How To Become More Tuned In To Your Body

learn to regulate yourself

Being an excellent caretaker of your body is a multi-part process. In addition to selecting movements and exercises that help your body, you’ll need to tune in to the intensity, efficiency, tension, and awareness, you bring to your movement and exercise time.

Feeling good and moving well is rooted in performing efficient movement without unnecessary effort or tension when it isn’t needed.

Too often, folks don’t know how to use the varying degrees of intensity that the human body has the potential to access. And this can influence the net effect of how your body feels.

In this article, you’ll learn about intensity and tension, how they influence how your body feels, and how to start becoming more aware of the amount of both that you use.

When Intensity And Tension Are Poorly Controlled

“Going hard” all the time wastes unnecessary energy and teaches your soft tissues to hold more tension than is necessary, which influences their ability to function healthfully.

Conversely, never ramping up intensity also has repercussions. There are times in life when you need to tap into your upper end intensity levels – to move a heavy object whether in training or in life, to deal with a stressful situation, to strive for the finish line of a big project you’re working on at work…

A few symptoms of poorly controlled intensity and tension are: chronic muscle tension, overuse or misuse injuries, sleep changes, jaw and facial muscle issues, feelings of high stress, and symptoms of a sympathetic dominance.

Knowing how to regulate the amount of intensity you use also allows you to direct your energy to exactly where you want it and when.

As my good friend and colleague, Dr. Seth Oberst puts it:

“it’s our ability to inhibit a conditioned habit that enables people to have options, a choice, in how they move and behave. So many people struggle to maintain a proactive, rather than reactive, neurological state and are literally stuck moving and behaving compulsively in an environment that is running the show. And when our behavioral options are narrow, so too is our function and performance.

If you only have two access points to intensity and tension – 0% or 100% – your integration of how your nervous system handles your joints and tissues is going to be compromised, and that influences how you move, feel, and perform.

Rigid Like A Robot

Rigid movement and fixed patterns can be problematic for your body. The perfectly aligned “good form” squat you learned in the gym is different from the squat you’ll do when scooping up kids toys or grocery bags from the ground.

If your system doesn’t have enough play in it to allow for adequate movement variability, you can’t adapt, shift, or adjust, as well. That phrase ‘movement variability’ might be new for you, so it’s important that we do a quick primer on the concept…

Here’s the best explanation of it I’ve ever heard, said by Nikolai Bernstein:

“Movement variability is repetition without repetition.”
- Nikolai Bernstein


With every movement you do, you never do it exactly the same way twice, even though it might look the same to the naked eye. With a squat, you’ll load the lateral fibers of your quadriceps just a bit more on this rep, you’ll flex your knee just a fraction of a second sooner than last time, you’ll brace your lower back with just a bit more force than the previous squat, and so on.

Tiny shifts, tiny adjustments, more access to the potential for pain-free movement…

When your body is a flexible system that can adapt and adjust to minute changes in your environment, you are better able to disperse load and tension across tissues in your body, instead of repeatedly loading the same ones over and over again.

We could spend hours just discussing movement variability, but to strip it way down for the sake of this post – if you use too much tension to do a movement, you have a smaller circle with which to expand into to make those micro-adjustments in your movement.

If you use too little tension to do a movement, you increase the chance of doing a poorly organized movement that could load the tissues with greater force than they are prepared to handle.

Regulate Yourself

Evolution granted you the ability to use all of the levels of tension and intensity between 0% and 100%. Your body is capable of generating tension and intensity at 50%, 72%, 34%, you get the idea… the ability to tap into such a variety of levels of tension wouldn’t have stuck around from an evolutionary perspective if it wasn’t useful.

But when you lack control of your tension and intensity, you lose capacity to move and function well.

When you use too much tension to do a movement, you’re teaching your tissues to hold more tension than is necessary in the futureStanding at the stove cooking dinner with maximal tension in your erector spinae muscle fibers, for example…

too much tension

And, because ‘what fires together wires together’, once you know how to use lots of tension, you’ll start leaning into “use lots of tension” more frequently, until it becomes your default response to any situation, whether “lots of tension” is required or not.

