Book Recap: Nerve

     When I present a physical challenge to clients, I often observe one of two responses; either they buckle from fear, pressure, stress, or lack of self-confidence or they push themselves to achieve the goal (or come as close as they can). I’ve often wondered what separates those who melt down from those who brace up. Last week, I happened to glimpse a book that covered this very topic and I wanted to share a write-up with you on Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark.

     The Introduction highlights some interesting questions and statistics:


  • “One of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about…”
  • The United States is the most anxious nation on the planet.
  • More than 18% of U.S. adults suffer an anxiety-disorder in a given year (whereas, in Mexico, the number is 6.6%).
  • Psychologist and anxiety researcher, Robert Leahy, points out that, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”


Clark differentiates between fear, anxiety, and stress:

Fear: “the physical feeling you get when there’s something dangerous in front of you right now.” This is the fight-flight-freeze response you feel when you perceive a threat. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and tunnel vision are all examples of this survival mode.

Anxiety: a cognitive phenomenon that protects you from potential dangers “that might pop up in the future.”

Stress: a broad term that describes “how our bodies respond to excessive demands.”

     Clark explains that a part of the brain, called the amygdala, is our security system that monitors for threats by parsing through sensory information (separate from conscious collection by the prefrontal cortex). If the amygdala senses that trouble’s lurking, then it will fire up a fear reaction before the conscious brain has time to decipher if a bad guy’s crunching footsteps are following you or if the wind has rustled a stray newspaper.

     Even though we know consciously that striking out in baseball or playing a wrong note in a concert aren’t life-threatening situations we still experience the fear response in those contexts. The question becomes, why do some people perform well under those conditions while others don’t?

     Clark investigates the qualities of those who most successfully handle high-stress situations:

  • Training: Whether it’s prepping for a speech or practicing Bach for a cello recital, we must practice in order for skills to become automated (which lower the chances of them breaking down under stress). The key, though, is to practice under stress. My colleague used to spend countless hours honing her snatch technique but wasn’t able to perform well in weightlifting competitions because the pressure of the situation paralyzed her. So, even though the skills were automated, she hadn’t practiced them under performance conditions. (I’m happy to report that she’s begun having friends watch her during workouts—desensitizing herself to the gaze of others—and she’s faring much better in competition).
  • Confidence: If we’ve practiced thoroughly and have experienced success on tasks throughout training, then confidence can buoy us in fearful situations. As a renowned astronaut said, after manually controlling his dysfunctional aircraft from space safely to the ground, “Modesty is not the best trait for a fighter pilot. The meek do no inherit the sky.”
  • Locus of Control: If we believe we can influence the outcome of a frightening situation, then we’ll handle it much better. That same astronaut, Gordon Cooper, could have felt that his fate was out of his hands and that he was destined to perish after his craft lost telemetry, cooling, electrical, and oxygen purification systems. But he chose to focus on what aspects of the flight were in his control, relying on the intensive practice he had done to deal with this very situation.
  • Tolerance for Uncertainty: I often tell clients that it’s easy to perform well when the conditions are optimal. The real skill lies in how we perform when things don’t go as planned, when conditions are out of our control. Tennis players exemplify this principle, as their matches can be played at 11am or 11pm, in the blazing heat of an Australian summer day or the cool spring of Rotterdam. And there’s no stopping a match for wind. In the 2012 U.S. Open final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the wind was so extreme that a ball would bounce and then shift several feet by the time a player tried to strike it. However, Murray maintained his poise and accommodated the conditions better, allowing him to win his first Grand Slam championship.
  • Humor: Although it may seem antithetical to joke during a potentially scary situation, humor helps to diffuse tension. Clark refers to the POWs from the Vietnam War, many of whom (including John McCain) referred to their use of humor as a way to fight the horrors of their stay. They’d tell jokes, make funny comments, or invent humorous scenarios to bring levity to such a tense situation.
  • Task Focus: As we saw from astronaut Gordon Cooper’s story, he didn’t dwell on the craft’s failing mechanics or allow himself to focus on what might go wrong: he focused on what he needed to do in the present moment. Anxiety can take over current thinking into the realm of “what ifs.” By staying mentally disciplined on the challenge in front of us, we can quiet the anxiety and eventually escape its tempting grasp.


