High Pay Off Drills: What are they and what's the point?

High pay off drills are any and all inputs that have a positive impact on your system. You might recognize them as traditional exercise, (like joint mobility exercises, Yoga poses, isometrics, and or strength training, etc.) But it doesn’t stop there. High pay off drills can also have a restorative focus including breath work, meditation, and tools like myofascial release, or be exercises that stimulate the visual and vestibular (balance) systems. They can also include other experiences like smell, touch, or auditory stimulus. Performing high pay off drills is a way of coaxing the nervous system into adapting to new sensations, reducing its response to stress over time. When we perform high pay off drills we are reducing the amount of threat the system feels and are creating "wins" for the nervous system. After my brain based fitness training with ZHealth and Kruse Elite, I have found high pay off drills to be extremely useful in optimizing performance outcomes (flexibility, strength, mobility), reducing low back pain, and a fundamental tool in learning how to listen to the body, a main tenet of Yoga practice.

But, of course, everyone’s body and nervous system is different and the drill movements are not a one-size fits all program. What is high pay off for one body might really not work for another, so it’s important to personalize your practice and figure out what drills will actually help you, optimize your system, break out of the pain cycle, or deepen your practice. We call this process an “assessment.” I often help clients with the assessment process, but you can definitely explore this on your own, and see what comes up too! For this example, we’ll be looking at a specific exercise you can do, but there are many options for assessment.

Below, I’ve responded to some of the common questions about assessments and high pay off drills you have asked me:

How do I assess and what steps can I take to figure out the right drills for me?

  1. Pick a pain free movement to assess, and perform a few repetitions of this movement.

This can be: shoulder flexion, or adduction, or standing on one leg. For our purposes let’s pick shoulder flexion (see above)!

2. Choose a movement, technique, or tool you’d like to assess.

For example: Let’s pick a tennis ball myofascial release technique applied to the left foot.

3. Roll the tennis ball around on the foot for around 15-20 seconds.

4. Reassess your shoulder flexion and subjectively decide: did the movement you did in step 1 get better, worse, or stay the same?

Other followup questions:

  • Did you gain more range of motion?

  • Did the movement feel smoother and more fluid?

  • Did it feel exactly the same as before? Or did the shoulder lock up and feel worse than in the original assessment?

If you gained range of motion, and it felt smoother and more fluid, then tennis ball myofascial release technique applied to the left foot is likely a high pay off drill for you.

Is assessment really this simple?

Yes and no. For those of us not experiencing chronic pain, this can be a simple process for deciding which movements should comprise your warm ups and cool downs and/or be used as a primer for challenging poses. But for those of us experiencing chronic pain, the process can also be quite complex, and it can be helpful to have a professional assist you with your assessment. When I work with clients in my low back series, I take a detailed movement and injury history, gait, postural, breath, balance, and visual assessments and start to get an idea of which drills may work best for you. Then we look for drills that have a positive effect on your movement performance. This means we pick a pain-free movement and then assess after we’ve performed the drills. We are looking for a greater range of motion, for the movement to feel easier and more fluid, or a reduction in pain, after you’ve performed a drill. This is important because, in the case of chronic low back pain, we are looking for an experience that creates wins for the nervous system (wins= any movement performed optimally and with minimal pain)-- to break you out of the pain cycle. And this will look different for each individual. For some of us very small specific movements will do the trick, for others larger more integrated global movements, and still for others the smell of lilacs, standing on one leg, while listening to something not country in just the right ear does the trick. This is very specific to you and your unique pain neuromatrix.

And while I know that this system of self assessment really works, let’s play devil’s advocate because, let’s be real, we all like to ;).

Are high pay off drills only working because you’re warming up and repeating the same movement over and over again?

Yes and no. Yes, because when we warm up the joints and stretch the muscles, we gain range of motion and increased coordination of the movement. But it’s not that simple. Let’s use the example of shoulder flexion like we did above. Sometimes a client will practice individual foot drills for 10 minutes, and their shoulder flexion increases during the course of the drill. Usually, this means the movement is high pay off. Just when we think everything is going smoothly, we move on to assess a left wrist circle and the shoulder immediately locks up. According to the warm-up logic, the shoulder shouldn’t freeze. Then, why does this happen? Well, one possible explanation is that in that individual, for whatever reason, left wrist circles created a stimulus in the nervous system that feels threatening, causing the shoulder to restrict its range of motion after the wrist drill. It is possible that the nervous system is triggered into a freeze mode, and does not allow the fluidity of that movement.

Also, we have all experienced or witnessed a version of this before. For some of us, no matter how much we stretch or warm up, our mobility just doesn’t seem to improve. Things are just stuck! Have you ever seen that person or been that person that no matter how much stretching or warming up you do (I used to see this in Yoga clients, all the time for years), your mobility just doesn’t improve? It’s possible that you have a structural challenge with the movement, or don't have a mobility practice to balance strength training, but it’s also possible that your nervous system doesn’t feel safe to perform the movement, perhaps due to past physical, emotional, or environmental trauma, and therefore keeps you at a restricted range. In this case finding the right drill just might do the trick, and enhance your training!

Isn’t there some truth to no pain, no gain? (In other words, don’t you need to stress the system in order for it to ADAPT and TRANSFORM?)

This is absolutely true… to a point. In order for the system to adapt and transform and ultimately become resilient, it needs the appropriate amount of stress. Preferably, stress administered progressively, and incremented over time. It is important to note that some people respond to training that throws them right into high stress situations, however in my experience when you’re dealing with chronic low back pain, the last thing you need is to stress the body even more than it already is. And gritting and bearing it through pain places a lot of stress on the system. And because people with lower back pain often find themselves looped into the pain cycle, the “no pain no gain” mentality will only feed that cycle and cause a greater threat response in the system. Basically, if you look at the image above, we want to stay in the green area for a while, and then gradually move into the purple, avoiding the red as much as possible.

I always say: those of us who have experienced chronic low back pain feel everything and are extremely sensitive. A system caught in a chronic pain cycle tends to amplify the experience of everything happening in and around the body. For this reason, a system that assesses basic movements against our specific experience is key for helping us determine what kinds of drills are actually going to help us “gain"!

...But is this Yoga?

This is my favorite. High pay off drills and general joint mobility form the building blocks of all Yoga poses. Some of the traditional poses themselves may be high pay off for your system. When working through chronic low back pain, the first step is figuring out what is right for your nervous system, and getting you moving functionally with minimal pain. Sometimes traditional poses, breathwork and meditation are exactly what your system needs, and if this is the case then high pay off drills are exactly the same as Yoga. But not everyone is going to benefit from even beginning level traditional poses, even if they are introductory. Some of us need to start with building fundamental movement patterns and addressing the needs of the nervous system in order to have pain- free movement before we even attempt a more traditional practice.

Over time, your system will adapt to handle more and more stress, and more and more movements. During this process, more exercises, strings of movements, and experiences become high pay off! Eventually we create a very resilient nervous system and you gain an integral understanding of how to approach movement specific to you, for you. And it starts with some tedious work in the beginning that may not feel a lot like a “workout” or “Yoga”. Everyone is different and will require different stimulus to get the job done. It's my job to figure out what this stimulus is given your movement history, information from medical professionals, what I hear and see during the physical assessment, the information we gain from assessing drills, your feedback, my current skill set, and a little bit of resonance ;).

Utilizing high pay off drills as a part of your practice requires an awareness of the right stimulus for your nervous system, willingness to think outside of the box, and a learned ability to listen to feedback from the body. In this way, they are a little bit science, a little bit art, and a lot about connection.