millions of years in the wild and that we separated from our primate brothers and sisters approximately 2.8 million years ago. In fact, until nearly 10,000 years ago, most of us lived a very primal existence. Doctors, dentists and refrigerators were unheard of; we were dependent upon our natural instinctive and reflexive behaviors for survival.

Life consisted largely of hunting, gathering, and fighting to protect our food and territory when necessary. As you can well imagine, we acquired the occasional wound, be it a sprained ankle, knee, or strained shoulder. With absolutely no other option but to perform when hunting, gathering or defending ourselves, the body developed elaborate mechanisms for overriding pain and improving performance. I recognized one of these mechanisms, the Survival Reflex, during clinical experimentation with unstable surfaces, provided by balance boards and Swiss Balls.

When working with post-surgical back pain patients and females who had either a hysterectomy or a cesarean section, it was a struggle to activate muscles that had been damaged due to surgical incisions. During one particular session, I noticed that immediately after my client performed a kneeling exercise on a Swiss Ball, where the client was quite challenged and afraid of falling, her lower abdominal muscles began to fire during her struggle to stay on the ball. Surprised, I took her off the ball and applied numerous objective tests, finding that the previously dormant transverse abdominis and surrounding lower abdominal muscles were working very well! I began testing this method with all of my patients who demonstrated motor inhibition and found that in most cases the previously dormant muscle remained active after a survival challenge; the only variation being the duration of activity.

My next natural progression for the application of survival reflex activation of dormant muscles was to see if this method could improve lifting strength. IT DID! To date, I haven't found anyone who did not feel at least a sense of improved ease with regard to applied intensity for a given lift. Most people notice they can stabilize their legs and trunk better when performing squats, deadlifts or an exercise requiring high force output in a functional, unsupported position.

The reason for this appears to be a built in survival reflex override system designed to activate any and every muscle needed to improve the probability of survival; after all, simply falling and breaking a tibia, fibula or femur could have easily been the end of you but 10,000 years ago! This reflex override can be applied successfully when training simply by performing a balance challenging exercise for 10-30 seconds and up to 60 seconds if the intensity is low; it doesn't matter if you fall repeatedly in a safe, matted environment (such as in not being able to stay atop a Swiss Ball). Making sure not to fatigue yourself, you will find that after attempting any exercise that makes the nervous system think you may fall, you will experience improved performance over the entire stabilizer system as part of a survival strategy for the body. For most people, the improved performance generally lasts about the length of one set. Therefore, it should be repeated between sets and as close to the beginning of the set as possible.

The survival reflex potency is improved as the threat to survival increases! For example, standing on a balance board, or even on the floor on one leg, will activate a survival reflex in some people. Closing the eyes while standing on one leg will activate it in anyone. Standing on one leg, eyes closed and being pushed by a training partner without warning will boost you for a big lift! Sometimes, two or three repetitions of this process (in a row) will yield even greater results, but, remember not to fatigue yourself in the process or else you will defeat the purpose!

Many people notice momentary reduction in pain in and around joints after activating survival reflexes. This is due to both the endorphin release triggered in concert with survival reflex activation of stabilizer muscles throughout the kinetic chain - a cheap high that improves performance! I think I'll try to patent that. Have fun, and as Pavel so appropriately says, "Power to the People!"

To learn more about "Survival Reflexes", see Paul Chek's "Advanced Swiss Ball for Rehabilitation" video series. For more training articles and exercise education, visit Paul Chek's website at www.chekinstitute.com