     Clark points out that you won’t suddenly be able to live a life free from fear or anxiety by simply following these recommendations. But, he suggests learning to live with these inevitable, primal feelings which, if taken in stride, can facilitate our success rather than hinder it.


Keep on Movin’



Nibbling on Newton

Time and again I’ve had success helping clients “get” a movement when I teach them about a nugget I gleaned from Sir Isaac Newton. When I first learned about his idea of active and reactive forces, my mind was blown and it profoundly altered the way I understood and taught movement. Hopefully, you’ll gain new insight into how you create movement so that you’ll move more efficiently and effectively, creating big gains in the gym.

In a previous post I examined Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion (Click HERE to read A Physics Primer: Part 2) but the information is deserving of deeper investigation. I’m going to devote this post to his Third Law of Motion, which you’ve probably heard before in some iteration:

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Now, what does this have to do with your bench, squat, or row? Time to get geeky.

          Let’s start with a question: How do you get up from a chair? You stand up, right? Yes, but how does this happen? The way you stand up is by pushing down. You literally push down and back into the ground with an active force from your legs and the ground pushes an equal and opposite reactive force into you, causing you to rise forward to a standing position.

My 90 year-old client pushes down and back to stand up and forward from the bench.

My 90 year-old client pushes down and back (red arrows are his active forces) to stand up and forward from the bench (green arrows are the ground’s reactive forces).


So, how do you ascend from the lowest point in a pushup? You push into the ground with your arms and the ground pushes back up into you, causing you to straighten your arms and rise.

When Jackie's at her lowest point, she actively pushes down so that the ground's reactive forces will cause her to rise.

When Jackie’s at her lowest point, she actively pushes down so that the ground’s reactive forces will cause her to rise.


Final question: How do you press a weight over your head? You push down into the ground and the ground pushes an equal force back into your legs, which channels energy through your trunk, shoulders, arms, and hands to move the weight up.

The common idea among these scenarios is that in order to create motion, we have to apply force in the opposite direction from where we want to end up. In other words:

We are the result of the forces we apply

        Walking forward requires the constant application of force behind us—we do this by pushing off of the trail leg. Shooting a foul shot demands us to push down and back into the ground to throw the ball up and forward. Likewise, we do a pullup by actively pulling down into the bar, which results in a reactive force that causes the ascent.

How does this translate into stronger, more efficient lifts?

      Let’s take a deadlift for an example. But first we have to acknowledge the biomechanical demands of the task to appreciate how to maximize the active and reactive forces.

At the bottom position (start), you have a load in front of you. You want to finish standing, which means that the load will rise (vertically) and displace towards you (horizontally). Said another way, the load starts down and forward (as does your center of gravity) and you desire to lift it up and back.


I start with the weight in front of me, which shifts my center of gravity down and forward. So, I push down and forward to finish standing up and back.

I push down and forward to stand up and back.

Therefore, you have to apply the active force (red) down and forward to result in the ground’s reactive force (green) to lift the weight up and back.

        The more precise the direction of the active force, the more you can take advantage of a hefty reactive force. However, several common mistakes can get in the way of maximizing the ground’s reactive forces.

Trying to “lift” the bar

     Instead you should be focusing on pushing into the ground.

Assuming that the bar travels up in a straight line

                              There is horizontal movement of the load too, so make sure to push down and forward.

Wearing cushioned footwear

     The softer the buffer between your feet and the ground the more the active and reactive forces get distorted and diffused, which means you are leaking forces in both directions. Now you have to work harder to move the bar the same distance than if you were to use stiff shoes (or remove them altogether).

The principles of active and reactive forces apply to all movement. First, determine the direction in which you desire to move and then apply force in exactly the opposite direction. Happy lifting!

