Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) are proprioceptors that are located within the tendons of muscle. Specifically, they are the point where the skeletal muscle fibers insert into the tendons of a skeletal muscle.
Cool, so what do they do? GTOs monitor the tension or force within a tendon. If the tension or force becomes excessive, it will actually relieve the tension by inhibiting the activated muscle and activating the antagonist muscle. Consequently, tension is relieved and damage to the muscle or tendon is avoided. In short, if your body senses that you are going to get hurt, a GTO will cause the muscle to relax. Seems smart right? Well, yes, but there are some drawbacks to this in terms of maximal lifting.
Alright, on to the good stuff.
Theoretically speaking, inhibiting a muscle action through such protective mechanism may actually limit force production when performing maximal efforts (like a 1RM). So yes, you are less likely to get hurt, but you also may be limiting your force. However, the GTO threshold can be trained (see my next 5 points).
1). First and foremost, a reduction of inhibition can actually come from adaptation of resistance training. So keep lifting, and lift heavy to increase your threshold.
2). Next, there have been studies where the effect was partially removed through hypnosis (Ikai and Stenhaus 1961). This study had a 17% increase of maximal forearm flexion under hypnosis. But if hypnosis isn’t for you (and I don’t blame ya), read on.
3). Then there is this concept of the bilateral deficit, where an actual reduction of force (3%-25%) occurs when training with both limbs as opposed to training with one at a time. In an effort to bridge the gap between bilateral force production and unilateral force production, you can reduce the bilateral deficit by training more with both limbs simultaneously; however, it is important to keep in mind that unilateral training serves a purpose (work on imbalances and equate limb strength).
4). One of the best things you can do short term (besides a longer term solution of incorporating max lifts strategically in your training) is to activate antagonist muscles immediately before the performance of max strength. Protective mechanisms, like a GTO, have their greatest effect during slow velocity and high resistance exercises (uhh hello 1RM). If you can partially inhibit this neural protective mechanism through antagonist activation, you will have a more forceful action. So pre contraction of an antagonist can enhance the training effect and help facilitate the action of prime movers and synergists. An example would be adducting the scapula (pull towards spine) before a max bench.
5). On that note, it’s noteworthy to mention that if you have excessive tightness before you lift, it could also hinder contractions. Now I don’t like to suggest too much stretching (you can over stretch, stretching can reduce force of a contraction if done incorrectly and this should be based on the individual). To demonstrate this concept: say your triceps were tight and contracting, how difficult would it be to perform a biceps curl? Pretty difficult. So in the example of a bench press, if you had tight antagonists (example: lats, posterior delts), you may want to relieve some tension first to lengthen antagonists.
And there ya have it. Happy training friends!
Caiozzo, V.J., Perrine, J.J. & Edgerton, V.R. 1981. Training induced alterations of the in vivo force–velocity relationship in human muscle. J Appl Physiol 51(3), 750–754.
Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2014). Designing Resistance Training Programs (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.