What are you talking about now Ishak?
Chances are, you’re already using biofeedback and don’t know it.
Biofeedback signals are a range of methods that are aimed to help you gain control of self-regulation, based on information or feedback received from your body and mind. We should see it as a method to connect the real world to what someones experiencing internally.
Biofeedback is simply a mind-body technique that involves using sensory feedback from the body and usually includes gaining control over things like your heart rate, movement, muscle tension, blood flow, pain perception, blood pressure, the list goes on and on (1).
The goal of biofeedback is aimed to help you make subtle changes based on the information relayed through your body- that result in the desired effect. This might include relaxing certain muscles, deep breathing, promoting our autonomic nervous system and a parasympathetic state, slowing heart rate, avoiding certain foods that don’t agree with you digestively, improving respiration, or reducing feelings of stress/pain. By doing this, people are often able to improve their physical, emotional, and psychological health.
The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback defines biofeedback as a process that allows people to alter their physiological activity in order to improve health or performance (2).
As we relate this to training, this pays huge dividends for a client or athlete to help them learn how to be independent and make real-time decisions on the spot.
Here are a few different metrics for biofeedback:
Breathing: Respiratory biofeedback involves monitoring breathing rates and patterns. With training, people can learn how to have greater control over their respirations which can help in a variety of situations (3). Researchers have well documented that external stress can impair attention, memory, and action and extreme forms of stress, such as burnout, clinical anxiety, and depression are big detriments to performance. This is probably one of the most overlooked variables when it comes to getting more out of a given set (with proper bracing and breathing mechanics), or getting our body to switch from being in a sympathetically (fight-or-flight) driven state to a parasympathetically (rest-and-digest) driven state.
Heart rate: This type is known as heart rate variability biofeedback and there is some evidence that it might be useful after you finish a set to assist in getting your HR back down to baseline, or for management of hypertension (4) (4.1). By using this type of biofeedback you’d either wear a device connected to sensors, or use a blood pressure cuff, there are even apps (although I’m not too sure how accurate app measurements would be) to help you achieve this. These devices measure heart rate as well as heart rate variability. Proper respiration and breathing mechanics play a huge role here and pay major dividends in increasing parasympathetic activity and vagal tone and while sympathetic activity (4) (4.1).
Blood pressure: This type of biofeedback involves wearing a device that measures blood pressure. For example if your blood pressure is high and you’re in a stressed state you could potentially implement some deep breathing, or calming music (4). If you have pre-existing conditions (i.e. hypertension) that dispose you to have a higher blood pressure, that could be an indication that you need to start making lifestyle/nutritional adjustments.
Muscle tension: In this type of biofeedback, sensors are placed at various points on the body and connected to an electromyography (EMG) device. This device detects changes in muscle tension over time by monitoring electrical activity that results in muscle contractions (5). While EMG, is the main means of measuring muscle tension, you can also tap into that neurological connection (mind-to-muscle connection, attentional focus of attention) while holding an isometric in the shortened range- the sensation you’ll be feeling is pressure in the tissue. Give it a go, hold your arm up, and flex your bicep and squeeze!
Stress: This type of biofeedback is obvious by the name, but by simply listening to your body on how stressed you are. While this is more of a subjective measurement, I’m sure we all have a good idea of where our ‘baseline’ stress is (6). Our bodies are great at buffering short term stressors, things start to get funky when we're exposed to long term chronic stress. Just like everything in life, there must be balance for things to work as effectively and efficiently as possible. If you have an overwhelming amount of stress in your personal/work life/relationships, then you shouldn’t use your training sessions to ADD MORE stress. You should use that time more productively, DE-STRESS and you’ll find that obtaining results will be easier.
Fatigue: This biofeedback back is another subjective measurement. When we resistance train we experience fatigue either centrally (central nervous system/brain/spinal cord), peripherally (in the muscle), or a combination of both- this form of biofeedback is not related to training, although it can be (7). The longer we train for the better idea we have on our readiness to train, but for someone just starting out that might be a bit more challenging. Readiness to train is going to dependent on mental readiness, motivation (if you don't feel like getting it in you don't need to beat yourself up over it), sleep, energy level, stress level, and recovery status (level of soreness- important if the muscle group you're about to train hasn't recovered from the session prior). This can also be: If you had a long, exhausting day, but have yet to train, this could also warrant you ‘auto-regulating’ and taking an additional rest day.
Sleep: The most important biofeedback signal yet. Every biological organism sleeps and many of our biological processes run in a ‘circadian’ type fashion (there's a certain time in the day where our body has optimal body temp, hormone levels, digestion, peak cognition, peak performance, etc..), but when we look at humans we’re probably the largest population that suffers from lack of sleep. Long term, this sets us up for a plethora of health issues and does impact our performance, recovery, detoxification processes, ability to maximize fat loss and muscle gain as well as chronic inflammation in the body (8). Once you start to understand how many health markers are impacted back lack of sleep, you realize how important it really is.
Digestion: This biofeedback signal will allow you to better understand your gut, what foods cause it distress and has a potential application for constipation, fecal incontinence, IBS, indigestion (dyspepsia) and air swallowing (aerophagia) (9). By being able to tap into how our gut feels after we consume a specific food/meal will allow us to better optimize our gut health which can decrease inflammation in the body and reduce the growth of disease-causing bacteria. It can also improve your ability to absorb nutrients and minerals from our food, this minimizes risk of nutrient deficiencies and improves your body's ability to eliminate toxins from the body.
Biofeedback can be used for a range of applications, including:
- Pain management
- Controlling high and low blood pressure
- Maximizing performance, muscle gain, and fat loss
- Alleviating digestive disorders
- Helping control stress or anxiety
- Aiding in relaxation and stress management
Biofeedback is particularly useful for managing stress
Chronic stress can have a wide range of negative health effects including decreased immunity, heart disease, depression, digestive problems, sleep disorders, the list is never-ending. By learning how to manage the stress response using biofeedback signals, we are able to decrease the harmful physical and psychological effects of stress.
So how exactly does biofeedback work?
Well, I thought you'd never ask. 😇
By learning how to recognize the physical signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as increased heart rate, body temperature, and muscle tension, people are able to learn how to relax. Scientists believe that it is often the stress response, the body's tendency to go into a state of “fight-or-flight” in order to deal with potential threats- that often exacerbate certain conditions. By learning how to control physiological responses to stress via biofeedback training we're able to learn how to relax our minds and bodies and better cope with the symptoms of stress.
There is a difference, between helping a minimally-trained athlete understand their body and how to use biofeedback to maximize performance, or fat loss, and a well-trained athlete. Using technology and common sense to monitor and manipulate a program real time (relax, it doesn’t have to be changed every day because of a bad HRV score or jump performance) takes experience and a lot of time to understand what the data and what it’s telling you- but it’s application is invaluable.
Our body is an amazingly complex biofeedback system. It’s job is to relay messages and health status updates, our job is to pay attention.