Keep on Movin’


Buy the Bulb

You walk into a flower shop and scan the wares, fixating on a cluster of cranberry amaryllis plants—a winter specialty. The blooms are wide like saucers and they perch upon hearty, lime green stalks. Next to the mature plants sit, rather innocuously, pots with egg-sized amaryllis bulbs, also for purchase. You almost feel pity for the puny pots, thinking, “Who would buy a bulb when you could have the gorgeous flowers already in bloom?” So you grab a pot of flowers and walk to the register, imaging the perfect place to display them when the relatives visit for the holidays.


OK, Carolyn, what does this have to do with working out? Well, if you’re a sporadic exerciser who views working out as a means to a quick result—i.e. cramming in cardio between Christmas and New Years to prep for a February beach vacation—then you buy the amaryllis flowers. You enjoy the immediacy of the mature blooms because they look good at purchase and require little work to maintain. Essentially, you value the end-result more than the development and maturation process.

If, however, you’re a consistent exerciser who regards fitness as a lifetime pursuit, then you’re accustomed to the work it takes to nourish and develop your skills. You enjoy the end-result of your toil—a beach-ready body any time of year—but that isn’t what drives you. You buy the bulb. Caring for it isn’t an imposition or annoyance because you get a thrill from watching how much the shoots grow every day.

     There is an interesting paradox that occurs during your fitness quest, regardless of your position on the bulb vs. blossom debate. I’m speaking about the difference between short-lived performance in the gym (blossom) and long-term learning (bulb).

Performance is how well you execute skills during the course of a training session. Many of you hope (and expect) to see improvement during a workout, like how a shaky first set of lunges becomes smoother and more precise by the third round. While it is exciting and motivating to watch movement patterns improve quickly, the sad truth is that your performance is short-lived. Being able to do a movement well does not guarantee that it will be replicable in the future. So, don’t be surprised if your lunges start out rusty the next workout, unless you’re interested in the learning process.

Learning, unlike performance, is a marker of long-term improvement. If you were paying attention to how your lunges improved—by being engaged in the learning process—then you will enjoy the benefits of lasting changes. Your lunges will look smooth from the first set because they have become well-honed and are highly-reproducible.

The benefits of learning long-term skills outweigh the deceptive flash of temporary performance. In order to emphasize learning, take a process-oriented approach to whatever skill captivates you. That means that you’ve got to buy the bulb. Be the bulb. Embrace the journey for lasting growth.

Keep on Movin’


Book Excerpt 1: The Workout

     The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Workout, that I’ve been toiling away with for 6 years. I’ll periodically post works in progress: today’s excerpt looks at the quirky, distracted gym members who have provided me with endless entertainment over the years. Enjoy…   

     Whether it’s 6 in the morning battling darkness and cold or 9 at night fighting distraction and fatigue, gym members bond over the toil that defines a good workout. When the groove becomes the grind members can take comfort in knowing that others are suffering too. They lean on each other as much as the handrails of a step machine to get through a workout, although some need the help of distracting devices, which serve to entertain them and, coincidentally, me as well.

     I’m intrigued by the member who sprinted up the stairs and asked me to put on America’s Top Model while jumping on an elliptical, saying, “I know I’m lame but I came over on a commercial break.” I’m equally puzzled by the geniuses who talk on the phone while running on a treadmill. This idea seems as dumb to me as when TV commentators trap the winner of a track and field event for an interview immediately after he crosses the finish line. You mostly hear deep, heavy breathing punctuated by a sprinkling of nonsensical syllables—who’d want to listen to that?

     I’m truly baffled by the members who only ride the bikes—they cause a minimal amount of jarring—for a cozy half-hour of reading bliss. I may be a bit of a snob but isn’t the idea to move more at the gym? After all, the term “workout” suggests that work must be done.

     My theory on these distracted gym members; because they pay a monthly fee to use the club—like rent for an apartment—they treat it as an extension of their homes. So, they bring a bit of home to the gym, creating hybrid time between leisure and work. Thus, the leisurely workout.

