After writing my last post, Addressing High Tension Movement Strategies, I received a question via email that I thought was worth answering here.
The question: "Can you further explain the argument for the utilization of slow(er) movements as a means to reduce tension and improve output? Also does this mean that you mostly train people to just move super slow?"
Here's my answer to the Two-Part question:
Part 1: In answering this question I came across the military adage of "slow is smooth and smooth is fast" used in reference to shooting speed. The shooters drill often at slow speeds focusing on smooth, nuanced movements prior to increasing tempo. I thought this was perfect in further explaining the argument for adding slow, deliberate movements into training. Interpreting this further, moving slowly facilitates motor control (smoothness) and it is that smoothness that allows for a more efficient expression of output. Basically before you can go fast, you have to be able to show that you can move slow. Rushing the movement leads to sloppiness in recruitment strategies.
I often wonder if excess tension - i.e. more than is necessary for a given pattern - occurs in response to a threatened movement signature or if that tension contributes to threat perception. In my mind, it's probably a bit of both. Either way, an extension-driven person with high-tension strategies usually finds it difficult to use deep stabilizers because the nervous system is under undue stress. Reducing the autonomic drive (or need) of a sympathetic state, achieved in part by slowed movements, does wonders for nuanced motor control because the phasic prime movers aren't slammed into action as they are during the feedforward typical fight-or-flight response of high tension strategies. Motor units with fewer muscle fibers are recruited allowing improved modulation of force output. The improved control of the postural muscles (typically these have smaller motor units) allows for proximal control which frees the distal segments for smoothness of movement. Then we can speed it up using traditional tempo and velocity methods: hence the "slow is smooth and smooth is fast".
From a sensory perspective, moving fast has a lot of sensory noise - it's loud. I mean do you remember what it feels like in the middle of 5x5 deadlifts or 30 double-unders (other than dude, this kinda sucks)? Most of the time, it's not until afterwards that someone says "man my back is smoked". By lowering the magnitude of the sensory stimuli, we can better perceive excessive muscular rigidity and help to regulate it (Todd Hargrove discusses this in his excellent book A Guide to Better Movement). I have seen a lot of clients who say they feel super stiff during a squat but can't describe it well until I have them go thru it slowly enough that the sticking points become readily apparent. After a number of repetitions going slowly and smoothly - that tension is often reduced; likely because the brain is able to better regulate the movement once its had time to actually assess the sensations being received. The involuntary restriction of the movement is lifted because the threat perception has been modulated by a slower, safer-feeling-to the brain pattern.
So, what we're really doing by integrating some slowed, and often basic, strength movements (think squat, pull-ups, presses, etc.) into training is reorienting the attentional focus of the brain and improving motor control. I think proper strength training and motor control work are synonymous - and if they aren't then you probably aren't doing it right.
Part 2: Lol bro. No. I don't just teach people to move super slow. Now, I will often teach high-tension movers (which is the topic of the post in question) how to move slow because they're already pretty good at moving fast - just not sustainably fast. By using low-threshold movements that do not require high amounts of muscular tension and joint forces we can help to reset the system and promote better balance. It is crucial to remember though, that balance is a moving target and it's the goal over the course of a day not necessarily at a fixed moment in time. Using this we can better appreciate that there's gonna be times when mass tension is a great thing.
Slow movements are helpful as a preparatory movement with ramping up the speed as part of the warm-up. In addition to many of the foundational strength movements, I will use a lot of developmental and transitional positions as they probably improve functional relevance and importance to the brain given their place in how we first learned to move. Crawling, rolling, orienting the head, breathing - all have a neutral, transitional quality to them.
I am a huge proponent of going fast and hard - it just needs to be well-controlled and slowing down the movement is a great tool to improve control.