When you use too little tension to do something, you increase the chance of one of your joints not being braced well to sustain the load that you’re about to put on your body.

This is part of why neural control training is so valuable, and is a cornerstone of what I coach with my private clients and members.

(the detail of what is happening in this drill is longer than I wish to include
in this caption, so click the Title on this video to be taken to the original post)
Not only does it allow you to expand your ranges of motion, but it teaches you in a conscious, controlled, environment how to ramp up, ramp down, direct, and focus your intensity and your tension exactly how, where, and when, you want it.

Becoming Aware

The starting point for bringing this concept into your own body is not even to begin with neural control training, although if you did begin there, a good teacher would also help you attain the true starting point for this journey – awareness.

You need to become aware of the tension and intensity you use and where you put it in your body.

You need to begin waking up to what parts of the spectrum of intensity and tension you’re accessing, and which you’re avoiding altogether.

map of awareness

And in doing this, you begin expanding your circle, pushing out into areas where you previously had no awareness. You become more resourceful with your body making every movement or exercise you layer on to your body in the future, better.

By developing your awareness of intensity and tension, you become able to tap into just enough of the tension you need, exactly where you need it, and become fully adaptable to the unexpected changes that are bound to show up in your environment.

Here’s an example of how I learned I was using excess tension where it wasn’t necessary.

Would this excess tension have eventually injured me? Hard to say, but it certainly allows me more freedom to now be aware of this particular excess tension and to remove it from my action so that I can experience more effortless movement.

See if you have something in your life that is like this…

I have a water purification pitcher that I fill my water bottle from several times a day. I chose that task to become conscious of what kind of tension I was holding and where in my body that tension was…

I began noticing that every time I stood at the counter pouring the water from the pitcher, instead of just raising my arm and flexing my wrist to pour the water into my bottle, I was actually tilting my torso over to the side and flexing the muscles of my side and back as I did so.

Once I became conscious of this, my first thought was, “how odd…do I need to lean my torso over to fill the pitcher or can I just do it with my arm?” So I began to explore that…when it was time to fill my bottle, I’d consciously place my feet evenly weighted underneath me, I’d keep my torso stacked vertically, and I’d raise my arm to pour from the pitcher.

Turns out, I don’t need to do the lateral lean and flex of my torso to pour the water, and it wasn’t any more difficult to simply raise my arm and flex my wrist since I was already doing those two motions before in addition to the tilting of my torso.

So I began consciously practicing the action of pouring the water using only the movement, intensity, and tension, that was vital to the task at hand. In time, this became my new ‘new normal’.

Again, by learning to focus, shift, ramp up, and ramp down, the intensity and tension in your body, you’re giving yourself more play in the system.


Action Steps

So to begin exploring your own levels of intensity and tension, here are a few questions to ask yourself to develop your own awareness. You might find you can explore them better by noting the question here in the article and then turning away from your computer screen or lying down on the ground as you ponder the question…

What are your face and neck doing right now? Can you imagine what it would feel like to sense your forehead widening just a bit as you are aware of it? Can you imagine what it would feel like to sense the area around your eyes getting just a bit more spread out?

Have you breathed lately? It might sound silly, but if you’ve learned to restrict your breathing to only shallow-level breathing, it may have been awhile since your last truly deep breath. If you’re not sure of the last time you noticed your belly rise and fall from a truly deep breath, tune into your torso and watch it as you let it rise more fully with oxygen as you inhale.

Can you notice other areas of your body right now or is your attention glued to one spot? Often, when you’ve been in pain, or have felt betrayed by a part of your body, you tend to focus in like a laser beam on that one area. Which is understandable if it’s pain at the moment, however, by staying in ‘narrow focus’ on a part of your body, you actually inhibit your brain’s ability to put that thing into perspective. Narrow focus makes whatever you’re focusing on much larger than it actually is. See if you can shift into a more diffuse focus where you can become aware of other parts of your body beyond the one area your attention was glued on.

In Part Two of this post, you’ll learn about how to use your movement and exercise time to begin tapping into all of the other levels of intensity and tension your body has the potential to access. Till then, practice the action steps I’ve laid out for you here, and see what kind of awareness you can bring to your intensity and your tension.


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