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Inverted U-Principle: Arousal and Performance

Motor Learning and Neuroscience tells us a thing or two about performance and how it is effected by our level of arousal



The Inverted – U : Arousal and Performance – or; Why we don’t train like maniacs (all the time…)


Performance vs. Arousal Graph


On the left : inactivity, sleep – low arousal – poor performance



In the middle of the bell curve : Peak Performance



On the right : hyper vigilance – high arousal – poor performance




  • performance increases as arousal increases, to a point – I.E. too much caffeine will inhibit your ability to lift the maximum amount of weight.
  • each exercise has its own unique Arousal – Performance Curve.
  • at a certain level of arousal, performance starts to quickly decline – therefore there is no real reason to push yourself past that curve : not only will the time required to recover increase, you will get no positive technique benefit from training past this point.


Why we DO train like maniacs sometimes :

Knowing where your limits are, or in this case knowing the required level of arousal for any given exercise, is very valuable in predicting the success of more complex movements and will help motivate your progress.

NOT knowing your limits will – over time – cause a shrinking effect! of your mind and your body! A literal narrowing of your perceived abilities both physical and mental. You more or less talk yourself into thinking you can’t do things (often simply b/c you haven’t done them in a while).

Safely Testing your strength and conditioning abilities is not something recommended unless you have a trainer/coach with lots of experience.


How to SAFELY prepare your arousal level :

Breathing and Mental techniques are extremely effective in both elevating and relaxing the nervous system

Imagine a wave-frequency – and the frequency of this wave determines your body’s arousal level. This wave-frequency can be effected by either physiological means or psychological means.


  • Increase arousal:
    • 1) increase breathing rate / controlled hyperventilation
    • 2) scream “I AM FUCKING UNSTOPPABLE” in your head as fast as possible for 3-5 minutes
  • Decrease Arousal:
    • 1) decrease breathing rate / linger in the exhale
    • 2) match slow exhales with “my limbs are heavy and warm” / “relax” etc… nice and drawn out ….


Why we do NOT train like maniacs (all the time) :

A good principle to live by = MINIMAL EFFECTIVE DOSE

“the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome” – Tim Ferris, 4 Hour Body.

Any more than the MED will increase:

  • recovery time between sets, resulting in poorer performance in subsequent sets
  • recover time between peak physical condition
  • soreness and fatigue post workout and the next day
  • basically makes life more stressful than it needs to be!!!


THE LAST important thing to expand on is this = every movement has it own, unique, arousal level for peak performance!***

The more ‘smarter’ or more complex, the less stable and the longer in duration a movement is – the lower the ideal level of arousal will be.

The easier, sometimes called “stupider” movements (big heavy compound exercises like Deadlift and Squat) – the higher the arousal level can be, due to the lower level of complexity of movement (as compared to a Pistol Squat or a Single Arm Press).



I hope this makes you think,

Maybe it makes you push yourself –

Maybe it makes you realize you need to tone it down a bit…


have a great day my friends, I will leave you with this :


– Og Mandino