     My favorite distracted gym member is a curly-haired blond who comes in sporting the accoutrements of someone with no intention of exerting herself: iced coffee, magazines, iPod, and phone. Ms. Curly Q claims a bike strategically located in front of a TV and positions her implements in a satisfactory arrangement. She exerts just enough force on the peddles to power the console and then takes out her phone to begin a battery of calls.

     One day, I happened to be working with a client about eight feet from Q and I instructed him to do weighted ball throws to the ground. He picked up the ten pound ball, raised it up over his head like he was about to chop wood, and rapidly fired it to the floor, causing a thunderous thud. He quickly scooped it up and did nine more. I knew to watch Q when he started and I enjoyed seeing her quake with panic as the first rep roared. After a few more I heard her say to her phone partner, “Hold on,” and then tried to get my attention. I have added my own internal commentary [in brackets].

     She said, “Excuse me. Do you have to do that over here [I’m trying to have a conversation]?  Can’t you go over to the mat?” Without looking up I said, “We’re almost done with the set.” That’s a little unsafe, don’t you think? I’m mean, everything’s shaking [including my coffee].” She tried to resume her conversation but kept looking sharply in my direction until we stopped. I was in the middle of speaking to my client about his form when she chimed in once more. “Are you going to do that again?” I just looked at her and smiled, thinking to myself, “If you moved your legs as much as your mouth, you might be able to fit into that skimpy top a little better.” But instead I picked up my stuff to move my client to a different area when another trainer, who had witnessed the exchange, said, “Leave the ball, I’m doing that with my client next.”


Keep on Movin,



Lots on Lats

     I must make a confession: until a few years ago I didn’t appreciate the lats as much as I should have. Sure, they’ve been helping me row and do pull-ups while also giving men the highly-prized “V” shape. They’ve been hanging out behind our backs and perhaps that’s why I didn’t attend to them with adequate diligence: out of sight, out of mind. But, I’m here to atone and to let you know that most of your gym movements, from deadlifts to pushups to breathing, require lat cooperation.

     First, let’s all get on the same page. The lats (officially, the latissimus dorsi) are two very large muscles in the back that cover a broad swath of real estate.


The muscle belly is the red part, which extends into the white fascia and connective tissue.

The muscle belly is the red part, which extends into the white fascia and connective tissue.

     According to most textbooks, the primary job of the lats is to extend, internally rotate and adduct the shoulder. That means that we use them to bring objects towards our bodies from in front or from the side of us (i.e. rows, lat pulldown, pullups) and to turn our arms inward (imagine the end position of a pitcher’s throwing arm).

     In addition, lats can help stiffen our trunks to avoid floppy shoulders on pushups and deadlifts. You know how your shoulders want to rise up towards your ears on pushups? Likewise, when the bar drifts away from your body on deadlifts we can ask the lats for a little more help.


Here are 2 lat activation exercises to improve your pushups (along with any other plank-based exercises) and deadlifts.

1.           This first video shows one of my clients practicing lat activation in a plank position before doing pushups. This clip is directed to those of you who tend to do pushups as simply an upper arm and chest exercise, rather than integrating the rest of your body into one cohesive unit. I’ve asked him to intentionally shrug his shoulders (towards his ears) before turning his lats on to lock the shoulder blades down (away from ears). Once he gains control of the brain-lat connection he goes into a pushup with good scapular control. Eventually, he won’t need to shrug before each rep but it’s good practice for someone new to the concept.

     Follow-up: There are other muscles helping to keep the shoulders from rising up to his ears, those that depress the shoulder blades, but today we’re looking solely through a lat lens.

2.         The second lat activation drill is geared towards helping you improve your deadlifts. In this video, I address the common scenario of someone who deadlifts with a bar that drifts away from the body. All you’ll need is a rolled up mat, foam roller, towel, or even a water bottle to get your lats fired up. Check it out:

Now go forth and use your lats for stronger lifts.

Keep on Movin’



Older posts «