It's the New Year, which means many of us are looking to get our butts in gear and work towards our fitness goals.
Since so many folks are hitting the gym, I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some of the differences between moving when you work out and moving in your everyday life. Many well-meaning fitness instructors will show you an exercise and say "this is how you_______". Sometimes that is true, sometimes it isn't. It is easy to accidentally form a conception that how you strengthen your body is the same as how you use it, but that simply isn't always the case.
Almost by definition, fitness involves putting a strain on your system and muscles that is somewhere near the edge of it's capabilities. Similarly to how we learn, moving into this space is the only way we grow--using ourselves in this fashion activates the mechanisms that lead you to build new muscle, improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, and can do many other things to improve your fitness. There are a few ways effective exercise classes do this. All of these methods can be fun, challenging, and enriching for the purpose of improving fitness. However, lets look at what happens if we transfer these ideas outside of the gym, some of the issues that can come up, and how to solve them:
1. Adding Weight
Issue: we often create what I call "effort appointments" for different activities. You can think of these as the habitual amount of energy we spend to do any given movement. When we do a lot of weighted workouts, we sometimes develop a habit of approaching a given movement with the effort it takes to do it when weighted rather than what it actually requires in the moment--essentially we go through life at "maximum effort". This can be exhausting, burn us out quickly, and sometimes lead us to excess tension that can undercut us in various ways.
Solution: A good way to think of the benefits of strength training is that we are trying to gain strength so that we have it available to use when necessary, not all of the time. You can use an "effort scale" to rate your movements and how much tension you are putting into them: if you are turning a doorknob at a "7", you may be using more of your strength than necessary. For most everyday movements, a "3" is about right--not too much tension and not too little. If you get used to rating your everyday effort, you will start to gain context and will be less likely to overwork yourself by over-activating your muscles.
2. Pushing Movement Pace
Issue: We sometimes hold onto a fast-moving adrenaline state when we spend a lot of time doing cardio work. When we get used to moving fast a number of things happen. Our system becomes very stimulated, and we may tense up in an effort to maintain the quick pace we feel--so we end up using more effort than necessary. You may hold your breath. Quick tempos are often associated with un-useful stress--you may notice your ability to think effectively decreases and you become more reactive. You may make mistakes if you get used to moving too fast, leading to more work to correct things. Generally, when our internal tempo gets miscalibrated we end up feeling rushed and unsettled.
Solution: Similar to the solution to "Adding Weight", you can use a "time scale" of 1-10 to notice when you are moving faster than you need to and slow down. It can also be very useful to consciously pause for a moment before doing various movements--this opens up space for breath and ease in whatever you do. Plus when something actually requires moving faster, you will have saved the energy to do so effectively.
3. Changing Form
Issues: This is perhaps one of the most potentially perilous aspects of fitness training. When we change forms in fitness classes, it is often to make what we are doing less efficient--this puts our muscles in a position where they have to work harder, especially if we are trying to isolate a certain muscle. Our system usually functions most effectively as a cohesive whole with all of our muscles working together to counterbalance each other. Without this, we are simply working too hard in everyday life. What makes it worse is that emphasizing certain muscles can add unintentional strain on other parts of the body--if we move this way in our everyday life, we can risk injury.
Solution: Learning about what different exercises are intended to do! This will help you to select whether you want to move that way in everyday life (many fitness instructors are great at integrating this into their classes). Integrated movement strategies such as those learned in Alexander lessons can help you to find the most useful forms and strategies for your day to day life. Remember, there are no inherently bad movements--it is just about figuring out what is serving you best in the moment.
4. Compressing Into Movement
Issues: This can be one of the most potentially harmful affects of translating fitness movement into our everyday life. Instructions such as "engaging your core (covered in another blog)", "pull your shoulders back", and "pull your thighs together" can cause you to habitually compress your body in movement, leading to wasted energy, tension, lack of flexibility, injury risk, and an overly-rigid approach to your everyday life. Solution: Much like our approaches to Adding Weight and Changing Form, it can be very useful to know how these instructions can be useful in a strength building context but potentially destructive in the context of everyday life. Have the strength, but only use it when necessary. Alexander Technique teaches you to cue lengthening as a prerequisite to movement and as such can be a direct antidote to over-compression in movement.
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Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.