One of the things I love most about the city of Vancouver, aside from its incredible natural surroundings, is that it is a wonderfully multi-cultural city. Anywhere you go, you can close your eyes and hear a multitude of different languages: English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Farsi, Tagalog, Hindi, Punjabi and many more. It’s a fabulously diverse mix. I love to listen to the different rhythms and cadences, the melodies of different languages – even when I don’t know the meaning of the words. Somehow, most of the time, we all find a way to muddle through to some kind of understanding.
Even in this city though, where diversity is so much the norm, strange things can happen. Picture this:
We’re at the grocery store. We happen upon a man attempting to engage another man in conversation. Judging by the expressions on each man’s face, the conversation isn’t going very well. These people speak different languages and haven’t yet figured out how to make themselves understood. But the first guy is determined to get his point across. He gesticulates madly with his hands, and that doesn’t seem to help. So, in a vain attempt to make himself understood, he begins to speak more and more loudly – as if volume were the missing link. Soon he’s almost shouting, slowly & deliberately, but shouting nonetheless. The message still doesn’t get through. This loud fellow, all worked up now, ends up walking away, frustrated that no matter what he tried, he could not make himself understood. The other man is left looking bewildered, and perhaps a little shaken at having been yelled at. Perhaps he even feels resentful or hurt that their verbal exchange was in no way clear or positive. In fact, the only thing about this interaction that is clear – is that the any intended communication was completely lost! And who knows? The failure of that communication may have caused some harm; in that neither party is likely to make another attempt at conversation!
As someone who works to help people move better – this little scenario is something I encounter every day. The only difference is that I see it in the way people communicate with their own bodies in motion.
Think about this. Imagine a time when you were faced with a new movement challenge, one that you badly wanted to work your way through. You found yourself struggling… so you maybe MUSCLED your way through it? I’ve certainly been here. There have been times when muscling through it even seemed to help me get to my goal. But if I’m really honest about it, I usually felt a little beat up by the end of it. And over the long term, this strategy often gradually ensured that my movement became less fluid, less coordinated, and left my body feeling more tired and sore overall. The muscular push seemed to do the trick for the short term, but it really was taking me away from my overall goal of full, fluid motion that I could sustain over the long haul!
What I needed, in that moment when I began to struggle, was a more sophisticated approach. Perhaps I needed to identify a more efficient movement pattern, or perhaps I needed to find a way to use momentum or flow in a different way. Perhaps it was about finding better stability in key areas to allow more freedom in others. We live in a culture that is addicted to muscle. But the function of a muscle is to move and support bones. As fitness and movement professionals, when our clients hit a wall, we have to remember that more muscle is not always the answer. In that moment, we need to act as translators and language teachers, helping our clients understand a new movement language. We need to help them find more efficient pathways to support and direct the translation of force through the body. If we use an entirely muscle centered approach, the long term results are often joint compression, bracing and reduced range of motion. If we approach it from a generic “movement” point of view (this movement will have x, y or z effect), without actually observing whether the message is actually getting through the way we want it to – then the body may have trouble doing what we ask of it. And then, the common response? Throw more muscle at it (or TALK LOUDER)! The long term results of working this way are often inflammation and pain – which most people will chalk up to age. But it’s not age. It’s dysfunction.
So let’s quit demanding that last rep at all costs! Let’s not LOAD dysfunctional movement, just to get stronger. Because guess what gets stronger? You guessed it – the dysfunction. Instead, observe what is happening in the whole person. Can your client maintain good overall stability? Where is the strength for that last few reps coming from? Are there parts of the body being compromised in order to complete that last set (or even the first one)? If some other part of the body is being sacrificed to make that effort, what will the cost of that effort be on the body when the motion is repeated again and again? When the body starts to compress and dis-integrate, then the body is past the point of supporting whatever stress you’ve asked it to bear. Make the choice to repeat that motion again and again, and injury is not far behind.
Athlete or couch potato – everyone has movement challenges. So what’s the answer? Pay attention to the whole person. Observe. Listen. Who are they? What do they do? What is their past experience with this kind of movement? What is their relationship with pain? What are their goals, (the ones they tell you about, and the ones that lie beneath)? Suggest new strategies for movement. Offer images. Start with the possible and grow from there. Decrease weight load or range of motion until the whole body can handle it – only adding more as the “inner body” can meet whatever challenge is being brought to bear from the “outer body.” Play with the soft edge – where your clients can feel the work, but where there is still structural ease. Maybe it will feel like progress is a little slower at first. But once the right connections are in place – progress becomes exponential! Sustainable management of load and velocity, more power with less effort, and a more complete range of motion: to my mind – these are desirable features no matter what kind of physical training I’m doing.
So yes, push the envelope – by all means! But consider a strategy that involves more than just muscle. Flexing muscle is the easy part. Building healthy connections for sustainable motion with strength and full range of motion in the whole body takes a little more care. Move your clients towards ease, vitality and longevity in their movement. They may not understand the “why” at first – but when they feel the difference in their bodies and the way they move, they’ll be converted for life!